Debrecen: Must-visit or Must-skip?

Debrecen is with its 201.000 inhabitants the second largest city in Hungary, and while being familiar with so many beautiful Hungarian cities, the expectations were very high when visiting Debrecen! While it is undeniable that Debrecen has a lot to offer on many fields, whether it lived up to the high standards of the other cultural cities like Budapest, Szeged and Pécs is the question.

The city is situated at the North East part of Hungary, in the middle of the long stretched lowlands, at approximately 230 kilometers and 2,5 hours from the capitol. Although it has big shoes to fill concerning culture and programs, Debrecen is the leading city regarding innovation and technology. Aside Budapest, Debrecen is THE place to be for businesses, multinationals and startups, not to mention the one of the highest ranking universities of the country. But what does this have to say about the atmosphere of the city?

One thing is for certain, Debrecen has an undeniably grand architecture, of which you can see an unique example on every corner of the inner city center. The reason for this is that Debrecen has been a significant city back in the days, though not without a fair amount of setbacks. Debrecen grew to be a well-established city in the medieval times, with one of the most leading merchants and produce. However, as a result of its ‘favorable’ position, it fell victim to its enemies more than once, especially due to the fact that it had no castle or city wall to defend its citizens against the attacks.

Their strategy was a strong diplomatic hand, which saved them from several disasters, and despite the brutal invasions of Ottomans, the Austrians and so on, they remained standing. Perhaps this was what gave Debrecen its wayward and headstrong character and eventually resulted in an openminded citizenry, which was the first step to a Calvinist way of thinking. Soon, Debrecen became home to one of the most influential Calvinistic schools, and its prominent markets were acknowledged all across the continent. In the 16th century, the entire city was Protestant, which is why the city is also known as the Calvinist Rome. Debrecen was also referred to as the ‘school of the country’, as it showed an innovative way of thinking that the rest of the country had yet to learn.

However, the authority of Debrecen came to end as the Habsburgians attacked at the end of the 17th century, which meant the start of a turbulent period. The city carried the fame of capitol twice in the 19th and the 20th century, but with this title came a load of trouble, especially concerning the position so close to the borders. Debrecen held onto its ideals of the 16th century, which brought them so much after all, and therefore became conservative. Meanwhile its buildings fell victim to the violence, first during the freedom revolution in 1848-49, later on of World War II, after which it surrendered itself without a big fight to the soviets.

Learning Debrecen’s history made me understand the character of the city better, and helped me place the sense of forgotten glory I perceived while strolling through the city center. The high-class architecture hints back at its wealthy and influential past, the broad streets and grand impression shows its status and welfare, yet the wounds of the city linger. So you can see that just a fraction of its past glory survived, and as soon as you step outside the border of the old city center, you are confronted with the coldness of destruction and the soulless grey blocks. Once, Debrecen was the teacher and glorious example of change, now it seems to have been stuck in the past, holding onto the ideals it represented in the olden days. Now, with the center still situated at the square of the Calvinist Church, its heart is conservative, and it only expresses its modernization in the fields of IT and businesses.

If I am frank, while wandering around in the city and taking up the view, Debrecen wouldn’t be my first choice to place in the top 10 cities to visit in Hungary. There is something in the atmosphere that didn’t quite speak to me as I was expecting, especially when comparing it to cultural cities as Szeged, Pécs and Budapest. However, knowing more about its history did make me realize a few things. From the viewpoints of a buzzing city center and cozy little squares, Debrecen was quite disappointing. However, it is the second biggest city of Hungary for a reason, and it proved itself time after time again. And who knows, maybe I should give it another shot, and pay it another visit during the annual summer Flower Carnival, instead of on a dreary autumn afternoon in corona lockdown.

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