In the 4th century Christianity flourished in the Roman city of Sopianae, now called Pécs in the southwest of Hungary.
Ancient mausoleums from that time are buried under the modern streets of the city, and are all inscribed as a single UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Some of these chambers hold skilfully carved sarcophagi and vivid frescoes of Christian figures like the Virgin Mary and Adam and Eve.
Fast forward a few centuries and modern Pécs has made a name for its ceramics, crafted at the Zsolnay factory.
Pyrogranite, invented here in 1886, was quickly adopted by the stars of the Hungarian Art Nouveau movement as colourful and hard-wearing decoration for their imaginative buildings.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Pécs:
1. Early Christian Mausoleum
The ruins of the Roman city of Sopianae have been excavated all around Pécs, but maybe the most compelling discovery is the Early Christian Mausoleum.
Uncovered in 1975 and now part of a UNESCO World Heritage Site this mausoleum is one of several tomb monuments going back to the 4th century.
Like others found in Pécs, the cemetery chapel is unusual for the period as it had two levels, the top as a memorial chamber and the crypt for burials.
That chamber below has three marble sarcophagi and walls that are adorned with frescoes that have stood the test of time.
These are partly decorative patterns, but also show the Fall of Adam and Eve, the Tree of Life and Daniel in the Lion’s Den.
2. Cella Septichora Visitors Centre
Close by is another sepulchral early-Christian building that has no equivalent in the Danube region.
This chapel with seven apses was discovered between four and six metres below the ground.
Construction appears to have been broken off suddenly, and there’s no record of any burial taking place here.
It contains the St Peter and Paul burial chamber, which has a vault coated with frescoes showing Peter and Paul pointing toward a Christ monogram, as well as Noah’s dove with an olive branch, Jonah being cast in to the sea and Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
3. Pécs Cathedral
Built on the foundations of an early-Christian basilica from the 4th century, Pécs Cathedral flourished during the mid-11th century reign of Peter Orseolo.
The building has Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance and neo-Romanesque architecture, as well as vestiges from Ottoman times when it became a warehouse.
Most of the facade is from a neo-Romanesque restoration in the 1880s, based on the 11th-century plans.
The oldest part of the cathedral is the “lower church”, measuring 21 x 21 metres and with a white marble statue of the 19th-century bishop Nándor Dulánszky, who began the restoration project.
The cathedral’s chapels are indispensible, with haunting frescoes by Károly Lotz and Bertalan Székely.
The latter painted the walls of the Mary and St Mór with images from famous moments in Hungarian history.
4. Zsolnay Museum
This museum for the 19th-century ceramicist and factory owner Vilmos Zsolnay is in the oldest house in Pécs, dating back to at least 1324. In the 15th century Hungary’s first library was established inside, while under the Ottoman occupation a century later it became the official residence of the city’s chief Imam.
The ceramics factory founded by Zsolnay’s father, Miklós, in 1853 is still in operation today, and survived nationalisation in 1948. Its architectural decoration can still be seen on many buildings in Pécs.
The museum is a timeline of the Zsolnay factory’s creations, like faience and pyrogranite, tinted with eosin dye.
There are some fabulous works from the start of the 20th century when Zsolnay was involved in the Hungarian Secession (Art Nouveau). Also worthwhile is a whole room of ceramics that Vilmos Zsolnay brought back from his travels in Egypt and Persia.
5. Zsolnay Cultural Quarter
East of the historic centre, a whole cultural and recreational district has been set up around the renovated previously disused Zsolnay factory buildings.
This transformation coincided with Pécs’ time as European Capital of Culture in 2010, when cultural institutions also moved into this five-hectare quarter.
The University of Pécs’ Art Faculty was relocated here and its library is housed in a converted ceramics kiln.
The “Pyrogranite Court” is used as an outdoor exhibition area, and has almost constant live music and other outdoor performances in summer.
In the E78 building is a modern concert hall, and the Street of Artisans’ Shops has ceramics studios, a popular chocolate shop, a restaurant and a cafe.
6. Széchenyi Square
As the place where people gather in Pécs’ city centre, Széchenyi Square was also spruced up for the city’s spell as European Capital of Culture in 2010. On the borders of this long, irregular plaza are some of Pécs’ big landmarks, like the city and council halls, the Nádor Hotel and the round dome of the Pasha Qasim Mosque-turned church, which we’ll talk about below.
The city’s Christmas tree is placed on Széchenyi Square in the advent period, and in September it’s the focal point of the Pécs Days Festival, which coincides with the grape harvest and has stalls with wine from the Pécs and Villány regions.
On the south side of the square is a fountain donated by the Zsolnay family.
With an eosin glaze, this beautiful monument by the ceramicist Andor Pilch, has decorative oxen heads spouting water.
7. Mosque of Pasha Qasim
Impossible to miss on the north side of Széchenyi Square is a striking reminder of Pécs’ 150-year Ottoman occupation in the 16th and 17th centuries.
This place of worship went up in 1580. And although its minaret was brought down a few decades after the Habsburgs retook the city at the start of the 18th century, the octagonal main body of the mosque was simply converted into a Catholic church.
The building bears the hallmarks of Ottoman architecture in its plaster decoration and “Ablaq”, alternating rows of dark and light stone on its arches.
You can also catch some inscriptions from the Koran on the walls.
The two holy water vessels in the church are former baths belonging to Pécs’ pasha who resided next door.
8. Vasarely Museum
The founder of the Op Art (Optical Art) movement, Victor Vasarely was born in Pécs in 1908. At 24 he moved to France, where he spent the rest of his career.
In 1968 he donated a trove of serigraph prints, sculptures and tapestries to his home city.
These were put on public display in 1976 and sum up the progress of his career, from his early Bauhaus serigraphs to the mind-bending and kinetic geometric shapes and illusions that made him famous in the 50s and 60s.
9. Csontváry Museum
An eccentric and widely travelled painter, Tivadar Csontváry Kosztka never enjoyed much acclaim during his lifetime.
But since his death in 1919 his idiosyncratic work, influenced by post-Impressionism and Expressionism, has gained an audience, particularly in Hungary where his paintings now sell for more than a million Euros.
One of the first to recognise Csontváry’s talent was the architect and collector Gedeon Gerlóczy who eventually loaned his collection to Pécs to open a museum in 1973. That initial exhibition of ten works grew significantly when the State of Hungary purchased nearly all of his oeuvre.
Csontváry’s most celebrated piece, The Lonely Cedar (1907) is worth the admission alone.
10. Király Street
Between Széchenyi Square and Felsőmalom Street, this elegant thoroughfare in the heart of Pécs is traffic-free.
On the route are galleries, restaurants, cafes, with terraces under awnings and neatly clipped lime trees.
The stucco-fronted Neoclassical and Historicist houses add a real sense of ceremony, and at some of the properties you can look through passages to courtyards and graceful stairways and ornamental rosettes.
At no. 5 is the gorgeous Art Nouveau lobby of the Palatinus Hotel from 1915, and the street widens into a small square by the neo-Baroque National Theatre, which opened in 1895. The Zsolnay Porcelain Factory produced the ornate pyrogranite reliefs on the Vasváry house at no. 19, and the Caflisch confectioner’s shop at 32 is the oldest shop of its kind in the country, opening back in 1789.
11. Archaeological Museum and Lapidarium
The Archaeological Museum is in an 18th-century late-Baroque monument on Széchenyi Square.
In the courtyard are steles and sarcophagi recovered from the many Roman digs around the city.
One of the outstanding exhibits in the galleries is the Zengővárkonyi Madonna, a Neolithic idol of a woman approximately 6,000 years old.
Check out the Bronze Age artefacts going back 3,000 years and found at a settlement on the Jakab Hill not far away.
One of the most peculiar pieces is a Bronze Age pot in the shape of a bird from Zók, about 15 kilometres to the west.
The city’s Jewish community grew steadily from the 18th century, and by the 1930s the congregation at this synagogue was 4,000-strong.
After deportations and the holocaust that has dwindled to less than 300 today.
The Synagogue, dating to 1869, combines Neoclassical and Moorish Revival design.
The inscription on the facade above the clock reads “House of Prayer for All Nations”, a quotation from the Book of Isaiah.
One of the building’s claims to fame is that its organ was the first commission for the master organ manufacturer József Angster, installed the year synagogue was completed in 1869. This wonderful instrument has two manuals, 24 registers and more than 1,530 pipes.
13. Pécs TV Tower
The tallest building in Hungary looms over the north of Pécs on the Misina peak in the Mecsek mountain range.
Comprising 18,500 tons of reinforced concrete, the tower was built between 1968 and 1973 and stands at 197 metres high.
A high-speed lift whisks you up to the cafe and observation platform at 72 metres, where there’s a small exhibition about the komlosaurus dinosaur, discovered in the Mecsek range in 1983. But the main attraction is the cinematic view of Pécs and the Baranyai hills to the south.
When the weather’s clear you can see the faint outline of eastern Croatia’s Papuk mountain, some 100 kilometres to the southwest.
14. Pécs Zoo
On the way to the TV Tower in the first hills of the Mecsek range is Pécs’ newly regenerated zoo.
The attraction had been closed since 2012 and reopened opened its doors in 2016 with many new species and more than 1,000 individual animals.
There’s an aquarium with reef sharks, and modern enclosures for zebras, ring-tailed lemurs, cougars, Bengal tigers Persian leopards and lions.
The terrarium houses tree pythons, chameleons and seals in a multi-level building, and there are also brand new facilities for hippos, chimpanzees, crocodiles and a petting zoo.
Being in the Mecsek Mountains, the zoo also has an eco-park where you can get to know the animal and plant species native to the range.
15. Wine Tourism
The Romans introduced winemaking to Pécs 2,000 years ago, and this industry flourished from the early 18th century after the Ottoman period.
There has been another rebirth since the start of the Third Republic in 1989, and the south-facing slopes of the Mecsek mountains to the north are clad with vines growing mostly white Welschriesling, but also Chardonnay and Zierfandler.
The Villány region near the border with Croatia benefits from a sunnier climate and grows Blaufränkisch, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Cabernets for some famously potent reds.
Look out for the “Classicus” and “Premium” labels, which are the gold standards.
If you’d like to get acquainted with southern Hungary’s viticulture there are four wineries in the region open to tours (Hetényi, Radó Pince, István PInce Borozó and Matias).