At the confluence of the Tisza and Maros Rivers, Szeged is a city that was reborn at the end of the 19th century.
In 1879 a flood almost wiped Szeged out, leaving only 265 of 5723 houses standing.
On the back of the catastrophe there was intense construction, furnishing Szeged with proud Neoclassical, Eclecticist and Art Nouveau architecture.
Emperor Franz Joseph stopped by in 1883 during the rebuild, and made the bold claim that the city would be more beautiful than before. And he may well have been correct.
Awaiting you in Szeged is an Art Nouveau synagogue of unbelievable beauty, dramatic squares skirted by palaces, a museum in a bold Neoclassical Palace and a decorative brick church that is the fourth-largest building in Hungary.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Szeged:
1. Votive Church
Szeged’s cathedral was begun in 1913 and completed in 1930 after progress was interrupted by the First World War.
It replaced the flood-damaged Medieval Church of St Demetrius, a tower of which can be seen close by.
On a plaza with the same dimensions as St Mark’s Square in Venice, the Votive Church is the fourth largest building in Hungary, with a capacity of 5,000 and towers cresting 91 metres above the square.
In keeping with Szeged’s Eclectic architecture, the building is a fusion of Byzantine, neo-Romanesque and neo-Gothic and is replete with frescoes painted in the second half of the 20th century.
2. Móra Ferenc Múzeum
On the Tisza riverbank near the Belváros Bridge, is possibly the most distinguished landmark constructed during the building boom that followed the flood of 1879. The Neoclassical Palace for Public Education has a regal portico supported by Corinthian columns.
This monument holds a multidisciplinary museum, putting on high-profile temporary exhibitions.
In the last few years there have been exhibitions for the celebrated Hungarian painter Mihály Munkácsy and sarcophagi and artefacts from Ancient Egypt.
The permanent exhibitions deal with natural history and regional culture and crafts, all explained with moving models, multimedia and interactive displays.
Also on show are valuable artefacts like pieces from the Hunnic Gold Hoard of Nagyszéksos dating between the 6th and 10th century and discovered in 1926.
The Secessionist architect Ede Magyar, known as the “Hungarian Gaudí”, designed this whimsical palace for the chief water engineer Iván Reök in 1907. The theme is water, which is appropriate for the fluid lines of the Art Nouveau style, and is manifested in the pastel blue water lilies adorning the facade, waveform wall surfaces and wrought-iron balcony rails resembling plants swirling in water.
Be here for a photo at sunset when the greens and lilacs on that facade almost seem to glow.
The Reök-Palota was restored in 2007 and since then has been a cultural centre, staging temporary art exhibitions with works by Chagall, Rembrandt and Picasso, as well as concerts, theatre productions and other events.
4. Szeged Synagogue
Hungary’s second-largest synagogue, and the fourth-largest in the world, the Neolog Synagogue is spellbinding, both for its dimensions and the beauty of its ivory blue and gold decoration.
Completed in 1907, it was designed with a mixture of Historicism and Art Nouveau, and has lots of symbolism hidden in its interior.
The central dome is almost 50 metres high, and has graded starry blue windows by the master glass painter Manó Róth, who produced the rest of the synagogue’s ethereal stained glass.
The dome’s 24 columns symbolise the hours in the day, while the rose flowers symbolise the Revelation.
In the triumphal arch you can see the Second Commandment “Love thy neighbour as thyself” written in Hebrew and Hungarian.
The synagogue has high-grade acoustics and is often used for classical concerts.
5. Serbian Orthodox Church
Being close to the modern border between the two countries, Szeged had a large Serbian minority for hundreds of years.
This was partly a consequence of the Ottoman advance, going back to the Battle of Kosovo in the 14th century.
When Szeged was liberated from the Ottomans in 1686 Serbs arrived in even greater numbers.
This monument just behind the Votive Church was built at the end of the 18th century.
It was the second Orthodox Church on this site and the fourth to be constructed in the city.
The late-Baroque architecture is understated and gives no indication of the extraordinary Rococo iconostasis at the end of the nave.
Many of the 74 icons were painted for the church’s predecessor by the Serbian Baroque artist Jovan Popović in 1761, all set in a web of patterned gold.
6. Dóm Square
The brick-built square in front of the Votive Church is part of the same ensemble, laid out at the turn of the 1930s.
It’s an impressive plaza, walled by arcaded university and ecclesiastical buildings that give it superlative acoustics.
Since 1930 the square has hosted the Szegedi Szabadtéri Játékok, a festival of opera, concerts, theatre and literature recitals in summer.
The south and east sides of the square are home to university departments, while the diocesan museum, episcopal palace and college of theology are to the west.
In the arcades is the National Pantheon with more than 100 statues commemorating illustrious Hungarians.
7. Dömötör Tower
Just on the left side of the Votive Church’s main facade on Dóm Square is the oldest structure in Szeged.
The Dömötör Tower has foundations from the 1000s, Romanesque lower floors dating to the 1100s and Gothic upper floors from the 1200s.
The tower once belonged to the destroyed St Demetrius Church and resembles Rhenish Romanesque architecture in France and Germany.
The upper section has 48 ogival windows on three levels.
Below, a baptistery chapel was embedded in the structure after a renovation in 1931. Sitting over the entrance is a replica of the oldest sculpture in Szeged, a 12th-century representation of the Lamb of God.
8. City Hall
The yellow neo-Baroque monument on the west flank of Széchenyi Square is the third city hall to stand at this site.
The last version was badly damaged in the flood of 1879, and the architects Ödön Lechner and Gyula Pártos conceived an additional floor and the now iconic central spire.
From the outside you can also see the Bridge of Sighs, a Venice-inspired covered crossing linking the City Hall to the council building next door.
Emperor Franz Joseph visited Szeged in 1883 to inaugurate the new City Hall, and his promise that “Szeged will be more beautiful than it used to be” is recorded on the middle window of the central staircase.
Another reference to the flood can be seen in the statue of a phoenix on the facade’s pediment.
You can go on tours if you arrange in advance, and in summer there are open-air music performances in the courtyard.
9. Széchenyi Square
This landscaped five-hectare plaza is traced by Eclectic-style mansions and monuments like the City Hall and Hotel Tisza, which was once a magnet for famous writers, composers and poets.
Until the flood of 1879 Széchenyi Square was a marketplace and parade ground bounded by the western walls of the city castle.
After Szeged was liberated from the Ottomans and regained its rank as a Free Royal City in 1715, the square became the administrative centre of the city.
Beyond its size and the grandeur of the surrounding architecture, what will impress you most about Széchenyi Square is the greenery afforded by plane trees, empress trees and magnolia.
In amongst the flowerbeds are solemn monuments to important Hungarian figures like the namesake statesman István Széchenyi and the politician Lajos Tisza, who oversaw Szeged’s post-flood reconstruction.
10. Klauzál Square
At the start of the 2000s Klauzál Square and Kárász Street, just south of Széchenyi Square were completely renovated, a project that earned Szeged the European Nostra Award for heritage in 2004. This long, rectangular square is a marvellous space, fronted by grand three storey mansions in the Eclectic, Neoclassical and Art Nouveau styles of the late-1800s and early-1900s.
There’s a smattering of cafes pouring onto the square, and at the very centre is a statue of Lajos Kossuth, the president of Hungary during the Revolution of 1848-49 against the Habsburg Empire.
11. University Botanical Garden
When the University of Kolozsvár relocated to Szeged in the 1920s an extensive space on the southern edge of the city was allocated for a botanical garden.
The attraction has made its name for two species: The towering metasequoia (dawn redwood), a coniferous tree originating from southern China, and the Indian lotus, which was planted here more than eight decades ago, growing in a pond decorated with a Buddha.
If you happen to be in Szeged in July, you have to come by the garden to see the lotus in bloom.
The garden also has collections of industrial and agricultural plant species planted according to their purpose, be it nourishment, dyes, medicine or fibres for rope and fabrics.
12. Water Tower
Standing proud in the grassy Szent István Square is a 46-metre water tower dating to 1904. One of the things that makes this structure special is that it was the first of its kind in Hungary to be built from reinforced concrete, and was designed by Szilárd Zielinski, who was a pioneer for this type of construction.
The tower still fills its original purpose, holding more than 1,000 cubic metres of water.
From April to October you can go up for vistas of Szeged and as you go there’s an exhibition on physics including a Foucault Pendulum to demonstrate the rotation of the earth.
On the paved walkway at the bottom of the tower are bronze busts of architects who transformed the Szeged cityscape after the flood.
13. Napfényfürdő Aquapolis
On the left bank of the Tisza is an indoor waterpark and pool complex with slides for youngsters and fitness facilities and thermal treatments for grown-ups . There are 13 slides here, adding up to a kilometre in length.
This includes the longest year-round covered slide in Europe, the Blue Anaconda, 272 metres long and starting from a 30-metre platform.
One for older kids is the Kamikaze, which is almost like a freefall, taking as little as two seconds to hit the splash pool.
Parents can book mud wraps, carbon dioxide baths, underwater jet massages and physiotherapy, and there’s a Finnish sauna, steam room, jacuzzis and a 25-metre training pool.
Free Wi-Fi is also provided.
14. Szeged Zoo
The largest zoo in the country is 2.5 kilometres from the centre of Szeged.
The zoo opened in 1989 and is geared towards animal conservation, building habitats that are replicas of the species’ natural environments.
Everything is organised geographically so it’s pretty easy to get around, and you can try to time your visit to coincide with the regular feeding sessions.
Szeged Zoo is engaged in breeding programmes for giant anteaters, marmosets and snow leopards, and the zoo made the news in 2012 when three snow leopard cubs were born here.
Of course, all the crowd -pleasers are here, like giraffes, lions, penguins, tigers, meerkats and tapirs.
As any trip into the capsicum-covered countryside will tell you, Szeged is the capital of Hungary’s favourite spice, paprika.
Capsicum benefits from the high annual sunshine in this southern corner of the country, and if you’re keen to know more about paprika there’s a combined salami and paprika museum run by the Pick cold meat brand.
You can get hold of a pot of sweet or hot paprika in most souvenir shops in Szeged.
Paprika is of course a vital ingredient in Hungary’s national dish, goulash, a warming meat and vegetable stew.
Locally, hot paprika goes into halászlé or fisherman’s soup, a spicy preparation composed of carp, catfish, sturgeon and perch, as well as green peppers, tomatoes and red onion.