Szeged, the third largest city in Hungary and the regional centre of the Southern Great Plain, has grown over the last few years since I last visited – but not without preserving its intimate, small-town atmosphere. It is difficult to name what is appealing about this regional city so often overlooked by travellers, but for me, it is part of my family history; part of my roots and I am always enamoured of its charms. Szeged is not only famous for its University culture (it is home to the University of Szeged, renowned for its Sciences and research)and its Open Air Cultural Festivals held each Summer in Dóm (Cathedral) Square but also for fiery paprika, Szegedi salami, amazing Art Nouveau architecture, spicy halászlé (fishermen’s soup), beautiful shady parks, colourful kalocsa embroidery and pretty Szegedi papucs (slippers).
Belvárosi híd (Downtown Bridge) over the Tisza River linking Szeged old town with “new” Szeged, a residential area.
Szeged is right on the Southern border of Hungary surrounding the river Tisza almost in the centre of the Carpathian Basin. It borders Romania and Serbia and due to the loss of territories to these countries after the First World War, much of my family now comes from different countries even though they live within a few kilometres of each other! The name Szeged has several possible origins – it may be from an old Hungarian word for corner (szeg) indicating the bend in the Tisza river or it could be a change to the word sziget (island). Szeged experiences long hours of sunlight each year and is known as the “city of sunshine” although this visit will be my first in the winter months.
As I was visiting family for Christmas, I chose to drive to Szeged from Budapest (174km) via the M5 Freeway, an easy drive, which takes around 2 hours. If you are driving in Hungary just be aware that this country has a zero alcohol driving policy which is strictly enforced.
Christmas Markets (Advent)
Szeged is at its picturesque best in the Spring, Summer and Autumn months when the parks and squares are lush and green and full of people eating at outdoor kávézó (cafes) – but don’t let the winter months put you off travelling to this idyllic town. Szeged has several small, charming Adventi (Christmas markets) which bring the magic of Christmas alive. Unlike European Christmas markets such as in Prague or Vienna which are geared towards tourists, here in Szeged you will find a real Hungarian Advent market full of Christmas cheer with locals catching up with each other over a cup of forralt bor (mulled wine) and a sweet treat or two. There are two Christmas markets in Szeged; a tree-lined market in central Széchenyi tér and a larger family-aimed market in Dóm tér in front of the Votive church.
Széchenyi tér (Széchenyi Square) Market
Széchenyi tér, the main square of Szeged, holds a traditional Christmas market with many stalls selling clothing, leather products, Christmas ornaments, food and mulled wine. This is where many locals will come to do some shopping after work and to get into the festive spirit leading up to Christmas – the perfect spot to spend a late afternoon.
Christmas lights on Kárász utca (main street) Szeged, Hungary
Christmas market at Széchenyi tér, Szeged, Hungary
Stall selling házi rétes (homemade strudel), marzipan and forralt bor (mulled wine)
Rétes (strudel) contains huge wads of fruit inside layers of light, crispy pastry. Common fillings are apple, cherry, poppy seed and my favourite, Túrós Rétes, sweetened cottage cheese with sultanas.
Forralt bor (mulled wine) heavily spiced with citrus fruit, cinnamon, cloves and sugar, perfect for keeping your hands warm as you stroll the Christmas markets.
Dóm tér (Dom Square) Market
With the most amazing backdrop of Szeged’s Votive Church, this is a beloved Christmas market for families and children. Each year a maze built from hay bales provides the perfect spot for young children to play whilst their parents treat themselves to a warming Forralt bor or spicy goulash. Old-fashioned pony rides delight the young and the gorgeous carousel mesmerises children with its glowing lights. This is definitely a small, local market with more of a homemade emphasis. Here you will find stalls selling Christmas decorations, goulash, the ever-present Forralt bor and handmade knick-nacks. The “Szeged” sign is usually positioned here over Christmas to provide the perfect selfie spot with the iconic twin-spired church in the background.
A child is mesmerised by the glowing lights of the carousel at Szeged’s Christmas market in Dóm tér.
Old-fashioned pony rides at Szeged’s Christmas market in Dóm tér.
Handmade rafia Christmas ornaments in Dóm tér.
Szeged’s selfie sign in front of the iconic Votive Church, Dóm tér.
Votive church, Dom Square
Undoubtedly Szeged’s most famous landmark is the twin-towered Votive church and Cathedral of Our Lady of Hungary (Szegedi dóm or Fogadalmi templom).
Votive Church, Szeged, Hungary.
Positioned at the top of Dom Square, alongside the Dömötör tower (see below) and surrounded by university buildings, this majestic Catholic Cathedral is the fourth largest church in the country. Construction of the Votive church commenced in 1913 but due to the outbreak of World War I, was not finished until 1930. The church is a blend of architectural styles (Roman, Gothic and Eastern Byzantine) with an interior featuring several detailed frescos and an organ with 9,040 pipes. Although the church has many beautiful, detailed frescos, the one I am here to see is the “Madonna in Fur of Szöged” by Ferenc Marton, nicknamed “Madonna in a fur coat”. This is an unusual representation of the Madonna since she is depicted wearing traditional Hungarian folk dress, complete with a fur coat and red Szegedi papucs (slippers), typical of this region.
Frescos on the interior of the Votive Church, Szeged.
Detail of fresco above main alter.
Resplendent in traditional Szeged robe and papucs is Ference Marton’s “Madonna in Fur of Szöged“.
The organ at the rear of the Votive church.
The Votive Church is open from 8am-5pm daily with no entrance fee. You can also climb one of the twin spires (the Western Tower) for 650 HUF. Entry for the Tower climb (287 steps) is via the below ground level Exhibition Centre.
Dömötör tower (Saint Demetrius Tower)
Dömötör tower is the oldest historic building in Szeged, dating back to the 11th century. The tower, located next to the Votive Church in Dom Square, is all that remains of the old Szent Demeter (Saint Demetrius) Church which was demolished in 1913 to make way for the building of the Votive Church. Visit Dömötör tower to view painted frescos on the walls surrounding the arches on the upper levels. The tower can be accessed from the Votive Church Exhibition Centre.
Where to Stay in Szeged
We stayed at the Science Hotel where a double room costs around 45 Euro. The hotel is perfectly positioned for walking to all of Szeged’s main attractions (approx. 600m to Dom Square) and around 15 minutes to the train station.
Have you ever visited Szeged, particularly in the winter months? I’d love to know your thoughts.