I quickly fell in love with Budapest. It’s hard not to with the beautiful collection of diverse architecture, the kind locals, and the awesome bath culture. All at an amazingly cheap price compared to Western Europe. I’m fairly well versed in the ancient history of Greece and Italy, the Renaissance, the Industrial Revolution of England and World War II. However, when it came to Hungary I knew absolutely nothing. During my two and half days in Budapest in June, I made sure that I learned as much as I could cram into a few short days. In the morning I took the free walking tour of Budapest to orient myself to the city and its historic landmarks. After learning a little bit about the Jewish history and culture of Budapest, I decided to expand my knowledge further through the Jewish Quarter Tour in the afternoon.
The Jewish heritage in Budapest is long and rich. It is not known when the first Jews moved to Budapest, but they have been present at least as early as the 13th century. After the Mongolian Invasion of central Europe, King Bela IV moved his royal seat to Buda and invited Jews to move into town and giving them various privileges. Like many other European towns during the Middle Ages, Jews struggled against discrimination. When Budapest was officially formed in 1873, there were about 45,000 Jews living in the city. By 1930 the population exploded to over 200,000 Jew or about 5% of the entire city population. During the height of the Jewish population in Budapest, more than half of the Budapest businesses were owned by Jews, one-fourth of university students were Jewish and a large majority of doctors, lawyers, engineers, and musicians identified as Jewish.
Unfortunately World War II hit the Jewish population hard in Budapest like it did across all of Europe. During the war, Hungary sided with Germany and Italy forcing thousands of Jews to enter labor camps or to the front lines to clean up minefields unprotected. As a result, over 15,000 Budapest Jews were killed in labor camps. Despite Hungary’s alliance with Germany, Hungary refused to send any Jews to Auschwitz until March 1944 when German troops occupied Hungary. Between 1940 and 1944, over 1 million Jews were murdered at Auschwitz with about 33% of them being from Hungary. By the time the Budapest Jewish ghetto was liberated on January 16, 1945, more than half the population was killed during the Holocaust.
The Jewish Quarter is located in the City Center and is also called Elizabethtown. After the war the neighborhood became rundown as buildings and homes were damaged or abandoned, but in recent decades people have reclaimed these buildings to turn them into ruin pubs and other things. Today the Jewish Quarter is rapidly changing and full of hustle and bustle.
The Walking Jewish District Tour through Free Budapest Walking Tours starts daily at 10:00am and 3:30pm at Vorosmarty Square. Our tour guide led us to the entrance of the district and gave us a brief overview of the neighborhood and Jewish history in Budapest. If you have a UNESCO World Heritage Sight bucketlist,you can check to Budapest Jewish Quarter off your list.
Our tour began at the Great Synagogue on Dohany Street. It is the largest synagogue in Europe and the second largest in the world! It was built between 1854 and 1859 in the Moorish Revival style. I found the architecture style with its colorful mosaic tiles and windows to be beautiful. It was not what I was expecting in a synagogue. The complex contains the Jewish museum, the Heroes’ Temple, the Jewish Cemetery and Raoul Wallenberg Memorial Park. The weeping willow Holocaust Memorial is the main focal point in the memorial park. It was designed by Imre Varga and each leaf contains the name of a Hungarian Jew killed during the Holocaust. While we did not enter the synagogue, you can visit the museum for a fee at another time.
From the Great Synagogue we continued our tour to the Kazinczy Street Orthodox Synagogue. The Kazinczy Synagogue was built in 1913 in the Hungarian Art Nouveau style. Next up was the Rumbach Street Synagogue, an Islamic style synagogue built in 1872. Today it is more of a museum then an active synagogue. At each synagogue our guide would stop and give us a short history and culture lesson of the synagogue and the people who live in the district.
After viewing the architecture features of each of the three major synagogues in the Jewish District of Budapest we headed to one of the social and cultural hotspots in Budapest – Gozsdu Courtyard. Gozsdu Courtyard was once the core of the Jewish Quarter and in the recent years it has been restored with numerous restaurants, pubs, and bars. The area is popular amongst the locals during the evening hours.
Our tour guide led us through the many side streets in the neighborhood showing us some of the best street art in the city and pointing out some of the hottest ruin bars that you probably have never heard of before. If you’ve been to Budapest in the recent decade you’ve probably heard of this so-called “ruin bars.” Ruin bars are all the rage today in Budapest and the atmosphere is always changing. New bars pop up constantly, but one has been the main staple of the scene since the beginning – Szimpla Kert.
Each ruin bar is unique and eclectic. Furniture and art is generally found items in the neighborhood. The vibe is laid-back and you’ll see young locals to crazy backpackers to your grandpa all enjoying a local brew or glass of wine. Several companies and hostels offer ruin bar tours or you can just make your own.
Whether you take the free walking tour of the Jewish Quarter or just explore the neighborhood on your own, I definitely recommend checking it out. Jewish history runs deep in Budapest and I from the walking tour to provide with information that I would otherwise not know. Not to mention the bars, restaurants, and street art are all incredible too. The Jewish Quarter is rich in history and culture, yet it feels like an up and coming neighborhood similar to Brooklyn. It’s definitely worth the visit, especially to see Szimpla Kert.