If you are looking for some ultimate guide of Szentendre, let me tell you, this is not going to be one, but if you have been wondering if this quirky riverside town is worth a visit, I hope this convinces you!
Last summer, we were slowly crawling out of our hidings, after spending our entire spring, staring at four walls. It was exciting that the lockdown was gradually been eased, but unfortunately, the cherry blossom and magnolia season I’ve been looking forward to, had eluded me, while I was stuck at home trying to make sense of the whole pandemic situation.
So, one day in July, we decided we’d just get out of the city for some fresh air, and we did. We had heard from a friend, about this beautiful little town that had a sort of a Mediterranean feel and was only a stone throw away from Budapest.
How to get there
Honestly, it was very spontaneous, like, we hadn’t planned anything the previous day. So, we took the HEV on suburban line H5, from Batthyany tér Metro station around 11ish in the morning. If you’re already in possession of a single ticket or a weekly/monthly pass for Budapest, you only have to buy the extension tickets. The train ride to Szentendre is roughly around 45 minutes but, there are many other ways to reach this cobbled street beauty.
A round-trip boat ride from the city is another scenic way to get to Szentendre. But I’ve heard tickets tend to sell out fast, so maybe one must book well ahead to secure this option. Alternatively, you can hop on the bus or your own vehicle. Some choose to cycle out of the city on a weekend morning, enjoy a chilled-out day and head back into the city in the evening.
Tip – Whichever mode of transportation you opt for, make sure you have checked the weather forecast before you travel because much of exploring within this baroque townscape happens by foot. Yes, even if you travel in your vehicle, you will have to park it somewhere along the Danube bend! So, sun hat or an umbrella, it’s best to be prepared, especially if you’re traveling with kids.
Because a little history won’t hurt
Often referred to as the Hungarian city of painters and artists, Szentendre attracted many such creatives from the city of Budapest, over the 20th century.
The city was first occupied by the Celts, then the Romans, followed by the Magyars. When Hungary was under the rule of the Austrian Hungarian Empire, Serbian Orthodox Christians arrived here, which was followed by the Mongols and the Turks, who destroyed the peaceful co-existence that had prevailed over the previous centuries.
By the 17th century, the city was pretty deserted. And even after Hungary was liberated from the Ottomans, the fighting continued in the Balkan region, and many more Serbs and other Balkans started fleeing to this little Hungarian city. Enjoying the religious freedom that was extended under the Hapsburg ruling at the time, many built their own orthodox churches and settled here.
The baroque style architectural aesthetic of this town was established in the 17th century, just before the second wave of Balkans arrived in Szentendre, and it’s been preserved since, with a few inclusions, owing to the contribution of the settlements that followed thereafter.
Eventually around the 20th century, when the Balkan was freed from the Ottomans, many Serbs, Greeks, and other Balkans returned home after 2 centuries! That’s when more and more artists, from the city, moved into Szentendre. The amalgamation of these settlements into the town’s culture is quite evident in its architecture, art, and its gastronomy.
My first impression of the city as I climbed the stairs from the station and took a few steps was – eccentric!
As I walked towards Fo Ter, the main square of Szentendre, I couldn’t shake off this familiar feeling, like it almost reminded me of someplace I’ve been to before.
Ah yes, Galle! If you’ve been to Sri Lanka, you’ve definitely visited this coastal town. The vibe was remarkably similar. It was not only the cobbled stone streets, but it was also the charming rows of cafes, restaurants, arts, and craft shops, and…. gelato stalls in that perfect vintage setting.
It also reflects a little ‘Soho, New York’ vibe. Obviously no skyrise buildings and high-end shopping but imagine of it as an arty neighborhood with more trimmed buildings.
It is a small town; you don’t need to know Hungarian to arrive at this observation ‘everyone seems to know one another’ and you could quite clearly distinguish the tourists from the locals.
What to do
If you ask me, what’s there to do in Szentendre, I’d say, alternate between ice cream and coffee, and keep wandering through the charming alleyways. At least that’s pretty much what we did, because, when we visited, covid had impacted the normal functioning of the town, so most museums and exhibition centers were closed. Only the main square and the riverside bend with all these restaurants were open, for this reason, they were crowded with day-trippers.
Main Square, downtown Szentendre
The Great Plague of 1738
I was just reading the other day, why this cross is considered a symbol of Szentendre and it was quite interesting. The story of the Merchant Cross is wound around the bubonic plague that affected the geographical areas under the Hapsburg empire during the ruling of Queen Maria Theresa, including many counties of Hungary, up until 1744. There is no exact record of the number of deaths, many suggest around 50,000 lives (in total) were claimed by the plague whilst some suggest it was much higher and that it even had a significant impact on the population growth of Hungary at the time.
However, the legend has it that only one death was reported from this little town of Szentendre, a girl, who is believed to be buried in the middle of the square. Later, the Serb Privy Trading Society erected a cross on that exact place, to symbolize thanksgiving for sparing the town from this unfortunate outbreak.
Szentendre in my opinion is special because it has many faces, and one could choose which they’d like to see. If hanging around the busy main square isn’t your thing, you could navigate uphill through the alleyways towards what’s referred to as the oldest church in Szentendre – Szent Janos Parish Church. Because of its strategic location, it has been through repeated conflicts of interest and holding, between settlements and Christian denominations. It has gone through many restorations over the years but has retained its gothic architecture since the 13th century and now remains a Roman Catholic Church in this little town.
From up here, you can enjoy some spectacular views of the mountains and it’s beautiful during sundown. We just sat there for a while, basking in the quiet, away from the crowd. You could also get an aerial view of the town; the square, the back alleys, the streets, and the restaurants. It offers a different perspective which is amazing!
Alternatively, you could take a turn from the main square through a narrow street with a colorful umbrella canopy, which is a sought-after, insta-worthy photo-stop in Szentendre.
Once you’ve taken a few good shots, you could proceed towards the Danube bend but just before you do that if you’re hungry and would love to try some Langos, a Hungarian street food specialty, stop by this Langos stand. There’s nothing healthy about fried flatbread topped with sour cream and shredded cheese, BUT it is a definite must try and Szentendre has quite a few places that serve really good langos.
You will find many restaurants along the Danube bend, as you exist this alleyway. We explored the Danube bend and had some nice lunch at one of the restaurants, then we also walked by this place after dark before we headed out.
We know, sadly due to covid19 we missed out on many things like museums and galleries, but we are hoping to revisit around the last week of summer, for the Szentendre day and night festival which happens over three days. Apparently, many artists, business owners, basically all locals open up their homes for visitors to check them out and we think that is fascinating. Hopefully though, things will continue to improve and there won’t be a reason to cancel this event.
I’ve heard Szentendre has many festivals throughout the year from contemporary art festivals to music festivals. Have you been to any? Travel tips and recommendations are always welcome ☺️