Forget Budapest – head to the charming little city of Pecs for ancient sites and vibrant nightlife 


The imposing city of Budapest has such a powerful presence that no other Hungarian city seems to get much of a look in.

But drive south for a couple of hours — or travel by train for around three — and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most beautiful little cities in the country.

The fifth largest city in Hungary, Pecs (pronounced Paitch) has a population of just 147,000, and an intriguing multicultural past which is still reflected today.

Historic: Jo Knowsley wandered through colourful Szechenyi Square, pictured, on a tour of Pecs, the fifth largest city in Hungary 

With the oldest university in the country, it’s a captivating town brimming with life, creativity and energy. Indeed, it feels like a rare bastion of liberalism in a country where the government has a stranglehold on many freedoms.

It was an odd time to be in Hungary. It was not long after Putin had invaded Ukraine; I was told those in the north-east of the country could see and hear gunfire across the border.

The atmosphere in Budapest had been a little anxious. On my tour there were some Serbian visitors (Serbia has historic links with Russia) who created their own tensions: drunkenly bellowing out Russian songs at a wine bar.

The accordionist, struggling to keep every nationality happy, played Roll Out The Barrel for we Brits. It didn’t have quite the same impact — particularly as it was sung in Hungarian.

But in Pecs, with its cobbled streets, lavish buildings, mosques (from the Ottoman occupation), museums and lush nearby award-winning vineyards, it was peaceful. A little city happy in its own skin.

Wandering along the main cobblestone street, Kiraly, bordered by large, leafy trees, you glimpse a tiny section of the old city walls, together with an ancient stone coat of arms, at the start of the promenade. Old wooden shop fronts jostle with grand 19th-century buildings.

The Dubai Kebab restaurant nudges the Ciao Bella Italian. The Caflisch confectionery shop, with its pastries and cream treats, opened in 1789, and is the oldest shop of its kind in the country.

'With the oldest university in the country, it’s a captivating town brimming with life, creativity and energy,' Jo says of Pecs

‘With the oldest university in the country, it’s a captivating town brimming with life, creativity and energy,’ Jo says of Pecs 

The city has an intriguing multicultural past which is still reflected today, Jo reveals. During her visit, she spied kebab restaurants and Italian eateries as well as traditional Hungarian bakeries

The city has an intriguing multicultural past which is still reflected today, Jo reveals. During her visit, she spied kebab restaurants and Italian eateries as well as traditional Hungarian bakeries 

‘This used to be an important town,’ explained Pytor, a young man I met in the grand Szechenyi Square nearby. ‘You can see it in all the buildings.

‘You know in Pecs we like knowing about other cultures; there are many different people studying here at the university. It makes it perhaps a bit more mixed than other Hungarian cities. We like choice and we enjoy mixing with other cultures.’

Pecs was first inhabited by the Celts, then settled by the Romans, who called it Sopianae, in the 4th century, and their mausoleums remain preserved under the city streets.

Clamber down into the atmospheric Cella Septichora Visitor Centre, now a single Unesco World Heritage Site, and you’ll find ancient tombs containing vivid frescoes of the Virgin Mary and Adam and Eve.

It is the imposing Szechenyi Square, however, that delivers the ‘wow’ factor in the centre.

Pictured is the Pasha Qasim Mosque-turned church - atop its lofty dome sit both the Islamic crescent moon and a Christian cross

Pictured is the Pasha Qasim Mosque-turned church – atop its lofty dome sit both the Islamic crescent moon and a Christian cross

TRAVEL FACTS

Jo Knowsley travelled to Hungary as a guest of the Visit Hungary (visithungary.com). BA flies to Budapest from £80 return (ba.com). Train tickets from Budapest to Pecs cost £18.

Refurbished for the city’s stint as European Capital of Culture in 2010, the borders of the plaza contain some of Pecs’s biggest landmarks, the 18th-century city and council halls, the Nador Hotel and the dome of the Pasha Qasim Mosque-turned church.

Atop its lofty dome sit both the Islamic crescent moon and a Christian cross; a duality further reflected inside. 

There, Turkish lamps light a room dominated by an altar, behind Islamic arches, but with the walls featuring religious paintings. There remain some inscriptions from the Koran on the walls.

Late at night, the city tempts you with different pleasures. 

At the Partisan bar — a modern, atmospheric place of exposed brick and wooden beams — a tall, bearded waiter brought us wine, made in the nearby vineyards, while young people gathered in the dimly-lit Szechenyi Square. It was approaching midnight and they were just getting started.

In some ways, Pecs is a postcard of a picture-perfect past. 

But it’s also vibrant and lively; well worth a two or three-day detour from the spas, bars and restaurants in the capital.

Drive south of Budapest (pictured) for a couple of hours - or travel by train for around three - to take in the sights of Pecs

Drive south of Budapest (pictured) for a couple of hours – or travel by train for around three – to take in the sights of Pecs 

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