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10 Things You Didn’t Know about Debrecen

If you know of Debrecen, just a little, you most probably think of images of the impressive Great Reformed Church dominating the central Kossuth Square surrounded by Art Deco and socialism period buildings. However, there is much more to Debrecen that just this, with many sites of interest, each with its own rich history. 10 hidden gems are listed below.

Hungary’s Backup Capital

For example, did you know that Debrecen was once the Capital of Hungary, not just once but twice once in 1849 and at the turn 1944-45, respectively. Each time represented dramatic episodes of revolution and war when the Reformed Big Church and the College became iconic venues of momentous historic occasions.

The Phoenix, an Important Symbol of Debrecen

A common sight in Debrecen is the image of the legendary creature the Phoenix.  Emerging from fire from atop the crown of Debrecen’s coat of arms, the phoenix symbolizes the never-ending renewal of the city. The image appears in a number of landmarks, such as the mosaic of 180,000 pieces of Venetian glass covering a prominent spot in Kossuth tér, the design of the commemorative Millennium fountain, or the bodies of the popular streetcars. 

Today the symbol has been embraced by the current government and aptly used as a logo to represent the new Phoenix City development plan, now in its second stage.

The Legend of the Lycium Tree

During the age of reformation in the 16th century, there was a theological debate between the Reformed and the Catholic priests, Bálint and Ambrose. After a meeting, the two priests continued the debate. When they arrived at the swampy place called Paptava, the Catholic priest Ambrose broke a branch from a nearby lithium bush and stuck it in the ground, saying, “Your faith will become something if this branch becomes a tree.” The branch started to grow into a shrub and then a tree. Today, the Lycium tree, a botanical rarity keeps the memory of the legendary theological debate alive and symbolizes the strength and the consolidation of the Reformation in Debrecen.

The historic Lycium tree stands on the corner of Múzeum Street.

Lycium Tree
Lycium tree

Debrecen, the “Calvinist Rome”

Debrecen, is often referred to as the “Calvinist Rome” because it became a bastion for Calvinism theology and faith, greatly influencing the cities culture and development over hundreds of years. Therefore, failing to explore Calvinist Debrecen during your visit to Hungary is a heresy like failing to see the Vatican on a Roman holiday. The comparison is absolutely fitting, considering the role it has played in the development of the Reformed faith.

On 31 October 1517, Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg that started a series of reforms worldwide in all fields of life. The religious reform movement soon set its foot in Debrecen and the city has become the center of the Hungarian reformation movement in part due to the printing house and renowned college, greatly influencing and educating the population throughout Debrecen’s long history.

Debrecen is a Triple Diocese and the Home of Several Religious Denominations

Faith and religion have always had special significance in Debrecen. At the end of the 12th century the area of what is today Debrecen was occupied by villages with their own churches.

In the Middle Ages the town was Catholic with the biggest church of the Great Plains, St Andrew’s Gothic church standing at the place of today’s Big Church. From the 16th century Debrecen’s religious life was dominated first by the Lutheran and later by the Calvinist Reformation. In 1551 the aldermen of the town prohibited the settlement of Catholics, and, therefore, Franciscans could return to Debrecen only 300 years ago—in 1715. The Jewish Congregation was established in 1852 while Greek Catholics started to settle down in Debrecen at the beginning of the 20th century.

Today, the city has several denominations with their own communities including Evangelicals, Unitarians, Baptists and even the Faith Church in addition to the ones mentioned above. They live in peace side by side which is one of the reasons why Debrecen is considered to be a spiritual center.

Besides the Reformed and Roman Catholic Episcopal Residencies, the Greek Catholic Metropolitan Residence and one of the largest Jewish Communities in Hungary are located in the city.

St Anna Cathedral
St. Anna’s Cathedral

Debrecen Been a Market Town for Almost 600 Years

In 1361, Louis I granted a royal charter to Debrecen, making it a market town, which resulted in economic development by way of especially the cattle trade, animal husbandry, crafts and the fairs held here.  The city was famous for its horses and livestock as far back as the middle ages and as a result, became the richest city in Hungary.

The city was forged from small local towns and villages whose livelihood was based on trade.  It is for this reason perhaps that the city was named Debrecen, the meaning of which is “let it live, move”.

Piac utca, the proud venue of the famous town fairs in days of old, or the slightly gaudy, downtown merchant houses erected at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, are still very much organic parts of “civic” life.

Debrecen’s Main Street was suitable for traffic for two centuries thanks to a 650-meter-long and 6 to 7-meter wide elevated wooden walkway erected in the 1600s. A small section of the ancient “mud bridge,” now on display outside Hotel Aranybika, is a peerless archaeological relic.

Debrecen’s main street called Piac utca (Market Street)

Debrecen is the Birthplace of the iconic Hungarian Dish “Goulash”

Debrecen is attributed with being the “birthplace of Goulash”, however, its true origin is likely to have been the cowboys / herdsmen / stockmen that crisscrossed the region.  Debrecen was the principal city and regional market town in the region and therefore, the location where the herdsmen of the great plain would periodically meet, bring their cattle to trade and share meals. Goulash is likely to have gone viral here, becoming popular here first where it was adopted, recipes refined and served in the cities Inns. 

Today, while Goulash is Hungary’s national dish, but there are many other meat dishes that are just as popular, and these are likely to have originated in the same way as Goulash.  From Paprikás to pörkölt and to the spiciest of all, the river fish-based “Halászlé” soup.

While the origins of most of these dishes are lost to time, there is nowhere better to taste the authentic Hungarian Cuisine than in Debrecen at the Ikon or Krudy restaurants or in the authentic surroundings of Hortobágyi at Hortobágyi Csárda located near the famous Nine-Hole Bridge.  Here hearty portions of gulyás (thick beef soup) and slambuc (pasta, potatoes and pork fat) are dished up on a flower-filled terrace.

Debrecen Has a Two-Hundred-Year-Old Spa Culture

In 1820, the discovery of a 65℃  thermal spring on the verge of the great forest put Debrecen on the wellness map.  Spa culture sprung up around it and has been a part of daily life for many ever since.  At the Aquaticum spar, thermal water temperatures are typically between a perfect 34-38℃ by the time the water is fed into the baths.  The water is famed for its mineral content and its healing properties and consequently, there is a range of treatments (40 different balneotherapy options) available onsite that are not to be missed. 

Whether you are visiting for business or pleasure, find time to enjoy a thermal bath before leaving.

Aquaticum Spa
Aquaticum Spa

Debrecen is Multinational

Debrecen holds a very visible place in the ranks of the world’s innovative cities, a smart city.

Given the steep upward economic trajectory it has shown for over one and a half decades, it is rightfully called one of Hungary’s leading business centers, a vibrant hub of knowledge and innovation. Boasting no fewer than 14 faculties, the University of Debrecen (UD) is one of the nation’s top research universities. The most promising fields of research it excels in include the healthcare industry, IT, electronics, agriculture and the development of functional foods.

Industries creating high added value have traditionally felt at home in Debrecen. Major multinationals such as National Instruments (U.S.), TEVA Pharmaceuticals, British Telecom, and T-Systems have all developed substantial assets into the city.  More recently BMW, Continental and Krones have all decided to locate their state-of-the-art factories in Debrecen.

Thanks to its outstanding English-language programs UD is the undisputed market leader in Hungary’s higher-education sector as for the size of its international student population. Almost 6,000 students representing some 100 nations from all corners of the globe pursue their studies in Debrecen.

The UNESCO World Heritage Site Hortobágy Belonged to Debrecen for Centuries

Innovation and development must be rolled out sustainably as highlighted by Debrecen’s proximity to not only a protected forest but also the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site of Hortobágy. 

Throughout history, Hortobágy and Debrecen have been tied together, at first in the establishment and ownership of the settlement.  Hortobágy’s product and service have long supplied Debrecen in the form of cattle and horses.  In the service of trade, farming activities have shaped the environment over 100’s of years in around Hortobágy which is now a vast seemingly endless prairie.  Consequently, the environment of the Hortobágy Puszta is an ideal home for birdlife.  Today this area is world-famous for its extremely diverse bird population and its traditional cultural heritage.

Check out the natural wonders of Central Europe’s largest grassland with expert help from the staff of the visitor center and explore this pristine land on foot, horse-drawn carriage, or four-by-four safari.

hortobagy lovas napok
The Puszta-Five

A UNESCO World Heritage Site in the Cultural Landscape category, Hortobágy was awarded the prestigious title for the preservation of its rich herdsman traditions and awarded the European Destinations of Excellence (EDEN) prize, for the preservation of hundred-year-old herdsman’s traditional way of life.