Four Names for One District
In the heart of Budapest, there is a lively district that is a few years into the process of reinventing itself. Officially, it has two names: Erzsébetváros, or District VII. However, many people today now refer to it as the ‘Party District’ (‘bulinegyed’). At night, it’s easy to see why it has acquired this new ‘party’ title: if you enjoy a hedonistic night out, surrounded by other like-minded souls, this place is for you. However, in the daytime, the older, more spiritual aspects of this area are more evident, for the district has had, for many decades, one other name: the Jewish Quarter of Budapest.
Growth of the Jewish Quarter: District VII
The Jewish community of Hungary, established in medieval times, has remained in the country through all of the tumultuous centuries that have passed. With the creation of Budapest itself, (via the unification of Buda, Óbuda and Pest in 1873), the community thrived and developed District VII into their commercial, spiritual and cultural home. The 20th Century arrived and the Jewish community continued to prosper, but nobody could have contemplated the traumas that awaited the world; no one could ever have believed that the Jewish Quarter was going to be forcibly turned into ‘The Jewish Ghetto of Budapest’, and with it, all of the horrors that would be born out of this situation.
District with Two Faces
Contemplating the history of the Jewish Quarter, and the district’s current ‘wild-night-out’ status, District VII might seem a place with just a few-too-many contrasts. But it’s worth remembering that the two faces of the district change with the rise and fall of the sun. As such, the Jewish Quarter has much to offer to all kinds of visitors. Here then, housed within the atmospheric, labyrinthine streets, are some of the major attractions:
Synagogues in Budapest
Dohány Street Synagogue
The Dohány Street Synagogue, (Dohány utcai Zsinagóga), is world famous, and rightly so. Bulbously-domed and beautiful, it is the largest practicing synagogue in Europe and is a cultural treasure trove. It’s a building that seriously needs to be visited and pondered upon.
The Rumbach Street Synagogue
Another well-known synagogue, it was built by renowned Viennese architect Otto Wagner and showcases many of the exquisite traits associated with his designs.
Kazinczy Street Synagogue
The synagogue of the Orthodox Jewish congregation. Walking down Wesselényi utca, the tourist lost with so much to take in, might not notice this synagogue’s presence within the narrow street that gives it its name, but the synagogue is well-worth a visit. The interiors, as with the Dohány Street and Rumbach Street synagogues, are a delight.
Jewish Museum Budapest
The second-largest museum of its kind in Europe, the Jewish Museum was added to the Dohány Street Synagogue in the 1930s. Its location proved to be fortunate and provided the only route of escape out of the Jewish Ghetto during WW2.
In Memorial: Other Jewish Places of Interest Outside of District VII
The Holocaust Memorial Center Budapest
Located on Páva utca 39, (39 Páva Street), words are never enough to describe the experience of visiting this heartbreaking, but wonderfully-designed center of remembrance and education.
Shoes on the Danube Bank
A moving memorial to Budapest Jews who, in WW2, were led to the river bank by ‘Arrow Cross Men’ and shot. Their bodies fell into the Danube, leaving behind their shoes. The memorial is located not far from Parliament near to Zoltán utca. (Zoltán Street)
Raoul Wallenberg Street
A street named after the Swedish diplomat who helped save thousands of Jews during the dark times of WW2. Here you’ll find a bronze relief to the man in memorial.
The Glass House
A sanctuary for Jews during WW2, the Glass House offered many a way out of the terror that engulfed a whole community. It is open every day from 1pm to 4pm and is located on Vadász utca 29. (29 Vadász Street)
Back in the Jewish Quarter: A Little on the Lighter Side…
Shopping in the Jewish Quarter
The district is a great place for browsing and buying. Here you’ll find specialists in Jewish gifts, art galleries, design outlets selling one-off paintings of Budapest street scenes, Zsolnay ceramics, locally-made shoes, vintage fashions, handmade toys. The mixture of possibilities is as eclectic as the district itself.
Wining and Dining in the Jewish Quarter
Cafes, Food and Drink in District VII
Not surprisingly, the district has no shortage of refreshment opportunities. Yes, you’ll find kosher restaurants and other quality restaurants serving wonderful dishes. But you’ll also find a wide range of cafes, fast food outlets, street food, swanky bars, garden bars and ruin pubs. All tastes and price ranges are catered for, but if you’re really looking for something that you will find nowhere else, then a visit to the various ‘Ruin Pubs’ might be a good choice.
Ruin Pubs in the Jewish Quarter
The idea was pretty simple: purchase a dilapidated courtyard and the ruined flats that surround it, then renovate, decorate and transform the ruin into large, complex bar. Finally, you give the place a name like ‘Szimpla Kert’ and then you open it to the world and become a tourist attraction in your own right. Seeing as each Ruin Pub has a character all of its own, and that now the district has quite a number of them, the result is a uniquely-eccentric collection of night-time venues all in close proximity to each other.
District VII: Some Final Thoughts
As a resident of the Jewish Quarter, I have fond memories of good neighbors. Of sitting on a bench near the synagogue, in the sunshine waiting for a friend. Of taking a table and a cold drink, under the shade of trees, watching the world go by. Despite all of the changes, this district still retains much of its charm, and offers an interesting and moving experience for any visitor who wishes to connect with the history of the people who shared their existence with the world.