It is difficult to map the exact boundaries of Budapest’s historic Jewish Quarter since—barring a two-month period toward the end of World War II—no one had previously felt it necessary to determine exactly where the city’s Jewish residents lived. (The Jewish ghetto that was precisely delineated by Nazi authorities included only a portion of a larger neighborhood.) In the early 20th century, roughly a quarter of Budapest’s population was Jewish and lived throughout the city. The Jewish community was to a large degree integrated into daily life and contributed to the city’s reputation as a cosmopolitan metropolis with leading Jewish figures prominent in artistic, financial, and scientific circles.
However, there was—and still is—a recognized Jewish Quarter, which included the city’s major synagogues. It sits at the western end of today’s District 7 and is roughly bounded by Király utca (or Király Street), Erzsébet körút (Erzsébet Boulevard), and Dohány utca (Dohány Street). While the Jewish character of the neighborhood changed, of course, with the Holocaust, there are still today around an estimated 100,000 Jews living in Hungary, with most of them concentrated in Budapest. At the same time, the Jewish Quarter has evolved into one of the liveliest centers of nightlife in the capital, drawing travelers from around Europe and the world to its “ruin pubs” and bars, drinking establishments set up in the stabilized shells of old apartment buildings, storefronts, and lots.
This self-guided walking tour, which touches on both the Jewish Quarter’s historic sites and its lively present, starts in the district’s southwestern corner at its most famous landmark, the Dohány Street Synagogue. (Dress and behave respectfully when entering the temples, which are active houses of worship: No shorts, short skirts, or tank tops.)
As you walk the neighborhood’s streets, keep an eye out for small brass plates embedded in the pavement. These memorials are engraved with the names of individual victims of the Holocaust and mark the site of their former homes.
This glittering 1859 neo-Moorish synagogue with its minaret-like towers and onion domes looks like something from an Arabian Nights fantasy dropped amid the more conventional architecture of its 19th-century neighbors. It’s Europe’s largest synagogue—seating 3,000 worshippers—and the second largest in the world. (If it looks familiar to some Americans it may be because New York City’s Central Synagogue on Lexington Avenue is a near-identical replica.)
The synagogue’s complex of buildings contains much of interest: There’s a small cemetery; a memorial to Raoul Wallenberg (the Swedish diplomat who saved thousands of Jews from the Holocaust); and the Jewish Museum, which covers Jewish culture and history in Hungary and is located on the site of the former home of Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism. You’ll also find the Emmanuel Tree Memorial, a sculpture in the form of a weeping willow, its leaves inscribed with the names of the 400,000 Jews murdered by Nazi and Hungarian forces.
Walk west on Rumbach Sebestyén utca and take a right on Dob utca. Down the block, where a gate in the ghetto wall once stood, you’ll find a memorial to Carl Lutz, a Swiss diplomat credited with saving 62,000 Jews. By officially designating 76 buildings around Budapest as annexes of the Swiss delegation, he created “safe houses,” off-limits to Hungarian and Nazi forces.
Backtrack to Rumbach Sebestyén utca and continue west to the Rumbach Synagogue. Like the Dohány Street Synagogue, it was built in the Moorish-revival style popular in synagogue architecture of the late 19th century, in this case to a design by famed Viennese architect Otto Wagner. Having been neglected for years, the synagogue is undergoing a $10 million renovation scheduled to be completed by November 2019.
Take a right on Madách Imre utca and you’ll soon reach the Gozsdu Udvar, featuring a series of interior courtyards, connected by a pedestrian-only path. The complex was built in the early 20th century with storefronts on the ground floor and apartments above. The renovated buildings now house restaurants and bars, and the area is busy from lunch until the early hours of the morning with diners and drinkers.
When you reach the end of the Gozsdu courtyards, you’ll be back on Dob utca. Take a left and continue to this kosher bakery: One of the traditional cakes or doughnuts paired with a cup of coffee will give you a boost to continue exploring.
Around the corner, on Kazinczy utcai, this 1913 building is to this day the principal synagogue of the city’s Orthodox Jewish community. If it’s open, take a look inside at the lavish interiors with its painted blue ceiling, stained glass windows, and beautiful mosaic work. (Kazinczy Street is also one of the liveliest areas of the Jewish Quarter at night. You’ll likely find yourself back here, though farther south on the street, later in the day or evening.)
G.) Klauzál Square
Continue a little farther down Dob utca, and you’ll arrive at Klauzál Square, the park that was long the heart of the Jewish Quarter and remains a leafy oasis of the neighborhood today.
One block over, on Akácfa utca, Mazel Tov is a ruin bar and restaurant, although decidedly less ruinous than the moniker implies. While ruin bars typically leave the buildings that house them in an unrenovated but stabilized state of decay, Mazel Tov has been more extensively renovated and is slicker than most. In any case, the Mediterranean menu features excellent mezze and grilled meats, and from an after-work crowd until late at night it is often buzzing and packed.
Take a right on Wesselényi utca, and return back to Kazinczy utcai. Szimpla Kert was the original ruin bar, or perhaps ruin bars, plural, is more appropriate in this case. The various rooms and courtyards of a series of derelict apartments have been transformed into an unusual series of spaces filled with antiques, works by local artists, and drinkers from around the world. There are now other ruin bars throughout Budapest, many in or near the Jewish Quarter; this may be only the beginning of a longer boozy tour.
If it isn’t time to start drinking yet, you can choose from the nearby Noah’s Patisserie for a sweet treat, while the Street Food Karavan consists of a number of food stalls and trucks set up alongside an open-air area with picnic tables. It’s an ideal place for a budget-friendly meal, especially if you are fortunate enough to be exploring the area on a warm evening.
Beyond the Jewish Quarter
Any visit to the sites associated with Budapest’s Jewish community should include a stop at the Shoes on the Danube Bank Memorial. From 1944 to 1945, some 3,500 people, most of them Jews, were shot by the fascist Arrow Cross militia on the banks of the Danube. The victims were ordered to remove their shoes before the militia opened fire, and then their bodies fell into the river below. Sixty pairs of shoes, made of iron, are now affixed to the bank at the site of these executions.
The long-delayed House of Fates museum, located a few blocks east of the ghetto in a former train station that once served as the deportation point for thousands of Jews, has been mired in controversy. While the building housing this museum to the Holocaust was completed years ago, the nature of the planned exhibits has raised objections from Hungary’s Jewish community, as well as Yad Vashem, the Holocaust museum in Israel (in part for downplaying the role that Hungarians played in the Holocaust). While it may open this year, it has been repeatedly delayed and may be again.
If you'd like to go a bit deeper, AFAR's partner Context Travel offers a private walking tour of the Jewish Quarter, led by a historian and scholar.
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