Walking Tour 4: The Jewish District

Start: Dohány Synagogue.

Finish: Wesselényi utca.

Time: About 2 hours (excluding museum visit).

Best Times: Sunday through Friday, before sunset.

Worst Time: Saturday, when the museum and most shops are closed.

Jews and their Jewish District in Pest have had a long and ultimately tragic history. There is an additional, although condensed, Jewish history within Budapest. The impressive synagogues we will walk to on this tour will give you a sense of the vibrancy of the Jewish community prior to World War II. Under German occupation during the war, the district became a walled ghetto, with 220,000 Jews crowded inside; almost half perished during the war. Sadly, the neighborhood is now more or less in a state of decay. Buildings are either crumbling or are being bought by corporations to be destroyed and rebuilt into modern buildings that will house stores, restaurants, offices, and apartments. Much of the compacted neighborhood is rapidly changing, with history being ripped away, but there are still some impressive sights to see.

Halfway between the Astoria metro (Red line) and Deák tér (all metro lines) is the:

1. Dohány Synagogue

This striking Byzantine building, Europe's largest synagogue and the world's second largest, was built in 1859. It was built before most of the other important buildings of Pest, including the Opera House (1884), and Parliament (1904), just to mention a few. It has a capacity of 2,964 seats (1,492 for men and 1,472 for women). Being a Neolog synagogue, it is still used by Budapest's Jewish community. Neolog is a combined form of Conservative and Reformed Judaism.

The small, free-standing brick wall inside the courtyard, to the left of the synagogue's entrance, is a piece of the original:

2. Ghetto Wall

This brick wall is symbolic of the one that kept Budapest's Jews inside this district during World War II. This is not actually the wall, since the real one was built out of wood planks.

To the left of the wall, on the spot marked as the birthplace of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, is the:

3. National Jewish Museum

On display are artifacts and art from the long history of Hungarian Jewry. Admission to the synagogue includes the museum and courtyard. The courtyard can be entered through the rear of the complex on Wesselényi utca. Between Wesselényi utca and the synagogue are many gravestones. Most of these are for the people who were held in the synagogue or surrounding area and died. By Jewish law, the dead need to be buried within 24 hours, yet another law is that the dead are not to be buried on synagogue grounds. Due to the circumstances during the war, one law had to give way to the other.

Inside the courtyard is the still-expanding:

4. Holocaust Memorial

Designed by Imre Varga, a contemporary Hungarian sculptor, the memorial is in the form of a weeping willow tree and an inverted menorah with seven branches. An inscription above it is from the bible and reads, "Whose pain can be greater than mine?" Nearly 600,000 thin metal leaves are inscribed with the names of the Hungarian Jews killed in the Holocaust. A broken brick has the single word Remember on it. The courtyard behind the memorial is dedicated to the "righteous Gentiles" who saved thousands of Jewish lives in wartime Budapest. The more famous amongst them are Raoul Wallenberg from Sweden, Carl Lutz from Switzerland, and Angel Sanz Briz from Spain: all diplomats from their countries.

When you leave the synagogue, walk back up Wesselényi. Now turn left on Rumbach Sebestyén utca. On the corner of Dob, follow the cement wall around and you will see hiding under the tree near Dob utca 10, the unusual:

5. Memorial to Carl Lutz

Lutz was the Swiss consul who set up the safe house he declared as Swiss property. His heroic attempts are attributed with saving 62,000 of Budapest's Jews from the Nazi death camps. The inscription from the Talmud reads: "Saving one soul is the same as saving the whole world." The rest of the inscription states "In memory of those who in 1944 under the leadership of the Swiss Consul Carl Lutz (1895-1975) rescued thousands from National Socialist persecution." This somewhat abstract wall memorial is interesting but awkward; perhaps the artist, Tamás Szabó had a specific purpose when this was installed in 1991. However, when the tree in front of it is in full foliage, one can pass the monument without noticing it is there.

Continue on Rumbach Sebestyén utca, looking down to find some gold Stumbling Stones. At no. 7, you will see the gold Stumble Stones for Tyroler Gyula and Schreiber József. Half a block farther on Rumbach Sebestyén utca is the:

6. Rumbach Synagogue

Built in 1872 by the Vienna architect Otto Wagner, this handsome but decrepit yellow-and-rust-colored building is, in its own way, as impressive as the Dohány Synagogue. Be warned that this Orthodox synagogue occasionally closes for repairs.

Continue down Rumbach Sebestyén utca and make a left on Madách út to look at the giant archway of:

7. Madách tér

This is the area where the original old city was located in medieval times. Plans in the 1930s were to create a great boulevard similar in form and style to Andrássy út, but World War II put an end to that idea. Madách tér leads only to itself now. Looking through the arch on a clear day, you get an unusual view of Gellért Hill, crowned by the Liberation Monument.

Head back to Rumbach Sebestyén utca and proceed down that street. Take a right onto Király utca, which forms the northern border of the historic Jewish District. At Király u. 13, you will see what used to be a long series of:

8. Connected Courtyards

These historically significant courtyards once emerged onto Dob utca, back in the times of the Jewish District (which thrived in the 18th and 19th centuries) and until 2006. This kind of complex with residential buildings connected by a series of courtyards is typical of the Jewish District. Formed from the idea of Manó Gozsdu, a lawyer from the 19th century, the most famous is the Gozsdu Courtyard, with six interconnecting courtyards connecting seven buildings. During the war, these courtyards became ghettos with thousands of Jews locked within a courtyard.

Take a Break -- Frohlich Cukrászda, Dob u. 22, is the only functioning kosher cukrászda (sweet shop) left in the district. Here, you can find pastries, rolls, and ice cream. There are two unadorned tables to sit at while you eat. (Be aware that the shop is closed on Sat, and for 2 weeks at the end of August.)

Half a block to the left off Dob utca on Kazinczy u. 29 is the:

9. Orthodox Kazinczy Synagogue

Built in 1913 and still active, this synagogue is being slowly and beautifully restored. It has a well-maintained and lively courtyard in its center. There are a number of apartments in which members of the Orthodox community live. While hundreds of travelers visit the Dohány synagogue each day, far fewer make the trip here. Visiting times are based on luck. They have no set hours.

Go all the way through the courtyard, emerge onto Dob utca, turn right, and head into:

10. Klauzál tér

This is the district's largest square and its historic center. A dusty park and not completely renovated, but still an appealing playground fill the interior of the square.

At Klauzál tér 11, you'll find the:

11. District Market Hall (Vásárcsarnok)

One of the five great steel-girdered market halls built in Budapest in the 1890s and all opened on the same day. This one looks like it has had better days; age has not been kind. It now houses a Kaiser grocery store with small kiosks surrounding the perimeter as well as outside. The entrance area is filled with vendors selling fruits, vegetables, candies, shoes, and other surprises from time to time. On Saturdays, from early morning until 1pm, there is a farmers' market in the street.

Take a Break -- You have two lunch options in Klauzál tér and its immediate vicinity, each with a markedly different character. Hanna Kosher Restaurant, back at the Kazinczy Synagogue, is one of the city's two kosher restaurants. It's open daily for lunch and offers a limited selection. Wash your hands at the sink on the way in. Men should keep their heads covered inside. (Note: Meals can't be purchased on Sat -- they have to be prepaid the day before, though they can be eaten on Sat.) Kádár Étkezde, at Klauzál tér 9, is a simple local lunchroom with bargain prices (Tues-Sat 11:30am-3:30pm) serving a regular clientele ranging from young paint-spattered workers to elderly Jews and the occasional tourist.

Now head back out on Nagydiófa utca to Wesselényi utca, where you can end the walking tour at Wesselényi u. 13, the:

12. Judaica Art Gallery

Here you'll find Jewish-oriented books, both new and secondhand (some are in English). Clothing, ceramics, art, and religious articles are also for sale.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.