Debrecen is where you should go to experience the real Hungary of the betyar (cowboys) and the czardas (inns). Far from Budapest and its Germanic influences, this is a city where the nineteenth-century patriotism that awoke the Hungarian nation is still running strong, aided and abetted both by a Calvinist stubbornness and by the youthful idealism of its large student population. Although it’s Hungary’s second city, it is both easy to manage and – with a forest within city limits – as close to nature as a city can be. It is also the gateway to the stunning Hortobagy National Park, a piece of Asian steppe in Central Europe.
Debrecen’s identity as the centre of Calvinism in Hungary is confirmed by the dominating presence of the Great Reformed Church on Kossuth tér. Although the interior is sparse and austere, you can browse the Hungarian Declaration of Independence (in English) which Lajos Kossuth proclaimed here on 13 April 1849, and also see his chair and memorabilia. If you are fit enough, you can climb the Western tower for a bird’s eye view of the city. Behind the church, the Déri museum is undergoing renovations until at least 2014, but its pride and joy, Munkácsy’s Jesus Triptych, should still be on display.
The other focus of the town is conveniently located at the end of the #1 tram line running north from the station via Kossuth tér: the area around the University and The Great Forest (Nagyerdő), which is really a fancy name for the admittedly large city park. There, you can find restaurants and bars dotted around, as well as the much respected Aquaticum spa.