My aim is not to add to the impression that Józsefváros/Joseph Town is a dangerous place. Yes, there is a higher crime rate than other parts of the city in this district named after the heir to the Hungarian throne, Emperor József II, in 1777, but take sufficient caution and then one should get along fine discovering this intriguing neighbourhood, so close yet so far from the main tourist scene.
The Józsefváros vibe makes a pleasant change, coming as it does with many remarkable, overlooked architectural treasures. There is always something new every time I pass by, as this enclave often serves as a convenient short cut avoiding the heavy flows of traffic elsewhere.
Unfortunately there is not much documented about the Harlem of Budapest, at least in English, as I had hoped, other than the vague, dismissive accounts I find online, but the rewards are there. One does not have to be a historian or an architect to define cultural similarities between this 8th district of Budapest and the rest of the city, despite its being rather neglected and left behind.
For you sceptics, I point out that downtown Pest, while generally a safe place, can be only as safe as you make it, bearing in mind some of the things that have gone on over the years, such as the occasional fake policemen inspecting banknotes for “forgeries”, ambitious waiters, ladies who wish to catch your eye under the dim lighting of the Nyugati underpass or the loud-mouthed, grotty individuals with their cheap scams at the Fisherman’s Bastion.
Not to mention the busy Vaci utca shopping promenade, which I am sure every Budapest Times reader has heard about. When I take to this very touristy street with my family, no one is that interested in us. Should I be there by myself, then I am often approached by certain obliging ladies who wish to take my attentions elsewhere.
These types mostly target detached men new to town who are picked up and taken to selected venues. The fun-lovin’ holidaymakers naturally order drinks, instead champagne is delivered, the chaperones disappear, a HUF 50,000-plus bill arrives and so do the security guards.
But I don’t wish to digress further with such obvious tourist sleaze because this could happen anywhere. Best of all, take a stroll through Józsefváros! I would like to take you on an exclusive adventure, which comes in two parts.
The Palace Quarter
The first, slightly better known and more accessible area of Józsefváros, within Múzeum körút, Baross utca, Rákóczi út (where the stylish, elegant Uránia arts cinema is situated) and József körút, is known as the Pálota Negyed/Palace Quarter and is generally more developed.
The grandiose Hungarian National Museum, near Kalvin tér Metro, is the prominent landmark and very much worth a visit. Behind stands the equally grandiose Old House of Representatives on Puskin utca. This architectural showpiece played its part in 19th-century politics, before parliament transferred to the Országház Parliament House of today at Kossuth tér. It could do with some dusting off and more recognition.
Next to it is the contrasting Magyar Rádió/Hungarian Radio station, built in communist times and aesthetically very much out of place with all else close by, but hosting a fine radio museum that is also worth seeing. Beyond this area are various universities, residential properties, cultural attachés and far fewer tourists.
This Palace Quarter underwent much renovation between 1996 and 2002, and nowadays serves as a joyful, buzzing, hanging-out place for the many students and local people alike. It has indoor and outdoor less-mainstream café culture, exquisite art galleries, funky bars, pizzerias and some fine, novelty eating places, in particular on Krúdy utca which is eventful all year round, certainly when the weather allows. The hospitality trade from these premises pours out onto the streets until the small hours.
Among the university life of the Academy of Drama and Film and the wondrous Metropolitan Ervin Szabó Library are the international Sacred Heart Church and various academic bookshops. This immediate area indeed carries literary fame, being home to the legendary “Pál Utcai Fiúk”/”The Paul Street Boys”. This enchanting tale, written by Ferenc Molnár and published in 1907, takes place at Pál utca and Mária utca, and can be found in all local bookshops translated into English. It is a wonderful story about life in this neighbourhood back then.
But there is something of an edge to this Alsó-Külváros,/Lower Suburb, as there is still some significant damage due to conflicts from the last century, visible on buildings today. Restoration work is progressing, but unfortunately some of these momentous buildings were shabby beyond repair and had to be cleared to make way for what modern-day life may bring in their place.
However, there is still much to see and I highly recommend venturing around either by bike or by walking, and capturing the Palace Quarter atmosphere where the interiors of some cukrásda still evoke nostalgia for decades gone by.
The striking and distinct pillars, impressive domes and enchanting balconies on many buildings all give this neighbourhood a touch of well-deserved revived grandeur. There is the less commercialised József körút walkway with its variety of shops, restaurants and the excellent Józsefváros Gallery at number 70, which also serves as a social centre with many events for children and educational programmes for adults.
It may get noisy at night thanks to some of the revellers in certain spots but I like this neighbourhood. From my point of view, this “Palace” side of Józsefváros is generally safe.
The other side
It is the “other” part of Józsefváros, on the opposite side of József körút, whether by day or rather dimly lit under the moonlight, which has not such a good reputation and thus receives the adverse publicity.
I advise a bike rather than walking for independent travel in this run-down working-class area that became a slum over the decades. Still, this twilight world of the late 20th and early 21st centuries is less so now that much has been done to clear it up. Centred between Keleti train station, Üllői út and the renowned Kerepesi Cemetery, it is once again fine by day as there is a reasonable flow of people and traffic passing by.
There is also a general police presence with a mobile police station on the notorious Diószegegi Sámuel utca, a street that still carries a sense of danger at any time of day. Occasional shadowy figures, propped up by lamp-posts, call out to me as I cycle by.
Investment is obviously yet to come in this part of Józsefváros. Some very poor families live in very rough conditions, perhaps unseen by the rest of town. It strongly reminds me of the atmosphere of “Minder”, if you remember this hard-hitting British TV comedy/drama set in the London underworld of the 1980s.
To prevent further prejudice against the residents of this neighbourhood, although the majority are Hungarians and Roma there are Turk, Arab and African minorities with a significant number of Chinese. There is a 90-minute tour that will show you the unique history and diverse ethnic mix, conducted by the Uccu Foundation. Email firstname.lastname@example.org Tours can be arranged in English on request.
Mention should be made of the alluring Práter utca, which hosts a long line of old and new buildings almost for as far as the horizon goes. Something of a surprise in this forgotten part of town and “no-go” area is the sight of the Citadella over on the Buda side. Near Práter utca are the Corvin Palace cinema, the picturesque St Joseph Parish Church, the Botanical Gardens and newly established office blocks and apartments, giving promise of future renovation.
Culture and further sightseeing
Beyond this immediate area are the tram lines alongside Fiumei utca and the famous Kerepesi Cemetery, which makes very pleasant sightseeing with its fine headstones and mausoleums for many honoured historical personalities. Nearby is Józsefváros train station, which has closed down to make way for the forthcoming Sorsok Háza, or House of Fates, history museum and learning centre, which will commemorate the thousands of Jews who were deported from this particular train station and sent to Auschwitz.
Then there are the Erkel Theatre and the Natural History museum. And for those in search of the really unusual, I suggest a visit to the Crime Museum/Rendőrség Történeti Múzeum, near Keleti train station. This is a breakaway from the regular museum scene and needs no further introduction. I do not advise taking children.
La Vie en Rose
Józsefváros has a soul and is a captivating place. There is a sense of romance in this neighbourhood that would be most fitting with the mid-20th-century French Chanson era. However, on a more formal note, I hope that whoever continues to restore Józsefváros will not take away all its character and old-world charm. I hope tourists will discover District VIII more and that effort is put into documenting the life and culture of this area that will surely thrive again, as it so richly deserves.