While the region has been inhabited since the Stone Age, its documented history began around 1009 when King Szent István (reign: 997-1038) established a bishopric in the area. The religious buildings were constructed on the plateau of a limestone hill on the eastern bank of the Eger-patak [Eger Stream]. According to a local legend, the king personally supervised the building works from a nearby hill which is now referred to as the ‘Király Széke’ [King’s Seat].
In addition to their episcopal duties, the bishops of Eger also engaged in economic and military activities as well as playing an important role in the disseminating medieval culture and art. To this end, monastic orders, and renowned foreign artists and architects were invited to settle in the area, which contributed to the urbanization. Over time, the importance of Eger grew, as evidenced by the fact that King Imre was buried here in 1204 instead of the Royal Basilica of Székesfehérvár. Bishops from Eger were often prominent figures on both the national and international stage. One such figure was Bishop Tamás Bakóczi, who was a leading figure in the Hungarian Renaissance ecclesiastical scene and received the second most votes in the 1513 papal election, after Cardinal Giovanni di Lorenzo de’ Medici, who later became Pope Leo X.
Beside its historical significance, Eger has become a popular destination for travelers interested in savoring delectable wines, indulging in therapeutic thermal waters, or exploring the beautiful mountainous surroundings through hiking. In addition to the city’s swimming pools and spas, visitors can also explore the Laskó-patak [Laskó Stream] valley, famously known as the Gyógyvizek völgye [Valley of Medicinal Waters], which is home to two spa centers: Egerszalók and Demjén. Eger is well-known for its historical vine region, and the Szépasszony-völgy [Valley of the Beautiful Woman] is considered the number one spot for wine-tasting, thanks to its picturesque and atmospheric setting. The city is flanked by the Bükk mountain range, which has the largest contiguous forested area in Hungary, offering great opportunities for outdoor activities, including hiking. One of the most popular activities is taking a stroll in the Szalajka-völgy [Valley of Szalajka] in the village of Szilvásvárad. A perfect itinerary for a day trip from Eger could be as follows: In the morning, take a leisurely stroll through the scenic Szalajka-völgy. In the afternoon, relax and rejuvenate in the thermal baths of Egerszalók. Finally, in the evening, sample delicious local wines at one of the many cellars in the Szépasszony-völgy.
Perched atop a hill above the old town, the Egri vár [Castle of Eger] was developed from the ecclesiastical center established by King Szent István. After the Mongol invasion in 1248, Bishop Lampert of Eger was granted permission by King Béla IV (reign: 1235-1270) to construct a fortress to protect the religious buildings. In the 15th century, the cathedral fortress was further expanded with the addition of a bishop’s palace. The palace was designed to reflect the taste of the royal court and everything about it meant to accommodate the luxurious episcopal lifestyle.
During the Ottoman Empire’s expansion in Hungary in the mid-16th century, the role of the episcopal complex changed from a fortified cathedral to a border stronghold guarding the mining towns in northern Hungary. The Ottoman army reached the castle on September 9, 1552. The defenders, consisting of a mere 1800 people, were vastly outnumbered by the estimated 45,000 soldiers of the besieging army. Similarly, the castle had only 4 siege cannons and 15 field cannons, while the Ottoman army had more than 20 and 100, respectively. However, the Ottoman supremacy in armaments and number of troops had no chance against the stout resistance of the defenders lead by their captain István Dobó. After 38 days of intense fighting, the Ottoman forces gave up the siege and returned to their winter camp. The triumph of the defenders in the 1552 siege of Eger was a crucial event in 16th-century Hungary as it was the first time a Hungarian castle was able to withstand the might of the Ottoman forces. News of the castle’s stout defense spread quickly throughout Europe, challenging the belief in the invincibility of the Ottoman army.
In 1596, the Ottoman Empire launched a second campaign against the castle led by Sultan Mohamed III himself. On September 20th, the Ottomans surrounded Eger with an overwhelming force of almost 100,000 soldiers and unleashed a barrage of destruction using over 120 siege cannons. In stark contrast, the castle’s defenders numbered only 3,400 and had meager seven cannons at their disposal. Within days, the Ottomans had taken control of the town surrounding the castle and proceeded to capture the outer bailey. As they continued their relentless assault, the besiegers attempted to demolish the remaining bastions of the inner bailey through blasting. Finally, On October 12th, the weakened and hopeless defenders surrendered the castle to the Ottomans, who used their victory to strengthen their power over the newly conquered territories.
In 1684, the Holy League, an international alliance against the Ottomans, was established with the goal of expelling the Ottomans from Europe. Consequently, Eger was finally liberated in 1687. The military significance of the castle dwindled following the Ottoman occupation. In 1702, the Imperial Chamber issued an ordered to demolish the entire castle in order to reduce the high operating expenses. Fortunately, due to practical difficulties and high costs, only the outer bailey was demolished.
Today, the Gothic episcopal palace, which served as István Dobó’s headquarters during the siege of 1552, houses the Egri vár története [History of Eger Castle] exhibition. This collection covers the period from the founding of the ecclesiastical center by King Szent István to the Rákóczi-szabadságharc [Rákóczi’s War of Independence] (1703-1711). On the palace’s ground floor, the Hősök terme [Hero’s Hall] features the tomb of Dobó, surrounded by massive statues as if protecting the memory of the captain. However, the tomb is empty because he was buried on his family estate in Dobóruszka (Ruská).
After passing the remains of the 11th-century cathedral, visitors can reach the intertwined system of underground halls and passageways of the 16th-century Kazamata [Casemate] through the Setét kapu [Dark Gate]. The exhibits placed in the kazamata use mock-ups and interactive displays to illustrate the castle’s evolution over time: from the ecclesiastical center through the fortified cathedral to the modern medieval fortress created to accommodate artillery warfare. The most popular exhibition of the castle is also located here, dedicated to the most famous literary work inspired by the 1552 siege, Géza Gárdonyi’s historic novel ‘Egri Csillagok’ [Stars of Eger – Title of the English version: Eclipse of the Crescent Moon] published in 1901. After exploring the peculiarities of the siege in the kazamata, in the Panoptikum [Vax Museum] of the dungeon, visitors can meet the main figures of the event face to face.
In addition to the exhibits mentioned earlier, the castle also houses the Múlt-kirakó [Past Puzzle] exhibition, which showcases archaeological finds from the entire area of Heves County, covering the period from the Stone Age to the era of the Hungarian conquest of the Carpathian Basin. Another collection worth exploring is the Fegyvermustra [Weaponry] exhibition, which explores the historical development of Eastern and Western weapons from the Middle Ages to First World War. The exhibition pays special attention to the Ottoman armaments and their Hungarian counterparts, providing visitors with a glimpse into the arms race that took place between these two powers.
The highest point of the castle is Kálvária-domb [Calvary Hill], which is topped by three crosses. In 1828, the then archbishop, Pyrker, wanted to establish a place of pilgrimage in the castle. The hill soon became a favorite of pilgrims, and it was praised for its wonderful panorama, which earned it the nickname ‘the most ornate church in Eger’. One peculiarity of the site is that it only has seven Stations of the Cross, instead of the usual 14. This suggests that the pre-16th century configuration was applied.
The ornamental tomb of Géza Gárdonyi can be found in the remote part of the castle, on the Bebek-bástya [Bebek bastion]. According to his wishes, his headstone is inscribed with the words that have since become legendary: “Csak a teste!” [Only his body]. His famous novel about the castle was born in a nearby house, which today functions as the Gárdonyi Géza emlékház [Memorial House of Géza Gárdonyi]. Visitors can explore the writer’s life and work, as well as the historical context of the novel.
The heart of the city is Dobó-tér [Dobó Square], a popular meeting place for locals and tourists. This square, dominated by the Egri vár in the background, is lined with restaurants and cafés. The focus point of the square is an impressive monument of István Dobó, a hero of the Siege of Eger. The monument, created by sculptor Alajos Stróbl in 1907, depict Dobó wielding his sword flanked by a a warrior on his right and a woman throwing a stone on his left. Further, exploring the winding lanes and hidden courtyards of the old town, visitors can admire the Baroque architecture of Eger. One of the most notable examples is the Megyeháza [County Hall], which features some of the most beautiful wrought-iron gates in Hungary, known as the Fazola-kapuk [Fazola Gates]. These gates were created by Henrik Fazola in 1761, along with many other wrought iron works in the city.
The Kopcsik Cukormáz Múzeum [Kopcsik Fondant Museum] is the most unusual museum in town. The collection features 150 sugar masterpieces created by Lajos Kopcsik, a ten-time winner at the Culinary Olympics and a Guinness World Recorder-holding master confectioner from Eger. The museum’s main attraction is the jaw-dropping Baroque Room, where everything, including the floor, wallpaper, furniture, and smallest object, is made of sugar.
The Egri Főszékesegyház [Metropolitan Cathedral of Eger], is the second-largest religious building in Hungary, after the Esztergomi Bazilika [Bazilica of Esztergom]. The imposing cathedral is dedicated St John the Apostle and Evangelist, St. Michael, and the Immaculate Conception, and was consecrated in 1837. Designed by the great architect József Hild, the cathedral features sculptures created by Venetian artist Marco Casagrande. On the staircase in front of the cathedral, there are sculptures portraying the kings Szent István and Szent László, as well as the apostles Peter and Paul. The facade of the cathedral is decorated with a statue composition of Faith-Hope-Love, and angel statues of Divine Truth and Divine Love. The interior decoration took 120 years to complete. One of the side altars features a striking painting of King Szent István offering the Holy Crown, representing the country, to the Virgin Mary for protection. The Dome fresco, depicting the Apocalypse, is the work of painter István Takács from Mezőkövesd.
The Baroque Érseki Palota [Archbishop’s Palace], located next to the cathedral, showcases exhibitions that provide insight into the everyday life of archbishops. There are two beautiful Baroque churches in the city center: the Minorita templom [Minorite Church] and the Ciszterci templom [Cistercian Church]. The Minorita templom, dedicated to St. Antony of Padua, was built in 1771. The building is unique among Hungarian Baroque churches, as the facade between the two towers is slightly convex instead of flat. The interior frescoes depict scenes from the life St. Anthony. The Ciszterci templom, built in 1743, is dedicated to St Bernard. Fortunately, the entire 18th-century furnishings of the church have survived to this day.
The city also features Ottoman monuments, including a solitary minaret and Turkish baths. The slender Minaret, which is probably the only one with a Christian cross on top, was erected in 1596 and originally belonged to a mosque that was later demolished in 1841. Visitors can climb its 97 narrow steps to reach a small balcony for panoramic views, but this is not recommended for those with mobility, confinement, or height issues. Among the restaurants and shops of a lively pedestrian street, one can find the remains of the Ottoman Valide Szultána gőzfürdő [steam baths]. Visitors can also experience time travel at the still-operating Török fürdő [Turkish Bath] nearby. The oldest pool in the complex is the Török medence [Turkish Pool], built in 1610. However, the most stunning pool is the Nagy tükörmedence [Big Mirror Pool], featuring a glittering gold dome. Not only is the pool visually appealing, but its water is also known to have medicinal properties, being fed by its own spring of radon medicinal water.