Szürketúra a Budapest100-on// Take the Grey Trail at Budapest100
2 hours
What is behind the secret of a Újpalota Housing Estate (constructed between 1969-1975, 15,000 apartments) that continues to attract architecture enthusiasts to this remote corner of Budapest, situated right on the city’s outskirts?
Critics of mass housing projects and those who despise panel blocks often say that housing estates ‘only appear appealing on scale models’ where the carefully planned geometric arrangement of tower blocks and streets truly stands out from an aerial perspective. While from the residents’ perspective, they argue, the estates are empty, soulless, alienating and the striking monumentalism is impossible to comprehend.
Perhaps that is where Újpalota housing estate is ahead of the pack. Wandering around and embracing Újpalota from a pedestrian’s perspective, this geometric order and the concept that the designers had in mind when they laid down the arrangement, is so clear and spectacular that one (at least a modern architecture enthusiast) cannot help but fall in love. The fact that as opposed to other estates, many buildings are still in their original condition makes a visit to Újpalota for concrete fans even more desirable.   
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Újpalota’s story tells us a lot about the challenges mass housing projects faced and the factors that influenced the “success” of a certain housing project.
In Újpalota, we can observe how the architects’ visions clashed with the economic and political reality and understand the constraints and bad decisions which led to social problems and thus negatively impacted public perception about housing estates and panel blocks in general.
One of these factors is location, which has always been a determining factor in shaping the destiny of Újpalota. Historical experience shows that housing estates which are well integrated to the rest of the city, have good transport connections and satisfy the needs of the community are more likely to be popular and liveable in the long term. Újpalota Estate was erected on empty fields, literally on the city’s edge in Budapest’s District 15. It means that all the necessary infrastructure (utilities, amenities, services) had to be built from scratch.
Even though the number of residents jumped to 60,000 over a few years, the community facilities which were envisioned to provide people with places to socialise (including a cultural-commercial City Center with a cinema and theatre) were never built due to the lack of funding.The surrounding neighborhoods in District 15 were suburban areas with single-family houses and were unable to meet the increased population’s infrastructure needs, leading to many conflicts at the beginning (healthcare and education facilities were often built later in case of housing projects, as the emphasis was on building apartments at the fastest pace possible to reach the goals of the actual 5 Year Plan).
In the early years, this led to the neighborhood naturally evolving into a sleeping district and made it difficult to forge a sense of community.
Fortepan TBD
The absence of such gathering places remains an issue today, further intensified by economic hardships that have resulted in the closure of several long-standing pubs and bars in recent years. A socialist era anecdote illustrates the kind of attention the neighborhood received being on the periphery.
When Budapest’s streets were decorated by fancy, colored photos of prominent party members at the time of major state celebrations, Újpalota received only black and white posters from the HQ.
After 1990, the estate's population began steadily shrinking and has dropped to around 35,000 now from the peak time of 60,000. This process has stopped and Újpalota currently has earned a mid-tier status among the capital’s housing estates. Újpalotese are proud of the large green areas and value the relatively good transport connections of the estate in the first place (even though metro line M4 which was supposed to provide quick access to the city center was never built, today one can get to the center in 20-25 minutes by buses). Besides the lack of gathering and go-to places, parking is a problem that adds to challenges. We also have to note that being situated on the outskirts, Újpalota experiences a higher occurrence of social problems that affect Hungarian society.
Getting in
Public transport/ 25 min.
Újpalota is connected to the center by an army of bus lines. The fastest option is to take one of the express buses (7E, 8E, 133E) for a 25-30 min ride. Arriving in Újpalota could not be more epic. You’ll get the first glimpse of the blocks as the bus climbs a bridge above the Budapest Ringbahn railway line. To start your walk, get off at ‘Molnár Viktor utca’ stop. 
Train lovers may take a detour to arrive in Újpalota in style. The recently started S76 commuter train connects the North-Buda metropolitan area with Budapest’s XVII’s district through the Eastern section of the Budapest Ringbahn. The easiest way to catch S76 is either at ‘Újpest’ train station (from M3 metro) on the Pest side or ‘Aquincum’ train station (from H5 HÉV) on the Buda side. Get off at ‘Újpalota’. Check the train company’s website for the schedule (h
By bike/35 min.
It is a great way to explore Újpalota by bike, however, bear in mind that it is not the most enjoyable experience to get there. For the most part you can ride on a cycle lane, but on roads with heavy traffic. Here is a relatively calm itinerary: At Heroes Square cross Városliget and continue your ride on Stefánia út. Take the first left to Thököly út, your highway to Újpalota. The cycle lane ends at Bosnyák tér, if you feel more comfortable take the sidewalks on the left side of the road from there. The tricky part comes last. Bikes are not allowed on the bridge above the railways on Csömöri út, but there is a pedestrian crossing at a train stop right next to the bridge, on the left side.
What to see?
You can start your Újpalota walk from the first bus stop in the estate, Molnár Viktor utca. Head straight along the blocks to get to a small 'szolgáltató ház' (‘service house complex’) between Adria and Neptun streets. These small commercial hubs (mostly a group of small, connected 1-2 storey buildings) were distributed proportionately across housing estates. They usually had a supermarket and various daily convenience shops (pharmacy, laundry, shoe repair etc.) to serve a smaller ‘section’ within an estate . This complex, which is in a rather sad shape now, features one of the estate’s most charming sights, József Rátonyi’s beautiful Ikrek (Twins) sculpture.
‘Twins’ sculpture
Újpalota skyline
From here, continue walking along Drégelyvár utca until you reach Fő tér (translation 'Main Square'). As you are approaching Fő tér, the layout of the estate will start to take shape in front of your eyes. You are on one of the two axis along which the lead architect, Tibor Tenke, organized the estate. When designing the layout, Tenke intended to use medieval cities as an example. The two axis (main roads practically) meet at Fő tér, where the estate’s landmark building 'Víztoronyház' (Watertower House) and 'Vásárcsarnok' (Market Hall, 'Csarnok' (Hall) as locals tend to call it) stand. The axis are lined with high-rises behind which smaller blocks form organic, less monumental ‘mini-districts’. This way the estate is divided into four sections .
Tenke and his team designed large, empty spaces between the blocks with a purpose. They envisioned a ‘park forest’ which will one day merge with the natural forests that embrace the estate. They also wanted to create a bustling ‘inner city’ here, similar to traditional city centers.
Before their eyes, they imagined Drégelyvár utca brightly lit by the numerous ground level shops in the blocks with pedestrians strolling home after watching a film in the cinema. By the time you have reached Fő tér, which is actually a park without any community facilities or cinema in sight, you have probably realised that these visions did not come to fruition. 
Rather than letting our inherent Hungarian gloom overtake you, let’s stop your ‘what if’ thoughts and appreciate the experience the place offers.
'Centenáriumi Emlékmű' (Centennial Monument)
'Vásárcsarnok' (Market Hall)
Note the eye-catching 'Centenáriumi Emlékmű' (Centennial Monument) sculpture (created by sculptor Miklós Varga in 1974). The monument symbolizes the unity of Budapest, represented through its three pillars (referring to the unification of Pest, Buda, Óbuda formerly separate entities). The globe on the top represents Budapest. From this spot, the breathtaking view of the estate’s main landmark, Víztoronyház is already in sight.
Highlights of the Estate
The ‘Watertower House’
The Tibor Tenke-designed, 20-storey tower is the tallest residential building in Hungary (and the fourth tallest building in the country). It was built between 1973-1975, using a so-called slip forming technology, which, compared to prefab construction, gives architects more freedom in designing the exteriors. Well, it’s hard to decide what is the most stunning detail about the tower. To begin with, the building originally had a dual-function, housing the new estate's water tower. The reason for that is Tenke wanted to avoid another high-rise dominating the skyline and ruining the composition he had envisioned, so he opted to ‘hide’ it. It was put out of operation just after 10 years. 
Another intriguing detail is that the two top floors, which embrace the now out of use water tank, are duplex studio apartments created for artists. One of them was until currently home to Víztoronyház Atelier/Watertower House Atelier, a gallery and project room, runned (and also inhabited) by artist Ágota Krnács. After making a reservation, it was possible to visit the atelier and enjoy the breathtaking view from the atelier’s until the local municipality unexpectedly terminated her rental contract. As of May 2024, the duplex stands empty. Read this Welovebudapest article (Hungarian only) or watch this video with one of the former resident artists, if you want to learn more about the studio.
Another intriguing detail is that the two top floors, which embrace the now out of use water tank, are duplex studio apartments created for artists. One of them was until currently home to Víztoronyház Atelier/Watertower House Atelier, a gallery and project room, runned (and also inhabited) by artist Ágota Krnács. After making a reservation, it was possible to visit the atelier and enjoy the breathtaking view from the atelier’s until the local municipality unexpectedly terminated her rental contract. As of May 2024, the duplex stands empty. Read this Welovebudapest article (Hungarian only) or watch this video with one of the former resident artists, if you want to learn more about the studio.
Watertower House, rear view
Watertower House, view from Páskomliget str
In 2020, the Center for Contemporary Architecture (KÉK) organized a guided tour to the Watertower House as a part of the Othernity, Hungary's project for the 2020 Venice Architectural Biennale. Check out this great Hype and Hyper piece to learn more.
Around the Market Hall
Once you have embraced the tower from all angles, simply walk across the street and explore the estate’s vibrant hub, the Market Hall.  Vendors sell a surprisingly wide-range of products from fruits and vegetables to local craft beers in one of Budapest's most authentic retro markets on the outskirts. You may recharge your batteries with a lángos or kürtöskalács. If lángos is your thing, try 'Retro Lángos'. Hard-core explorers can grab a beer at the ultra-local tiny 'Rock Söröző' pub.
The intersection around Market Hall serves as a kind of commercial center of the estate. The ground floors of the neighboring blocks are full of shops and restaurants. (though in terms of the quality and variety of services, this area is on a kind of decline since Pólus Center, a large shopping mall opened next to Újpalota in 1996 but more about it later). At the foot of one block, sits 'Zöld Pont Pizzéria'. This authentic all-round restaurant and bar is a popular birthday party and get-together venue for locals. It sits on the ground level of an untouched prefab tower block. If you sit inside, you can enjoy a view at Víztoronyház and Market Hall peering through the brownish net curtains. Need a stronger #plattenbauromantik selling point?
The side of Market Hall from Páskomliget str
The Market Hall
‘Settlement in Újpalota’
At this point it is time to take a time travel with the stunning photos of Tamás Urbán to get a sense of what everyday life looked like as the first residents started to settle in the new housing estate. Tamás Urbán (1945-) is a photographer, most famous for his exceptional social documentary photography, which shed light on diverse socially marginalized groups during the socialist era.
His work captured the lives of individuals like the homeless, punks, drug addicts, young convicts creating visibility for groups of people on the periphery of society that the socialist regime turned a blind eye to. Urbán lived for a few years in Újpalota where he rented a room as a subtenant during the estate’s early years.
As he recalls, these were unique times as everyone was ‘new’ and people were friendly and approachable. It was common that strangers let him inside their apartments to take pictures.
This special atmosphere and the excitement of moving into improved housing conditions, however, gradually melted away as tenants started to live their isolated lives in their respective apartment units, as well as experience the challenges and trade-offs that came with living in a brand new housing estate.
1974. Fortepan / Urbán Tamás
1976.Fortepan / Horváth Péter
The journalist Tamás Lipp’s amazing reportage book ‘Honfoglalás Újpalotán’ (1978) provides a vivid insight into the daily realities of the estate back in the day (‘Settlement in Újpalota’, referring to ‘Honfoglalás’ - ‘Hungarian Settlement’, the name for the conquest of the Carpathian Basin by Hungarians in the 9th century).
For his book, Lipp interviewed a great variety of people from tenants to teachers, active community members to officials from the local communist party bureau to ‘key figures’ such as Tibor Tenke or Tamás Urbán.
Their thoughts and complaints give a good glimpse into the shortcomings and limitations of socialist mass housing projects. Most daily annoyances came as a result of the poor and rushed construction and the absence of maintenance and care. Sound insulation was bad, elevators and in-house ventilation systems often got broken after a few years (which was pretty inconvenient in case of buildings where kitchens didn’t have windows) whereas repair (or pest control) was rare.
1976. Fortepan / Középületépítő Vállalat - Kreszán Albert - Koczka András - Kemecsei József
1975. Fortepan / Gábor Viktor
Besides the lack of infrastructure it was also the rigid, restrictive nature of the socialist political system that hindered the creation of community cohesion. For example, tenants spontaneously started to socialize and organize gatherings and activities (i.e. seamstress clubs) in the laundry drying rooms of basements but these initiatives were quickly prohibited. The dictatorship did not tolerate any form of self-organization of individual action.
The stories also illustrate that for many people the transition from the old to the new even though it came with improved living conditions was not easy
A significant part of Újpalota’s first residents (70% of whom belonged to the ‘working-class’ in socialist terms) came from old, overcrowded multi-apartment houses which were planned to be torn down. Living conditions in these houses were substandard (to put it nicely) yet there was often a sense of community, people knew each other and looked after their neighbors. Such communities did not survive as apartment allocation was a centralized process and it happened often that families from the same soon to be demolished old houses ended up in completely different parts of Budapest.
Compared to first-generation estates where apartments were usually small-sized, the blocks in Újpalota also featured some 3,5 room apartments intended for bigger families. As a general rule, apartments were allocated based on the size of families. Sometimes very poor families got the largest flats which meant that they struggled to pay for the utilities and as they could not afford to furnish the apartments which meant that some rooms remained unused. Lipp’s interview with Tenke also sheds light on an interesting dilemma about mass housing projects. Speaking about the missing places to socialize, the architect argued that the state was in the midst of a massive social housing project, aiming to produce as many housing units as possible at the fastest possible pace
In Tenke’s view, spending money on and “fiddling with” community facilities or gathering places would have been a luxury, considering that hundreds of thousands were still on the waiting list for new apartments.  
Kindergarten Rock
Despite the lack of infrastructure, the local community and cultural institutions have developed over the years. Enthusiastic local officials made dedicated efforts to organize events, sometimes using creative solutions. A memorable example of this is the concert featuring ‘Piramis’ and ‘Neoton familia’ bands during the 1978 ‘Újpalota Days’ festival. The fact that the organizers managed to bring these two prominent bands of the era was quite an accomplishment yet the absence of an appropriate venue remained a challenge.
As a rather unconventional move, the bands ended up playing on the roof of a kindergarten. A hydraulic crane worked tirelessly all day to lift the necessary technical equipment, which weighed approximately 2 tons, onto the two-story building.  The bands played in front of an estimated audience of 6.000 people, and it’s needless to mention that all balconies and rooftops of the nearby buildings were filled with spectators. The kindergarten remains operational to this day (Micimackó óvoda) and is just a few minutes walk away from Páskomliget út.
Overcrowded schools and a purple paint
Maybe it’s time to end our travel through time here and shift our focus to the present. A great way to do so is to venture a bit behind the blocks and make your way through a single-family house area to explore an eye-catching contemporary piece. As opposed to Kelenföld Housing Estate Újpalota has not been reshaped with new investment projects or new residential buildings in recent years. A rare exception is the church of the Újpalota Reformed Church Community (built in 2009). The elegant minimalist building was erected on a kind of no man’s land, where the park that embraces the estate ends and the single-family house area starts.
Fun fact, they say that the church sits on the spot where the architects’ barrack stood back in the day, from where Tenke coordinated the construction.
From here, let’s continue with education. Head back to Fő tér to visit one of the estate’s charming little gems, the ‘Purple School’ (currently named László Gyula Primary School and Gymnasium). To demonstrate the dire need for educational facilities in the new estate: initially, the school was planned to house 600-800 pupils, yet the demand was so immense that eventually 1200 enrolled in the inaugural year. Teaching took place in two shifts, and shortages extended beyond educators to desks, textbooks, chalk and more. However, it was something else that captured people’s imagination. 
László Gyula Primary School and Gymnasium/ 1972. Fortepan /FŐFOTÓ
László Gyula Primary School and Gymnasium
In earlier times, both the most enthusiastic and more critical first-generation residents shared a common sentiment about the estate. They expressed that the uniform gray buildings lacked colors, leading to a sense of sameness and depressing monotony. It is no wonder that the educational institutions in the estate, painted in vivid colors (red, purple, blue etc) quickly became popular and easily recognizable.
The ‘Purple’ (as locals refer to the school) stands out from them. People are saying that the paint used for the building was a special patent that proved to be more durable than the types used for the other colored institutions
The red, blue were already worn-out while the Purple still shined bright. The school not only looks good on the outside but it was special on the inside as well. Just look at his picture below of how futuristic the foyer was at the time of its construction (the pillars are covered with fire enamel mosaic).
Return to the central area of the estate to explore some notable examples of successful rehabilitation projects on Zsókavár street. The ‘Spiral House’ was the estate’s other iconic building besides the Watertower House. The building complex features a carousel-like spiral staircase, a torso of an envisioned pedestrian bridge meant to connect it to the proposed City Center across the street. 
The spiral staircase, which had in the early 2000s appeared pretty neglected with its faded red color, rust and plants thriving in its cracks, similar to an abandoned attraction from the Pripyat amusement park, has undergone a transformation. Over the past 10 years, the spiral, along with the two-storey structure wrapping around the neighboring tower block, has been revitalized as a part of ‘Zsókavár street project’.
The Church of Újpalota Reformed Church Community
Blocks along Páskomliget út
A prior version of the guide would have directed explorers to the end of Zsókavár street, where the estate’s number-one evening spot, ‘Ámor söröző’ stood in a service house complex. Regrettably, Ámor closed its doors last year due to economic challenges. The establishment’s aesthetic appeal lay in its modernist facade with expansive windows and an iconic vintage neon signage, featuring two inviting jugs of beer (see the pictures below). Again, it is frustrating to observe how the new owner ignored not only Ámor’s legacy, but the visual identity of the building complex as a whole. As you continue your walk along Erdőkerülő út you will notice that it is not an exception.
The cacophony of cheap storefront designs with vivid, oversaturated colors fits into the prejudiced image of tasteless and cheap aesthetics of post-socialist housing estates. Anyways, from here you may continue your walk behind the high rises of Zsókavár utca along Kőrakás park. This is one of the ‘mini districts’ of estate, characterized by smaller blocks and a very loose construction density. The previously mentioned ‘park forest’ concept of Tenke will be taking shape in front of your eyes, too, as this part of the estate appears as one continuous green area.     
As you are approaching the busy Szentmihályi út, you have practically reached the edge of the housing estate. But our walk has not yet ended. Cross the street and head towards the Asia Center shopping mall. It is impossible not to miss the building due its one-of-a-kind design and the sizable Chinese styled gate that welcomes visitors in the middle of a round-about. It is not only the orientalist decoration that is supposed to give genuinity to the two-wing structure - the mall was said to be designed according to the feng shui concept. But why is the Chinese theme?
Asia Center, which was opened in 2003, was built by a group of Chinese and Austrian investors, mainly to replace the notorious late Négy Tigris Piac (Four Tigers’ Market), a shady,  semi-ex-lex container labyrinth in the 8th District.
Besides providing a new, upgraded environment to the small (mostly Asian but not exclusively Chinese) retailers and vendors, Asia Center also aspired to “facilitate the further development of trade and business relations between Asian and European countries”. Don’t expect major international brands or extraordinary culinary experiences here. Most of the 400 smaller shops offer cheap clothing, household goods, food items, home decoration and of course perfumes and cosmetics for a fraction of a price you have to pay in a branded store. Still the place has a weird, unique atmosphere that sets it apart from regular shopping malls. 
Oriental gate at Asia Center’s entrance
Feng shui design
Speaking of regular shopping malls, on your way to ‘Ázsia’, you might have noticed another sizable mall with a huge parking lot across the empty meadow. Pólus Center, which opened its doors in 1996, became the second shopping mall to be constructed in Budapest. As opposed to Asia Center, Pólus has it all: it features a cinema, a hypermarket, shops of international brands and a food court with an in-house ice skating rink in the middle.
Pólus has been arguably Újpalotese’s number one go-to place for shopping and entertainment for decades.
Remember we talked about the struggles of small businesses and local pubs across the estate and around Market Hall? The role of Pólus, which is easily accessible from practically every part of the estate by walking or public transport, in this phenomena cannot be understated. There is not much point in visiting Pólus but there is a great way to wrap up your tour on a positive note by enjoying some delicious food at the nearby ‘Pirog-da!’. Pirog-da! is a food-truck offering classic Balkan dishes (pjeskavicas, cevaps) along with burgers and pirogs in a LIDL supermarket’s parking lot. Despite the unlikely location, the place has earned fame well-beyond Újpalota’s limits as one of the city’s best Balkan food places (it even got featured in the Hungarian edition of Forbes). They serve no beer but I have always been allowed to get some from the supermarket.
Once you have finished your tour,  simply walk to the nearby ‘Újpalota, Nyírpalota út’ bus terminal and hop on one of the express buses (7E, 8E, 133E) heading to the city center. 
Check out our other walks:
Explore Kelenföld's journey from being a "panel jungle" to a beloved neighborhood, showcasing its modernist architecture and testament to urban renewal.
Uncover Csepel's industrial heritage and public housing evolution, and wander along the Soroksár Danube branch in the district’s hidden gem, Királymajor Estate.