Located in the Tokaj Historical Wine Region, Tokaj gained the title of „international city of grapes and wine” – only 137 cities in the world achieved this. It has one of the nicest landscapes of the towns of Hegyalja: from one side it is bordered by the Bodrog and Tisza rivers meeting here, on the other there is the volcanic Tokaj Mountain.
The city is the winemaking center of the Tokaj-Hegyalja wine region. There are many several hundred years old, still operating cellars here, the most famous being the Rákóczi Cellar where John Zápolya was proclaimed king in 1526.
Tourist with car or bike should take a smaller detour (15 km) through Rakamaz to the village of Szabolcs lying on the left shore of Tisza. The village was the seat of the ispáns and the center of Szabolcs county.
Found here is the largest motte-and-bailey castle which was built by Chieftain Szabolcs in the 11th century. The triangular castle’s ramparts are 15-20 meters tall at places and its longest wall is almost 350 m. For its construction enormous trees were used. In earlier centuries, it was completely surrounded by the Tisza.
In the Árpád Age a parliament was held here, commemorating this is the Millenium Memorial Column built at the end of the 19th century. At one of the entrances stands the statue of Chieftain Szabolcs.
The oldest monument building of the city, built in around 1700, is the Baroque Rákóczi-Dessewffy Castle (Bajcsy-Zsilinszky Street). Originally it was built by the Rákóczi family, later it was owned by the Dessewffys. Its arched, stone framed gate is a typical Hegyalja feature.
The Karácsony-Sasarát House situated at 7 Gábor Bethlen Street was built by a Greek wine trader family in around 1790. The Copf style building houses the Tokaj Museum. Besides presenting winery tools, it also has a significant collection of church history items and icons.
The Copf style houses next to the Museum were also built at the end of the 18th century.
The monument Town Hall was also built in Copf style at the end of the 18th century.
The Copf Russian Church built in around 1790 houses the Tokaj Gallery with temporary exhibitions (23 Bethlen Street). Originally it was built for Russian wine traders by the Czar.
In the same street is the Capuchin Monastary. Today the building operates as a children’s home.
The late Baroque Reformed church (Bem Sttreet) was erected in around 1800, its tower was built a hundred years earlier. The Copf style pulpit is from 1822.
The Roman Catholic Church on Kossuth Square was built on the spot of an earlier church between 1910-12.
Next to it is the Baroque Saint John of Nepomuk Statue built in 1802.
Also on the Kossuth Square is the St. Stephen Statue erected in 2000 with a Kölcsey quote on its plinth, and the Bacchus Statue, an emblem of Tokaj.
The Greek Catholic Church in Pál Vasvári Street was built in Baroque style in 1743. Its furniture is Copf style from 1787.
The synagogue in Serház Street is one of the biggest synagogues of Hegyalja, it was built in the last third of the 19th century in Eclectic style, today it is the Cultural and Conference Center.
In its neighborhood is the Ede Paulay Theatre which opened in August 2008.
The Jewish cemetery of Tokaj, with Classical and Romantic graves is located in the northern part of the city at the Bodrogkeresztúi Road.
Nikolaus Lenau (1802-1850), an Austrian poet lived here in 1816-17, his physician stepfather was relocated to the city. He was inspired by the Hungarian landscape and wrote 23 poems related to the country.
The area rich in fish and wild animals was already inhabited by Stone Age men. The settlement was first mentioned in a document from 1067. At that time the city was only protected by a hill fort built before the Hungarians’ arrival which could not stop the Mongols ravaging this land in 1241. The upsurge in grape growing is due to the Walloon winemakers settling here after the Mongol Invasion.
Tokaj was always located on an important trade route at a river passage which also meant income from customs for the city. The city is the most important port of Tisza since the 13th century. To defend the city, a castle was constructed near the meeting of Bodrog and Tisza in the second half of the 15th century. It was owned by John Hunyadi and later by John Zápolya.
In 1619, during Gábor Bethlen’s first campaign against Ferdinand II the crown was kept here for a while. The Rákóczis seized the castle multiple times from the Emperor’s armies. Ultimately Francis II Rákóczi seized in 1704 and demolished it in 1705. Today only the remains of the walls can be seen. Near to it is a Jewish cemetery which can be approached on boat. It was still used in 1860.
Trade had a significant role in the development of the city, it was affected by the Greek traders escaping from the Ottomans and settling here in the second half of the 17th century. Later most of the wine trading with Poland and Russia was taken over by Jewish families. The busy trading ensured financial well being for the citizens.
There are many houses still today that show traces of this well being from the end of the 17th century and also many houses from the 19th century can be seen. In the 18th century, even the Russian Czar had a cellar in the city (today the Elisabeth Cellar), transporting Tokaj wine to the court of St. Petersburg from here.
With the construction of the railway (1859) not only the transportation of wine got new means but also the smaller scale industrialization could begin (factories making brandy, leather, matches). Unfortunately the phylloxera epidemic ruined the wine region for decades because regrowing the grapes and making the first wine took almost a decade by which the region lost its traditional markets.
After World War II, the new plantations and industrial scale production meant to bring more output but it was on the expense of the wine’s quality. Today the Hungarian and foreign winemakers of Tokaj are trying to restore the original quality and to acquire new export markets.
The unified architectural outlook, the nicely restored city center, the organised city structure brought Tokaj the Hild Prize in 1999 and in 2002 – along the other towns of Tokaj-Hegyalja – it received the status of World Heritage Site from UNESCO.