It’s ironic that Budapest, a city of striking architectural splendour, should have as one of its main tourist draws the ruin bars – eclectic drinking dens blooming out of the shells of crumbling buildings. With so many now to choose from (and most, if not all, are worth a visit) here’s a selection that embody the best of the romkocsma (ruin bar) phenomenon.
In the late 90’s, swathes of Budapest were in disrepair. Predatory developers were buying up the city’s decaying historic buildings, razing them, and replacing them with cheap and unsightly alternatives. Local activists, campaigning to save the country’s architectural heritage, succeeded in securing protected status for the Jewish District, one of the worst affected areas. Still without the funds necessary to actually revitalise these buildings, a creative solution was hit upon. In the summer of 2004, an alternative café and open-air cinema named Szimpla Kert opened in the carcass of an old factory. Eight years on, travel guide Lonely Planet designated this pioneering initiative the third best bar in the world. So the ruin bar phenomenon began, and so it continues, making Budapest one of the most exciting – and cost-effective – bar scenes in Europe.
The original and, for many, still the best. Primarily begun as a venue for live performances from Budapest’s fringe community, Szimpla Kert today juggles its counter-cultural agenda alongside its mainstream reputation as a great place for a memorable night out. Follow its bunting-strewn cobbled corridors to explore its various rooms – here you can smoke shisha, there drink a cocktail – or sit in the converted Trabant car in the courtyard and let your eyes do the exploring instead. On summer evenings arrive early to beat the queues. If you’re at a loose end on a Sunday, pop in for one of the city’s best farmers’ markets.
Kazinczy u. 14
An underwater theme presides at Kuplung, located on the Jewish Quarter’s main party street, with a mural of a handsome blue whale dominating the courtyard garden while glowing paper jellyfish bob overhead. For all of its surreal flair, laid back Kuplung is, at heart, a live music bar. Arrive early on the weekends to beat the crowds (advance entry tickets (about £3.50) are recommended), while Mondays are half price on drinks and food.
Király u. 46
The ruin bar for the summer and the foodies. Open-air Rácskert, situated in a former building yard, is more cosmopolitan beer garden than overheated bar, with a number of street-food outlets serving gourmet titbits from among Rácskert’s art installations and tidy trays of potted herbs. Despite beer costing roughly a pound a pint, the vibe here, even during World Cup games, remains chilled and friendly.
Dob u. 40
Csendes Vintage Bar
On the civilised end of the ruin bar spectrum, Csendes (which translates as “quiet”) is a single, high-ceilinged room of eye-catching, aesthetic tumult. While the walls and ceiling are layered with a frantic compendium of curios such as pram wheels and mannequin torsos, at ground level there’s an easy-going café vibe, where you’ll feel just as comfortable having a few drinks with friends as playing a quiet board game. The food’s good here too, with a hearty menu offering chicken ragout soup with tarragon, Swabian fried sausage with grated horseradish, and more. The ruin bar for the day after.
Ferenczy István u. 5
This new ruin bar is neither a ruin, nor a bar; expect instead a quality Middle Eastern bistro housed within a sophisticated bare brick-enclosed courtyard. Mazel Tov is a sign of things to come; the gentrification of a concept as the Jewish Quarter’s renown begins to attract wealthier demographics. Fortunately it’s still a great night out. There are live music evenings, and, actually, quite a long bar near the entrance with an even longer pálinka (Hungarian fruit brandy) menu. Reservations are recommended to avoid an half hour wait.
Akácfa u. 47
A few doors down from Mazel Tov (and a superb stop for an aperitivo while on Mazel Tov’s wait list), Fogas Haz describes itself, quite accurately, as a “party complex”. Inside its bare brick and chipboard walls are housed an upstairs techno club, a cobbled drinking courtyard, cocktail terrace, and even a vintage clothes store with bar service. The beer pong players add a touch of the frat, but it’s just one of the many influences that come together successfully in this extensive ruin bar free-for-all.
Akácfa u. 49 – 51
Suitably located near to Budapest’s theatre district, Instant, the city’s largest ruin bar, is dramatic in both dimensions and style. Offering 26 rooms of pure weirdness, the centrepiece is the “enchanted forest” – a main dancefloor/drinking space strung with galloping rabbits and overseen by a huge shining owl angel. There’s room for everyone in this converted apartment block, and service is quick with no fewer than seven bars. If the scene is at little overwhelming at first, the banging dance tunes should get you in the mood to party (a bottle of Hendricks costs around £60). If you find that, by the end of the night you can’t bear to leave, there’s also a hostel on-site.
Nagymező u. 38