After the deportation of over 400,000 Jews in World War II, Budapest’s VII District fell into disrepair over the decades, and the unoccupied apartment blocks and shops slowly crumbled into ruin. However, at the turn of the 21st century, Budapest’s Jewish quarter underwent a cultural revolution that would transform the neighborhood into the city’s most exciting district.
Szimpla might be Budapest’s trendiest bar now, but when it opened up in an unoccupied building back in 2001, it was an illegal underground venue. Following Szimpla’s birth, the dilapidated houses, vacant complexes and empty courtyards of the VII District experienced a resurrection in the form of alternative bars decked out in furniture picked up off the street and artwork from local artists.
For years, these “ruin bars” or “ruin pubs”, a literal translation from the Hungarian word romkocsma, were considered temporary, since one might pop up for a single summer, only to disappear by the winter or re-open at another address. However, Budapest now has around 20 ruin pubs and counting, with bars spilling out beyond the VII District. Ruin pubs have become an ingrained part of Budapest’s cityscape, even though their birth year still puts them below the legal drinking age.
There are so many ruin bars to discover in Budapest, and with new ones opening up everyday and others closing down, here are five bars to get you started in your exploration of Budapest’s ruin pubs.
Stepping through the plastic sheeting in the crumbling entrance hall, Szimpla Kert opens up into a hidden wonderland. The labyrinth in the abandoned apartment block leads you into raw brick rooms and graffiti covered stairwells, through to bars that open out onto a courtyard decked with communist era cars, fairy lights and eclectic furniture pieces recovered from the street. The crowds fill the huge complex, and while there is a distinct touristic presence, you’ll hear plenty of Hungarian dialogue wafting above the perfume of the apple tobacco being smoked from tall shisha pipes.
Budapest’s first ruin pub has come a long way since its days as an illegal squat in a condemned building. Voted as the third best bar in the world by Lonely Planet, it’s unsurprising that by night it’s packed with international crowds guzzling beer or doing shots of house pálinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy.
For those looking to experience Szimpla without the bachelor parties, check it out on Sunday morning for the farmers’ market, or stop in on a weekday afternoon for a coffee or a beer.
Kazinczy Utca 14
Tel: +36 20 261 8669
Open everyday: 12p.m.- 4a.m.
Going for a drink at Instant feels like you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole. The huge derelict apartment complex in Budapest’s “Theatre District” is more akin to a surrealist art installation than a bar. There are rabbits flying across room and a statue of a naked woman with hooves and an owl’s head hovering above the courtyard. Beyond the hallucinogenic artwork summoning up the ghost of Terry Gilliam on acid, what also sets Instant apart is the sense of space.
Made from a cluster of old houses and shops, there are at least three dance floors, a courtyard with a closable roof, six bars, and a number of individual rooms where you recline back on an old leather couch and look up at fluorescent butterflies or furniture stuck to the ceiling, and converse with your friends about how confused you feel before partaking in another beer or a much needed shot of absinthe.
While some of the other ruin pubs function as art spaces or simple bars with a gritty charm, Instant itself is a super-bar that serves as an art installation, a night club and a chill-out lounge rolled into one. If you only have time for one bar, and you want to feel like Alice in Wonderland for the evening, then Instant is the ruin pub for you.
Nagymezo utca 38
Tel: + 36 -3110704
Open everyday: 12p.m.-6a.m.
Fogas Ház & Kert
With huge pair of lips sitting on the roof of a gritty brick building that would give the Rocky Horror Picture show a run for its money, and an old signpost with a scary grinning mouth to go with it, the “House of Teeth” lives up to the name. The former dental laboratory has been reborn into a ruin bar that doubles up as a cultural space.
Fogas Ház might not have Instant’s surreal décor or Szimpla’s hipster appeal, but the atmosphere is more laid back and the drinks are cheaper. What gives Fogas Ház and Fogas Kert, its accompanying garden decked out with a circus tent and trees wrapped up in fairy lights, a different spark is the collaborative nature of its space. While local Hungarians to come for a relaxed drink or to party on the weekend, this fairly new ruin bar hosts exhibitions, live bands and indie film screenings. In the summer, the grill in Fogas Kert serves some of the best burgers and onion rings in Budapest.
For something different, there is a live action room escape game at “Exit Point”, located in the corner between the house and the garden. With two trippy games available – the Rabbit Hole and Madness – you can test your team skills with your friends through a series of logic puzzles that you need to solve in order to escape the room. There games are available in English if booked in advance.
Akácfa utca 51
Tel: +36 1 783 8820
Open everyday: 18p.m.-4a.m. (Garden open from 10 a.m.)
When closed during the day, Anker’t looks like any other townhouse near the Budapest Opera, however when the heavy wooden doors open up, the corridor leads out into an open courtyard surrounded by the stone skeleton of a building stripped down to its bricks and mortar. While other ruin bars dress up the flaking walls with local-art work, funky lighting and mismatched furniture, Anker’t has gone down the minimalist route.
Despite its central location just off Andrássy Avenue in the theatre district, sipping a fancy cocktail in this open space will deceive you into thinking that you’re in an abandoned factory outside the city. The bar is clean and chic, with table service, rather than conforming to the grungy boho-scene found in its neighboring ruin bars.
During the summer, this was Budapest’s most trendy venue and was constantly packed with people after dark, and while it closed in October after the chill set in, the bar is getting ready to reopen in November with Anker’t Winter. Just like the other bars, it’s a mellow place to enjoy an afternoon drink, but at night the crowds spill in for the top DJs and live bands.
Paulay Ede utca 33
Tel: +36 30 360 3389
Open everyday: 4p.m.-4a.m.
Each ruin pub has its own “thing” and Corvinteto’s angle is a rooftop bar in a communist era shopping mall. In the summer, Hungarians come here to party until dawn, and it is one nightclub that delivers when it comes to the title of having the best view in Budapest.
Getting up to Corvinteto is a challenge. Since, what looks like an entrance to your ordinary nightclub, leads you into a graffiti covered stairwell going upwards that never seems to end, where the rusty old lift is purely for decoration purposes. Eventually, the stairs bring you out into a world of psychedelic décor, Technicolor lighting and sweaty bodies dancing to Drum & Bass or House beats.
In the summer, the rooftop garden is open, and filled with people sipping drinks and chatting against the backdrop of the city skyline.
While Corvinteto brings in top DJs on the weekends, in the summer they also have an alternative cultural program that is immensely popular with the locals, which means you can’t get a seat if you arrive late for their free movie screenings up on the rooftop.
Blaha Lujza tér 1-2
Tel: +3620 772 2983
Open Wednesday-Saturday: 8p.m.-6a.m.