It’s the mid-2000s, and you’re opening a bar in Budapest. You’re scouting potential locations in the 7th District — the former Jewish Quarter, which, since communist times, has been derelict and largely abandoned. It’s a tough sell. Sure, rents are cheap. Very cheap. And the location is fantastic — a short walk from the main boulevard and the town center. But the properties are, simply put, total dumps. Stepping into a dilapidated courtyard — with crumbling plaster peeled back to reveal raw brick, rusty rebar sticking out at odd angles, and not a right angle in sight — you imagine the months of backbreaking work to turn this into a nice bar. But then you realize: Who says bars have to be nice? Some people like dives. And if they like dives, what’s to say they won’t love a ruin? Hey, that has a nice ring to it…
About a decade ago, Budapest invented a unique type of nightspot called a “ruin pub.” The original ruin pub — Szimpla — fills a deteriorating building and its courtyard with mismatched chandeliers, parachute-quilt awnings, lush houseplants, twinkle lights, artful graffiti, ramshackle secondhand furniture, old electronics lashed to the walls…and hundreds of drinkers having the time of their lives. It’s a chance to pretend you’re a squatter for a few hours, before returning to the comfort of your hotel. And, for locals, it’s nostalgic — along with beer, well drinks, and a list of creative cocktails, Szimpla serves the syrupy communist soda pops that Hungarian thirtysomethings were reared on: grape-flavored Traubisoda and sour cherry Meggymárka.
Szimpla remains the best of the ruin pubs. A fixture of the community, they post “don’t bother the neighbors” signs out front and even host a farmers market on Sunday mornings. But in the last several years, dozens of imitators have popped up all over the 7th District…and beyond. And these days, more and more people are flocking to Budapest not to tour the castle or the parliament, but to go on a ruin pub crawl. This scene may sound intimidating, but it’s very accessible. Each ruin pub has its own vibe, from younger party bars to mellow hangouts where hip oldsters are plenty comfortable. (Rick Steves wrote about his visit to Szimpla and some other ruin pubs a few years back.) To make things easier, here are a few tips or visiting ruin pubs — and a few alternatives:
Know the terminology. A romkocsma is a “ruin pub.” But other Hungarian terms can clue you in to the character of a specific ruin pub. Some ruin pubs bill themselves as a mulató (club, usually higher-energy) or a kávézó (coffeehouse, usually mellower). In good weather, the best part of a ruin pub is outdoors. Many have a kert (“garden”), with strings of lights lights, hammocks, and a bohemian-junkyard vibe. Others have a tető (“rooftop”), where you can get some fresh air and — often — views over the floodlit city. (More on that later.) In winter or bad weather, find one with a cozy interior.
Survey your options. The streets of the 7th District teem with ruin pubs. Before settling in, walk around and find one that suits your tastes. The highest concentration is in the streets between Király utca and Dohány utca, just behind the Great Synagogue. Stroll along Kazinczy utca, and don’t miss the long, crowded, narrow alley that heads south from there — it’s near two of the top ruin pubs, the straightforward Mika Kert and Ellátó Kert (colorful and rickety, with a Latin flair and a taco counter). Just to the north (on Dob utca), Rácskert has colorful plastic light tubes dangling overhead. And a few blocks west, just off the main boulevard (Andrássy út), Anker’t feels sleek, upscale, and minimalist — with unfinished timber tables and tasteful white hanging luminarias. (For a detailed “ruin pub crawl,” check out the Entertainment chapter of my Rick Steves Budapest guidebook.)
Grab a bite. A few high-quality, sit-down eateries have opened up in the 7th District (I recommended several — including Macesz Bistro, Mazel Tov, and KönyvBár & Restaurant) — in my previous post about foodie Budapest). But there are also simpler joints catering to drinkers who just want a late-night bite. You’ll see taco stands, burger windows, ramen shops, and — just a couple of doors down from Szimpla — the Street Food Karaván, a pod of creative food trucks with picnic tables.
Stroll through Gozsdu Udvar. Years ago, a professorial Budapest tour guide walked me through what was then an empty passageway that ran through the middle of a city block, tunneling elegantly beneath classic apartment buildings. “Passages like this — lined with local shops and cafés — used to be common in Budapest,” he told me. “But most are now in disrepair and have been sealed off. They’ve done a marvelous job fixing this one up. Pity it’s so sleepy, but maybe someday a few shops will move in.” Today, that passage — called Gozsdu Udvar — is sleepy no more. In fact, it has become the epicenter for the ruin pub scene, and it’s jammed with bars, cafés, restaurants (including a branch of DiVino Wine Bar), nightclubs, a video arcade, and more. Busy as it is, it can be easy to miss — find the entrances at Dob utca 16 or Király utca 13…or, if you come down the row of ruin pubs from Kazinczy utca, you’ll run right into it.
Gain some altitude. Of course, nightlife in Budapest goes well beyond the ruin pub scene. The rooftop bar trend has reached the Hungarian capital in a big way. Easily the best choice, 360 Bar has a classy vibe and perhaps the best views — sweeping panoramas over the domes of the Parliament and St. István’s Basilica. Other good choices are perched high above fancy hotels, but are open even to non-guests: High Note Sky Bar (atop the Aria Hotel) has vivid yellow sofas and point-blank views of St. István’s, while Top Rum Sky & Bar (above the Rum Hotel in Pest’s Town Center, overlooking University Square) has taken over an old favorite location, and is scheduled to re-open any day now (call first). For an edgier vibe, check out the ruin-pubby Gozsdu Sky Terrace (above the Gozsdu Udvar, tricky to find — ride the elevator up from the video arcade and walk through the parking garage) or the techno-nightclub Corvintető (topping an old department store near the Blaha Lujza tér Metró stop).
Take in an opera. OK, maybe I buried the lead: Budapest is also one of Europe’s great classical music cities, with one of Europe’s finest opera houses. But this is affordable opulence. At the Hungarian State Opera House, tickets are reasonably priced, ranging from $5 for the cheap seats to $65 for VIPs. But if you’re on a razor-thin budget, you can get standing-room tickets for just over $2; you can either stand with a limited view of the stage, or sit with no view at all. (Since the opera singers are on summer vacation, the Opera House is currently hosting a production of Billy Elliot — in the Hungarian language, as it was meant to be performed.)
“Slum” with the students. Tempting as Opera House is, there’s a new rival in town. The Franz Liszt Academy of Music recently reopened after a head-to-toe renovation of its stunning Art Nouveau concert hall (pictured above). The Liszt Academy’s Grand Hall rivals the Opera House in both opulence and price (good seats run $10-20). And music lovers on a budget can get even cheaper — or free — tickets for smaller venues and student recitals.
Go for a soak. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, I’ll remind you that Budapest has some amazing thermal spas — and some of them are open late into the evening. Széchenyi Baths (Budapest’s best thermal spa) is open until 10 p.m., and the later it gets, the calmer it gets (see photo above). But then, on weekends, it re-opens after closing time, and becomes a very wet, very hot dance “sparty,” with DJ music, boozy drinks, flashing lights, and hundreds of young Hungarians (and visitors) enjoying the good life.
Clearly, there’s no shortage of fun to be had after dark in Budapest. Whether you’re eating a street burger at 2 a.m. between ruin pubs, listening to top-quality opera, or dancing to throbbing techno music in chest-deep hot water, the city has something for everyone.