The first thing to know about Budapest is you’re likely pronouncing it wrong. The second thing is the capital of Hungary is actually two distinct cities — Buda and Pest (pronounced Pesht) — which merged into one in 1873. While Buda offers the famed 13th century castle and Liberty Statue and hill overlooking the Danube River, Pest is home to the largest synagogue in Europe and the most unique set of drinking establishments on the continent — the “ruin bars.”
Where to find the ruin bars
Taking over pre-World War 2 abandoned buildings and unused outdoor spaces in the Jewish Quarter, these bars have become not only top nightlife spots, but tourist destinations unto themselves. Indeed, they’ve become regular spots on any walking tour of the city.
Each of the ruin bars has its own personality, but all follow few basic rules: Find an abandoned place, rent it, set up a bar with affordable prices, fill it with flea market furniture and weird antiques, have artists paint on the walls and ceilings, and then watch curiosity seekers flock in.
For our recent trip to Budapest this spring, we chose our Airbnb based on proximity (40 feet) to the original ruin bar called Szimpla Kert (simple garden). Arriving by train from Vienna into a strange new city and country was a little jarring, but within 30 minutes, we found ourselves in this colorful, open-air pub that was hopping even at 2 pm on a Monday afternoon. With a host of fine Hungarian, German and Czech beers on tap — many for what would equate to less than $3 in U.S. dollars — we knew we chose well.
Szimpla is one of about a 25 such ruin bars throughout the Jewish Quarter – most of which have opened in the past decade. It began in 2002 as a small experiment, a bar set up in a decrepit, unused former stove factory building offering cheap drinks for 20 somethings and a screen to show movies. It transformed into a bohemian hub after the crumbling building got fixed up with vintage, mismatched furniture, including an old Trabant car that serves as a picnic table.
During the day, Szimpla feels like a pub inside a thrift store. There’s about 10 distinct rooms in the two-story pub. A cavernous structure that was a former stove factory, the building features a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, multiple bars of all sizes, and smaller rooms tucked away throughout. The second floor bar overlooks the main courtyard with a dazzling cornucopia of views. The diverse decor includes old computer monitors blinking with bright images and surrounded by Christmas lights – creating a sort of artistic low-tech mural – with a chessboard adorned with neon-colored pieces mounted sideways, and a claw-foot bathtub sawed in half.
Each Sunday morning Szimpla transforms into a charming farmer’s market. Between the live music, open mike nights and concerts, there’s something happening at Szimpla. Such eclecticism has turned it into one of the world’s most famous bars.
What to drink? Well, besides the beer, there’s palinka which is a local Hungarian fruit brandy. It’s strong but definitely worth a try while in Hungary. They also serves up a variety of cocktails, beers, wine and non-alcoholic beverages.
A brief history of Pest’s Jewish Quarter
What makes spending time in the ruin pubs inside the Jewish Quarter particularly meaningful is recalling what happened here during World War II. Over half the 200,000 Jewish population – one of the largest Jewish communities in the world — was killed during the Holocaust. During the Nazi occupation of 1944-1945, tens of hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps and the remaining Jews were left to suffer and starve in a closed ghetto.
In the heart of Pest and behind the stately Hungarian Capitol building, the Shoes on the Danube Promenade is a haunting Holocaust memorial that recalls how in the winter of 1945, thousands of Jewish men, women and children were shot and had their bodies tossed in the river. Before they were killed, many were ordered to remove their shoes because the killers could use them or trade them on the black market. The memorial consists of iron-made rusty shoes set into the concrete.
Budapest and Hungary faced difficult economic times for decades after the war when it remained a Communist nation until 1989. For years after, the Jewish Quarter lay in disrepair with crumbling houses and buildings that were considered for demolition. But in the past decade, the Jewish district and its ruin bars have helped lead Budapest’s revival into again one of the great cities of Europe. The district has the city’s highest population density, fanciest hotels, shops and restaurants.
From ruin rises legitimate tourist attractions
Wandering the narrow streets and passages of the Jewish Quarter, its the unusual ruin bars that make the area so attractive to any beer lover. While ruin bars started their life with a grungy and gritty look with graffiti-laden walls, some have taken a more elegant turn in recent years including adding top-notch food. Take in point, Mazel Tov. The interior design looks professionally done with a large tree and gigantic skylight stretching across the courtyard lined with lush flower gardens. The cuisine is Middle Eastern, which means lots lot of hummus, falafel and couscous, and a selection of food in pita, skewers and salads. The food isn’t kosher, but the atmosphere makes it feel as if you’re in the Middle East.
Other top ruin bars
Fogasház, which has bicycles and glasses hanging from the ceiling and art exhibited across a courtyard.
Anker’t is a true ruin bar in every sense. The crumbling façade of a 19th century building hides a skeletal brick and limestone structure. The courtyard serves as the centerpiece of the hangar-like space, which features a total of four bars, a dance floor, and two food stands with burgers and vegetarian pizza options
Kuplung is a colorful, oceanic themed indoor/outdoor spot for beers and flavorful mixed drinks. Our timing was great here as Monday is half price drink day. My favorite was their take on a Swimming Pool, made with pineapple juice, vodka, coconut cream and blue curaçao. The bar features funky decor, including an unmistakable giant whale, jellyfish lanterns, deep-sea divers and other colorfully relaxing sea life creatures set in an unrestored car repair shop.
Visiting the ruin bars
Since these ruin bars are in abandoned buildings, they open, close, and move frequently depending on whether an investor buys the property to renovate it. This gives the concept an edge of excitement, as you never know when these places will come and go.
Phil Galewitz has been writing about the the craft brewing industry in the Mid-Atlantic states since 2011. He lives in Washington D.C. and South Florida. Twitter: @philgalewitz Instagram: Philmorebeer. He visits over 300 breweries a year across the United States.