The Wonderful, as a lot of people say. People who are in the know. Because let’s face it, it is true, and anyone who claims otherwise is probably dating goats anyway and their opinion is not worth anything. It is an amazing city with rich culture, history, stunning architecture and an atmosphere you cannot recreate anywhere, not even with the Large Hadron Collider, even though they’re trying very hard. Baths, museums, hills and so many other amazing artsy stuff. But then again, who cares, when we have…
Episode 1 in the series of Dispatches from Budapest we’re going to take a nosedive into some of the very unique things as well as some of the not-so-unique stuff all of which make Budapest a city so much worth visiting. And where else to start than with the so very hip and uber-cool Budapest Ruin Pubs.
This special part in this city’s nightlife attracts thousands of party-goers every year and there’s no sign of slowing down with more and more of these places opening every other Thursday. But what makes them so special? Why are people all over Europe going mad for them? Well, I’m here to tell you why.
Are you ready?
How Everything Began
Before I start my endless literary drool-fest, let’s just get to know some of the history of these places.
This whole craze started up in the early umpteenth, around 2001-2002, when Budapest witnessed some sort of a boom in reforming the bar and café territory. With more and more new, ’modern’ places launched by young, ambitious entrepreneurs who could finally start enjoying the new era in Hungarian history more than a decade past the end of the destructive ’socialist’ regime.
Naturally, a lot of them failed and very few places remain in the same ownership as back then, but there was one bar rather hidden in the endless depth of the downtown area which was considered an underground place at the time and nobody thought that it would be the beginning of something big. That place was called Szimpla, the place that is considered the very first bona fide ruin pub. The idea came from 3 young friends who were already running some online businesses at that time (around those days it was a big deal way before everyone and their grandmothers started to work on startups), deciding to ditch the intergalactic velocity of 56k bandwith and to open a bar instead.
Szimpla Goes Its Own Way
But things were different, in so many ways. Our dudes did not go with the tide, did not try to enact any of the Western style American or Irish bars, did not wish to go with the French touch and were certainly not interested in opening a butcher shop (not sure if this was ever considered, mind you). The idea was simple: let’s have an intimate, underground feeling for a bar that the intellectual youth of the city can frequent and have them feel as if it was their own. Ultimately it was the interior design that really made Szimpla stand out: There was no concept. At all. Everyone brought what they could get/find. That is how magic carpets and bicycle parts ended up on the walls and how ferns under your table became normal. At that point, these fine gentlemen had seriously no idea what they were starting out.
An Idea That Spreads
For some years, they were going on their own, but as people started to discover the serious epicness of this place, a lot of wannabe bar owners who had some willingness and adventurousness in them, decided to try and go with it. But then again, how do you get that same DYI vibe you ask? Well, during those years there was a surprisingly large number of abandoned apartment buildings literally just lying about in the city centre area, mostly in the 7th district (Erzsébetváros) and the Jewish Quarter that lies within it. The city council didn’t really know what to do with them (even opening a bottle of ketchup was a daring challenge for those people), and most of them were full of classic anarchist punks and homeless people (I’m talking about the apartments, not the city council). That way they idea arose among (potential) bar owners to offer some money to the council so they could use these buildings as premises for their bars. And that thus happened. And so the term of the ’ruin bar’ was born.
The non-concept of Szimpla became a concept, more and more of bars in the fashon of Szimpla were opened, all with completely random props and design elements all over the place which in each case added to the unique touch and special theme of these places. Cue forward a few years and I’m writing about them right here and now. And yes, I do frequent these watering holes. A lot. Not the where-everybody-knows-your-name lot, but you get the idea (I’m kind of glad they don’t know my name).
The Break-Down of Budapest Ruin Bars
Let us have a more in-depth look on some of these bars, meaning I also going to outright recommend some these places. Don’t let the order confuse you, all of these joints are absolutely flipping brilliant so this is not a ranking: It is more of a recommended order of visiting during your big night out in Budapest. Worth a visit are all of them.
I’m breaking the habit of all travel writers by not going to start with Szimpla. This is not hipsteresque distinction on my part, El Rapido actually is a great place to start your evening and it is located at the perfect place for that. Of course, we’re in Kazinczy utca, the very heart of the Budapest nightlife and this little joint is placed right behind the beginning of the street (there will be other bars if you enter from Rákóczi út, but please ignore those, they’re not very good).
El Rapido actually is the basement underneath a tasty mexican buffet, but don’t get confused: once downstairs, the proper ruin bar atmosphere will hit you right away. It kind of loses its mexican theme, although there’s shitloads of every sorts of Tequila available so that makes more than up for it.
Credit: El Rapido
However, the best part is the unbelievable randomness of the place. It looks like your Grandparents’ basement, but with all their shit set in order. Retro times strike you, but not in the forced cheesy way, it’s just simply awesome.
Best bit is the open Youtube disco which actually gave grounds to one of the most embarrassing bachelor party scenes I’ve ever seen. Looking back at it, I have to admit, no one should be forced to sing along to Beyoncé’s ’Put a ring on it’ standing on top of a table. That’s just mean. And could easily be my ticket to hell. Also ate a scorpion there once. No kidding.
Address: Kazinczy útca 10, 1075 Budapest
Phone: +36 20318-1611 and +36 1783-4627
Ah, yes, already talked about it, so won’t go much into detail here. Just walk in, have a look, immerse yourself. This is truly a one-in-a-million bar. Only problem is that nowadays it’s more like a landmark and since people do not cease to be tourists when they enter expect armies of travellers wandering about, bumping into each other while staring at all the random shit hanging from the ceiling & walls. Also, you can play around with the lighting in one of the rooms, and do some punter’s heads in with it, then get a slap if you overdo it. Get drunk on the beer that tastes like
piss nothing to write home about and don’t you even dare trying their wines. Unless you happen to bea masochist who loves the worst kind of hangover ever experienced by any human being, that is.
The good thing is, you don’t necessarily have to go there on Friday/Saturday night. Enjoying an early Sunday afternoon is even better as things are quie. At that time it’s possible to enjoy the place for what it is and if you’re really lucky you might just see how it turns into a marketplace during the day. Or listen to some underground live music. Trust me, nobody knows the bands who play their tiny stage so you can be all hipster about it once you get home.
Address: Kazinczy utca 14, 1075 Budapest
Phone: +36 20 261 8669
Let’s walk a little further into the street, but make a turn to the left into Dob útca. Yes, we’re leaving Kazinczy, but don’t you worry, we’ll be back in a heartbeat.
On Dob utca we find Lámpás. The place really is something truly special, although I’ve no idea why. It feels tiny due to the way it is structured into little rooms with low ceilings, but I think that rather gives it some real charm. And the live music that’s going on each evening does the same. Again, very underground, but really loveable musicians take the tiny stage (seriously, it’s about as big as the desk I’m typing this on). And they also have a bakery hidden inside there somewhere so if you ever fancy some Pogácsa to go with your booze, you’re super-lucky. Ooor, if the dear reader is more of a raging intellectual there are shelves full of classic books. Just pick one and enjoy a quiet afternoon (nights are not quiet here) with the all-stars of Russian Realism.
Address: Dob utca. 15, 1074 Budapest
Phone: +36 30 722 7133
Don’t wanna leave? You can get back later, but we still have a few brilliant places left. So let’s leave Dob útca for now and head back to Kazinczy where we walk a little further until we reach a big iron gate with graffitis all over it. Enter the yard and then prepare to be robbed, grilled, and fed to our politicians’ pigs. Just kidding, nobody’s going to hurt you and after walking in you’ll find yourself in the reddish glow of this amazing pub.
It’s pretty much someone’s backyard with some rooms around it, bringing an atmosphere that I still find hard to describe. Nothing really special, nothing fancy, it’s just the right place to either have a quiet drink — or to get flat-out wasted. Depending on what you want be sure that this place delivers. And the crew there really hit the nail on the head when they placed a piano inside the bar area, enciting the alcohol-inspired shenanigans of any bohemian rascal sitting nearby. So if you’re you come on a bad day you might find drunk me trying to play the theme song for Lion King on that very piano. The place has a mexican background theme to it as well, but it’s really subtle and only spikes up when you decide to have something to chew on. Their tortillas are just ace.
Address: Kazinczy utca 48, 1075 Budapest
Phone: +36 205273018
Website: http://ellatokert.blogspot.com (Invitation only, don’t ask me why)
A Quick Detour
Now before you head down Kazinsky utca further and finally turn right into Király utca, let’s quickly check the out last joint on the right. This one’s not exactly a ruin place so it is not included officially, but it might as well be. An old and authentic place established in the 1980’s (step inside and you’ll see why), Wichmann is simply named after its owner, Tamás Wichmann, who happens to be the coolest owner ever. A former Olympic canoer for Hungary Tamás is always hanging out at the bar chatting to people and generally being awesome. Have a quick gander there.
Then walk down on Király until you reach Kuplung on your left hand side (yes, it means clutch). It has lost its classic look and is largely renovated, but the indoors part still feels pretty special as it still hasn’t decided if it wants to be a concert hall or a bar. The combination of the two makes for a brillant atmosphere and I have to say this is by far and large the best date-place I’ve ever tried. Dimly lit and the distance between tables and couches allow for being more intimate.
Address: Király utca 46
Phone: +36 30 755 3527
Again, not exactly a ruin pub (getting tired of the term actually, let’s just call them RP from now on). If you walk a little further, you’ll see a big yellow church at the intersection. Enter the street to the left right after it, and you will see a yellow schoolsign. And yes, orginally this place used to be an elementary school, but now it is, you guessed it, a RP. Don’t think I need to say anything more, this place is just so undeniably brilliant that I can hardly find the right words for it. Nowadays it functions more as a regular club at night and for some reason I am not a big fan of that. But if you want to go for the Budapest experience, it’s definitely worth a visit.
And let’s face it, at some point we all dreamt of breaking into school on a weekend night and throw a huge-ass party there with all the cool kids, then getting dirty in one of the back rooms (didn’t write classroom on purpose, there’s none of them there, unfortunately). This place is something like that. And playing extremely serious foosball tournaments instead of P.E. is just simply priceless.
Address: Hegedű utca 3, 1061 Budapest
Phone: +36 1 951-6079
This is where we finish.
Just walk to the other side of the church, and jog for a few blocks up on Nagymező utca. Once there you’ll see trippy some banners and perhaps some wasted night owls outside of a venue. It’s not really a RP but a bona fide club, but still with a ruin vibe to it so it’s an RC, not an RP. Over the weekends Instnat is always super crowded, but that is understandable. It’s just simply one of the coolest clubs in Europe and I’m pretty sure other lame continents don’t have that kind of stuff, either. With a myriad of sit-down bar-like areas and dancefloors with every kinds of happy music everyone in the family will find something to their preferences. The one thing I guarantee is that smokers will only hang out in the indoors smoking bit, where – just like in a regular house party – eventually everyone else will end up as the night wears on.
And what a place for men who would like to have something saucy! Yes, their burgers are awesome! But it’s workable on the women front as well, most of my pickups were done here. That smoking bit has some real magic to it and, of course, will girls always stay as long as they are having their cigarette so you’ve got at least 3-4 minutes to sell yourself. Jokes aside, it’s really a remarkable place and although it’s very crowded (still below Szimpla, crowded, though), everyone just has a great time. Or if you’re more of a man of games, there’s a flipper machine, and you can also carry on with the heated foosball tournament. Open until 6, so plenty of time to knock about.
Address: Nagymező utca 38, 1065 Budapest
Phone: +36 1311 0704
So this is it, the definitive guide to all the best Budapest ruin pubs in my view — a nice round-up of the perfect pub crawl if you’ve got only one night to waste away partying in this glowing city. Of course, that’s not all, and there are places I’ve left out, for example the ever so charming Fogasház, Füge Udvar, Udvarrom, Pótkulcs, and last but not least, Grund. So check them out as well, if the hangover doesn’t destroy you.
For those of you who are in for the long-haul here is the ultimate walking tour to all the ruin pubs from episode of Dispatches from Budapest. Stay tuned for Episode #2 dealing with the finest options for eating out in The Wonderful – or as I call it: Budapest.
Until next time.