The Ruin Bars of Budapest

The Doboz Ruin Bar in Budapest, HungryOne of the upsides to being an independent writer is that I’m my own boss. There are no deadlines, no one to pester me, and no outside burdens. I get to write about what I want, when I want—the good, the bad, and the ugly. However, since the stories on this blog are based on what I see and do, I have no one to say things like, “Matt! There’s a cool new trend in this city, here’s a plane ticket. Go check it out and report back right away!”

And I never wished for that more than when I was in Budapest a few weeks ago. When I came to Budapest last year, no one ever mentioned “ruin bars” to me. This year, though, everyone kept asking Wayne, our hostel’s go-to party organizer and tour guide, to be taken to them. “What the heck is everyone talking about?” I wondered.

Turns out they were talking about the hippest nightlife I’ve come across in Europe.

Ruin bars are all the rage in Budapest and have been around for 10 years since the founding of Szimpla Kert, the mecca of all ruin bars. These bars are built in Budapest’s old District VII neighborhood (the old Jewish quarter) in the ruins of abandoned buildings, stores, or lots. This neighborhood was left to decay after World War II, so it was a perfect place to develop an underground bar scene. (Not so underground anymore, though.)

From outside, these bars look like normal homes. They don’t have large signs pointing the way, you don’t hear any loud noise, and there’s no line of people waiting to get in. But once you walk in and enter the inner courtyard, you find yourself in the middle of a hip, artsy, and funky bar bustling with crowds talking, dancing, and enjoying the laid-back atmosphere. Large bouncers inside, along with posted signs, ensure that people are quiet on their way out, so as to not disturb the neighbors.

As I spent most of my nights in Budapest at these bars, I wished (briefly) that some editor had sent me on assignment years ago to explore and write about them. I’ve been coming to Europe for five years, and somehow I’m only now hearing about these places.

View of a gorgeous Ruin Bar in BudapestEach of these ruin bars has its own personality, but they all follow a few basic principles: find an old abandoned place, rent it out (maybe?), set up a bar, fill it with flea market furniture, have a few artists come in to leave their mark on the walls and ceiling, add in some weird antiques, serve alcohol, and watch people flock in. Since all these bars are in abandoned buildings, they open, close, and move frequently depending on whether the neighbors find out, the patrons get too loud, or an investor comes and buys the property to renovate it. This gives the whole concept an edge of excitement as you never know when these places will come and go.

When you’re in these bars, you feel like you’re drinking at your local thrift store. None of the furniture matches. It’s all old. It’s eclectic. It feels like they just ransacked your grandmother’s house. The ceilings are all designed differently. For example, Instant has a room where the furniture is on the ceiling, and Fogashaz has bikes hanging from its ceiling. The places haven’t been repaired or fixed up, and there are still holes in the walls and visible pipes everywhere.

But it all adds to the “underground” feeling each ruin bar has. If these places hadn’t been pointed out to me, I never would have found them.

But that’s the way it’s supposed to be.

Moreover, I found starting up a conversation in a ruin bar relatively easy. I think the relaxed environment makes it much easier to start a conversation with a stranger than in a normal bar. People seemed to have their guards up less. I met interesting locals who were more than happy to talk about life in Budapest, travel, and why they are happy they aren’t on the euro.

Some of the best ruin bars are:

Szimpla Kert
Szimpla Kert: an awesome Ruin Bar in Budapest, Hungry
This was the original ruin bar, opening in 2001 and starting this trend now sweeping Budapest. It’s one of the biggest ruin bars and still one of the most popular. Here you’ll find a large open courtyard, a top floor filled with eclectic furniture, cocktail bars, music, and even an old, stripped-down Trabant (a communist car) to have a drink in. They also sell pizza, which, after a few drinks, makes for the perfect walking-home snack.

Instant: an awesome Ruin Bar in Budapest, Hungry
Instant is located in an entire apartment building. It’s one of the more club-like ruin bars. In Instant, you can sit in what were once individual apartments and relax on furniture that looks like it was found on the street. They’ve knocked down many of the walls to connect the apartments and make space for the DJs and dancing. Given its popularity and the fact that it’s more “clubby,” drinks here are a little more expensive than in other ruin bars. But the vibe is still good.

Fogashaz: an awesome Ruin Bar in Budapest, Hungry
Fogasház only opened last summer. It’s smaller, lower-key, and less touristy than popular Instant and Szimpla Kert. This bar has bicycles and glasses hanging from the ceiling and is far more artsy than the other ruin bars around. Small tables dot the inner courtyard, and you don’t have loud music drowning out the conversation. They often host art exhibits here. They also have a ping-pong table.

Doboz: an awesome Ruin Bar in Budapest, Hungry
I’m not entirely sure if this place fits into the ruin bar culture. It was much fancier and trendier than the other bars I visited. It was like being in a “real” bar. However, I was taken there as part of a ruin bar tour, and, regardless, I love this place. You walk into the courtyard and are greeted by a tree with a red-eyed robot attached to it. It looks like a Transformer is about to attack you. There are two main rooms—one red, the other blue. They play a lot of dance music, and this place fills up towards the end of the night.

Corvin Teto
Corvin Teto: an awesome Ruin Bar in Budapest, Hungry
Located on top of a supermarket, this ruin bar features an elevator ride where you can drink on your way to the roof. Corvin Teto is popular due to its huge rooftop terrace where you can get an expansive view of the hills of Buda and the buildings of Pest. This is another dance-heavy ruin bar, specializing in electronic music. I’d come up here for a drink during sunset and then move on elsewhere.

Grandio: an awesome Ruin Bar and hostel in Budapest, Hungry
Grandio is a ruin bar and hostel in one. It’s famous for its outdoor, tree-filled courtyard but is mostly filled with travelers and people on bar crawls due to the fact that it’s also a hostel. This is a good place to start your night and meet other travelers. However, during the day you can find locals relaxing here with a drink in the garden.

Budapest may sell itself on history and thermal baths, but the ruin bars are by far the most unique thing about this city. I wish I’d known about them ages ago, or at least during my trip to Budapest last year. (Maybe there was a reason Tourism Budapest neglected to tell me about them? Hmmmmmm.)

Even if you don’t drink, come spend time at these ruin bars. They’re a funky way to see a popular and totally unique aspect of life in Budapest. It’s easy to chat up the locals here, and, at the very least, it’s like coming to an alternative art show.

  1. jan

    I am intrigued by these bars. I am going to re-read it at leisure and try to choose a favourite. I am tempted to visit Budapest now! Jan.

  2. These look great! Have never heard of them before either, but they look like the kind of places I’d want to check out when I make it Budapest!

  3. Sometimes I feel travelers go more often to ruin bars than us, Hungarians.:) Nice to hear you had a great time here. Anyway I’m not surprised the tourism officials didn’t inform you about them. Somehow they try to make stronger the city of baths image which doesn’t attract that much young foreigners I think.

  4. Great post Matt. When abroad it is rare to see environments such as the examples above. I’m not a big drinker but I could definitely see myself spending a week or two exploring these unique bars.

  5. There’s something similar in San Francisco, except they’re mostly whisk(e)y bars. You have to cross through construction signs to get into this speak-easy-ish hole in the wall.

    That’s the cool thing about bars. The harder they are to find, the better.

    Nice post, Matt… I’ll keep an eye out for underground bars in Nicaragua 😉

  6. It’s worth mentioning that Szimpla also hosts a bike kitchen (Top Floor) a few nights a week. After a nasty accident on the way in to town I was able to repair my wheel with the help of a few local cyclists.

  7. These bars sound really cool and the photos are awesome! I’ll have to put them on the list for my next visit to Budapest. Although I’m curious about El Che’s comment that they’re quite touristy – any thoughts on that?

  8. Kun Attila

    Turtle, it really depends. Szimpla Kert is terrible. It’s only for tourists. However, the smaller bars such as Fogazhaz, Grandio, etc. are fine. Pick up a copy of PestiEst in most cafes if you come to Budapest and you’ll see what’s possible.

  9. Kun Attila

    The mafia operates the ‘security’ of the bigger garden bars in Budapest, so it’s very important to avoid Szimpla Kert and Instant, as you will be supporting organised crime by going there. Also, they are far less intersting than what is available here. Stick to the most interesting smaller kerts like I mentioned above – Grandio, Fogazhaz, Kertem, Durer Kert, Mika Tivadar, Ellato Kert, Gondozo, Koleves. You will find any of these by searching on Google!

  10. Simon

    Let’s don’t forget the Szimpla Kert was voted the world’s 3rd best bar by Lonely Planet in 2012 and A38 (also in Budapest) the No.1 pub in the world. No wonder you like it.

  11. This is great – we’re heading there in a month! All I’ve heard about Budapest is “you have to go to the baths” so I’m glad we’re not going to just bathe all week long. 😀

      • Sandi Rost

        Now I have a new favorite place to try when i start traveling in a year! It seems the more i read of your posts the more my mind changes of where to start. I am still very timid on the idea of traveling as a single woman but i am not going to let it get in my way. Your posts have been a huge help to me and i look forward to all of your new posts as well as the old ones. So much to take in! Want a travel partner :)

  12. john mangione

    yeah i have been living in budapest for 2 years now… what attila writes is absolutely misleading for the average tourist. there is no evidence that mafia has nothing to do with these bars, or that these bars are dangerous, or that they are too touristy. i am an american and i always take my guests to szimpla kert, you can hear lots of english in the evenings, and drinks are not as expensive as you will find on vaci street or andrassy street. obviously if you are going out on friday nights this bar gets totally packed, and in this case you should go to the bars that attila mentions, but overall szimpla is an awesome bar, especially in the summer. a must see.

    • Sandi

      john, I would love to visit and have you show me around if possible. I would also like to know the cost of living there. Thanks

  13. toutesweet

    One of my Thai friends who is an artist and was a uni student at the time brought me to one of these in Bangkok in 1998. Completely off grid with power pilfered from the city lines. it was on the fifth or sixth floor of a building which was under construction then abandoned with the economic crisis so pretty much a concrete shell. I thought it was the coolest thing ever.

Leave a Comment