One 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.
Each 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 Fogasház 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.
These are some of the best ruin bars:
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 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.
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. 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.
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 toward the end of the night.
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 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 going to an alternative art show.