From the bathhouses-turned-bars of Ancient Greece to prohibition speakeasies, the art of serving liquor in unconventional places is, to my mind, a tribute to the ingenuity of humankind. And nowhere is this alcohol-fuelled ingenuity better demonstrated than in the city of Budapest, Hungary. In the last 15 years, this town has seen an explosion of what the locals call ruin bars — dilapidated factories, warehouses, banks, or homes that were saved from the scrap-heap and turned into unique and entirely awesome bars.
Now a major tourist attraction, the ruin bars of Budapest see millions of people walk through their doors each year. Dozens now dot the city’s Jewish quarter, leading to that most first world of problems — too much choice. So let’s take a moment to separate the wheat from the chaff. If you’ve only got so much time to spend wandering the streets of Budapest, these are the five ruin bars that should sit at the very top of your hit list:
Close your eyes and think of the coolest bar you’ve ever seen. Multiply that by two. And by two again. You’ve now got a bar about a quarter as cool as Szimpla Kert.
Szimpla is the original ruin bar, and despite competition coming from everywhere, it’s still the best, and by far. Despite its relative age, despite being overrun by tourists, and despite the staff being ruder here than anywhere else, Szimpla is the gold standard to which every other ruin bar is held.
Clusterf*ck. No word in the English language better articulates what hides behind the vintage doors of this joint. Szimpla might cover an enormous area, but it is full. Every single surface is either scrawled with graffiti, loaded with wall hangings, or jammed full of third- or fourth-hand furniture. Every room has its own feel, although an overarching theme of sensory overload runs through the entire bar. There’s no way you’ll be able to ingest it all in one trip, but happily this is the sort of place that you’ll be aching to get back to.
Szimpla is the most pleasurable assault on the senses you’ll ever have.
Szimpla is big. Instant is bigger. The biggest in fact. This is a one-stop party shop, made up of a seemingly endless amount of bars, music rooms, and dance floors — if someone invites you to Fogas, Lärm, Liebling, Pont, Robot, FRAME or UnderWelt, they just mean one of the many clubs inside the Instant complex.
The first ruin bar on this site was actually Fogas, which began in 2009 as a pokey one room venue. Over the years, that little bar slowly swallowed up the surrounding space, and by the time Instant moved in and merged with the ever-expanding complex in 2017, it had become the largest ruin bar in the land.
Be warned: there’s every chance you’ll get lost in Instant during your first visit. The psychedelic decorations, thumping bass, and generous pours by the bar staff can see even a seasoned scoutmaster becoming disoriented. But that’s part of the charm — by getting lost, you’ll stumble upon some no-name DJ busting out a mega set, or a young MC spitting fire on one of the small stages underground. It’s like a drunk treasure hunt, with the prize of phat beats.
Sidenote: I don’t know the cool words any more.
Want all the ruin without the rowdiness? Csendes is the answer. Housed in a former Transylvanian restaurant, this place is what would happen if a hoarder married a witch and held a cocktail party.
Like Szimpla, the walls here are all a-clutter, but unlike Szimpla, the theme that runs through the place is slightly creepy. Doll heads, weird religious paraphernalia, those stick things that were hanging from the trees in The Blair Witch Project; if you’re a fan of Tim Burton, you’ll be a fan of Csendes.
The atmosphere is laid back though, and the food, cocktails, and wines are all top notch. Grab a drink, plop yourself in a seat, and start scanning the curiosities.
Ever want to party with a whale? All your Free Willy fantasies (apart from that one) will come true at Kuplung, provided you’re plastered enough to mistake a painted animal for the real thing.
Home to a life-size piece of whale graffiti that stretches from one end of the beer garden to the other, this garage-turned-ruin bar pays homage to the big blue. Kuplung is a ruin in every sense of the word — a shabby wooden gate offers outsiders no clue as to what’s hidden inside, and even when you do wander in, the surrounding skyline is dominated by derelict soviet era buildings that look very ready to tumble on top of you.
But all that decay is more than balanced out by the warmth of the place. The staff are welcoming, and a swarm of friendly jellyfish that hang from Kuplung’s ceiling bob and shake to the live tunes and DJ sets played most nights. You can also enjoy the maritime hospitality for half price every Monday!
Sure, you’re in Budapest. Sure, you should be chowing down on goulash right now. But you’ve got a hankering for Mexican that you just can’t shake. Not a problem — one of the city’s best ruin bars is also where you’ll find some of the city’s best Mexican.
Ellátó Kert is a small town Mexican cantina that somehow ended up in the fanciest part of Budapest’s Jewish Quarter. The colourful mismatched furniture, ageing timber, and eccentrically painted walls all work together perfectly, but none of the visuals compete with the tastes available from this particular bar.
Hot or cold, vegetarian or meaty, mild or spicy; the food at Ellátó Kert is oh so delicioso, and just the ticket for anyone needing to soak up five bars’ worth of liquid indulgence. And hey, why not sneak in a Corona with a tequila chaser while you’re at it?