Exploring the 'ruin pubs' of Budapest's seventh district

Budapest’s seventh district, once home to a flourishing Jewish community before World War II but which languished for decades after, has emerged as one of the best bar-hopping 'hoods on the busy Pest side of the Danube.

This renaissance has been led - fittingly, perhaps, given the still-derelict state of much of the area - by a string of what are called "ruin pubs" (romkocsma in Hungarian) that have opened in recent years along the back streets behind the Great Synagogue.

Berlin squat with Magyar flair
Szimpla kert
Szimpla kert was one of the first ruin pubs, or romkocsma, to open in Budapest. (Image courtesy of Szimpla kert)

Each ruin pub is unique, but they all share certain similarities. The main ingredient is usually an abandoned building, preferably with a vacant lot nearby to hold some picnic tables and a few beer taps. Add to that a bit of thrift-shop decor and a healthy dose of hipster vibe and the result is what you might get if you crossed a chill Berlin squat with a smallish Munich beer hall.

The best ruin pubs offer live music or DJs on the weekends, as well as film nights and art exhibitions. Some even have light food and hostel accommodation. They're the perfect spot to unwind on a warm summer night after a busy day of sightseeing.

Ruin pubs to the rescue

The arrival of the ruin pubs couldn't have come sooner for beleaguered Budapest VII (as the city's districts are designated; when in Budapest, do as the Romans do). Though the area is a stone's throw from Andrássy út, Pest's swankiest boulevard, it suffered from a mix of neglect, bad karma and poverty that started during the war with the deportation of tens of thousands of Jewish residents and continued into the 1960s, '70s, and '80s with the forced relocation here of the Roma to occupy the abandoned houses.

Now, main streets like Király utca and Dob utca sport trendy coffeehouses and wine bars that sit alongside remnants of Jewish life - small family-owned restaurants and bakeries - that managed to survive.

Two options for a ‘ruinous’ night

Two of the best ruin pubs are all a short walk from one another and can be taken in fairly easily during a night of methodical drinking. Each has its own personality, so the best bet is simply to find the one that best suits the night and the mood.

  • Szimpla kert. Nearly every discussion of ruin pubs begins with the granddaddy of them all. Szimpla was the first to open and is still arguably the best and bawdiest of the bunch. Several rooms, including a large open-air garden, can accommodate hundreds of people, making it a good choice if you’re travelling in a group. In addition to beer, there’s wine, cocktails, and light food.
  • Fogas ház is a relative newcomer, having opened its doors only in 2010 after a few years of opening briefly and then closing down. It sees its mission as going beyond a ruin pub to being a community cultural centre for the rapidly gentrifying area around nearby Klauzál tér, which was once the heart of the former Jewish quarter. The clientele here tends to be more local than Szimpla. That said, it’s not nearly as homey as the former, nor as lively as the latter.

There are lots of places to grab a bite on a pub-crawl through this part of town, but one standout is Kőleves Vendéglő (the ‘Stone Soup’ restaurant). The menu is eclectic, mixing traditional (and delicious) Hungarian specialties like catfish stew served with noodles, with Jewish items like matzo ball soup and roast goose, and international fare like pasta and couscous. There are also lots of good vegetarian choices. Reservations are a must, especially on weekend nights.

This article was originally published in August 2011 and updated in August 2012.