Budapest’s seventh district, once home to a flourishing Jewish community which languished for decades after WWII, 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 so-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
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, or even host farmers’ markets or creative events during the day. 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 which sit alongside remnants of Jewish life – small family-owned restaurants and bakeries – that managed to survive.
Options for a ‘ruinous’ night
Budapest’s main 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.
Nearly every discussion of ruin pubs begins with the granddaddy of them all, Szimpla Kert. 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. Also make sure you come on a Sunday morning, when it hosts a farmers’ market, for something different.
Fogas ház opened its doors 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 party complex. It’s split up into different parts: Fogas kert, an open-air ruin pub where the bar is covered by a circus tent; Liebling, a cosy cafe-bar serving food, with an upstairs terrace in the summer; and Lärm, one of Budapest’s best techno clubs equipped with state-of-the-art gear in a black-box room as well as an alternative rock club, Robot, in the basement of the garden.
One of Budapest’s most popular ruin bars was Instant, once located in Nagymező utca in the VI District. Since then it’s moved in with Fogas ház, the former dental laboratory turned ruin pub, and has taken over the club space inside it. Rather than merging, the two ruin bars kept their own quirky identity, symbolising their marriage by displaying Instant’s former giant owl statue side by side with Fogas’ gigantic lips on the rooftop.
There are lots of places to grab a bite on a pub-crawl through this part of town, but one standout is Kőleves (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.
You can also head over to the street food court, Street Food Karavan, right next door to Szimpla Kert, where you’ll find a wide range of choices from sausages and fried cheese to lángos (a savoury fried pastry topped with sour cream and cheese) and vegan burgers. And if you want to dine at the next generation of ruin bars, book a table at Mazel Tov, a shabby-chic bar next to Fogas and Instant that serves excellent food with Middle Eastern flair.
First published August 2012, and last updated January 2018