EXPLORE | Ruin Pubs of Budapest
An Exploration of Budapest's Nightlife
Budapest is a beautiful and complicated place. It has been built and destroyed, occupied and regained on too many occasions to count. Yet still it retains some unqualified magnificence. The city is home to 1.7 million residents living on both the Buda and the Pest sides of the city, divided by the deep blue waters of the Danube.
At night, the major monuments are lit up, and the grandeur and history evidenced in the cityscape are as stunning as Prague or Paris. Budapest stands among these famous cities now as a cultural center within Europe: You can’t walk more than 50 feet without running into a statue or placard commemorating a significant Hungarian political or cultural figure.
Yet unlike Paris or Prague, the Budapest waterfront isn’t suffocated by nightlife. In fact, the streets along the water are often quiet at night, lending an almost eerie quality to the brightly lit castles and cathedrals that compose the city’s main tourist destinations.
During the 20th century, Hungarians fell under the occupying forces of Nazi Germany, and following the war, the city became a strategic axis point for the spread of Soviet-brand communism across Europe. As the child of a first-generation Hungarian immigrant from Budapest, I inherited the stories of the tumultuous years that followed the beginning of the second World War. When I arrived in Budapest this fall, I was expecting to be reminded of this history on every street corner and in every shadowy, cobbled alley. My imaginings were only partially true. What I found was a city of both glory and grit, of history and newness.
One former Soviet carrier ship from the Ukraine was turned into a nightclub named A38. Another monolithic eyesore of modern socialist architecture now houses Corvintetõ, an outdoor nightclub with dramatic views of both ends of the city, on its rooftop. The strongest symbol of the new Budapest nightlife? Ruin pubs, which have sprouted like boozy weeds throughout the old Jewish neighborhood at first and then throughout the city.
The story of ruin pubs starts with one of the city’s most neglected neighborhoods. Far from the tour boats and dramatic views of the waterfront, there is a very different city. North of the center is a tightly knit patchwork of residential buildings known as District VII, or the Jewish Quarter. Originally a thriving neighborhood in the early part of the 20th century, the Jewish Quarter was almost entirely cleared of residents toward the end of the Nazi occupation.
After the war, the area fell into disrepair, staying largely uninhabited through the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s. Only within the past decade has a new generation of foodies and nightlifers injected the area with fresh stores, restaurants, and bars. Many of the buildings in District VII and the surrounding areas are tall, multilevel residential and commercial complexes. Largely uniform in structure, each building has high double doors with a long entryway that opens into a wide courtyard. From the corners of the courtyard are stairs leading to the upper levels of the complex. Most of the buildings could easily house around 40 or 50 residents and just as many offices.
The ruin-pub idea is both simple and ingenious: Take these long, underutilized buildings, and make them into gathering places, bars, and centers for culture in the neighborhood. The first and most famous of the ruin pubs is Szimpla. Founded in 2001, the bar has spawned over 30 ruin pub–style businesses throughout the neighborhood and beyond. According to one Budapest journalist, when the Szimpla owners first decided to turn the complex into a bar, they washed down the facade of the building, turning it from a sooty gray into a sort of off-yellow color. A neighborhood ordinance at the time prohibited the repainting of the building facades, so some owners were approached by authorities. But the police were surprised to discover that underneath all the dirt and grime, a yellow building had been standing all these years.
Located in the heart of District VII, Szimpla features several bars, two floors, a music stage, and a sprawling garden courtyard flush with funky furniture and strange decorations. Bikes hang from the walls, old couches occupy black-lit back rooms, and brightly colored old cars have been transformed into lounge seating. On one night, a six-piece Hungarian folk band chomped out buoyant tunes to a full room. On another, a film screening took place. Recently, the pub has opened its doors to a weekly market, where local growers and provisioners can sell their wares. The Budapest Bike Mafia, a nonprofit organization that takes food donations and delivers them via cycle to needy families, has a station at the market. While some natives complain that Szimpla has become somewhat of a tourist attraction at this point, there has never a shortage of Hungarians present whenever I’ve visited, evidenced perhaps most loudly by the trays filled with shots of Palinka (a fruit-based Hungarian spirit) traveling back and forth from the bar at any one time.
Around the corner is Fogashaz. Translating literally into “house of teeth,” it received its name from a sign uncovered when the building was initially being renovated into a bar. Like Szimpla, the building is in much the same condition as when it was found—dusty and worn down. The many connected rooms of the space also feature different themes and activities, from an arcade-themed room to an Alice in Wonderland–themed maze game you can play within the complex. As with Szimpla, music and cultural events are part of the regular programming at Fogashaz.
The concept of the ruin pub has begun spreading into other neighborhoods of the city, where business owners are seeking to capitalize on the current trend. Some of these spaces are unimpressive, having been remodeled and outfitted to look like the buildings that inspired the notion. Others have expanded upon Szimpla’s aesthetic of repurposed furniture and odd decorations and taken it to new heights.
My favorite of the ruin-pub spin-offs is Instant, a frightening and awesome funhouse with drinks located off Andrassy Boulevard, the main commercial street in Pest. The bar also possesses many of the hallmark ruin-pub qualities: old furniture, an open courtyard, a rundown facade. The designers of Instant have taken the quirky aesthetic of many ruin pubs to new heights. With collages of circus animals and Laura Palmer on the wall and one room entirely covered in music staffs, the spectral influence of David Lynch is in full effect everywhere you turn. The best example of this is a glittery white sculpture of a breasted unicorn bird with huge eyes, which is hung from the ceiling like a mobile.
The nightlife renaissance inspired by the ruin-pub craze brings its own problems. While the spirit of preservation may be alive and well in the bars surrounding the Jewish Quarter, the economic resurgence of the neighborhood has attracted the interest of developers who may not be as protective of the original architecture and history of one of the city’s most important areas. As new bars begin occupying the once empty streets of the neighborhood, one set of problems may be replaced with another.
Budapest is far from experiencing the widespread problems that define gentrification dialectics in US cities like San Francisco or Brooklyn, where development has been hampered by a national recession and commercial property is still relatively affordable and by no means scarce. At the very least, however, the innovation and subsequent commercialization that has followed the ruin-pub phenomenon can serve as an important reminder of the need to preserve a city’s history while also allowing it to blossom into something new, vibrant, and, in a perfect world, high in alcohol content.