Image Credit: Annabel Mulliner
If you’re considering a trip to Budapest for some late-night escapades, then this aspect of Budapest’s cityscape is not to be missed. Once you’ve been into one ruin bar, you’ll be hooked. Whether you’re admiring the gardens of Szimpla Kert, dancing under the hanging cages of Instant, or kicking back with tacos in Ellato Kert, you’re guaranteed to have the time of your life.
Though the pride and joy of Budapest’s famous nightlife rose from the ashes of WWII, the city’s ruin bars are an extremely recent development. Hungary has certainly been through the mill in the last century. During the Nazi occupation of 1944, 10 000 Hungarian Jews were deported from Budapest to concentration camps, leaving hundreds of buildings in the city’s Jewish Quarter abandoned and derelict. The area remained in this state, until the turn of the century when some young entrepreneurs saw riches where others saw rubble.
It all began with the opening of Szimpla Kert (which translates to ‘simple garden’) in 2004. A group of young entrepreneurs were looking for a cheap place to set up business, and decided that a dilapidated stove factory, due for demolition, would do the trick. Rather than renovating the building, they decided to work with the space as it was, adding unconventional furnishings, like seating made from a bathtub, and a table placed inside a car. They turned the building into an eclectic, unique space that’s been embraced by locals and tourists alike. The sprawling bar has grown in both popularity and size, boasting an upstairs garden, shisha bar, and a burger restaurant. Considering Szimpla Kert is famously labelled as the original ruin bar, and hence is a renowned tourist hotspot, it is very affordable for students. Prices in Hungary are generally low, so while in other ruins bars you may pay £1 for a pint, in Szimpla Kert you may pay £2.50. Wetherspoons prices, with significantly better ambience.
Szimpla Kert provided the blueprint for all future ruin bars, which quickly sprung up throughout the noughties, some permanent, some only around for a single summer. The Jewish District gradually became the hub of Budapest’s nightlife. If you’re looking for expertly made yet cheap cocktails alongside some cheap Mexican cuisine, Ellato Kert is worth checking out. For an all-night rave, Instant is unmissable. Renowned as the biggest ruin bar in Budapest, Instant recently relocated to Akácfa street 49, having outgrown their old premises. It hosts four dancefloors and eight bars, and sells pizza, so you could feasibly stay there from early evening till early morning.
As with all quirky local hangouts, the chic, grungy sprawl of ruins bars have become increasingly popular with pesky tourists like ourselves, especially for stag dos; Budapest ranked 3rd in Ampilot’s top ten European stag do destinations. But the ruins bars have remained a popular local phenomenon, offering more than just unforgettable (or perhaps un-rememberable?) nights out. In the day, some ruins bars are transformed into flea and farmers markets, which is a great opportunity for local producers to show off their ware. For example, Szimpla Kert hosts a Sunday farmer’s market from 9:00am until 2:00pm.
In February 2018, a referendum was held in the Jewish Quarter, proposing that all bars and clubs close between midnight and 6:00am. Only 15 per cent of residents showed up, and the result was declared invalid. It’s easy to see why some residents aren’t raving about the continual party, but for many residents of the Jewish Quarter, the ruins bars are a colourful, welcome addition to local culture. After all, the entrepreneurs behind the expansion of these bohemian spaces took buildings otherwise destined for demolition, and turned them into something beautiful, bringing vibrancy and new life to an area which had borne scars of war for too long.
In between drinking and dancing, the House of Terror on Andrássy Avenue is well worth a visit. When admiring the shabby chic of the ruin bars, it can be easy to forget that their dilapidated state is the result of a long period of terror in Hungary. The House of Terror was formerly the headquarters of both the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis) from 1944 to 1945, and the AVH (the secret police under the communist regime) from 1945 until 1956. Under this roof, hundreds of Hungarians were tortured and executed. It doesn’t make for a light-hearted afternoon, but it does provide a comprehensive overview of the terror under which Budapest’s citizens suffered and is well worth a visit.
The Jewish Quarter’s ruins bars really are a sight to behold and it is an area not to be missed on a visit to Budapest. After all, the area can only continue to flourish and grow with continued support. The future state of Hungary’s ruins bars is yet to be seen, but given the rapidity of their growth, I can’t see them disappearing any time soon. The offer of unique, upcycled spaces with pints for a pound is a hard one to turn down.