Budapest, the cultural capital of Hungary and much of the surrounding region, has no shortage of nightlife. You can go there for grand opera, folk music and dancing, a twilight boat trip, or live music in a nightclub.
But there's also an edgy side to Budapest evenings, best enjoyed in the city's "ruin pubs" (romkocsma), which are ramshackle, cavern-like bars crammed with revelers having the time of their lives. To find them, you'll have to leave the wide boulevards lined with bright, modern stores and delve into the older, more atmospheric streets of the city's Jewish Quarter. After World War II, this area was deserted, then resettled largely by members of the Hungarian Roma minority. It remained dilapidated under communism and was slow to rejuvenate even after the Iron Curtain fell. Today it's a neighborhood of small shops and modest facades that hide ornate, spacious synagogues used by Budapest's small but vibrant Jewish community.
The unusual combination of a central location and low rents attracted a funky breed of bars. Their low-profile entryways look abandoned, but through a maze of hallways you emerge into large rooms and open-air courtyards filled with people and thrift-shop furniture. It feels like a gang of squatters made a trip to the dump yesterday and grabbed whatever was usable, moved in today, and are open for business tonight. Enjoying a drink here, I'm reminded of creatures that inhabit discarded shells in a tide pool.
The last time I was in Budapest, I ended up sitting with Peter (who designs ruin pubs), Laura (who works at a hotel), and Sandra (whose father's company introduced adult entertainment to Hungary back in the 1990s). I told them how much I like the shabby lounge atmosphere of a ruin pub, and Laura declared that this one, Szimpla Kert (which means "Simple Garden"), is the mecca of ruin pubs in Budapest.
Sandra agreed, but was distracted when Miss Hungary walked by. With a little disdain, she said, "There's Miss Hungary — a beauty brat with a Gucci handbag, and nobody notices her." Compared to the more polished scene in cities like Vienna or Milan, fashion here tends to be more personal and eclectic.
Peter bought a round of spritzes (rosé with soda water). He was excited about an event at a ruin pub called "Instant-Fogas," and wanted us to go there. We trekked a few blocks and found a warren of rooms and alcoves in a historic-feeling, but appropriately run-down, building. Each room was decorated differently, but always creatively — I liked the upside-down room with furniture on the ceiling.
I commented on how well the design worked. Peter explained how these clubs are the soul of underground culture here. It's the anti-club club: flea market furniture, no matching chairs, a mishmash of colors. It's pleasantly chaotic, designed to be undesigned. On hot nights, the pubs spill out into unkempt courtyards, creating the feeling of a cozy living room missing its roof…under the stars.
Outside, Peter demonstrated the different ways you can smoke a cigarette in a counterculture enclave. First he did the affected "Beauty Queen" smoke, then the calculated "Godfather" smoke. Finally, gulping the cigarette in the middle of his lips, he did the "Working Smoker," saying, "You smoke with big lips." In recent years Hungary has enacted strict laws against smoking, so tobacco is relegated to outdoor spaces.
Ruin pubs encourage a delightful sense of discovery. In one room dancers thump to an industrial beat. In the next, live jazz enhances an art display. In the next room, you and your partner find yourselves alone — perfect for an intimate conversation.
These bars also come with a bit of communist kitsch. Some who love these lounges were little kids during the last years of communism. Too young to understand its downside, they have fond memories of the good times, when the pace of life was slower and families were tightly knit. Ruin pubs even sell nostalgic "commie" soft drinks along with the cocktails.
Peter explained that the nostalgia is a reaction to what happened after the Berlin Wall came down. In 1989, with the "spontaneous privatization of the society," the Communists in power had the inside track and grabbed up much of the country's economic equity. Now, though, political power has flipped. Onetime reformer Viktor Orbán, now Hungary's autocratic prime minister, has drawn his own accusations of corruption. Today's discussions center on Hungary's democratic identity and its (often contentious) place in the European Union. Since most younger Hungarians speak English, it's not hard to strike up a conversation in ruin pubs about European politics — or simply about life in Budapest.
I love this city for its quirks and persistent personality as much as for its Old World elegance. You'd never see a ruin pub on Paris's Champs-Elysées, but that's the point. Thanks to its relaxed atmosphere, Budapest is one of the easiest places in Hungary to make a memorable connection.