Ever fallen in love with a bar?
Nope, not IN a bar. But with a bar itself?
I think I felt that a bit with the ruin pubs of Budapest – in particular, the most famous, Szimpla Kert.
I’ve never been the type of person to enjoy bland, shiny-surfaced, ‘upmarket’ bars. Faceless venues with nothing more to offer than 3 VKs for a tenner, a too-loud monotonous dance music playlist and someone trying to charge a quid for an unwanted squirt of perfume in the loos.
Nah. Give me a place with character and personality, and then we’re talking. I like rough around the edges decor, quirky features and graffiti scrawls on the toilet doors. My best memories of time spent in pubs and clubs are from ones where the walls sweat, dirty guitar riffs power out of the speakers, and nooks and crannies hold cosy seating areas to sip on a cheap beer in.
We visited Szimpla Kert on our second day in Budapest, and decided to go in the daytime to avoid the big party crowds that frequent the place on weekday evenings. Late afternoon on a Thursday turned out to be a relatively quiet time, although it got busier a bit later on.
The ruin pubs of Budapest can be found in District VII, otherwise known as the ‘Jewish Quarter’. They’re located in old abandoned buildings and lots that were left in ruins after World War II, filled with furniture from flea market and junkyards, with walls decorated with work by local artists alongside scribbled graffiti from visitors. From bike parts to disco balls, doll heads to a giant stuffed fish, there’s curiosity almost everywhere you look.
Everything is wonderfully mis-matched, with odd details and quirks almost everywhere you look. Exposed brickwork and original building features dominate, with lampshades and framed artwork adorning the walls and ceilings. Many of the bars, and in particular Szimpla Kert, have multiple rooms and hidden-away areas. It actually took us a little while in the bar to discover there was a huge upstairs area, as well as the outdoor section at the back.
As soon as we arrived, we headed straight to the bar. Szimpla Kert’s prices are perhaps a little more expensive than other bars in the area, as it’s the best-known and more frequented by tourists. However, I’m definitely not sniffing at paying 600 HUF (around £1.65) for a pint. (Okay. 0.5l, so not QUITE a pint. But you get my drift.) You can pay a little more for specialist and local beers, but being on a budget, we opted for the perfectly drinkable Szimpla Union, the Slovenian house lager.
Szimpla Kert is Budapest’s original ruin pub, opened in 2002, and serves as a cultural space as well as just a drinking hole. Outside, films are projected onto a large screen, and every Sunday, there’s a Farmer’s Market with food and live music. Oh, and if you fancy puffing on some shisha, they’ve got that on offer too.
In the outside area, we perched on a rickety bench beside half of an old automobile that now serves as seats, and took in our surroundings.
Moving inside, we adventured up the stairs to discover even more rooms, each decorated in the same eclectic style but with their own different vibe. We perched on seats made from old tyres and spent lots of time reading the scribbles adorning every wall. The upstairs rooms were definitely my favourite places – less noisy music, more places to sit and drink and chat.
When we’d finished our drinks, we moved through to one of the upstairs bars where we grabbed a second round of Drehers. A local man sat at the bar introduced himself by saying he was a writer, although when we tried to strike up a further conversation, he didn’t understand our English. Whoops. Walking further back, we came across a glass panel in the floor that I almost mistook for a hole as I stepped on to it.
Many of the smaller ruin bars are subject to opening, closing and moving at short notice, but Szimpla Kert stands strong over a decade after its launch.
Yes, it may be on the tourist trail in terms of ruin pubs to visit, but for good reason. It’s vibrant, eclectic style is exactly the kind of place I could happily spend an afternoon drinking in, never running out of things to look at. In fact, we even went back on our last day as we wanted to have one last chance to see the place before flying home.
Experiencing the ruin pubs of Budapest was definitely unlike any other ‘nightlife’ experience we’d had. Even if you tend to stray away from busy party scenes and late-night queues (which we observed from the bar next door on the Saturday) a daytime visit to Szimpla Kert is basically an essential thing you have to do in Budapest.
1075 Budapest, Kazinczy utca 14