At midday, the street Kazinczy utca in Budapest’s Jewish Quarter was quiet. Cars and pedestrians passed by on their way to somewhere else, and delivery trucks obstructed the sidewalks. A metal bin filled with cigarette butts proclaimed in loud signage that it was not an ashtray. There were hints that by night, this was a livelier place; and that when it wasn’t December, something in the vicinity of a street party. Behind elaborate gates, and walls covered in graffiti, we could see outdoor bar set-ups, and signs pointing toward an absent taco truck. (A few food trucks were parked in the area, one selling hamburgers and Hungarian beer.)
That night, after seeing the Nutcracker at the Hungarian State Opera House and sampling some burgers and Hungarian beer of our own at Kandalló, we wandered back to Kazinczy utca to Szimpla Kert: perhaps the best-known of Budapest’s ruin bars. (You’ll have to forgive us for only sampling the “best-known.” As we imagined one of our Amsterdam friends saying: “Well, yeah, all the tourists go to that one, but the locals know there’s this way more ruined pub over on….”)
The concept of the ruin pub (an evocative label) is simple. In the early 2000s, people started moving into derelict buildings in Budapest, bringing in junk furniture and basic bar set-ups, and selling affordable drinks in a city that was elsewhere growing an upscale scene beyond local tastes and pocketbooks. And while the ruin pubs are visited by tourists, they’re also casual and comfortable places, where Hungarian is very much heard and spoken.
Entering Szimpla Kert was like wandering into an abandoned mansion (albeit one full of people). You could head any direction you chose: To the garden out back, where old films were playing on a giant projector and a group of friends shared drinks in an old Trabant auto. Upstairs, to a room labeled “Wine Bar.” Around various bends to various bars; a room where a band was playing; a hall where a DJ was spinning; a room where everyone was smoking a water pipe. There was something Alice-in-Wonderland about the whole thing, and if I had shrunk or grown when we entered another floor, I might not have been surprised.
The couple who directed us to the ruin pub are old enough to be my parents, and while there was a constant stream of twenty-ish study-abroad-ers weaving through the rooms (a whole group wearing their university sweatshirts for easy identification), drinks ever in hand, there were also family clusters and distinctly greyer patrons, settled into chairs of various vintages, comfortable with their beers or wines or soda or hookahs.
If the scene had been two steps tidier, it might have felt like we were in a giant Anthropologie store—where everything carefully reeks of a fabricated vintage air. But the legitimate unsteadiness in a few floorboards, the very real stains on the furniture and the who-gives-a-crap way the innards of my chair were escaping saved this scene from being kitsch. We wandered through the maze of preserved decay, sitting for a moment in different rooms, people-watching, object-watching.
When we wound our way out and continued into the night, we immediately passed a much smaller, more nondescript pub, where a live string ensemble was playing folk music and a man was dancing in a tiny space. This was no tourist show, and we stood captivated on the street until the band finished their number and went on (to our disappointment) break.
I fell in love with the buildings of Budapest: the glorious remnants of the 1890s, the last time the city was truly rich—before Hungary’s land was parceled off after WWI, before occupation by the Nazis and relentless decimation in the final year of WWII, and before the liberation by the Soviets that became the chains of Communism. I couldn’t help thinking that the whole city felt like one giant ruin pub: magnificent, tired, faded, but with unusual and surprising signs of life. Around the bend was always a color I didn’t expect, or a building that looked as if it should be condemned—with Christmas lights in an upstairs window.
There’s something honest about not hiding the scars, about not covering up the holes in the wall.
More on ruin pubs:
The World in Between: The Ruin Pubs of Budapest