In Budapest – as everywhere – trends come in waves, and the romkocsma ‘ruin bar’ circuit must be one of the best examples. As the 21st century dawned, canny entrepreneurs, bored of the local drinking scene, bought up dilapidated buildings, installed bars, and filled them with socialist-era tables, chairs and bric-à-brac. Initially these ruin bars and pubs sprang up for a year or two, then disappeared or re-emerged across town. Occasionally they found permanent homes – and the granddaddy of these is Szimpla, which settled on Kazincszy Utca in 2004.
The second wave of purpose-built bars included Instant, Fogás Ház and Anker’t, all of which took a few décor tips from Szimpla. Meanwhile, greener bars appeared, such as Grandió and Kertem, a City Park gem. By then, ruin bars were changing the face of downtown Pest and becoming big business, and the third wave of romkocsmák included Ötkert and Doboz, which have well-connected businessmen behind them. As bouncers made dressed-up students queue unnecessarily outside, the ruin bar had reached maturity. Over the last couple of decades, ruin bars have become a huge draw for visitors. Without Szimpla et al, Budapest’s famed nightlife zone – and much of the city’s tourism industry – may never have existed.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best bars in Budapest
Best ruin bars in Budapest
Set in a dilapidated former stove factory with an old Trabant given pride of place, Szimpla is Hungary’s most celebrated nightlife spot. This ruin bar set up shop nearby in 2002 before settling in the then-sedate Kazinczy Utca two years later. Since then, it’s evolved into much more than a bar, hosting concerts and live theatre, from 8pm, four times a week. The bar’s central courtyard also hosts flea markets selling second-hand vinyl, Hungarian haute couture and, occasionally, customised musical instruments.
Ideal for the hungover, a GMO-free organic farmers’ market takes over Szimpla on Sunday mornings. Choose from pork sausages from Hungary’s indigenous mangalicas, organic veg, cottage cheese, jam, honey and peanut butter, all sourced from local farms. The all-you-can-eat brunch offers all this, plus muesli, kifli rolls, fruit juice, tea and coffee for 5,000 HUF (around €15). The restaurant upstairs sells beef, chicken, and veggie and vegan burgers, as well as Hungarian ratatouille lecsó.
Tucked down a backstreet just near the Opera House, Anker’t is a fun and friendly place where you’re just as likely to strike up conversation while queuing for drinks as you are grooving on the dance floor. By day, Anker’t’s large courtyard hosts vegan food and flower markets, slam poetry contests and fashion shows. By night, DJs play to a small-ish but highly enthusiastic crowd. Vegan pizzeria Vegazzi runs a stand in situ, selling light, Neapolitan-style pizzas with toppings including mushroom pesto, ‘rice-mozzarella’ and ‘cereal kolbász’ (chorizo sausage). Anker’t is also an LGBTQ+ hub, and frequently hosts events promoting minority rights.
Founded in 2011, Doboz (literally, ‘box’) is an upscale ruin bar that combines a young, well-dressed clientele with wacky décor – even the huge red cube in the courtyard is dwarfed by the gigantic King Kong statue hanging from a tree said to be twice as old as Budapest itself. Doboz comprises themed rooms playing different genres, from Latin pop to hip hop, with in-house DJs Rusty, Revolution, Soulja appearing on a weekly basis. If you get hungry after a long night dancing, Doboz is ready with burgers, hot dogs, quesadillas, salads, pizza and cheesecake.
Mega-pubs Fogas Ház and Instant merged into one 1,200-square-metre giga-pub in the middle of VII District in 2017. Despite this, neither venue has lost its individuality: Fogas retains its classic ruin bar vibe, Instant its eccentricity. The new complex also accommodates other themed bars: Larm (for techno heads), Liebling (a chilled-out rooftop with good food and drink), Robot (rock, metal, industrial), Frame (D&B, jungle, dubstep). It’d take a very weary soul to not find a good time at 49 Akácfa Utca.
Right in the heart of the party district, Ellátó Kert is a canopied ruin bar – meaning you can spend some quality time here even when the weather takes a colder turn. The covered garden area is this ruin bar’s USP, and makes for an ideal escape after a long day roaming Budapest’s streets. The brightly coloured tables and chairs give the place a vaguely South American feel, and Ellátó Kert has long been known for its excellent Mexican corner bar, which’ll happily provide all the burritos and tortillas you need to soak up the ale and unicum.
Budapest was originally three cities – Buda, Pest and Óbuda – that merged into one. Although the authorities decided against giving this new metropolis the name Óbudabudapest, Óbuda is in fact the oldest part of the city, and an area where Roman ruins rub shoulders with communist házák (tower blocks). Kobuci is located in the historic Zichy Palota garden, across the square from Imre Varga’s lovely umbrella-wielding statues. Throughout its decade of existence, Kobuci has always been about the music: on any given night you could see comedy hip-hoppers Belga, brilliant local singer Bea Palya or Hungarian Beatles tribute act the Bits. Also popular are the Táncház folk dancing nights (surprisingly popular among young Hungarians). Kobuci is a summer venue, open from mid-April till the end of September, and offers convincing evidence that there’s more to Budapest nightlife than the Pesti romkocsmák.
Located in City Park itself, Kertem is the perfect spot to unwind after an afternoon exploring Budapest Zoo, the Museum of Fine Arts or the Kunsthalle around Heroes’ Square. Even if Kertem means a short trip out of the party zone, its leafy surrounds set it apart from the rest. Shunted around in recent years, thanks to the government’s grand plans for City Park, Kertem has survived in the crossfire between green activists and Hungary’s strongman prime minister. Not only does the greenery make Kertem – ‘my garden’ – unique among ruin bars, the party can go on till late without upsetting the neighbours, too. Adding to the festival atmosphere here are plastic cups for beer or fröccs spritzer, and the rough-and-ready but satisfying burgers.
Craft beer enthusiast Dániel Bart opened Élesztőház in 2013 with a clear mission to offer something out-of-the-ordinary. Although the courtyard follows the classic romkocsma formula – ‘we didn’t have a lot of money to spend, so we had to be clever and use second-hand and old things’ – Bart said he aimed for his bar to be as much about what you drink as how you drink it. As his wine country learned to make beer, Bart began to ‘secure a place for innovative Hungarian craft beer’. Of the 20 or so top-notch brews available at the industrial-style multi-tap bar, particularly popular are the Fehér Nyúl IPA and Pils, and Hekkelberg Pils. Élesztőház is not for just the bearded either: ‘Our clientele has changed: now we have every kind of customer, and very few craft beer geeks,’ Bart said.
Named after a Hungarian fairy tale about an ingenious ‘stone soup’ recipe, Kőleves Kert, which turned 10 in 2018, evokes the same super-relaxed vibe as the first wave of ruin pubs. Its garish furniture and murals help create a party-ready atmosphere, and it’s Budapesters who predominate, aware this may well be the best Kazinczy Utca venue for catching the summer rays, drink in hand. Speaking of drinks, our advice is to keep it simple, as Kőleves cocktails can be pricey and a little underwhelming. And don’t take the bar staff’s surliness personally – it’s not just you.