Budapest Ruin Pubs and the Story of Szimpla Kert
A visit to the capital of Hungary isn't complete without a drink (or two) at one of the many Budapest ruin pubs. These bars are unique to the city and unlike anything we've seen during our travels. Our favourite so far is Szimpla Kert, a garden/pub/cafe/souvenir shop/farmer's market/local hangout/shisha bar that is sure to surprise even the most skeptical visitor.
Budapest Ruin Pubs
Known by locals as 'romkocsma' (ruin pub in Hungarian), these pubs have been a part of the drinking culture for over a dozen years. Every one is unique but, more often than not, a ruin pub in Budapest will have a rundown and slightly sketchy exterior that completely contradicts the vibrant colours and unique ambience you'll find inside. Filled with second hand furniture and nearly anything funky picked off the curb, these formerly abandoned buildings are now pretty integral to Budapest. And it all seems to have started in the city's 7th district.
The neighbourhood was largely damaged and neglected after World War II and it's said that ruin pubs are what changed the district's future for the better. Where many saw abandoned factories and deteriorating apartment complexes, the people behind Szimpla saw potential. Over the years, the transformation of these buildings (and now others across the city) led to an entirely new concept in Budapest that is pretty darn cool.
The Story of Szimpla Kert
Szimpla originally opened in 2001 as an indoor cafe but the ruin pub trend didn't actually begin until the following year when they relocated to their current address at 14 Kazinczy Street. A dilapidated building in the city's Jewish Quarter was formerly a stove factory before being transformed into one of the coolest, most eclectic bars I have ever been to. It was first opened as Szimpla Kertmozi (kertmozi means garden cinema in Hungarian) and their large courtyard was the place to hangout and watch underground/indie films. While they're still known to play the occasional outdoor movie, Szimpla Kert has come a long way in the last 13+ years.
It's hard to put the atmosphere into words but I'll try... Narrow hallways and spiral staircases take you through the indoor/outdoor complex where you'll find dozens of rooms varying in size and usually with their own theme. When it comes to the decor, don't be surprised to see a bicycle hanging from the ceiling, a clawfoot tub being used as a loveseat, a robot dancing in a phone booth or a Trabant car smack in the middle of the garden. You'll find graffiti, funky art and pretty much everything that doesn't 'belong' in a pub. And yet, it all makes perfect sense. Everything fits. Even the row of seats taken straight out of a theatre. And especially the neon kangaroo that was probably once part of an amusement park.
As with most of Budapest, Szimpla has changed throughout the years but each innovation seems to further engage with the community, promotes sustainability and brings more and more happy visitors. The secret of Szimpla was revealed to a growing tourist crowd years ago so today it's a stop on several city tours and has been highlighted in pretty much every Budapest guide. I'm sure this has left some locals no choice but to find a new watering hole but, regrettably, isn't that the case with every tourist hotspot? I think what adds to the fame of this veteran ruin pub is it's versatility and it only takes one visit to realize how unique this place really is.
Souvenirs & Shisha
One of the first things you'll see once you walk through the rather suspect entrance of Szimpla Kert is their shisha bar. Whether you call it shisha, hookah or water pipe, I've seen plenty of these bars throughout central Europe but have yet to smoke it myself. At Szimpla, you can choose from one of their many fruity tobacco flavours starting at under $15 CAD. Quirky souvenirs, cute totes and other Szimpla gear are also available at their shisha bar.
The Sunday Farmer's Market
I'm a sucker for a good market and the city of Budapest has many. But most are closed on Sunday and only one is inside a ruin pub. Each Sunday, from 9am till 2pm, Szimpla Kert transforms into a garden of charming farmer's market stands. There are several local vendors (each one profiled on their website) selling everything from fresh bread to veggies, organic spreads and even truffles. There's also a new all-you-can-eat brunch Sunday morning in their salon upstairs with local ingredients served buffet-style.
Szimpla for Coffee
They have great coffee. They have free wifi. Need I say more? Most wouldn't think to take an afternoon coffee break at a ruin pub but I actually think Szimpla is a really great place to visit during the day. You get a chance to see how bizarre some of the decor is and you'll be sure to discover a corner or an entire room you might have missed while visiting at night. You can even bring your pet in with you (except during the farmer's market). Another reason Szimpla Kert is great for that coffee date is it's nice and quiet. Because silence is something you can bet you won't find here on a Friday night. Or any night actually...
Nightlife at Szimpla Kert
Between the live music, open mic nights and concerts, you're sure to find something going down every night of the week at Szimpla. Weekends are when things really pick up though. There are dj's playing Thursday thru Saturday and chances are you'll be among those attending a stag, bachelorette or pub crawl. It seems like many people will start their night at a ruin bar before heading elsewhere while some stay there all night until last call.
What should you order to drink? Well, there's palinka which is a local Hungarian fruit brandy and, while Wes has no problem drinking a shot, I still taste rubbing alcohol every time. It's strong but definitely worth a try while in Hungary. Szimpla also serves up a variety of cocktails, beers, wine and non-alcoholic beverages. If you're there in the winter, be sure to try their mulled wine too.
Other Budapest Ruin Pubs
Szimpla Kert may be the oldest and most well-known of all Budapest ruin pubs but there are plenty of others in the city worth getting to know. It seems this list is ever-changing from year to year but here are some of the places to check out and enjoy the funky bar scene and unique nightlife in Budapest:
A few doors down from the mother of all Budapest ruin pubs you'll find the charming Szimpla Háztáji, a great spot for breakfast, lunch or coffee with a fresh menu and several vegetarian options. There's also Szimpla Kávézó where you can indulge in one of the many craft beers served or attend a fun paint night. You'll actually even find a Szimpla in Berlin!
I hope by now you've come to realize that Szimpla Kert is more than just a bar. It's an iconic place in Budapest with an obvious presence in the community and we look forward to our next drink visit there. Szimpla Kert is cash only and for more information, opening hours and all current events, you can visit their website.
Szimply put, a visit to one of these Budapest ruin pubs is not to be missed during your travels to the city! If you're planning a visit to Hungary, you can also check out our Hungary videos on YouTube.