Ruin bars ("romkocsma" in Hungarian) are central to Budapest's contemporary culture and lend a unique feature to the city’s nightlife. They first emerged in the early aughts as places offering dirt-cheap drinks inside the open-air courtyards of dilapidated, pre-war buildings. Ruin bars are primarily found within the historic Jewish Quarter (the inner part of District 7), as this neighborhood quickly deteriorated following the 1944-45 Nazi occupation of Budapest and the subsequent flight of residents to other locations.
As ruin bars became popular, individual owners responded by filling their spaces with second-hand furniture to accommodate an increasing number of guests. This resulted in a family of wildly eclectic interiors where nothing matched but everything belonged.
Although ruin bars have both detractors and downsides—for example increased noise levels and littering are sources of frustration for people who live nearby—they have carved out a successful niche within Budapest. Alternatively, they can benefit neighborhoods by putting old, often vacant buildings back to use and revitalizing neighborhoods with an influx of young people.
Szimpla Kert pioneered Budapest’s ruin bar scene as we know it today. A group of creatively minded college students opened it in 2004 with a founding philosophy that still holds true: provide an open space for anyone and everyone to enjoy. Today Szimpla hardly resembles the modest bar of its infancy—it's one of Budapest’s main tourist attractions, drawing a crowd that consists almost entirely of tourists—but it's worth a visit for the experience. Szimpla is exemplary of fostering the local community: They regularly give platform to up-and-coming local bands, and every Sunday morning the space transform to a farmers' market run by local producers.
Thanks to the success of the ruin bar concept, different adaptations have sprung up, including more upscale versions (Mazel Tov) and even some in Buda, across the Danube, away from its native birthplace (Szatyor Bár). Here's the list of our favorites across Budapest.
And finally, a word to the wise: try not to be fooled by ruin bar copycats. As with any naturally occurring alternative scene that spreads into the mainstream, sanitized, less genuine places have emerged that call themselves ruin bars. Trust your instincts — if the furnishings feel too perfect and the prices too high, you'll know it's time to move on.