Ruin bars — romkocsma — are central to Budapest's contemporary culture and lend a unique feature to the city’s nightlife. These low-priced drinking joints first appeared in the early aughts inside the open-air courtyards of neglected pre-war buildings. Ruin bars are primarily found within the historic Jewish Quarter, also known as the inner part of District 7, as this neighborhood quickly deteriorated after the 1944-45 Nazi occupation of Budapest and the subsequent flight of residents to other locations. (Read more about Budapest's Jewish past and present.)
As ruin bars became popular, 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. Also, they can benefit the neighborhood by putting old, often vacant buildings to use and revitalizing areas with an influx of young people, a more robust service sector, and higher real estate prices.
Szimpla Kert pioneered Budapest’s ruin bar scene. 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 — but it's worth a visit for the experience. Szimpla is exemplary in its effort to foster the local community: They regularly give platform to up-and-coming local bands, and every Sunday morning the space transform to a farmers' market with local producers.
Thanks to the success of ruin bars, different adaptations have sprung up, including more upscale versions (Mazel Tov) and even some located in Buda, across the Danube, away from ruin bars' native birthplace (Szatyor Bár). These are some of my 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.