The inner part of Budapest's District 7 was where Jewish people started settling down in the late 18th century (learn more about Budapest's Jewish history). Budapest's rapid urbanization and economic development at the time presented plenty of attractive business opportunities which drew and increasing number of Jews to the city, who, in turn, further contributed to its progress.
By 1867 Jews had effectively the same civil and legal rights in Hungary as local Christians, sooner than in most neighboring countries. As a result, the Jewish population continued to soar so much that by 1910 more than 23% of Budapest’s population was Jewish (over 200,000 people). The Jewish Quarter, as it was known then, became a bustling neighborhood packed with retail stores, kosher restaurants, and three synagogues near one another.
The mutually beneficial relationship between Jews, most of them highly assimilated, and Hungarians began to deteriorate after WWI, and culminated in the tragic events of the Holocaust. In the winter of 1944, Nazis and Hungarian fascists turned the Jewish Quarter into a ghetto where thousands died of famine and starvation (thankfully most Budapest Jews escaped the deportations). A period of deterioration and hardscrabble life followed during communism - residents moved out en masse to better neighborhoods, leaving the housing stock in decay.
Today, marks of Jewish life are rapidly disappearing from the neighborhood. The three beautiful synagogues, known as the "synagogue-triangle," still stand as a reminder of the neighborhood's past but each of their congregations has largely vanished (the Dohány Street and the Kazinczy Street synagogues are still operational, but with small communities - the orthodox synagogue on Kazinczy Street has less than a hundred members). Only three glatt kosher restaurants have remained in the area, but even those get most of their businesses from orthodox Jewish tourists.
Today, however, these same streets and dilapidated buildings are home to revitalized Hungarian culture: bristling with shops, bars, cafés, and restaurants. There is no doubt that the old Jewish Quarter is the coolest part of town currently. This neighborhood is also the cradle of ruin bars, these impossibly cool and affordable drinking joints that began to spring up inside the vast courtyards of vacant buildings (including the world famous ruin bar, Szimpla Kert).
The Jewish Quarter, however, is gradually becoming a victim of its own success. The incredibly rise in mass tourism is driving up prices and local residents away from the area, and instead draws local thugs who're looking to make money off unsuspecting tourists. All this to say that it can be difficult to navigate your way through Budapest's packed party district and pick the right places, which do exist, they're just harder to find. This primer is here to help.
While Downtown is known as the food mecca of Budapest due to its Michelin-decorated restaurants, the Jewish Quarter is increasingly giving it a run for its money, particularly when it comes to the diversity of food options. Consider this: within a few minutes of one another here, you could have New Orleans-style jambalaya (Soul Food), Vietnamese bánh mì sandwich (Bánh Mì), barbecued meat (Bp BARbq), Japanese ramen (Komachi), and kosher cholent (Hanna).
In addition, several of Budapest's hottest restaurants are in the Jewish Quarter, including Gettó Gulyás, serving simple-but-tasty Hungarian flavors, Mazel Tov, an updated ruin bar, and DOBRUMBA, a chic Middle Eastern-themed restaurant. For a cozy ambiance, try M. Restaurant. Know before you go that most customers at these restaurants, just like at other ones in the neighborhood, are generally non-Hungarians (read: tourists), because of the relatively high prices, athough for Western tourists the prices will still seem pretty low. If authentically retro restaurants from the communist era is more your speed, try Kádár Étkezde, or Frici Papa.
The Jewish Quarter's saturated bar landscape can feel overwhelming at first as almost every street is lined with attractive-looking drinking joints. Kisüzem, a bohemian bar opposite a park managed to retain a mainly local clientele and serves a broad selection of premium rums from the top shelf. Nappali Kávéház has a similar profile, except it's stronger on the whiskey front and usually less crowded. Központ and Fekete Kutya are where Budapest's trendy left-wing establishment usually hangs out on Friday nights. This list includes the best bars where you're most likely to find a local crowd and cheap drinks; most of them are in the Jewish Quarter. In the outdooor season, Kőleves Kert is the best choice for a cold drink in the heart of it all.
An interesting phenomenon is how throngs of local teenagers, who've been priced out of the Jewish Quarter's increasingly expensive bars, drink away happily for a fraction of the price just a few blocks away at the dime a dozen bars located along the Grand Boulevard (Erzsébet Körút). If you're curious about the scene, grab a drink for example at 4es6os before you hit the Jewish Quarter.
Ruin bars have largely become tourist attractions and unfortunately it's also here that rowdy bachelor party crews tend to bring the worst out of themselves fueled by cheap beers. Nonetheless, Szimpla Kert, despite the herds of camera-wielding tourists, is still the best ruin bar in Budapest and worth popping in to see the impressive venue.
When it comes to the world of artisanal coffee or drinks, I often find it difficult to choose between the individual providers because they're so similar in terms of decor and offerings (yes, craft coffee, beer, and cocktails have all mushroomed in Budapest). I usually just end up where the staff is kind and where I feel that there's more to the place than just the craft movement's obligatory signifiers. With that in mind, my favorite specialty coffee in the Jewish Quarter is Dorado Café. For craft beers, both Hops Beer Bar and Hopaholic have an incredible array of bottled beers and fun, knowledgeable bartenders. If you're serious about your drink, several cocktail bars have recently opened in the Jewish Quarter where you can indulge your passion. I find myself returning to Bar Pharma when the occasional urge to drink cocktails hits.
Gozsdu Udvar (Gozsdu Courtyard) consists of a long stretch of bars and restaurants and is probably best to avoid altogether. This might sound like a sweeping statement, but Gozsdu is another favored hangout of the above-mentioned bachelor party crews, and an area that's fast-approaching La Rambla-status with menu-waving hostesses doing their best to lure in tourists. A few exception, however, do exist. 2 Spaghi Pasta Bar serves up here some of the best traditional Italian pastas in town. Spíler delivers everything you would expect from a trendy bistro, and doing it without outrageously high prices. Sáo is the go-to Asian fusion restaurant for the city's fashionable crowd, and you can run into high-energy, live music acts with lots of dancing at Vicky Barcelona Budapest tapas bar.
Speaking of dancing, despite the crowded bar scene, the Jewish Quarter has only a few options for feeling the beat. One of them is 4BRO Downtown/Aether, a somewhat posh space in the Gozsdu Courtyard blasting electronic music in the downstairs section until the wee hours. But the most reliable electronic dance venue in Budapest is Lärm, inside Fogasház, where international DJs spin ear-splitting music inside a pitch-black dance hall. One can also run into good dance parties with pop/indie beats at Beat On The Brat, which is where the local alternative crowd hangs out (you can also try the dance floor downstairs at Úri Muri, for a similar crowd and genre).
Klauzál Square offers the one and only green space in the Jewish Quarter. The beautifully refurbished 19th century market hall situated along the park is still trying to find its 21st century-purpose, but there are two excellent and affordable eateries inside, both ideal for a lunch break (Marika Lángos Sütője and Mangalica Mennyország). Despite the obvious gentrification taking place, the area around the park has retained some of its historical residents, and you will find a melting pot of old-time residents, many of them Roma families, mixed with recently-arrived trendy millennials.
Beyond the Jewish Quarter, and dominating the Grand Boulevard (Nagykörút) is the 1894 building of the New York Palace. This grand revival building is best known for the café found on its ground floor, the New York Café. The ornate venue with marble columns, bronze statues, and frescoed ceilings used to be a famous hangout for journalists, artists, and people from the movie industry. Instead of cigarette smoke and alcohol, today the space is filled with tourists enjoying live cabaret music while sipping on €7 cappuccinos. Sharing the space with the New York Café is District 7's one and only fine dining restaurant, Salon.
The outer part of District 7 beyond the Grand Boulevard is the polar opposite of the Jewish Quarter - still a sleepy working class neighborhood. Rózsák Square is lined with a Roman and a Greek Catholic church, a Serbian middle school, and a Lutheran dormitory, serving as a reminder of the city's often forgotten religious and ethnic diversity. For a journey back in time, grab lunch at Kívánság Étkezde (go for the mátrai borzaska, you won't regret). For those with a more refined palate, it's worth trekking out to Olimpia, one of Budapest's best and cheapest tasting menu restaurant specializing in modern Hungarian dishes.