Central to Budapest culture, romkocsma (trans. ruin bars) is now a commonplace phenomenon with a robust presence within the city’s nightlife. Any visitor to Budapest should get familiar with the “ruin bar” concept.
Ruin bars first emerged in the early 2000’s as places offering dirt cheap drinks inside the open-air courtyards of pre-war dilapidated buildings. They are primarily found within the historical Jewish Quarter (inner part of District 7), as this area was a fertile ground of abandonment and desolation, lingering from the 1944 Nazi forceful removal of Hungarian Jews and subsequent decline of the neighborhood.
As the romkocsma phenomenon gradually grew in popularity, individual owners responded by filling their spaces with second-hand furniture to accommodate an increasing number of guests. This resulted in a family of eclectic interiors, where nothing matches but everything belongs.
Although ruin bars have both detractors and potential downsides (for example increased noise levels and littering are sources of frustration for people who live nearby), they have carved out a highly successful niche within Budapest. Alternatively, ruin bars can benefit neighborhoods by putting old, often unused buildings back to use and revitalizing neighborhoods with an influx of young people.
Szimpla Kert was a pioneer of Budapest’s ruin bar scene as we know it today. Opened in 2004 by a group of college students, it’s founding philosophy remains constant: to provide an open space of freedom for anyone and everyone to enjoy. Today Szimpla Kert hardly resembles the modest bar of its infancy, now it's one of Budapest’s key tourist attractions and draws large crowds of visitors. During peak hours, the crowd consists almost entirely of tourists, nonetheless it's worth a visit. Szimpla Kert is exemplary of Budapest’s nascent rebirth - entrepreneurship by local citizens, re-use of existing abandoned infrastructure, and creation of open spaces to foster local community and economic opportunity alike.
Thanks to the success of the ruin bar concept, different adaptations have sprung up, including fancy ruin bars (never mind the inherent contradiction): Mazel Tov is the best example of an upscale ruin bar.
One note of caution: don’t be the one who is fooled by ruin bar copycats. As with any naturally occurring alternative scene, sanitized, less gritty options have steadily flowered as the charm of ruin bars spreads deeper into to the mainstream culture. Trust your instincts: if the ruined look and mixed furniture aesthetic feels too perfect, you'll know that it's time to move on.