Fueled in part by tourism, Budapest is rapidly transforming into a cosmopolitan city, showing the trappings of contemporary trends and shedding its communist past. The bars below are some of the last vestiges of communist Hungary—go visit these time warps before they vanish. (Please, don't complain about the quality of wine, that's beside the point.)
If you're looking to immerse yourself in a lively, deeply local, communist-era neighborhood bar that doubles as a breakfast joint, I can't think of a better place than Bambi Eszpresszó in Buda. What makes Bambi the real deal? It isn’t trying to show off an artificial (retro), unremembered past—it’s a genuine throwback..
Opened in 1968, Ibolya Espresso is an iconic café and bar in Budapest's downtown. Ibolya is deeply anchored in Budapest's collective memory as two generations of local residents have been coming here for everything from first dates to business meetings over the past half-century. Ibolya's interior furnishings evoke the design items of the communist era: the Mid-century modern-inspired light fixtures feature orange plexiglass, while chairs are topped with sticky, red faux leather upholstery..
Grinzingi, an unpretentious downtown wine tavern, has a simple formula: serve cheap drinks in the center of Budapest that's otherwise teeming with overpriced, tourist-oriented bars. But what gives Grinzingi its native spirit is its longevity, the variety of its patrons, and the “interior design.” .
Opened in 1948, Mátra Borozó is one of the oldest and most eccentric wine bars in Budapest, a genuine throwback (Gábor Abendschein, the current owner, has been in charge since 1983). Apart from the constant presence of the amiable, graying regulars, Mátra's communal spirit stems from the unique layout of the space: instead of a bar counter splitting up the room, just a simple metal box stands in the middle which contains the wines. .
One of Budapest’s oldest and most atmospheric wine bars is hidden below ground on a quiet downtown street otherwise known for its antique stores selling expensive chinaware. Like other unchic, communist-era bars that have survived to the present day, this holdout from the 1960s—no one seems to know the exact opening year—draws mainly long-time regulars from the neighborhood..
That this unfussy, communist-era neighborhood bar right across the street from one of Budapest's most visited tourist destinations—the Dohány Street Synagogue—still exists is a small miracle. Despite its moniker, Turiszt Büfé, which opened in 1982, has never gained much of its business from tourists. .
In present-day Budapest, listening to live gypsy music is mainly a tourist activity. Overpriced downtown restaurants tend to hire gypsy bands to play traditional songs, thereby enhancing the “Hungarian vibes.” The reality is that except for the occasional wedding parties when such songs may be performed, most locals, especially those below 50, are seldom exposed to this type of music..
Borpatika (“Wine pharmacy”) is a neighborhood watering hole in Újbuda. Not much has changed inside since it opened in 1986, which is, of course, part of its charm. Customers are a blend of students from the nearby Budapest University of Technology and downtrodden neighborhood regulars who come here for spirit-lifting liquors and friendly banter..
Szlovák Söröző ("Slovak beer hall") is an old-school bar located on a gray side street near Budapest's Nyugati Railway Terminal. The main
appeal of this unfashionable haunt with weathered wooden booths is its longevity—the place has been drawing throngs
of beer-loving men of all ages for over four decades. When I say men, I mean it: on some nights, not one woman is in sight, save for the waitress..
For a bit of time travel, you don’t even need to leave Budapest's downtown. The “Villány” in the name of this grungy, run-down neighborhood bar is tongue-in-cheek, because the wine they serve here is hardly the premium stuff from the Villány region. But that is beside the point. Places like this will soon be extinct, so take your chances before it’s too late.
Since it opened in 1997, Piccolo has been the go-to watering hole for many left-wing artists from Újlipótváros who enjoy low-priced Unicum and beer. For an outsider, Piccolo may feel intimidating at first as everyone seems to know one another, but don't let that hold you back—patrons are easy-going, open-minded, and often entertaining. .
Head to Tóth Kocsma if you're looking to immerse yourself into everyday Hungarian life. The main appeal of this unpretentious bar, which opened in 1987 and is located in a pricey gallery district in downtown, is that it isn't trying to be more than what it is: a no-frills, low-priced bar. Tóth Kocsma is especially popular among groups of middle-aged locals, who tend to fill the space in the evenings. .
The Grand Boulevard (Nagykörút) doesn't only separate the city center from outer Pest, it's also a boundary between the polished and the gritty, the predictable and the mysterious. As a result, bars along here draw eclectic crowds from all walks of Budapest life. Krúdy Söröző, an unpretentious, all-welcoming, communist-era neighborhood bar, is one of them. Despite the wifi and flat screen TVs, the space feels distinctly 1980s, as do the prices.