Fueled by tourism, Budapest is rapidly transforming into a cosmopolitan city. Its bars and restaurants are showing the trappings of contemporary trends, shedding whatever little has left from the communist past. The bars below are some of the last vestiges of communist Hungary. Go visit these time warps before they vanish. (And please, don't complain about the quality of wines - that isn't the point here.)
If you're looking to immerse yourself in a lively, 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 given that at least two generations of local residents have been coming here for everything from secret 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 the chairs are topped with sticky, red faux leather upholstery..
Grinzingi, which is an unpretentious downtown wine tavern, has a simple formula for success: serve cheap drinks in the center of Budapest that's otherwise teeming with overpriced, tourist-oriented places. But what really gives Grinzingi soul is its longevity, the variety of its patrons, and the “interior design.” .
Mátra Borozó is one of the oldest and most eccentric wine bars in Budapest, a genuine throwback. It opened in 1948. The current owner, Gábor Abendschein, has been in charge since 1983. The communal spirit doesn’t just stem from the amiable, graying regulars who come here, but also the unique layout of the space: instead of a bar counter splitting up the room, a simple metal box stands in the middle containing the four kinds of wines.
One of Budapest’s oldest and most atmospheric wine bars is hidden underground on a quiet downtown street otherwise known for its antique stores hawking expensive chinaware. In line with 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 longtime regulars from the neighborhood. .
That this unfussy, communist-era neighborhood bar right across the street from one of Budapest's most visited tourist destinations (Dohány Street Synagogue) still exists, and hasn't become the victim of commerce is a small miracle. Despite its moniker, Turiszt Büfé, which opened in 1982, has never gained much of its business from tourists. I can't tell if the name was meant to throw sand in tourists' face or this was the best they could come up with at the time..
In present-day Budapest, gypsy music has been largely relegated to a phony tourist activity. Overpriced downtown restaurants tend to hire gypsy bands to perform traditional Hungarian songs in an effort to create “Hungarian vibes” for unsuspecting tourists. The reality is that except for the occasional wedding parties when such songs may be performed, most locals, especially those below 50, are as unfamiliar with these songs as the tourists being subjected to them..
Borpatika (“Wine pharmacy”) is an iconic neighborhood watering hole in Újbuda. Not much has changed in the inside here since Borpatika 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 grey side street near Budapest's Nyugati Railway Terminal. The main
appeal of this unfashionable place, which is decked out with weathered wooden booths, is its longevity - the place has been drawing throngs
of beer-loving local 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..
Since its opening in 1997, Piccolo has been the go-to watering hole for many left-wing artists who live in Újlipótváros. The neighborhood is a fertile ground for creative types, many of whom are fond of affordable Unicum and beer. For an outsider, at first Piccolo can feel intimidating as everyone seems to know one another. But don't let that hold you back - patrons are easy-going, open-minded, and often entertaining.
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.
Visit 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 me more than what it is: a no-frills, subterranean bar where conversations take center stage. Tóth Kocsma is especially popular among larger groups of middle-aged locals, who tend to fill the space in the evenings. .
The Grand Boulevard (Nagykörút) is not only a dividing line between inner and outer Pest, but also between the pristine and the gritty, the predictable and the mysterious. As a result, bars along here draw eclectic crowds from all facets 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.