13 Communist-era Bars To Try In Budapest

In part fueled by tourism, Budapest's cafes, bars, and restaurants are quickly aligning with those found in other cosmopolitan cities around the world. At the same time, communist-era (1948-1989) establishments that are uniquely rooted in Hungary are fast disappearing. The bars below are some of the last vestiges of a previous epoch — go visit these time warps before they vanish. And, please, don't complain about the quality of the wines, that's beside the point here.

#1 Bambi Eszpresszó

If you're looking to immerse yourself in a deeply local, communist-era neighborhood bar that doubles as a breakfast joint, I can't think of a better place than Bambi Eszpresszó on the Buda side. What makes Bambi the real deal? It isn’t trying to show off an artificial (retro), unremembered past — it’s a genuine throwback.

#2 Ibolya Espresso

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 to this unfussy spot for everything from first dates to business meetings to class reunions. The interior furnishings are a genuine throwback to the communist era, featuring Mid-century modern-inspired light fixtures with orange plexiglass, and curvilinear chairs topped with red faux leather upholstery.

#3 Grinzingi Borozó

Grinzingi is an unpretentious downtown wine bar with a simple formula that has changed little since its opening in 1983: serve cheap drinks in the center of Budapest that's otherwise teeming with overpriced, tourist-oriented bars. Fast forward 35 years, some of the early patrons still pay repeated visits, as do plenty of college students from nearby universities. Inside, heavy wooden fittings evoke the atmosphere of the bar's namesake Austrian village (Grinzing, known for its wine taverns), and the weathered furniture bears marks of long, alcohol-fueled nights.

#4 Mátra Borozó

Opened in 1948, Mátra Borozó is one of the oldest and quirkiest wine bars in Budapest, a genuine throwback. Instead of a regular bar counter, a simple metal box equipped with wine containers stands in the middle of the space. Owner Gábor Abendschein, donning a white lab coat, mans the bar with a perennially annoyed expression on his face as he shleps over to prepare your fröccs (a wine spritzer, the most popular order). He uses a measuring ladle that’s more likely to appear in a museum these days. The classic fröccs — two parts wine, one part seltzer water — costs about €1. If you’re looking to knock yourself out with Hungarian brandy, try a couple of the 26 types of pálinka.

#5 Tokaji Borozó

One of Budapest’s oldest and least pretentious drinking joints is hidden below ground on a quiet downtown street otherwise known for its pricey antique stores. 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 year of opening — draws mainly long-time regulars from the neighborhood. Although the wines are indeed from the famed Tokaj region, they're far from the premium stuff commanding steep prices. But that’s almost beside the point; you're here for the throwback vibes and the cast of colorful characters.

#6 Turiszt Büfé

It's a small miracle that this unfussy, communist-era neighborhood bar right across the street from one of Budapest's most visited tourist attractions — the Dohány Street Synagogue — still exists. I always find it a bizarrely magical moment when I sip a €1 beer here with the picture-postcard view of Europe's biggest synagogue bathed in light before me. A wall-to-wall wood paneling lends a warmth to the tiny space, which serves wallet-friendly "bottom-shelf" wines, bottled beers (two also on tap), spirits, and snacks.

#7 Borpatika

Borpatika (“Wine pharmacy”) is a low-priced neighborhood watering hole in Újbuda on the Buda side. Not much has changed here since the place opened in 1986, which is part of the 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. Apart from the all-welcoming atmosphere, it's the array of food options that draw people to Borpatika: sandwiches, meatballs, and delicious, freshly made pogácsa (savory biscuits) are stacked behind the glass case. Descend to the lower level to find some seating.

#8 Giero Pub

If you find yourself in a place with live gypsy music, chances are that you've been sucked into a tourist trap — overpriced downtown restaurants tend to hire gypsy bands to fabricate “Hungarian vibes” for unsuspecting tourists. The reality is that few Hungarian people, especially those below 50, are exposed to or familiar with such songs.

#9 Villány-Siklósi Winery

For a bit of time travel, you don’t even need to leave Budapest's downtown. The moniker of this grungy, run-down neighborhood bar is tongue-in-cheek, because the wines they serve here are hardly the premium stuff from Villány, one of Hungary's top wine regions. But that's beside the point. Places like this will soon disappear and be likely replaced by swanky coffee shops, so take your chances before it’s too late. Inside, there's a juke box that looks like it’s been rented from a museum, atrocious wall panelings, and an amiable, non-pretentious crowd with a fondness for alcohol. Prices are rock-bottom: a bottle of beer and a small shot of Unicum will set you back by €2.5.

#10 Piccolo Sörbár

Located in Újlipótváros, the teeny-tiny Piccolo bar has been the go-to watering hole for many left-wing artists and intellectuals from the neighborhood. For an outsider, Piccolo may feel intimidating at first as everyone seems to know one another, but don't despair — patrons are easy-going and it's easy to bond with them over low-priced Unicum (a signature Hungarian liqueur) and beer. Piccolo is especially enjoyable during the warmer months from its outdoor terrace overlooking the busy Pozsony Road, the main artery of the area. Next to the entrance is a glass-enclosed bulletin board where they display art made by the regular customers.

To remain unbiased, I visit all places incognito and pay for my own meals and drinks. But this also means I must rely on readers to support my work. If you're enjoying this article, please consider making a donation.

#11 Szlovák Söröző

Szlovák Söröző ("Slovakian beer hall") is an old-school bar and restaurant located on a drab 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 more than four decades. When I say men, I mean it: on some nights, not one woman is in sight, save for the waitress.

#12 Tóth Kocsma

Opened in 1987, Tóth Kocsma is a below-ground downtown watering hole that it isn't trying to be more than what it is: an unpretentious, low-priced bar. The place is especially popular among groups of middle-aged locals who tend to fill most tables in the evenings. Although they've recently expanded their food selections, most people come here for drinks, and the zsíroskenyér (open-faced sandwich topped with lard and red onions) and the chicken liver sandwich.

#13 Krúdy Söröző

Budapest's Grand Boulevard, Nagykörút, doesn't just separate the city center from outer Pest, it's also the unofficial dividing line between the polished and the gritty, the white collar and the blue collar (with exceptions of course). As a result, bars along here tend to draw people from all walks of life. Krúdy Söröző, an unpretentious, all-welcoming, communist-era neighborhood bar, is one such establishment. Despite the wifi and the flat screen TVs, the space feels distinctly 1980s, as do the prices. The patrons? Penniless college students, construction workers, neighborhood thugs, and the occasional aging regular, weary from a decades-long, pálinka-infused stupor. These customers give the place soul, its most endearing quality.

Rankings are based on a combination of food/drink, atmosphere, service, and price. To remain unbiased, I visit all places incognito and pay for my own meals and drinks. But this also means I must rely on readers to support my work. If you've enjoyed this article, please consider making a donation.