12 Communist-era Bars To Try In Budapest

In part fueled by tourism, Budapest's cafes, bars, and restaurants are quickly mirroring those in other big cities around the world. At the same time, establishments uniquely rooted in Hungary and dating back to the Communist-era (1947-1989) 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 wine, that's beside the point here.

#1 Bambi Eszpresszó

If you're looking to immerse yourself in a deeply local, Communist-era neighborhood cafe and bar (eszpresszó), I can't think of a better place than Bambi 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 in Budapest's downtown. Ibolya is deeply anchored in Budapest's collective memory as two generations of locals have been coming to this unpretentious drinking joint for everything from first dates to business meetings to class reunions. The interior is a throwback to the Communist era (1947-1989), 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 1983 opening: serve cheap drinks in Budapest's city center that's otherwise teeming with overpriced, tourist-oriented bars. Fast forward 40 years, some of the early patrons still pay repeated visits, as do plenty of college students from nearby universities. Inside, rustic 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 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 sparkling water — won't set you back financially very much. You can also knock yourself out with Hungarian fruit brandy (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 beside the point; you're here for the throwback vibes and the cast of colorful characters.

#6 Borpatika

Borpatika, which translates to "wine pharmacy,” is a low-priced neighborhood watering hole in District 11, on the Buda side. Not much has changed here since the 1986 opening, 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, you're here for the array of freshly made sandwiches, meatballs, and delicious pogácsa (savory biscuits) stacked behind the glass case. Descend to the lower level for some seating.

#7 Libella

Open since 1975, Libella is a longtime watering hole of engineering and architecture students from BME, the university located across the street. This of course means that drinks are low-priced and unpretentious: no, there are no craft IPAs or natural wines here, but you can gulp down a cold lager from the draft for less than two euros.

#8 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 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.

#9 Giero Pub

If you find yourself in a place with live gypsy music in Budapest, chances are you're in a tourist trap — overpriced downtown restaurants tend to hire gypsy bands to fabricate “Hungarian vibes” for unsuspecting tourists. But if you’re curious to listen to a gypsy band in a less formulaic setting, head to Giero, a tiny, below-ground bar tucked away on a District 6 backstreet.

#10 Piccolo Sörbár

Located in Újlipótváros, the teeny-tiny Piccolo bar has long been the go-to watering hole for left-wing artists and intellectuals from the neighborhood. For an outsider, Piccolo may feel intimidating as everyone seems to know one another, but don't despair, patrons are easy-going. Piccolo is especially enjoyable in the warmer months, with a cold beer and Unicum in hand, from its outdoor terrace overlooking the busy Pozsonyi Road. Next to the entrance is a glass-enclosed bulletin board where they display art made by regular customers.

#11 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.

#12 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.

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. I never accept money in exchange for coverage. If you've enjoyed this article, please consider supporting me by making a one-time payment (PayPal, Venmo).