13 Communist-era Bars To Try In Budapest

Budapest's cafes, bars, and restaurants are quickly mirroring those in other big cities around the world, while establishments that might feel more rooted in Hungary are fast disappearing. For example, the bars below are some of the last vestiges of the Communist-era (1947-1989) go visit these time warps before they vanish. And, please, don't complain about the quality of the wine, that's completely beside the point here.

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.

The patrons are a mix of graying, beer-drinking men with strong opinions about the world and fashionable Millennials who've discovered the charms of an eszpresszó. It's the kind of place where customer is not first and where the socialist-modern furnishings with faux-leather upholstery have been in place since the opening in 1961. I most enjoy Bambi for breakfast during the warm-weather months when the cramped tables on its south-facing terrace are bathed in sunshine.

The limited food selections consist of a pair of frankfurters with a side of mustard, scrambled eggs, various toasted sandwiches, and Hungarian pastries. Prices are wallet-friendly.

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.

Despite being in the heart of tourist-heavy downtown, most patrons here are locals, many of them here to watch soccer projected on the big screen, or to wolf down a toasted ham and cheese sandwich blanketed in ketchup before calling it a night. Teenage lovebirds from the neighboring high schools often occupy the secluded tables upstairs. Before you leave, take a glance at Ibolya's timeless typography above the entry door.

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.

Once here, you should try a zsíroskenyér, a traditional Hungarian sandwich slathered with lard and drizzled with salt, pepper, and red onions. A word to the wise: check also downstairs, if the ground level is full of people.

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).

The faintly lit rear section offers an intimate hideaway, not to mention the “secret room” in the very back, attached to the kitchen. Also good: the toasted sandwiches, the roasted sausage, and the finger foods in the display up front. Don't leave before scanning the artworks on the walls that ricochet between darker and lighter themes; regular customers gifted them to Gábor and some are available for sale.

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.

Apart from wines, they serve soft and crispy meatballs, liptauer-topped sandwiches, and also tócsni, a made-to-order fried potato pancake not unlike latkes. Also note: no beers and closed on weekends!

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.

For a long time, Zsír, Fővárosi Kulipintyó, called Hordó then, was the kind of standard-issue watering hole that exists in Budapest’s working class neighborhoods, the outer District 8 in this case. Then in 2022 appeared a new owner who transformed the place into a hub of musically inclined local alternatives while retaining the old-school interior. On Wednesdays and Fridays a band performs Hungarian folk music to a lively audience. Draft beers and zsíroskenyér are available – open-faced sandwiches spread with pork lard and sprinkled with onions and paprika – and even a few craft ales by the can. An exemplary case of carrying the native spirit to the present day!

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.

Order also a melegszendvics; toasted bread topped with ham and melted cheese is hardly a foodie's dream, but it's delicious — especially when smothered in ketchup — and with hangover-mitigating powers. Finally, don't leave without observing the artworks on the wall and the original neon sign above the entrance.

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.

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.

Giero opened in 1990 and it's named after the late father of Gizi, the loquacious, big-hearted, ever-present proprietor. Don’t let the neglected interior hold you back — and watch your head as you descend the stairs — and you might be in for a special experience. The band usually starts at 10 p.m., performing both local classics and international evergreens. There's wallet-friendly beers, pálinka, and Unicum to lift the mood; be sure to buy a round for the band members, too. Closed on Sundays.

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.

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.

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 watering hole, 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.