Visiting neighborhood bars is the best way to see the true face of a city and its residents. Budapest is no exception. You’ll come away from these places with a sense of excitement and discovery.
If you're looking to immerse yourself in an old school, lively, communist-era neighborhood bar in Buda, Bambi Eszpresszó should be high on your list (Ibolya Espresszó in Pest is comparable). What makes Bambi the real deal? While it doesn't follow contemporary trends, it isn’t showing off an artificial, unremembered past either – it’s a genuine throwback. The waiters are only nice to those patrons they find likeable, and they wear outfits that haven't been in fashion for at least 30 years. The red faux leather upholstery and Thonet look-alike chairs have been in place since the opening in 1961.
Wichmann is a must-see. This dimly-lit, grungy bar has been around since way before Kazinczy Street, the epicenter of the party district in the former Jewish Quarter, became popular. Wichmann feels like a time travel back to communist times, partly because the original interior from the opening in 1987 is still in place. Many of the regulars have been coming here for decades.
Opened in 1968, Ibolya Espresso is a landmark café/bar in Budapest. It's a place deeply rooted in Budapest's collective memory as at least two generations of local residents have been frequenting Ibolya for everything from dates nights to business meetings. Ibolya is a true relic from the communist period with a matching interior: chairs are topped with sticky, faux leather upholsteries and light fixtures feature orange plexiglass. The prices at Ibolya used to be too good to be true, although now they've been somewhat raised as increasing number of curious tourists pop in.
For a bit of time travel you don’t even have to leave downtown. The “villányi” in the name is tongue-in-cheek, since the wine they serve in this socialist-era grungy neighborhood bar is hardly the premium stuff from the Villány region, but that isn’t the point. Places like this will soon be extinct, so take your chances before it’s too late. Expect a juke box that looks like it’s rented from a museum, a price board with uneven and unmatching number stickers, horrendous plastic wall paneling, ridiculously low prices, and an amiable, non-pretentious crowd with a fondness for alcohol..
The formula for success at this unpretentious wine bar is simple: serve cheap drinks in the center of a city otherwise crowded with tourist traps. But what gives Grinzingi soul is its longevity, the variety of its patrons, and the “interior design”. When Grinzingi opened in 1983, it was difficult to find decent wine in the city, so word spread that this wine bar served up cheap, drinkable stuff. Fast forward 30 years, some of those early patrons still pay repeated visits, as do plenty of college students from nearby universities.
The Grand Boulevard 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, no-frills communist-era bar, is one of these. Despite the wifi and flat screen TVs, the space feels distinctively 1980s, as do the prices.
Visiting Tóth Kocsma is the ultimate immersion into everyday Hungarian life, where you can be quite certain to be the only non-Hungarian. It's not fancy, not trendy, not hipster, just a good honest no-frills basement bar. They don’t make ‘em this way anymore. The fact that the unpretentious Tóth Kocsma is located in the middle of the expensive gallery district along Falk Miksa Street just adds an element of irony and a notch to its appeal.
Rankings are based on a combination of food/drink, atmosphere, service, and price. The author visits all restaurants incognito.