What makes a bar a dive bar. Actually, what makes one search out a dive bar and then say how great it is? It is a bar that is always there, no frills, no graces. Just an honest establishment to enjoy a drink, watch the bohemian patrons and soak up some wholesome Budapest atmosphere. A dive bar, or ruin bar as they are also referred to, will have an inclusive vibe, a place that people continue to go about their conversation and not stare at you as you amble in. And a little bit of kitsch helps. I sense that these are places where you can over-indulge and nobody seems to mind. Put simply, it’s a dive so you can get messy. Everybody is welcome. And a good ruin bar is cheap.
Ruin bars are generally housed inside dilapidated pre-war buildings, quirkily furnished from second hand stores and exude an uber-cool atmosphere. While ruin bars started life with a grungy and gritty look, with crumbling plaster and graffiti laden walls, they soon became a hip place to gather for drinking and partying.
The inner part of the Jewish Quarter (the inner part of District VII) was made up of abandoned buildings which became dilapidated in the decades following the Second World War, after the deportation of many thousands of Jews. Fortunately, a couple of young visionaries decided to gamble on a condemned building complex and created what marked the start of the legendary ruin bar scene we know of and many love today.
The first of such bars was Szimpla, which began as an experiment, a bar that was set up in an abandoned building offering affordable drinks for the young and creative crowd in Budapest. It became a hub after the crumbling building got spruced up with vintage and eclectic and mismatched furniture. Its chaos and eclecticism turned it into one of the world’s most famous bars. Finally, an oft-overlooked bit of urban history, as a reminder of the neighbourhood’s Jewish past, there’s a still-functional Jewish ritual bath adjacent to Szimpla that’s run by the local Orthodox community.
Anker’t is another ruin bar on a charming backstreet in the gritty Jewish District. As soon as you enter you will recognise the ruin bar formula – a scaffolded, crumbling facade of the almost 200-year-old building with thick skeletal brick and limestone walls. It is made up of spacious connecting courtyards featuring minimalist industrial design and uniquely, regular Sunday markets in place of dance parties.
With the Jewish district’s saturated bar scene, one can feel overwhelmed, as almost every street is lined with attractive-looking places to drink. We came across Kisüzem in District VII based on a recommendation from an old friend and were not disappointed. This bar is more relaxed, exudes bohemian vibes and has managed to retain a mainly local clientele. Missing from Kisüzem was the partying young crowd. Instead the more gentile crowd enjoy each other’s company and the ruin bar vibe.
There are bars that continue to attract regulars and a few tourists curious to see what Budapest looked like in the 1960s. Calgary Antik Drinkbár is one such establishment. It is retro to the nth degree. It is a bar which is also an antiques showroom (of sorts), which hasn’t been dusted from the day it was opened! So, you’re sipping your beer amid artefacts of the past. Viki – a former model and actress from the 1960s – is your host. Just don’t expect to receive what you order. She has a trove of tales to tell, continually talking to us…just a shame we have no Hungarian language skills! The Calgary is your place if you like plenty of knick-knacks cluttered around you and sitting on old cushioned stools covered with grandma’s crocheted throws! It’s like drinking in an eccentric grandmother’s living room. It is not rowdy, you may be the only patron, but extremely quirky and comes complimentary with the bar dog and cat.
Having explored this bohemian city, it’s now almost impossible to think of Budapest without its ruin bars. Over the past decade or so, Budapest’s ruin bars have evolved into an attraction that is perhaps as popular, if not more so, than the likes of Buda Castle, the Hungarian Parliament Building and the thermal baths.