Before Budapest, I didn’t believe party montages existed. I knew going out would never be like the supercut glorification of mayhem you only see in the movies. I had been to parties with flashing lights and loud music, but despite the never ending bounty of free glow sticks, no house party or bar could ever replicate the fantasy of a studio-manufactured party scene. At least, I never thought so — until I found myself gawking in the entrance of one of Budapest’s famous ruin bars and realized I was looking at something Hollywood couldn’t touch.
As you enter Szimpla Kert, you might scan the buzzing crowd of tourists and locals extending back into an outdoor courtyard, but you will most likely struggle to keep your eyes on any one thing. From the solo cup chandeliers illuminating the industrial piping to the flora and fauna growing around bicycles suspended from the walls, there isn’t a corner of Szimpla Kert not covered in art. Any gaps you find between the bottle cap mermaid mosaic and the typewriter nailed to the wall are filled in with messages, harshly scribbled in permanent marker by the patrons of Budapest’s alternative center.
Ruin bars are all the fun of exploring an abandoned building, but with music, alcohol, and a steadfast belief that the building itself won’t collapse on top of you. The best way to experience it all is to dive into the madness. Grab a drink and keep moving, letting every stimulus guide your next decision. Explore every room — the hookah bar, the wine lounge, the open-mic stage — maybe choosing to linger in the room filled with boxy old televisions hanging from the wall like flies caught in a web of Christmas lights. Walk up the stairs. Walk down the stairs. Try every mismatched stool, armchair, and if it’s available, take a seat on the claw-foot bathtub refurbished into a sofa. If you want to meet someone new, just point to the nearest mannequin with a vacuum cleaner for a head and ask the nearest stranger, “Is that not the weirdest thing you’ve ever seen?”
For Budapest’s newcomers, a night out typically begins here at Szimpla Kert, the most popular ruin bar and the city’s first. In 2002, a group of students bought an abandoned tenement building in the run-down District VII and took out loans to remodel the space. They filled the empty space with art and transformed it into a café called Szimpla. The unexpected success of Szimpla drew young Hungarians through the seedy streets of District VII to fill the building’s courtyard and corridors and Szimpla became Szimpla Kert, or the Simple Garden. As a multi-level bar, venue, and sensory overload, it cemented its spot on the top 10 lists of Budapest, pioneered the ruin bar concept, and spurred the movement that followed.
After Szimpla Kert, more buildings were bought and renovated and ruin bars began popping up everywhere, transforming District VII into the new heart of the city. Though the abandoned tenement buildings are not unique to this neighborhood alone (World War II and the Soviet era left many buildings throughout the city beyond repair), the proximity of the district to the downtown hotels, classical sights, and landmarks made it a central location for both tourists and locals.
In the creative spirit of the movement, every ruin pub that opened its doors brought something new to the scene. While Szimpla Kert monopolized on their eclectic furnishings, new ruin bars established their own style within the realm of organized chaos. Instant, the largest ruin bar in the city, appears and sounds from the outside to be your run-of-the-mill night club, but inside holds a maze of interconnected dance floors, chill-out rooms papered with sheet music, and hidden basement cafes. On the other side of the spectrum, the ruin bar restaurant Mazel Tov serves up a garden-style gastronomic experience within the walls of a neglected brick building, honoring District VII’s Jewish history.
It takes more than a location inside of one of the district’s forgotten buildings and some graffiti to make a ruin bar. No ruin bar is complete without a barrage of impulses and stimuli that keep visitors moving throughout the space. This chaos is carefully planned. Many ruin bars organize different events to keep the spontaneity alive — from film screenings to exhibitions, live music and lectures, and even farmer’s markets for the Sunday morning crowd.
Though hardly a secret anymore, the underground vibe and post-apocalyptic aesthetic still draw visitors into the depths of District VII. Though they have officially become “Hungaricum,” a distinctly Hungarian tradition, ruin bars exist to reinvent themselves.
On my third night out in Budapest, I found myself at PONT, the ruin bar inside a ruin bar. Tucked in the back corner of Fogashaz, PONT is one of the youngest ruin bars in the district and already known among locals as the bar to visit. The music is strictly nostalgic, spanning from 90’s dance hits to old school 50 Cent. With bare walls and sleek design, the only art to be found here is projected onto the wall above a unfinished-wood paneled DJ booth. Colorful animations depict brightly colored shapes and hallucinatory cartoons. Instead of graffiti and sculpture, there was digital chaos, a clash of cultures. It was a long way off from Szimpla Kert’s junkyard chic style, but the spirit of rebellion was thriving.
In just a few days, I had seen the evolution of ruin bars — where they began and where they are going. Change might startle visitors whose best and wildest memories of Budapest were made during a night out in District VII, but ruin bars are a movement defined by distinction and connected through the common impulse to rebel. Each is a world of its own to explore and, with tourism on the rise in Hungary, even more people will be able to immerse themselves in the ruins of District VII. Not one bar will tell the same story.