To drink in Budapest is to engage with the city’s fortunes. An economic surge in the decade following the fall of the Iron Curtain gave rise to the city’s renowned “ruin bars”—community spaces serving as hybrid bar/cafe/performance venues established primarily in the neglected remains of disused buildings in the city’s old Jewish Quarter. In reclaiming its cosmopolitan legacy in the years since, the old imperial capital has proved itself in tune with global enthusiasm for craft cocktails and obscure wine varietals. The resulting melange of drinking establishments ranges from chaotic backpacker bars to subdued speakeasies, wine bars and beyond. Here we have listed some of our favorite venues that appear at all spots on Budapest’s nightlife spectrum.
Ruin bars across Budapest’s old Jewish Quarter began popping up following a series of tragic events (chiefly during WW2, but also during the country’s communist era) that largely emptied the neighborhood of inhabitants and saw many of its buildings fall into disuse. Mazel Tov pays homage to its neighborhood’s cultural legacy through a stunning green space in the heart of the Old Quarter. Focused on accomplished Middle Eastern gastronomy, the menu is vast—with bar snacks and bigger dishes from the grill. We suggest making a reservation, as this garden party is popular every day of the week.
The original ruin bar, Szimpla Kert remains a favorite among young travelers making their way through Eastern Europe. Set in an old factory building, the two-level space is really several bars (and a restaurant) in one, including indoor and outdoor spaces, a screening space, and a dizzying collage of second-hand decor (a recurring motif in the city’s ruin bars). By day, Szimpla Kert can exist as anything from a farmer’s market, recording studio, art space or cinema. By night, it’s the kind of place where you might end up drinking colorful vodka cocktails of questionable provenance from a plastic bucket.
The soaring, backlit shelves behind the bar at Black Swan (one of the newer gems in Budapest’s burgeoning craft cocktail scene) contain just about any spirit one could ask for—and a few many Western visitors might not know to request, like some truly excellent pálinka, a Hungarian fruit brandy. Cocktails here are mostly classic, so grab a seat at the bar if you can and leave yourself in the barkeep’s capable hands.
Csendes Vintage Bar and Cafe
Another day-to-night establishment, Csendes Vintage Bar and Cafe seamlessly transitions from coffee and lunch to twilight beers without missing a beat. Formerly a grand Transylvanian coffee house, its high-ceilinged interior now looks as though it were decorated by an eccentric collector with a penchant for the macabre. If a bar could embody a Rorschach test, Csendes might be it.
If you only visit one cocktail bar in Budapest, Boutiq Bar should be the one. Windowless and scarlet-hued, Boutiq serves some of the more creative cocktails in the city. Some are interesting twists on classics (the excellent Jalisco Sazerac comes to mind), but for the real East-meets-West experience that has long-defined this ancient city, order a Budapest Barbecue and enjoy the theatrics as your drink arrives aflame with a marshmallow garnish for roasting.
Perhaps a lesser-known fact: Hungary is home to more than 20 distinct wine-production regions. Tasting Table is both a wine shop and tasting room, and offers visitors a crash course in some of the best varietals the country has to offer. Many of the wines being poured here are elegant, altogether affordable and unique to Hungary. If you’ve never cracked open a crisp furmint, sampled a fruit-forward and full-bodied “bull’s blood,” or punctuated your dessert course with a sweet Hungarian Tokaji, this is the place to begin your education.
Hotsy Totsy Bar & Barber
Located on the aptly named Síp St, Hotsy Totsy Bar & Barber might seem like another speakeasy tucked inside a barbershop, but it’s much more than a gimmick. Between the cocktail program, ambiance, design, and the cross-bar banter, it’s an alluring spot to spend a few hours. Take a seat beneath the vaulted brick ceiling and tell the barkeep what you feel like—there’s no menu.
Images courtesy of respective venues