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Find Budapest's nightlife among the 'ruin pubs'

Exploring the nightlife in Budapest, Hungary.
BY RICK STEVES Published: April 22, 2012

Budapest, the cultural capital of Hungary and much of Central Europe, has no shortage of nightlife. You can go there for grand opera, folk music and dancing, a twilight boat trip or live music in a nightclub.

But there's also an edgy side to Budapest evenings — “ruin pubs” (romkocsma), which are smoke-filled, ramshackle bars crammed with 20-somethings. To find them, you'll have to explore the dingy streets of the city's Jewish Quarter. After World War II, this area was deserted, then resettled by mostly Roma (Gypsies). It remained dilapidated even after the Iron Curtain fell, and the rest of Budapest was rejuvenated.

This unusual combination of a central location and low rents has attracted a funky new breed of bars. Their low-profile entryways look abandoned, but once you walk through a maze of hallways, you emerge into large rooms and open-air courtyards filled with people and thrift-shop furniture.

It feels like a gang of squatters made a trip to the dump yesterday and grabbed whatever was usable, moved in today, and are open for business tonight. Enjoying a drink here, I'm reminded of creatures that inhabit discarded shells in a tide pool.

The last time I was in Budapest, I ended up sitting with Peter (who designs ruin pubs), Laura (who works at a hotel) and Sandra (whose father's company introduced adult entertainment to Hungary in the 1990s). I told them how much I like the shabby lounge atmosphere of a ruin pub, and Laura declared this one, Szimpla Kert (which means “Simple Garden”), is the mecca of ruin pubs in Budapest.

No fashion slaves

Sandra agreed, but was distracted when Miss Hungary walked by. With a little disdain, she said, “There's Miss Hungary — a beauty brat with a Gucci handbag, and nobody notices her.” Here, where no one's a fashion slave, not being a fashion slave creates a similar burden.

Peter bought everyone a round of spritzes (rose with soda water). He was excited about the new ruin pub across town called “Instant,” and wanted us to go there. We trekked a few blocks away and found a warren of rooms and alcoves in a historic-feeling, but appropriately rundown building. Each room was decorated differently, but always creatively — I liked the upside-down room with furniture on the ceiling.

I commented on how well the design worked. Peter explained how these clubs are the soul of underground culture here. It's the anti-club club: flea market furniture, no matching chairs, a mishmash of colors. It's eclectic, designed to be undesigned. On hot nights, the pubs spill out into shoddy courtyards, creating the feeling of a cozy living room missing its roof ... under the stars.

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