Budapest’s Ruin Bars and Nightlife

It all began with Szimpla.  It is quiet by the day but as night falls and gets deeper into the midnight hour, this place is all jam packed.  Long lines and security marshals shepherd the scores of people who want to get a taste of the Pest night scene.  Szimpla was the first of the ruin bars in the Jewish Quarter.  The Jewish quarter, I was told, went through a renewal over the last few years.  What was once the center of Jewish life in Budapest until World War II, faded away like many things in the 20th century.  Despite the fact that the Jewish community was restricted and confined outside the old city wall, here in Budapest, compared to other places in Europe, the Hungarian Jews were much more integrated into the Hungarian society.  The architecture of the old Synagogue that stands nearby combined several elements from other cultures.  After the WW2 the quarter was decimated and ended up in ruins.  Yes, literally.  Some of the old houses still stand with Jewish symbols, but they clearly speak of an era that has seen better days.  Needless to say the Jewish history of this place is quite complicated.  The German Nazis were never here, so the atrocities and evacuation came mainly from Hungarian anti-Semites.  The history was no less brutal and the mass exterminations were quick and extensive.

Enough of this morbid backdrop.  Fast forward to Szimpla.  It started a new concept of converting the ruined buildings into bars. The bar itself has got thousands of antiques and artifacts from broken TVs, cars, mirrors – you name it. All blended to exude beauty, art, and expression of revival; of making something nice out of a dilapidated and derelict past. My guide and friend Zsuzsa walked me through Szimpla’s journey in brief while I kept sipping Fröccs, a spitzer made from wine and soda, that Zsuzsa treated me to.  She said, “Szimpla started as an underground experiment but then it caught on and others followed.”  Now ruin bars are set feature in the Jewish Quarter –  the area bordering Erzsébet krt. to Kazinczy utca.  As this area revived and gentrified again in the 21st century, sure enough we witness an influx of the Jewish community as well – mostly centered around the two prominent synagogues.  I had lunch at the Spinoza Cafe during my stay.  The cafe manager was an emigre from Israel and the owner from Holland.  What brought them back is a question I did not ask, but it was clear that they brought some character.  They had interest in classical music and the walls are all decorated with interesting art and memorabilia.  It was interesting to learn that the ruin bars are now under spotlight with the new right wing in power in Hungary.  Revelry and partying is not everyone’s cup of tea, but in Budapest this right-wing opposition is viewed more as a nuisance than meaningful position.  The underground movement has become mainstream.  But the cat and mouse with the authority is on.

What is behind the success of the ruin bars or the nightlife in general here in Budapest?  And nightlife is serious.  It goes on till sunrise on Saturday and Sunday mornings.  The biggest factor I noticed was that this bar/night scene is scripted not just with party-going tourists. In fact these places come to life with the locals.  The vibe, the color, the conversations are as local as much as they were touristy. But always more local than touristy, I would say. This is where the people hang out – local artists, young professionals, and even some middle aged people. During my stay if there is one place where I came again and again, in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening, as well as late night, it was this little strip within the quarter.  Each bar one is so different and the level of thought that has gone into converting junk into art is indeed remarkable.  One such place was the large building, Doboz, opposite Barack & Szilva with a huge courtyard with a large tree jutting out in the middle.  It is as if the tree is growing out of the building.  The facade outside the building is still dilapidated but has vibrant lighting that electrifies the street.  There was another with a giant screen displaying silent movie footages of 1950s/60s Paris (or maybe Budapest) and other cities to eclectic music.  Reminded me of the visual media exhibits from MOMA in New York.  Another bar was built on the grounds of the old electrical engineering museum.  I am not kidding. Indeed an Electrical Engineering Museum. Old circuit breakers, transformers and motors are all over and tons of Neon lights that are lighted once or twice a year. Sadly, it was not one of those lucky days for me. I was told they can’t afford the electricity bill to keep it lighted everyday. 

The concept of using junk and antiques to decorate is not just limited to the ruin bars. There were a couple of cafes that were all decked up with antiques – from communist era artifacts to defunct vacuum tube TVs, radios, and old phones.  In a way it made me feel an antique myself – as I saw my past unfold before me.  I would recall our first TV in the 70s and then the graduation to color TVs in the late 80s, VCRs and my grandfather’s tube radio that took an entire table.  These were gadgets that I grew up with and now they are all displayed as antiques.  I was introduced to an antique camera store near the synagogue.  The store was filled with Soviet era cameras – Zenit and FED and the East German Praktika.  I was tempted to build a collection – but then I don’t collect when I won’t use much. So it was better to get a glance and let it be. 

As I picked up the pieces through my past and present, I felt there was an overarching theme that consumed me in Budapest.  From my conversations, I learned there is a growing recognition of what sustainable growth is. The de-growth conference, which was under preparation during my visit was meant to question the very premise of growth – and the cost thereof.  As I write, the conference is over – and I wonder how that was. Did we question how much materials and resources we truly need? Do we view growth through very narrow limits and myopic vision? If we expand then are we bound to get a different if not opposite answer?

The concept of converting ruins or even old building into hip fun places is not new.  It has caught on and people told me Berlin would be another place to check out.  Over the years – I remember Tate Modern and the local Baltimore restaurant built on old power plants site. There are places that are stripped down and other built on top of the past.  In their own ways, people conduct renewal in their own ways. In Budapest – while renewal is at a grand scale and ruin bars are a unique expression.  Whenever my next visit – I will be curious what I see they become. Will they be in ruins? Or will they be also going through their cycle of wash-rinse-repeat.