International hospitality from Iceland to Bosnia
Budapest’s seventh district, once home to a flourishing Jewish community before World War II, has emerged as one of the best bar-hopping neighbourhoods on the busy Pest side of the Danube.
This renaissance has been led by a string of recently opened "ruin pubs" (romkocsma in Hungarian) – a fitting name given the still-derelict state of much of the area. Most can be found along the streets behind the Great Synagogue.
Each ruin pub is unique, but they all share certain similarities. The main ingredient is usually an abandoned building, preferably with a vacant lot nearby to hold picnic tables and a few beer taps. Add to that a bit of thrift-shop decor and a healthy dose of hipster vibe, and the result is what you might get if you crossed a chill Berlin squat with a smallish Munich beer hall.
The best ruin pubs offer live music or DJs on the weekends, as well as film nights and art exhibitions. Some even have light food and hostel accommodations. They are the perfect spot to unwind on a warm summer night after a busy day of sightseeing.
Ruin pubs to the rescue
The arrival of the ruin pubs could not have come sooner for beleaguered Budapest VII (as the city's districts are designated; when in Budapest, do as the Romans do). Though the area is a stone's throw from Andrássy út, Pest's swankiest boulevard, it suffered from a mix of neglect, bad karma and poverty that started during World War II with the deportation of tens of thousands of Jewish residents, and continued into the 1960s, '70s, and '80s as a large Romani population was forced to relocate to Budapest and occupy the abandoned houses.
Now, main streets like Király utca and Dob utca sport trendy coffeehouses and wine bars alongside remnants of Jewish life - small family-owned restaurants and bakeries - that managed to survive.
Choices for a 'ruinous' night
Three of the best ruin pubs are all a short walk from one another and can be taken in fairly easily during a night of methodical drinking. Each has its own personality, so choose whichever one suits the night and your mood.
Nearly every discussion of ruin pubs begins with the granddaddy of them all. Szimpla kert was the first to open and is still arguably the best and bawdiest of the bunch. Several rooms, including a large open-air garden, can accommodate hundreds of people, making it a good choice if you are travelling in a group. In addition to beer, there is wine, cocktails and light food.
Fogas ház is a relative newcomer, having opened its doors fully in 2010 after a few years of opening briefly and then closing down. More than a ruin pub, Fogas aims to be a community cultural centre for the rapidly gentrifying area around nearby Klauzál tér, which was once the heart of the former Jewish quarter. The clientele here tends to be more local than either Mumus or Szimpla. That said, it is not nearly as homey as the former, nor as lively as the others.
There are lots of places to grab a bite on a pub-crawl through this part of town, but one standout is Kőleves Vendéglő (the "Stone Soup" restaurant). The menu is eclectic, mixing traditional (and delicious) Hungarian specialties like catfish stew served with noodles, with Jewish items like matzo ball soup and roast goose, and international fare like pasta and couscous. There are also lots of good vegetarian choices. Reservations are a must, especially on weekend nights.
Correction: A previous version of this article made mention of Mumus, a pub that has now closed. This has been fixed.