Standing between the largest synagogue in the Eastern hemisphere and a kosher pizzeria, it’s easy to forget I’m in Budapest.
I’ve been to Jewish neighbourhoods in European cities before, but none like this. There are nearly 50,000 Jews living in Hungary, most of them concentrated in the capital – and despite the horrors of World War II their culture is still thriving.
The Jewish Quarter as it is today roughly follows the boundaries of the ghetto from those times. But in stark contract with its chilling history, the neighbourhood is now a place to have fun.
Most of the action is centred around Kazinczy Utca, a long street lined with restaurants and ruin bars. What are ruin bars? I’m glad you asked – they’re my new favourite way to go out.
Like most good stories do, it all started with a bunch of young people looking for a cheap place to drink. Back in 2001 they took to the abandoned buildings in the Jewish Quarter, filled them with mismatched furniture and used them to serve very very cheap beer.
The first ruin bar (romkocsma in Hungarian) to open was Szimpla Kert. It’s no longer the biggest – that title goes to Instant – but it’s still the best known. Lonely Planet even named it one of the one hundred best bars in the world.
So it’s no wonder that the pubs have gradually grown into a big tourist magnet. As is the case with all things counterculture that suddenly become popular – all things hipster I suppose – ruin bars are no longer the cheap hangouts they were a decade ago.
Are they authentic holes in the wall perfect for meeting locals? Not particularly – especially at night. But if you’re in the mood to party and don’t mind seeing crowds of fellow Brits, Aussies or Americans, I’d still recommend them as one of the best nights out in Budapest. A close second are the sparties at Széchenyi Baths, in case you were wondering.
My favourite ruin bar is Szimpla Kert. I hope that’s not too disappointing – it’s the one name everyone knows. But there’s good reason for it. Where else can you sit in an old Trabant car, smoke hookah and down shots of pálinka?
But don’t worry. There’s also a lot of beer on offer, from local brews to bottles of international lager. Not that it’s all about drinking! You could just as well spend the night meeting people or admiring the artwork.
Pálinka, for those of you who have never heard of it, is a traditional fruit brandy from Central Europe. It’s made with ripe fruit like apricots, cherries or plums which sounds kind of delicious. I’ll let you try it for yourself but I think it tastes like Satan’s wee. I dislike it to the point of turning down free alcohol so you know I’m serious.
Having said that, if you’re mainly in it for the quirky decor come during the day. You can sit down, read a book or have a chilled out beer – all without the omnipresent crowds. Don’t forget to go up the winding staircase inside the bar and check out the upper level, which is full of lovely little knickknacks and greenery.
Oh, and if you’re hungry visit Karavan next door. The outdoor space is full of food trucks serving everything from Hungarian langos (deep fried dough with a dollop of sour cream) to pizza. There are lots of veggie options, which I welcomed as I’m newly vegetarian. My favourite was The Real Cheeseburger – thick slices of deep-fried cheese between soft buns. Nom nom nom!
All this is not to say Szimpla Kert is the only ruin bar worth visiting. If you love craft beer don’t miss Élesztő, although you’ll have to venture outside the Jewish Quarter to find it. Besides having an authentic feel it attracts visitors with its twenty one taps of Hungarian craft beer.
If it’s dancing you’re after, Instant is a better bet than Szimpla Kert. They often bring in famous DJs into this jumble of two dozen rooms with strange decorations, my favourite being a sparkly disco ball slash pig hanging from the ceiling.
But there’s a lot more to the Jewish Quarter (also known as district VII) than nightlife. The area is a short walk from Andrássy út, Pest’s swankiest boulevard, but I found this area much more interesting to explore. What is there to see?
For one, there’s the area’s history and vibrant Jewish culture. Dohány Street Synagogue is the one I mentioned in my opening line – the largest synagogue in the Eastern hemisphere and the second largest in the world.
There are two other synagogues – the Orthodox Synagogue on Kazinczy Utca and one on Rombach Street. The Raoul Wallenberg Holocaust Memorial Park is another wonderful, if heartbreaking, place to visit. It holds a memorial to the 400,000 Hungarian Jews who were murdered by the Nazis during World War II.
You can also find beautiful Art Nouveau and Neo-Classical homes in the area, as well as romantic arcades and courtyards to wander through. In one of these you’ll be able to find a remnant of the original ghetto walls. But the most visited is Gozsdu Courtyard, packed with restaurants and locals.
But you don’t need to make your visit of the Jewish Quarter all about history. This is a regular neighbourhood, full of regular people and regular people things. You know – grey apartment blocks, chipped paint and shops where you can buy anything from fresh apples to toilet paper.
That’s exactly what makes it so lovable (the realness, not the toilet paper). By night it’s full of tourists, but by day you can still get a genuine peek at what life is like for those who call this place their home.
If you’re a fan of street art – if you’ve read about my road trip around Germany you’ll know I am – this is the place for you. Below are four beautiful examples of what’s in store, but if you’d like to read about the individual pieces in more detail check out this Budapest street art guide.
The last mural is rather aptly called Budapest Ain’t That Small, and it highlights other areas worth visiting. Because as much as I love the Jewish Quarter – and I’m sure you will, too – the Hungarian capital has many other neighbourhoods that you should see.
If you’re not sure where to begin, read my guide to Budapest in which I cover everything from activities to food, transport and accommodation. It’s full of photos just like this post right here, so it’s great for armchair travelling as well.
Have you ever been to the Jewish Quarter in Budapest, or even the city in general? Did you enjoy the ruin bars? Let me know – and if you have any suggestions on what to see there please leave them in a comment below!