Buzzing Budapest

Hit the Hungarian Capital for Hip Bars, Coffee House Culture and Michelin-Starred Cuisine

courtyard of Koleves ruin bar in Budapest

Koleves ruin bar. If Gilligan’s Island had a bar…

THE RUIN BAR SCENE

Two girls nestle inside a rusting bathtub, each languidly puffing on a hookah like the louche, heavy-lidded caterpillar from Alice in Wonderland. A six-foot tall green rabbit squats at the entrance of their ramshackle den, a figment of a fever dream conjured into concrete form, while a child’s rocking horse dangles upside down from the ceiling, impassively surveying the scene through black button eyes.

rabbit statue in Szimpla Kert ruin pub in Budapest

You see that rabbit, too, right? RIGHT?

Deeper in the heart of this graffiti-splattered cavern, half-a-dozen hipsters crowd into a defunct car retrofitted with wooden benches, Beverly Hillbillies-style, and a young woman dances with an inflatable doll beneath the rainbow glow of Christmas lights.

Gradually, the tangle of tattooed limbs blurs into a mind-bending illusion—that of a multitentacled, beer-clutching Kraken grooving to a persuasive techno beat.

Whatever I might have expected from Budapest, I couldn’t have imagined the dystopian utopia of Szimpla Kert.

It’s a surreal standout among a warren of “ruin pubs” that transform the Hungarian capital’s Jewish Quarter into a party-hearty hub after dark.

These lively bars—some little more than open-air courtyards strung with hammocks and furnished with old barrels, park benches and even a “shipwrecked” boat—line the roads and fill the courtyards of buildings that lay neglected long after World War II.

girls in boat at Mika ruin pub in Budapest

Don’t rock the boat at Mika ruin pub.

Now, the neighborhood is a haven for street artists, students and backpackers basking in the hedonistic vibe that pervades former Eastern Bloc cities like Budapest and Prague, which are still reveling in their freedom after casting off the Communist yoke towards the end of the 20th century.

TRADITIONAL BUDAPEST

Some visitors come to Budapest seeking a better understanding of its turbulent history, including its World War II Axis alliance and post-war Soviet rule, which ended in 1989.

The Shoes on the Danube Bank is an installation of dozens of pairs of cast iron shoes, placed here as a memorial to Jews who were shot by the water's edge by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.

The Shoes on the Danube Bank is an installation of dozens of pairs of cast iron shoes, placed here as a memorial to Jews who were shot by the water’s edge by fascist Arrow Cross militiamen in Budapest during World War II.

Others arrive to admire the architecture. In Pest, east of the Danube River that divides the city, you’ll find gems like St. Istvan’s Basilica, Parliament and Vajdahunyad Castle.

Hungarian Parliament in Pest, viewed from Buda side of the Danube River in Budapest

Hungarian Parliament in Pest

In Buda, west of the river, the Gothic-style Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion and the Royal Palace crown the undulating hills.

Looking south along the Danube River towards Fisherman's Bastion.

Looking south along the Danube River towards Fisherman’s Bastion.

BEYOND GOULASH

But more and more, Budapest is reeling ‘em in with its booming bar and restaurant scene, which extends far beyond the Jewish Quarter.

“It used to be mostly Hungarian favorites like goulash, but recently, there’s been an influx of international restaurants,” observes Corinne Pruden, a British native who invested in Budapest property ten years ago with her husband, David. The couple moved here full-time last year, leaving their software sales and marketing careers behind to open The Goat Herder, a modern espresso bar in Pest.

David and Corinne Pruden

David and Corinne Pruden

While Budapest is renowned for its Old World coffee house culture, characterized by crystal chandeliers and liveried waiters, the Prudens have built a loyal following by serving lightly-roasted flat whites, lattes and cappuccinos in a bright, casual atmosphere, which is a testament to the city’s changing tastes.

the elaborate New York Cafe in Budapest, a traditional Hungarian coffee house

New York Cafe in Budapest, a quintessentially elaborate Hungarian coffee house

While you’ll still find plenty of goulash (vegetable-laden broth filled with chunks of beef), schnitzel, sausage, and traditional paprika-spiced, cream-drenched chicken around Budapest, a quartet of Michelin-starred restaurants have opened here in the past five years.

a bowl of traditional Hungarian goulash

Traditional goulash

What’s more, in Budapest, you can have your fill of Michelin stars without the stratospheric prices. Tanti in Buda serves a three-course lunchtime menu, with exotic-sounding dishes ranging from veal tongue to cod satay, for around $14—and the chef will even accommodate vegetarian and gluten-free diets. For a contemporary take on Hungarian fare with a French bistro flair, try Borkonyha in Pest, where entrees average $16.

Borkonyha, with its Michelin-starred cuisine and airy terrace, is one of Budapest's most popular restaurants.

Borkonyha’s airy terrace

DISTINCTIVE TIPPLES

Should you work up a thirst while tasting and touring, boozer beware. Unicum, an herb-laden liqueur that tastes a bit like burned grass clippings, and palenka, an inexplicably popular throat-searing spirit, are the domain of iron-livered adventurers, but Hungarian brews like Dreher and Borsodi should satisfy lager lovers.

a shot of Unicum, a Hungarian herbal liqueur

Unicum. The name says it all.

Oenophiles are the big winners, as Hungary produces a diverse array of wines, including the well-known sweet white Tokaji Aszu and red Egri Bikaver (“Bull’s Blood”). DiVino serves more than 100 different types of wine—many by the glass—at two locations around the city.

DiVino Wine Bar on St. Istvan Square, Budapest

DiVino Wine Bar on St. Istvan Square

For a high-altitude tipple, head to 360 Bar, an al fresco venue that opens in the summer high above Andrassy utca, the chichi shop-lined “Champs-Elysées of Budapest.”

On a summer evening, 360 Bar above Budapest's Andrassy Utca attracts a hip, sun-seeking crowd.

360 Bar

But you’ll soak up the most spectacular vistas atop the new Aria Hotel Budapest, situated in an elegantly renovated 19th century bank next to St. Istvan’s Basilica. The Aria’s High Note Sky Bar, open to the public year round, offers panoramic views across the city, from the basilica to the gleaming white Parliament and the sprawling palace.

View from the High Note Sky Bar, courtesy Aria Hotel Budapest

View from the High Note Sky Bar, courtesy Aria Hotel Budapest

On balmy nights, Erzsebet square is filled with folks picnicking on the grass and relaxing on a table-lined terrace that leading to the underground Akvarium nightclub.

Crowds flank the terrace leading to Akvarium nightclub in Budapest's Erzsebet Square.

Crowds flank the terrace leading to Akvarium nightclub in Erzsebet Square.

KEY PHRASES

While English is widely spoken, the surest way to win a heartfelt smile is by attempting a handful of Hungarian phrases. “SEE-yaw” (hello and goodbye), “KAY-rem” (please) and “KUR-sur-nurm” (thank you) will take you far, but don’t forget “EH-gehs-shay-geh-dreh” (to your health). In buzzy Budapest, this traditional toast might be most useful of all.

Toasting the sunset with the Aria's signature Andrea Rost cocktail, combining champagne, grapefruit peel and Grand Marnier.

Toasting the sunset atop the Aria Hotel Budapest’s High Note Sky Bar.

IF YOU GO

Where to stay: The 49-room, music-themed Aria Hotel Budapest harmonizes with the city’s rich musical offerings, which include opera, classical, klezmer and traditional folk performances. A keyboard-style path guides guests from the entrance to a courtyard covered by a glass dome framing views of the sky; complimentary wine and cheese are served here every evening.

Forget the Yellow Brick Road. Follow this ebony and ivory path into the inner sanctum of the Aria Hotel Budapest.

Forget the Yellow Brick Road. Follow this ebony and ivory path into the inner sanctum of the Aria Hotel Budapest.

Each of the four wings is dedicated to a different genre: Classical, Opera, Contemporary and Jazz. Walls are adorned with caricatures of musicians like Michael Jackson, Frank Sinatra, and Hungary’s own Franz Liszt, and every room features high-tech amenities like iPad Air and free WiFi.

The Franz Liszt room, courtesy the Aria Hotel Budapest

The Franz Liszt room, courtesy the Aria Hotel Budapest

In addition to the High Note Sky Bar, Budapest’s only year-round rooftop bar, the Aria features the blue-lit Satchmo’s Bar and Lounge, Stradivari Restaurant (opening soon), and a luxurious spa with a pool, Jacuzzi, steam room, infrared and Finnish sauna, and fitness area.

Harmony Spa at the Aria Hotel Budapes

Harmony Spa at the Aria Hotel Budapest

Where to eat and drink: Szimpla Kert, Kazinczy utca 14. One of the best ruin pubs, but there are many others in the Jewish Quarter, particularly along Kazinczy utca. Szimpla transforms into a traditional farmer’s market on Sunday mornings.

A stringed duo plays for shoppers at Szimpla Kert ruin pub, which transforms into a farmer's market on Sunday mornings.

A stringed duo plays for shoppers at Szimpla Kert ruin pub, which transforms into a farmer’s market on Sunday mornings.

The Goat Herder, Istvan utica 5.

To see a more typical ornate coffee house, savor the gilded glory of the New York Café, Erzsébet krt. 9-11.

DiVino, two locations: St. Istvan ter 3, Kiraly utca 13.

360 Bar, Andrassy utca 39

Akvarium, Erzsebet ter 12

Tanti, Apor Vilmos ter 11-13.

Borkonyha, Sas utca 3.

For more casual, traditional fare, check out the restaurants gathered around Liszt Ferenc ter.

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