Szimpla Kerts and the Ruin Bars of Budapest

I love history more than the average person, I mean have you seen this blog?! but even I have to admit there are times when I want to be just a little too hipster and move out of the stuffy history bits, sit somewhere have a drink and shoot the breeze.

That usually requires some neural lubricant, beer.

When you are in Budapest though, history and beer aren’t too far apart. You can’t have a beer without looking around the place – because bars aren’t just bars here, welcome to the Ruin Bars of Budapest.

How? What?

It starts with World War II, and Jewish people in Europe, a strange but dark connection that many of the hippest places in modern Europe seem to share (Oslo’s Grunerlokka, Berlin’s Hackescher Hof, Barcelona’s Barrio Gotico, Vilnius’ Uzupis). There was once a massive Jewish population that called Budapest home, so massive that the Jewish Quarter was and remains home to the largest synagogue in Europe – Dohány Street Synagogue.

Jewish people have left a mark on Budapest in the culture, history and cuisine. For a small population the list of who’s who in the community is oversized – and counts among others proponents of the liberal order today such as Milton Friedman, George Soros, business founders such as Intel founder Andrew Grove, and a pioneer of game theory (and Nobel Laureatte) John Harsanyi.

The World War II came, and Hungary’s dark history with the Axis powers meant that many jews were shipped out to the slaughter camps around the continent.

Most Jewish people never came back and the houses were left to the wear and tear of time. Into that dark history came the ruin bars. In 2002, a group of four enterprising businessmen set up a small bar where they could have a relaxing drink to socialise away from the hubbub of town. It was located in the old Jewish Quarter, the pub developed nicely and slowly. Then in 2004, news broke that a beautiful but rundown old house in the Jewish Quarter was on the verge of being demolished. Galvanished to saving the location from demolition, the four owners moved their pub to this location – the current location of Szimpla Kert.

It opened as Szimpla Kertmozi, using the Hungarian word for an open-air cinema, which the large courtyard in the building allowed for (screening of indie and art house films)

The pub has evolved into significantly more than a pub, it is now a community centre hosting movie screenings, live music, an art gallery, a farmers market and a flea market among others.

There is even a restuarant serving Hungarian food to mostly tourist – it is still popular with locals, but has exploded in popularity in recent years.

Szimpla Kert was the beginning of a Budapest phenomenon, as ruin bars starting to pop up all over the old Jewish quarter, and many travel magazines now write about it (here, here, here and here).

It was a cool experience, and once you try one ruin bar, you have to go try others, that’s for the next trip to Budapest.


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