It's funny they call them ruin bars because for their founders it’s generally led to good fortune.
It started around 2001, so the story goes, with a bunch of young men looking for cheap places to drink.
From their thirst and shallow pockets have grown some of the most lively and stylish places to drink in Budapest -- so-called ruin bars.
Derelict buildings and unused outdoor spaces have been transformed into friendly, pleasingly chaotic bars where you can still get a large beer for less than €1.45.
Road to ruin
Szimpla Kert (listing below) was the first ruin bar -- it moved around before settling into its home in the Jewish Quarter of Budapest’s seventh district in 2004.
It has the classic signs of a ruin pub: willfully mismatched furniture that had seen better days decades ago, art that some visitors have an annoying habit of taking home without asking and, important in summer, a garden in which to catch the sun.
Unlike other ruin pubs, Szimpla Kert has an old Trabant car in the garden that doubles as a table and chairs.
Cigarette smoke takes the place of the exhaust fumes from the former East Germany’s notoriously unreliable vehicle.
Sound too hipster? Don’t worry.
The day I went the table behind me was filled with locals in their sixties and seventies having an animated conversation over coffee -- not a pair of skinny jeans among them.
“We have a discount for retired people,” says Edina Mihaly, who looks after the bar’s programs and PR.
Good for gossip
That’s the key, I discover over the next few days of exploring Budapest’s ruin pubs.
Some might find them trendy and edgy, but they’re really just relaxed and genial places to meet friends and have a drink.
“Szimpla isn’t so much a party place,” says Juliana Szombati, who's paid by the bar every Friday to teach “pub Hungarian” to tongue-tied tourists desperate to learn how to say more than, “Two beers, please.”
“You come to meet friends and have a drink and a chat, and then go out to a club if you want.
“Hungarians don’t say, ‘Let’s go to a ruin bar.’ I don’t think it matters if it’s a ruin or not. Most people just feel more comfortable in them.”
Once a car park
A few minutes’ walk away is one of the area’s newest ruin pubs, Racskert (listing below), a big, ramshackle garden bar in a disused parking lot -- it's a plain spot, with none of the artful disorder of Szimpla.
Three IT students have stopped by for a drink.
“You can’t keep up with all the new places,” says one of them, Tomas Konscis.
His friend, David Augusztinovicz, likes the cheap prices at ruin bars.
The Tip Top roof bar (Kecskeméti utca 3; +36 70 333 2113) near Pest’s center provides a more sanitized version of the ruin bar experience (along with fantastic views of the city).
The latest lure isn’t so much the place as what it serves.
Craft beers are the newest thing, and the crucible of the craft beer revolution is a bar called Eleszto (Tűzoltó utca 22; +36 70 233 5052).
The premises used to be a factory and then a parking lot -- perfect ruin bar territory.
The following places give a good taste of the range of Budapest ruin bars.
Budapest’s original ruin bar hosts a regular farmers’ market and flea market, as well as live music and film screenings.
Food includes pizza from a wood-fired oven.
Szimpla Kert, Kazinczy utca 14; +36 20 261 8669; daily, noon-3 a.m.
Colorful paper lanterns hang from the ceiling of this former car repair shop ("kuplung" means clutch), where you can get toasted sandwiches.
Kiraly utca 46; +36 30 755 3527; weekdays 3 p.m.-3 a.m. or 5 a.m., Saturday 4 p.m.-5 a.m., Sunday 6 p.m.-3 a.m.
Lurid green apartments overlook the cozy courtyard garden of Super 8.
There’s a play area for children in spite of the late opening hours, which range from 2 to 4 a.m.
Kofarago utca 8; +36 20 452 4445; open from 4 p.m. daily except Sunday
An empty parking lot has been commandeered by one of Budapest’s newest ruin pubs.
Water cisterns recycled as lamps provide the illumination, while a mobile burger van serves snacks from the Bosnian Serb owner’s homeland.
Dob utca 40; +36 20 776 0741; daily 4 p.m.-2 a.m.
There’s a Mexican feel to this large garden filled with brightly painted tables -- helped, no doubt, by the tacos and tortillas on the menu.
Kazinczy utca 48; +36 20 527 3018; weekdays 3 p.m.-2 a.m., weekends 6 p.m.-4 a.m. (Saturday) and 2 a.m. (Sunday)
A few minutes walk from the boutiques of classy Andrassy Street is this jumble of 23 strangely designed rooms sprawled across two former tenement buildings.
First-time visitors usually do a double-take when they spot the giant flying animals and, in one room, furniture pinned to the ceiling.
The menu of burgers and fries is the simplest thing about the place.
Instant (Hungarian site only), Nagymezo 38; +36 30 830 8747; Monday-Saturday noon-3 a.m.
A giant Spar supermarket sign forms a surreal backdrop to this rooftop ruin bar, but it doesn’t detract from the views of the city.
It’s a fair trudge up about six flights of stairs, but if you can’t make it that far, the floor below turns into a club at 10 p.m.
On Mondays in summer, when the club is closed, you can still watch movies on the giant rooftop screen.
Corvinteto (Hungarian site only), Blaha Lujza ter 1-2; +36 20 772 2984; Wed-Saturday 6 p.m.-6 a.m..