Two girls nestle inside a rusting bathtub, each languidly puffing on a hookah like the louche, heavy-lidded caterpillar from “Alice in Wonderland.” A 6-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. 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 pervasive, 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. 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 toward the end of the 20th century.
Some visitors come to Budapest seeking a better understanding of its turbulent history, including its World War II Axis alliance and postwar Soviet rule. Others arrive to admire the architecture, from St. Stephen’s Basilica, Parliament and Vajdahunyad Castle in Pest, east of the Danube River that divides the city, to the Gothic-style Matthias Church, Fisherman’s Bastion and Royal Palace crowning the hills of Buda to the west. 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 10 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. While Budapest is renowned for its Old World coffeehouse 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.
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. What’s more, they’re a bargain. 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.
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. 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.
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.” 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. Stephen’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, the sprawling palace and the illuminated Ferris wheel in nearby Erzsebet ter. On balmy nights, Erzsebet Square is filled with folks picnicking on the grass and relaxing on a table-lined terrace leading to the underground Akvarium nightclub.
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.
IF YOU GO
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. 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 Wi-Fi. 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. Opening rates from about $297 per night, including breakfast. Hercegprímás utca 5, ariahotelbudapest.com.
Eat and drink: Szimpla Kert, Kazinczy utca 14, szimpla.hu/en. One of the best ruin pubs, but there are many others in the Jewish Quarter, particularly along Kazinczy utca. Szimpla transforms into a traditional farmers market on Sunday mornings.
The Goat Herder, Istvan utca 5, thegoatherder.hu.
To see a more traditional coffee house, visit the gilded glory of the New York Café, Erzsébet krt. 9-11, newyorkcafe.hu/bemutatkozas?lang=en.
Tanti, Apor Vilmos ter 11-13, tanti.hu.
Borkonyha, Sas utca 3, borkonyha.hu/?lang=eng.
For more casual, traditional fare, check out the restaurants gathered around Liszt Ferenc ter.
DiVino, two locations: St. Istvan ter 3, Kiraly utca 13, divinoborbar.hu/en.
360 Bar, Andrassy utca 39, 360bar.hu.
Akvarium, Erzsebet ter 12, akvariumklub.hu.