There is crumbling stone on all sides and vines force their way through the walls. Mismatched chairs hang 15 feet off the ground from a rope stretched across a former parking lot. In the very center, an abandoned car with its roof and doors torn off sits on a raised platform. Perched on – and all around – the car, young men and women are drinking, shouting and dancing to loud, synth-heavy music coming from somewhere inside the adjacent rundown warehouse.
This is Szimpla Kert, the first of Budapest’s now famous “ruin pubs.” Szimpla, as it’s more commonly known, opened in the summer of 2001 as a pop-up before finding a permanent home here in the Jewish Quarter. Since then, bars of a similar underground style have moved in all over the area, where the rent is cheap and abandoned buildings are plenty.
Kuplung, meaning “clutch,” was once an auto repair shop. Today, it is home to two bars covered in paper lanterns that look like swarms of neon jellyfish. Night club Instant has taken over an entire apartment building, with beaten up furniture shoved into every room. On the roof of a defunct department store is the dance floor of Corvintetõ. During the day you wouldn’t know these places existed, but at night the crowds chatting and smoking outside are a dead giveaway.
This section of Budapest had been widely uncared for since the 1940’s, when tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews were forced out of the city. There are still many boarded up windows to be seen from the street, but Szimpla and the trend it started has revitalized this area, drawing people out at night as well as during the day with programs like farmer’s markets and pop-up shops.
Budapest isn’t the only city in Eastern Europe where nightlife has taken hold in unusual places. In Prague’s Žižkov district you can have a drink underground in a Cold War-era fallout shelter. In Dubrovnik, bars have been carved into the cliffs that the walled city sits on, overlooking the impossibly blue Adriatic. In Vienna, cocktail bar Puff retains the name it had during its former life as a brothel, although you would never know it by the mirrored-glass bar and black leather booths lining one wall.
You would be hard pressed to find a bar of similar character here in the U.S., but we often forget that our country has never gone through an era in which bunkers needed to be built or neighborhoods were forcefully abandoned. In other words, you can’t find ruin pubs where there has never been ruin. It is a testament to the Eastern spirit that so much vibrancy can be found in such dark places. And to that, we raise a glass.