I’m sad tonight. I’m sad because tonight is one of the few nights this week I’m not propping up the bar in Szimpla Kert, the most famous of Budapest’s ruin pubs. These grungy, mostly outdoor bars have sprung up all over the city’s Jewish district in buildings that have fallen into disrepair. Szimpla Kert was the first and is still the most famous of them, but is it also the best?
Obviously, I don’t live in Budapest, so it’s a question I’m not really in a position to answer – but I could have tried at least. I’m a little ashamed to admit, though, that I was a very bad travel blogger this time around; when I should have been bar-hopping around the city to collect a big enough sample size of beery experiences to make a call on the city’s nightlife, I was actually lounging around in Szimpla Kert, a leisurely ten metre amble from my apartment.
What can I say? From the moment I walked in, I just didn’t want to leave.
Like a circus crammed into squat, this place is a curio-packed playground. A gauze separating the upper and lower floors is threaded with coloured lanterns and strung with disco balls of varying sizes. Over the course of several evenings I drink and chat, but mostly I stare. I’m drawn to a boxy old TV in one corner. Behind the pane of glass, a 3D scene glows eerily from blue to green and back again. I don’t know what I’m looking at exactly – it looks like an empty fish tank — but I can’t tear my eyes away.
After dark, the whole place slinks down the rabbit hole. There’s no dancing, but DJs take to the booths and old reels of film (installation art-type stuff) are projected onto screens pulled down from the ceiling. One room would be completely dark were it not for strings of fairy lights and multiple TVs pulsing kaleidoscopic neon patterns in sync. In another, groups sprawl across low sofas, clustered around shisha pipes. Upstairs, a warren of corridors provide a view out over the courtyard, where on top of another bar perch a collection of old lifeguard chairs.
I order the standard draught beer at the bar. “You like beer?” the barman barks. “Well don’t have Soproni. Soproni is s***. Have Dreher. Much better.” It’s the most convincing point-of-sale upselling I’ve ever been subjected to. I suspect very little Soproni is consumed in Szimpla.
From beer we move to palinka, a fruity Hungarian brandy that lingers on the tongue and scorches the throat like sweet lava. Nothing is more than £2. Not the beer, nor the palinka, nor the hunks of Hungarian pizza being doled out from a little counter near the entrance.
Because I was stationed so close to Szimpla, I also got to see it during the day. Every Sunday morning, only a few hours after the last of the revellers leave, the place fills with little stalls and beer-swigging traders cheerily tempt shoppers into trying paprika paste, soft, pale cheese, mushroom pate and chunks of sausage. It has the feeling of a fair at a community centre, where the community is basically dedicated to having an awesome time.
I’m not the only one who thinks Szimpla is a pretty sound establishment. Lonely Planet has it pegged as the third best bar in the world (the first was also in Budapest – whoops, too late!). I’m quite lucky that in my line of work I get to visit the kind of swanky bars in London which are squirreled away inside private members clubs, or towering high over most other buildings in the city — but Szimpla Kert shows that neither views, nor exclusivity and not even expertly shaken cocktails are what’s needed to give a place its cool. The only joint I know of anywhere that gives it some real competition isn’t actually a bar at all, but a little beach shack serving cold beer against a backdrop of sunsets and fire poi on the southernmost tip of Gili Trawangan.
If there’s a bar you go to regularly where the bartender knows your order, everybody knows your name and you’re allowed to run up a tab and not settle it until payday, then you don’t need my recommendation — you already know the best bar in the world. Fortunately for everyone who’s yet to settle on that spot, there’s Szimpla Kert. It might be “the best bar in the world”, or it might not – for what it’s worth, though, I suspect it is.