Budapest

A Day in Budapest Part 4 – ruin pub, ruin restaurant and one very ruined tourist

Budapest it seems is just full of surprises.

As we wobbled around Budapest’s Jewish district, I realised that this was the first time in I don’t know how long that I hadn’t researched a trip. As discussed with some fellow bloggers recently, many travellers are of the ‘I’ll just walk around and discover things‘ persuasion. I am more the ‘I must devour blogs and travel websites for weeks to discover unique things’ type. In Budapest I had Julia, a born and bred local, so I had no issues leaving the itinerary in her hands. But when we walked away from a ruin pub because of the rather large crown hanging out the front and she steered me toward another with a defeated ‘oh, let’s just go here’, I didn’t have high expectations.

Like Szimpla, Fogas Haz also hides itself pretty well. But the two burly security guys standing out the front were a pretty good clue that something interesting was behind them. One of the security guys checked our bags before letting us in. Julia told me this is something she’s never come across in Budapest, which perhaps explains why she looked at him like he’d asked her to bear him five children.

Fogas Haz has the same run down vibe as Szimpla, it’s layout also having a large open-air space in the middle and a second floor rimmed with balconies and rooms to explore. While it has none of the socialist kitsch of Szimpla, it does however have an Escape Room. We stayed only for one drink, but that was long enough for Julia to run into a friend, who coincidentally was one of the organisers of the bicycle exhibition we had seen earlier at the Ethnographic Museum. Apparently Captain Customer Service’s apathy had not gone unnoticed and he was soon to be fired. Maybe there were comment cards there after all (for this sentence to make sense, you’ll need to have read Part 1).

As they spoke, I watched a gypsy folk band who were playing at the back of the building. They had a strange instrument which Google later told me was  a Cimbalom. From afar it looks like a piano, or perhaps a harpsichord since it’s small. It’s really more of a xylophone, with the top open so the musician can play the strings with two beaters. Cimbaloms are a traditional Hungarian instrument but can be found in other Eastern European countries like Romania, Ukraine and the Czech Republic. Yes, Google told me that too.

Phot: folklife.hu The band at Fogas Haz looked similar to this, with a Cimbalom in the back.

The band at Fogas Haz looked similar to this, with a Cimbalom in the back. Photo: folklife.hu

As I watched the band, Julia saw two hulking security guards wandering through the crowd. “Who do they think they are, walking around trying to be all imposing like that?” she asked incredulously. When I replied that that’s what security are supposed to do – walk around and act all imposing so nobody misbehaves – she insisted “That doesn’t happen in Budapest”. But Julia’s been in the UK for a few years, so perhaps this is not so unheard of anymore. Nevertheless, her horror amused me. As we left, the doorman confiscate a half full bottle of vodka from an unlucky girl on her way in. Julia groaned. (more…)

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5 Reasons To Get Yourself To Budapest Now

A trip to Budapest could easily be crammed full of museums, monuments and places of historical import, if that’s your thing, and don’t get me wrong, Budapest has quality examples of all of those. But I want to give you a quick idea of the cool things, the quirky things and the delicious things Budapest has to offer travellers. So get yourself to the Parliament, check out Fisherman’s Bastion, have a swim at a stunning bathhouse, see an exhibition and eat some Goulash, and then have yourself a look at my list below. If you throw a couple of these into your holiday mix, I promise you’ll love Budapest even more.

1. Escape Rooms

Although they’ve been around since 2011 in Budapest (and even earlier in Asia), Escape Rooms have really begun to take off in 2014 and they’re now popping up all over the world. But if you’re itching to try one, right now Budapest is the place to be. They currently have close to 50 Escape Rooms dotted around the city, all with different themes and difficulty levels.  Don’t know what an Escape Room is? Well I wrote an article for TNT Magazine about Claustrophilia, Budapest’s most popular Escape Room, so have a read about it here and see what you think.

2. Ruin Pubs

Today there are countless ruin pubs in Budapest, but the first and perhaps the best, Szimpla kert, was opened in 2001. The basic concept of a ruin pub is to find a run down building, buy it for peanuts, cram it full of retro objects and fit in a bar. The idea proved so popular, not just with the locals but tourists as well, that Szimpla is now a top Budapest attraction its own right.

While I was there, trying to keep a straight face while drinking the hellishly strong local tipple Palinka, I was surprised to see an umbrella waving guide herding her flock of middle aged foreigners through a graffiti strewn staircase. But trust me, this fails to detract from its cool, funky vibe. Every ruin pub offers something different; Koloves kert, the outside beach club themed bar next to the Koloves restaurant has an array of hammocks for those who need a lie down after their Palinka shots, Foghas haz boasts an Escape Room and regular live gypsy bands and Corvinteto is a rooftop bar, so you get a stunning night view of Budapest to add to the cool surrounds. They may all share the run down vibe, but what’s even better about ruin pubs is their strong ties to the local community. As well as a pub, they’re often a cafe, a cinema or a venue for theatre, arts events, live music and dances.

If you’re directionally challenged in new cities and don’t like the idea of having to navigate your way to a selection of ruin pubs, get yourself to Kazinczky street in District VII and, as long as you can follow a straight line, you can check out Szimpla, Ellato Kert, Koleves Kert and Mika Tivadar all in one go. But don’t forget, being largely outdoors and/or on rooftops, most ruin pubs are only open for the summer.

You can read about my visit to Szimpla and see some photos here.

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Koleves kert

District VII

District VII, or Erzsebetvaros, on the Pest side of the Danube, is where you’ll be able to get a feel for another side of Budapest. Not only is it where you’ll find most of the Ruin Pubs and Escape Rooms, but due to its large Jewish community, District VII has plenty of history and culture to offer too.

Most striking are the three synagogues making up the so-called Jewish triangle. Even without looking for it, you’ll probably run across the newest synagogue on Dohany Street, which is built in an imposing Moorish style and is the 2nd largest synagogue in the world, outside America. It has a museum, a cemetery and the yearly Jewish Fetival is held there in the summer. The two smaller synagogues which make up the triangle can be found on Rumbach and Kazinczky streets.

As well as a growing number of edgy, artsy, youth oriented bars and restaurants to discover, District VII also has some kosher choices too, one of which, the Frohlich Cukraszka on Dob street, is the only kosher bakery left in Budapest. Being a city renowned for luxurious coffee houses serving layered, cakey delights, you could say goodbye to a small fortune trying out the sweets in places like Gerbeaud, Ruszwurm or the New York Cafe. But my choice is the small, family run Frohlich,  which has what many insist is the best Flodni cake in the city. Much more dense and flavoursome than Budapest’s famous Dobos sponge cake, Flodni is an apple, walnut and poppy seed layered pastry that is as delicious as it is calorific. It’s said to have almost 1000 calories per slice, but you know, how big is a slice? Depends who’s cutting, right? (more…)

A Day in Budapest Part 3 – Simply/Szimpla Ruined

If there’s one thing that’ll put an almighty spring in your step, it’s a couple shots of Palinka.

NB: When you write any kind of trilogy – or quadrilogy as it looks like this will become since I’m crap at that thing called editing – you’re supposed to fill in those who came into the story late, so that when you make references to the shenanigans in previous parts, they know what the hell Palinka is. But really, I’m too lazy. So, if something’s not making sense, maybe go back and read Part 1 here and then Part 2 here and we’ll all be nice and caught up. I mean, think about it, if you started the Harry Potter books with The Chamber of Secrets, you’d never know what Polyjuice was, and that would be tragic.

If my energy was in any way starting to lag from this Budapest tour Julia was taking me on, one shot of Palinka was all the jump-start this old fart’s batteries needed. To Julia, having grown up with it, Palinka is probably akin to a fruity cordial. To me, it’s the stuff we all wish Sandra Bullock found in that Russian space ship’s fuel tank in Gravity so we’d have been saved from the corniest three minutes on film ever. So when we left the Toldi cinema to move on to the ruin pub Szimpla, I was pretty much strutting down Kazinczy street like I was John Travolta at the end of Saturday Night Fever.

Don’t worry, it wore off.

Maybe I’m criminally unhip when it comes to ‘what’s hot’, but I’d never heard of ruin pubs until about a couple of years ago. So I’ll pretend you haven’t either. Szimpla Kert (kert meaning garden), probably the most well known of Budapest’s ruin pubs, opened in 2004. Well it actually opened in 2001, but moved around a couple times until it found its present location in Kazinczy street in District VII a few years later. Ruin Pubs are an amazing example of enterprise, of young people making the most of their city’s dire economic situation. Put bluntly, the Real Estate situation in Budapest is f****d and yes, I did some research so I can back up that sweary statement with fact. Excuse me while I be all professional for a moment. In their “Emerging Real Estate Trends 2014” report, Price Waterhouse Coopers concluded that of the 28 European countries they surveyed,  as well as having the highest office vacancy rates, “Budapest continues to be on par with Athens as investors continue to avoid the city on concerns about politics and the general economic outlook.” In my layman’s head that means nobody’s spending any money on real estate, nobody’s building new buildings and nobody has the money to renovate those that exist so they’re falling apart and nobody’s renting them. It’s been this way for years, to the point that certain areas of Budapest are awash with dilapidated, abandoned, need I say ruined buildings ready for demolition.

But the owners of Szimpla looked at it differently. They saw an opportunity; insanely cheap rents.  Coupled with their very handy ‘shabby’ decorating theme, this meant no expensive refit needed and, from the looks of most ruin pubs, no massive cleaning bills either (not in an ‘oh my god this place is so dirty I’ll get through a few packs of sanitary wipes before the night’s out’ way, more of a ‘nobody’s ever going to get on a ladder and clean those cobwebs off the ceiling’ way). They simply (hah) installed bars and filled every inch of the place, even the ceilings, with trinkets from their youth, upcycled bits and bobs and one of  just about every little nick-nack you’d find at garage sales across the country. And a phenomenon was born.

Actually, it’s easier if I just show you.

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The exterior of Szimpla Kertz. Would you look at this building and think one of the coolest, most popular bars in Budapest was inside?

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Would you believe… the ATM.

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This is a Trabant (which has been Szimpli-fied) a much maligned Eastern bloc era car that many Hungarian families would have owned during socialism.

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A Day In Budapest Part 2 – one Palinka, two Palinka, three Palinka… zzzzzzz

After a breakfast of porn (this will explain), we felt like continuing the day with some more culture, just less X-rated. Last time I checked, Budapest has 163, 298 galleries and exhibitions at any one time, give or take, so the hard part is never likely to be finding culture, but choosing just which type to see. We chose the Ethnographic Museum, or Folk Museum as it’s also known, simply because it had a bicycle exhibition.

Cycling in Hungary is having a moment. Bike to work programmes have now been around for a couple of years, many of Budapest’s main roads have cycle lanes and people are beginning to use cycling as an everyday means of transport. They have even started a city bike share scheme called ‘Bubi’ but my guide for the day, Julia, simply sees this as yet another example of government ineptitude. As she explained, you first need to register for Bubi before you can take any bikes, so visitors cannot simply walk up to a bike station and rent a bike. What tourist will bother with the paperwork and time needed for registration, she argues? Better to just rent one from a bike shop.

When we walked into the museum, there was a coat check of sorts to the left, some stairs in front of us and a sign pointing downstairs to a Gallery Shop on the right. There was no ticket counter or information area, just a boy at the top of the stairs sitting behind a little table with a laptop, so we went to him. He didn’t look up, so we stood there awkwardly for a bit, while disinterest wafted off him like lack of deodorant allegedly does Matthew McConaughey and Brad Pitt. From where we stood we could see he was on Facebook, so Julia interrupted his important social media work to ask him where the tickets were. Sighing, he barely moved his eyes from the screen and told her you get them from the gift shop.

The interior of the neo-classical Ethnographic Museum is stunning. Located just across the road from the Parliament building, it used to be the Palace of Justice. The lobby is quite imposing, with its marble columns and staircases, huge stain glassed windows and a ceiling fresco by Karoly Lotz, the 19th century painter whose works you can see in many of Budapest’s public buildings. There’s one permanent exhibition showcasing typical Hungarian folk life, what they dressed like, what they ate, their tools and their houses and temporary exhibits rotate throughout the year, most notably the annual World Press Photo competition. If you find yourself ticking your way through a list of tourist attractions in Budapest and you’re at Parliament anyway, it’s well worth the visit.

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A small section of the ceiling fresco by Karoly Lotz in the Ethnographic Museum

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More detail of the inside of the Museum.

So down we went to the gift shop, where we came across a girl this time, chatting to someone I assumed was a customer. Again we weren’t acknowledged and it was quickly apparent they were just two friends having a chat. Only once their conversation came to a natural end did the girl turn to us and, with a tad less indifference than the boy upstairs, sell us two tickets. On the way back upstairs, I wondered whether we were allowed to take photos inside, so poor Julia had to face the rolling eyes of the lobby boy again. When he told her we had to buy a photo ticket from the shop, it was my turn for some eye rolling.

The photo ticket cost only about £1, but really, besides a lifetime of brainwashing, I don’t know why I bothered. We saw nobody else inside the exhibition spaces and the only staff member we came across was a security guard trying to get some sleep in a corner. At roughly £3 for entry to the museum itself, the lack of customer service almost makes me embarrassed to mention it. Almost. On the other hand, if I’d paid £10, I probably would have got a bit antsy and done something awfully passive aggressive, like recording my dissatisfaction on a comment card. (more…)

A Day in Budapest Part 1 – a breakfast of porn; food porn and yep, the other porn

We stood in the rain outside a brown wooden door in Budapest’s District VII, scrambling to put on our waterproof jackets. I hadn’t wanted a day traipsing round tourist spots, ticking off monuments, palaces and bath houses. I wanted cooler than that. A cursory glance at Julia’s Facebook friends (that’s with a Y sound, like in eulogy, not a J, like in Roberts), mostly arty-farty twenty-something’s, and I knew Budapest had an alternative side. So far so good.

But I’d neglected to check the weather. I blamed this on the fact that Julia had been bragging about how lovely it had been for the past couple of weeks in Budapest and how she was was developing a suntan in May, not my own laziness and/or stupidity. So Julia had brought me her brother’s rain jacket for the day. It was going to be very hard to be cool when I was dressed as a dorky tourist, but as Julia said, at least I was now a dry, dorky tourist. I would have told me that I was never cool in the first place too, but unlike Australians, Hungarians’ first instincts are not to insult their friends as a form of bonding.

The door we stood next to, and the windows on either side of it, was boarded up with paper. Julia looked at the sign above our heads and translated for me.

‘Second Hand Sex Shop.”

I’m not sure what the international sign for ‘Ewww’ is, but I’m pretty sure our faces were making it. Even with the promise of commercial grade cleaning, neither of us would ever dream of buying someone’s used sex toys. So who would? Lulled by equal parts adventure, curiosity and disgust, we went in.

I guess I could have figured out the translation all by myself if I'd tried, couldn't I?

I guess I could have figured out the translation all by myself if I’d tried, couldn’t I?

Julia was perhaps the perfect guide for me that day. I’d been promised an insider’s guide to Budapest, the grungy, dirty, secret side. But when she said dirty, I honestly thought she meant the kind of dirt that goes with grunge, not the (some would say) filthy type one might find behind this door. (more…)