After Dark: Budapest
Vanessa Murray gets in touch with the nocturnal soul of Budapest, central Europe's party heart
An edited version of this article appeared in Get Lost Magazine #33, July 2012
“Buda is like a garden, Pest is like a factory,” say the locals in Budapest, capital of Hungary. The pretty central European city is loved for its crumbling post-Communist grandeur, folksy culture and pocket-friendly prices. Yet, partying here in the non-political sense is a relatively new concept – from 1949 to 1989 the country was part of the Eastern Bloc and uncontrolled gatherings were forbidden. Now, the new generation of Hungarians, or Magyars, live it up like lab rats on caffeine, with an art-infused nightlife that’s possible to see any day or night of the week.
Downtown Budapest is relatively small, with a vibe that swings from modern to kitsch, cosy village to grand metropolis and bustling to chillaxed like a chameleon on heat. In the summer months, people like to make the most of the warmth and late evening sunshine at venues like Gödör, a relaxed outdoor cafe, nightclub and art space set below street level. Gödör has an outdoor stage pimping free concerts and an ancient amphitheatre feel, and is the perfect place to ease yourself in to a long night ahead. They also offer free wifi and bike hire, so if you’re planning on covering a bit of ground, you could consider renting one out. But be warned: Buda is no Amsterdam. The lack of bike lanes, cobblestoned streets and left-hand driving make cycling here a bit of an adventure. Thankfully there are public buses, trams, trolleys and a charming underground metro service - Europe's first - aplenty that run until around midnight. After that taxis are the go; they're metered and reasonably priced.
Erzsébet Square, District V, Pest
A hop, skip and a bike or taxi ride away and you're in the up and coming ninth district Here, money pours in and hip hang outs spring up. I try Cökxpôn, a bar-cum-teahouse-cum-tent where music, theatre, dance and visuals take centre stage. An hour or two kicking back in Cökxpôn doubles as a taster for the Sziget Festival, a week-long music and cultural event held every August. Located on the island of Obudai in the Danube,Sziget is one of Europe's largest festivals, and the Cökxpôn crew have been running a tent there since 2000. Performances at its urban HQ in Budapest start around 9 or 10pm. Don’t be surprised if someone asks you to take your shoes off and get horizontal during a gig – visitors are encouraged to immerse themselves in a ‘collective spiritual experience’.
Soroksári útca 8-10, District IX, Pest
Head across the river next to A38: a decommissioned 1968 Ukranian stone hauling barge. It’s now a floating restaurant and terrace bar by day and kick-arse club by night. Think jazz, blues, electronic, hip-hop, reggae and, strangely, even classical. There are more than 20 types of the native plonk, a potent fruit brandy called pálinka, on offer. Knock some back a few before moving onto lesser known evils, like beer. If that’s not strong enough for you (with an alcohol content of between 37.5 and 86%, one or two shots of pálinka really should be enough!) try the bar’s own flaming cocktail creation, Massive Attack. It’ll be enough to, er, sink a ship.
Just south of Petőfi Bridge, District I, Buda
There’s just one catch about this next spot: it’s officially in Outer Pest. Leafy, quiet District 14, to be precise. But though the neighborhood is quiet the bars are anything but. Dürer Kert ticks two of the nightlife must-dos in Budapest: it’s a kertek (garden) bar and a romkocsma – a ruined pub temporarily established in a dilapidated building earmarked for demolition. This one is in a former university arts faculty next to City Park, and has a large lamp-lit garden. I hang in its fairy lit corners late into the night – here, and inside, where the vibe is student share house meets on the make art studio. With cheap drinks, foosball, table tennis, darts, a lucky dip of cranking live music and the likelihood of meeting switched on young locals, the hike is worth it.
Ajtósi Dürer sor 19-21, District XIV, Pest
I'm ready to get into the thick of things so I head to Szimpla: the first and most renowned of Budapest’s romkocsma. It’s located in the seventh district, which was home to a flourishing Jewish community before World War II. Budapest's seventh and eighth districts are notably neglected and run down, meaning that Szimpla is infused with a near-lethal dose of shabby chic. I'm treated to local gypsy bands and DJs and think about playing backgammon, but my stomach wins out and I opt for eating pizza by the slice instead.
Kazinczy utca 14, District VII, Pest
Still not ready to call it a night? Get over to the sixth district, Budapest's cultural centre. Think wide, sycamore-lined boulevards, cafes on sidewalks, the Opera House... and a club called Instant. Another feather in Budapest’s burgeoning romkocsma cap, Instant is made of two houses decorated to the eyeballs with the trappings of an enchanted forest. The biggest of the ruined pubs, it boasts 23 rooms, six bars, two gardens, three dance floors, multiple art exhibitions and installations and pumping music. Fueled by pálinka, I figure now’s the time to try a simple toast in Magyar, the Finno-Ugric mother language of the Hungarian peoples. Kedves egeszsegere!
Just two doors down is Vakpóni Bisztró, the last stand for those – locals and travellers alike – who can’t face the thought of bed before sunrise. The DJs spin progressive electro while the patrons get crazy under a giant disco ball, inbetween resting up on the long, white couch. If you get there and the shutters are closed, bust on in; this is where the party is still happening. Budapest is pocket-friendly, personable and laid back - all in all, about as close to European innercity party perfection as it gets. OR Just remember the golden rule of Hungarian drinking thumb; never try to drink a local under the table; you'll be cleaning the floor with your face in no time.
Nagymező utca 38, District VI, Pest
Nagymező utca 40, District VI, Pest