On the hunt for the most unusual, striking and distinctive décor, we have uncovered bars where the owners have gone beyond the call of duty to serve up a unique visual experience to accompany your night out.
We have selected 10 of the finest examples spanning North, South, East and West Europe:
- Bar Pastis – Barcelona
Hiding in plain sight, Bar Pastis doesn’t look like much from the outside, with its outdated 80’s sign and unprepossessing shop front, however its charms are all to be found on the inside. You’ll encounter an intimate one-room set up with a cluttered bar to the right and a small wooden stage at the back which hosts regular performances of folk and jazz music.
The décor is one of the vital ingredients that make Bar Pastis a special place. Adorned with old picture frames, newspaper cuttings, bric-a-brac and ephemera from times past, that at times are piled on top of one another, the bar wears its memories and personality on its sleeve. You’ll never run out of things to look at on an evening out here, especially if you enjoy the spectator sport of watching middle class couples try the door only to encounter something rather more adventurous and unusual than they were expecting.
The owner seems to take a perverse pleasure in making Bar Pastis uncompromising, reserving particular frostiness for Erasmus students and, as could be expected from this corner of Catalonia, tourists that want to spend more time on Instagram than enjoying themselves.
2. Goupil Le Fol – Brussels
It takes a lot to stand out in Brussels, a city jam-packed with traditional bars, not to mention quirky ones. Goupil Le Fol doesn’t so much smash that glass ceiling as unlock the key to a new room entirely. Yet you’d never guess from standing outside.
Upon entering you will find a small bar by the door selling mixers and bottles. Carry on through to the long bunker-like venue downstairs . The décor is manic, vinyl records and entire books nailed to the wall, framed artwork of no recurring theme that makes it look part bar, part antiques-shop.
Brooding and candle-lit, there is always a comfortable nook and/or cranny to grab a beer and relax in, and no end of peculiar items to look at. Windowless and cocoon-like, there is a special atmosphere in the evenings that is difficult to compare with anything else.
3. Galeria De Paris – Porto
Although Galeria De Paris has been going for a decade, you’d not bat an eyelid if someone told you it had been open for 80 or more. The building and street (Rue da Galeria De Paris) have a certain pre-war grandeur, while inside, a prim-looking tiled floor, marble-effect tables and wall-mounted cabinets convey the belle-époque.
That is only half the story. Look around you to discover upturned cars, toilets, motorcycles, Disney and turn-of-the century toys all displayed with the fondness you would normally associate with a museum. There is even a pulpit.
The style is both whimsical and upright at the same time, a fun balance.
A sedate bar-café during the afternoon, Galerías lets its hair down on weekends and evenings with dancing and suitably old time musical performances, which are appropriately in-keeping with your surroundings.
4. Cross Club – Prague
With bars across Eastern Europe hurriedly jumping on the steampunk bandwagon (especially Cluj-Napoca, for some reason), the last 10 years has really seen a surge in the style.
Arguably the forerunner was Cross Club, set up in 2009 as a multi-purpose bar/café/pub/club and a real counterpoint to the traditional pubs people most associate with Prague, and the mainstream clubs such as Karlovy Lázně. Cross Club is an easy tram/metro ride to Holešovice, a suburb perfect for the cheap rents and large space normally required to pull off a sprawling venue like this.
It’s still going strong, possibly as its design was so ahead of the curve. The steampunk aesthetic is writ large at the front of the venue with kinetic metal installations of cogs, spurs, screws and valves, an array of lights and a distinct absence of clean lines.
In one way time may be its friend, with age making these objects ever more gnarled and characterful as the years go by.
There’s plenty to explore, and its worth coming back again and again for the different experiences.
5. Papa Joe’s Jazzlokal – Cologne
Papa Joe’s Biersalon and its nearby sister bar Jazzlokal are worth visiting Cologne all by themselves.
The décor takes in the good-time interwar era of high jazz – glamorous, a touch quaint, a touch sleazy. Pianos, giant gramophones, animatronic heads, mechanical marionette shows and oompah-band singalongs, there are many weird and wonderful bars, and many atmospheric jazz venues, but there is nothing that comes close to combining the two in quite the same way.
We recommend Biersalon during the early evening and Jazzlokal for late-night shenanigans, especially if you can get perched on the small stage opposite the bar, where you can take in the incredible atmosphere. Vibrant is a word that barely does it justice.
6. Zlatna Ribica – Sarajevo
Quite contrarily, one of the quirkiest and distinct venues in Europe exists in a city that is otherwise deprived of even half decent drinking holes. Zlatna Ribica or “Gold Fish” combines a colonial style with the exotic, so fitting for a city with a corresponding history.
You tell from the entrance that you’re in for a peculiar experience, as the decorations spill out onto the street, quirkily sheltered by two bright parasols, while the carvings of the wooden archway curve away in oriental patterns.
Naturally they have a gold fish, but expect to be diverted inside by the amazing assortment of other acquired objects which are plonked on, fastened-to, hung off, and draped over otherwise stately varnished wood, mirrors and glass panels. The eclecticism continues even into the bathroom with talking toilets and old portable televisions showing wildlife documentaries.
An unforgettable place and one of the finest bars in the world, full stop.
7. El Bosc De Les Fades – Barcelona
Forest of the fairies, this high concept bar brings the outside in, with a beautifully decorated main room with branches and fairy lights spreading across the walls and ceilings.
This would be ample in itself, but there is more to the place than that. El Bosc rewards exploration, where you will find several rooms with distinctly different nods to fairytales. A Midsummer Night’s Dream in bar form. This is big budget stuff and certainly a step above the jumble-sale chaos of other bars in this list.
While slightly corporate and expensive it remains well worth a visit for those interested in something completely different. Read our full review HERE.
8. WM Hawkes – Hull
A pub situated in an old gunsmiths, the owners of WM Hawkes have gone to town with the decoration.
With a low-ceiling and vaulted beams the raw materials were there to create a traditional pub, but a lot more care and effort has gone into creating a particular concept that takes things a step further.
There is plenty of gun-related ephemera to explore but check out the sheer number of horse brasses and pewter jugs nailed across the venue. The decoration is busy, but fastened so neatly that the end effect is almost abstract.
Candlelight takes over in the evenings adding further to the atmosphere which in the end achieves the bustling cosy tavern they were aiming for with panache.
9. Szimpla Kert – Budapest
The original and the best romkocsma (ruin-bar). As per The Wire, “The King stay The King”.
Some things have changed since Szimpla opened – it is thronged with tourists, the beer options have improved dramatically, some of the décor has broken and several other bars have popped up trying to copy the style, but nothing, whether that be the hordes of rubberneckers or the march of time and money has quite managed to kill the charm and genius locii of Szimpla.
The story is well known, an abandoned and partially ruined complex is turned into a garden (“Kert”) with many spaces to explore and hang out. The decoration is added to by the people who come by, which is why it is covered in grafitti and personal messages, and ancient, repurposed furnishings.
Some of the ‘décor’ is entirely incidental, such as the giant chimney stack visible from the yard, which helps cement Szimpla as an iconic venue.
Be sure to try Szimpla during the day where there is an entirely different pace and more personal space to explore the complex – and it is a complex.
10. Café De Dokter – Amsterdam
Unlike a few further up this list, De Dokter has the history to back-up the decoration. Having been run as a pub for over 220 years, it acquired the name De Dokter due to the surgeon who owned and run it, which has stuck every since.
They claim it is the smallest bar in Amsterdam and you wouldn’t argue against that being true. Access to the toilets generally involves having to crowd surf towards a thin metal spiral staircase.
The décor in De Doktor is really its own living history. Shelves of old gin and medicine bottles, cobweb-strewn lamp lights and a venerable bar area (staffed by a similarly venerable gentleman). Even the music is changed via the fellow changing vinyl records.
Few places genuinely feel like a window into the past but De Dokter manages this pretty well. If you are patient enough to claim the limited seating available, take time to soak up the ambience with some beer and jenever, an experience to match a visit to any art gallery or museum.
So there we have it! Do you have any bars you’d like to suggest? Please get in touch with us on the comments below or via our facebook group – we’d love to hear from you!