Give me a pint of that Hungarian lager, said no-one ever.
While beer may certainly be cheap in Hungary, a couple of days drinking the likes of Borsodi and Dreher will have you willingly offering double, triple the money for anything resembling a real beer. The working class bar scene is resolutely unglamorous, except it also lacks the historical charm and cosiness of Czech pubs.
However, you will be pleased to know the scene is currently in the process of being saved from this position of ignominy.
In Budapest Pilsner Urquell has always unsurprisingly been very popular, while Hofbrau have cornered the market for wheatbeer. What is really on the up though, at long last, are a renaissance of small breweries as Hungary’s own Craft Beer revolution gets underway. While this scene makes me feel ambivalent in countries such as England, Hungary could only be improved at this stage by drastically increasing the standards of beer, forming their own brewing traditions and kicking the awful Hungarian lagers into the dirt. It may be that once upon a time these beers had a better reputation, but communism/corporate takeovers have done them no favours.
Don’t expect to see many of the new Hungarian craft beers occupying the taps as a general rule, either inside or outside of Budapest but keep your eyes peeled for these refreshing alternatives to drinking faintly disinfected tasting gassy lager.
The main talking point of going out in Hungary is something you may already even be aware of: the ruin bars or romkocsma. Briefly, these abandoned and derelict warehouses and apartment blocks have been taken over and turned into bars with attractive courtyards and green space, showing films, throwing parties, and allowing incomers to stroll around the often ramshackle, crumbling remnants of their interiors. Very alternative.
These ruin bars are becoming steadily more gentrified and middle class (I wouldn’t consider Ankert or Mazel Tov to be true ruin pubs for example) but there are so many options out there (new, more alternative venues are appearing) that you can stick to the very best. The scene itself is vibrant, and the atmosphere at the venues is fantastic on a warm evening, so very different from a night out in any other country or city and helps turn Budapest into perhaps the number one city destination in Europe.
As of 2019 this scene has arguably past its peak in the centre of Pest, with the death of the cult venues Kuplung and previously Instant and onward gentrification to appease the 30-something audience. Meanwhile, young locals increasingly hangout in lower key, alternative venues on the fringes of the city centre where they don’t have to mingle with the hordes of rubbernecking tourists which have effectively fully taken over. Nevertheless, the ruin pubs remain strong all-round venues with plenty of amenities and a big novelty factor for first time visitors.
Outside of Budapest’s ruin bars and craft ale bars, the odd sparkling Söröző or Presszó here and there present themselves as atmospheric venues, sometimes old-timer places but often with a few modern twists added.
If none of those are available expect very many plain, down to earth and slightly smoky farty old corner bars and drab cafés in the rest of the country all serving really terrible, but mercifully extremely cheap lagers.
If you keep studiously researched – there are some interesting curios and gems dotted around Hungary that just had to be different, while the craft beer venues, so often generic and cloying in the UK, are a breath of fresh air over here.
The ruin bar scene has spread to other cities such as Debrecen and Sopron where you can enjoy similar atmospherics but with virtually nil tourists. For me, Szimpla Kert will always be fantastic in its own right, and a nostalgic base camp but the likes of Roncsbar in Debrecen keep the scene feeling present and vital.
Ratings Key (0-10)
A: Choice and/or quality of drinks
B: Style and décor
C: Atmosphere and feel
D: Amenities, Events & Community
E: Value for money
F: The Pub Going Factor
Bars marked (*) will take you to our full profile write-up!
Today, Budapest is one of the first cities that springs to mind as a party city, where the action almost never stops, though it wasn’t always that way. Only the fall of the Iron Curtain and imaginative use of derelict/abandoned buildings opened up this possibility. You can’t think of Budapest without thinking of Pest’s Romkocsma – Ruin Pubs. While the concept has certainly peaked as a trend, the experience of visiting them for the first time remains a profound experience. Large expansive venues with cubby holes, masses of facilities and distinctive DIY décor, they excite and delight young and old who are coming to see what all the fuss is about. Locals have largely ditched the central Ruin Pubs these days, now overrun with tourists, moving further towards the suburbs in similar, but more alternative/down-to-earth venues, which are still well worth a look.
As Ruin Pubs grew, the simple Presszo and Koscma have declined almost to extinction. These places were simple, dirt cheap and often smokey café bars, often with an element of nostalgia/retro elegance – largely understated, but sometime kitsch. Since 1990 they have been obliterated as modernity – or what the desire for modernity was – swept them aside.
However, you can still find a handful of original Presszós in the city that trade on sentimental value, and there is a nascent movement to start bringing them back, at least in some form or another – we shall see whether this produces top bars or just mundanity and mediocrity as with Czechia’s retro-chain ‘Lokal’.
Visiting Debrecen, Hungary’s second city is to plunge headfirst into the provincial. Cast aside any illusions you may have of an undiscovered city: this is not an impressive or important feeling place. In fact, its largely low rise nature and non-urban nature befits its location as capital of the ‘Great Plains’ region, an area of very low population density.
Nevertheless, as the largest settlement in the region by quite some distance, Debrecen attracts a large population of students, who, at a loss of other ideas, go out to drink in considerable numbers. Debrecen has an exceptionally good ruin pub, Roncsbar, which, along with the thermal spa and local restaurants provide a potted experience of Hungarian life, and with a few minor attractions or a sporting event tacked on, justify visiting this city. Outside of this ruin pub you will find a couple of pleasant nostalgia bars and presszos close to the main street which are worth of attention and, as you may expect, a couple of craft beer venues and a “game pub” which show Debrecen is aware which direction the wind is blowing.
However, for the best atmosphere break out North and East of the main boulevard to discover lovely down to earth pubs and boozers in the neighbourhood, some of which sentimentally attract the label ‘kesdobalo’, or knife-thrower, in recognition of their rough-and-ready nature. Across the city, you will not struggle to find a beer for below £1.00 in price, but in some of the truly local’s places, this can dive down to 50-70 pence, these days outstanding, but a reflection that tourism has not graced Debrecen with its interest, or its wallet.
A beautiful city with a low-key, town-like feel, during the day Győr doesn’t feel like it will burst into life later at night, but it’s a nice surprise to discover a compact, but thoroughly enjoyable set of bars, a couple of which go the extra mile in terms of décor and amenities to grab a spot on our guide. The layout of the city, and its size means that anyone in search of nightlife is encouraged – and thanks both to its efficient local transport and lack of tourist traps – actually empowered to come into the centre of town.
Győr is no tourist destination – perhaps unfairly – though that has its benefits, you can drink and socialise with locals, some of whom will be surprised, even flattered by your presence!
Unlike Debrecen, prices in Győr are more similar to Budapest, perhaps reflecting its proximity to the Austrian border. There seems to be more money floating around here than South or East.
Keszthely, on the south-west tip of Lake Balaton, is a pretty, but one-horse town with a frankly schizo number of miniscule ruralist museums and a fanciful, if faded palace.
The main draws are the region’s wines and the opportunity to bathe in the lake itself, rather than for enjoyment of any pubs or bars. Nevertheless, there is one local venue of note, however after that, you will be well-served to have a good long dig around for somewhere else to go.
Located close to the Austrian border, the large town Sopron is known for being a place where their neighbours can pop over to get cheap dental work done, but also for one of Hungary’s biggest beer brands, Soproni, which you will find across the country. While not the worst of a rogue’s gallery of awful lagers, it’s pretty drab (thanks Heineken), and not something any town would really want to be known for, in my view.
The city centre is a tidy collection of Austro-Hungarian architecture with a truly beautiful central square that is enjoyable even to grab a beer in one of the bland café options, and take in the sights, not least the dramatic Firestation Tower, the icon of Sopron. Not far away, are some local choices, either hole-in-the-wall type venues (more interesting) or stock bars lacking any distinctive identity, which you can take or leave. Keep your ear to the ground for what younger people are doing, however, as there are some in-the-know alternative venues that are definitely worth exploring.
You have to remind yourself Sopron is quite a small place, but I’ve been to smaller towns which were lucky enough to have several better bars than this one.
Southern Hungary certainly feels a long, long way away from the familiar elements that many Western European cities have in common. There is more of an exotic feel with an enormous brick gothic church and one of the largest synagogues in Europe, tucked away as though it were merely a townhouse in a suburb. It feels detached, and that itself allows it some provincial importance, which you can sense when you visit.
Although there is a nice ensemble of usual Austro-Hungarian buildings in the centre, much of Szeged’s centre feels slightly down-at-heel. It was relatively difficult to locate good pubs directly in the centre, but on the backstreets you will find the cult pub Jazz Kocsma, a long standing survivor and link to the past – one of the more atmospheric venues you are likely to visit.
A pretty riverside town easy to reach from Budapest, there is much to like about Szentendre, a beautiful little spot when the sun is shining and the rowers are out on the Danube. However, with its fish restaurants and art galleries, there is not much specific bar culture to speak of, and what you will find will be locals chugging crap lager in very unglamorous venues.
Yet to visit: Eger, Esztergom, Kecskemet, Miskolc, Nyiregyhaza, Pecs, Szolnok, Vac