#1. Szimpla Kert – Budapest – 9.7/10
There have been multiple international attempts at the ‘ruin bar’ since Szimpla opened in 2002, some which have been successful, others less so. All feel as though they are standing on the shoulders of Szimpla: the original and best.
A first visit is rather like entering a portal into another dimension, such is the jump-shift in atmosphere and style versus the norm. Large enough to be classed as a club but with an atmosphere that is far more relaxed and versatile than that, Szimpla opens at midday, after which you can enjoy a hazy, hungover vibe during the afternoon with people relaxing among the ruined, squatter type surroundings which have been decorated, scrawled on, abused, with layers upon layers of ephemera building up to a hyper-real extent.
Szimpla’s true ‘ruin’ style is so heavily ‘user-generated’ (please excuse our use of that awful phrase) it doesn’t feel conceited, corporate or about ‘social climbing’. It is an organic work of art to such an extent that being inside the venue is itself entering into and becoming part of the ensemble.
‘There is a large atrium area, peaceful and verdant in the day overlooked by an iconic chimney stack, which hints at the previous factory usage of the complex. It towers above, one of the most dramatic and chance additions to an already impressive ensemble. At night, the sight of it looks almost unreal.
Upstairs you will find a balcony with central atrium packed with tall tropical plants that is somewhat like wandering into the lair of a mad botanist. ‘Kert’ means garden, and it would be disappointing to visit without some greenery to enjoy.
Szimpla’s Sunday farmer’s market has become an institution with dozens of local traders selling their wares amidst the sounds of local bands who are invited to perform folk music and add to the atmosphere. There are often films and art pieces shown, frequent band performances in the evening and dozens of rooms to explore.
On hot days (of which there are many in Budapest) customers are kept cool with sprays of mist.
Sit in a converted car, smoke shisha, move upstairs to the craft beer bar and hang out among the vintage furniture and enjoy the view below. Someone might even walk around selling carrots for you to eat. Poke around to explore the limits of the venue – the front balcony on the top floor, the wrought iron gate preventing you from making any further progress, the multiple side rooms, nooks and crannies. Due to the size, its myriad amenities never feels crammed in or spilling over each other. You can wander around, dipping in and out of the attractions at your leisure. It never fails to entertain.
Each visit is ever so slightly different as the place transforms so much at different times of day and conditions, morphing into a new experience. The great feeling it manages to put across is a sense of detachment from the outside world, this strange oasis where many of the rules and worries no longer apply. The late closing time of 4am fits in perfectly the bohemian lifestyle and body clock of the backpackers and travellers who drop by. You’ll be pleased to know it’s free to enter, indeed part of the appeal is the laissez-faire nature of it all.
The range of drinks were always reasonably good by Pest standards, with some unusual choices thrown in. This has expanded too recently, not least since the introduction of tankovna Pilsner Urquell (yes, you can get a Mliko or Šnyt pour if you wish!) and a craft beer bar on the first floor – predictable and inevitable, but not such a bad thing in a country where small scale brewers struggle to get their wares into venues, to the benefit of Hungary’s many dreadful Euro Lagers.
Szimpla’s prices are certainly climbing lately, while the security in the evenings is more robust than we remember.
A few features from the early days can no longer be found (RIP red spiral staircase) but time is a remorseless mistress.
There is the growing view Szimpla no longer attracts many locals, and the last few visits of ours cement that Szimplas main customers are now the huge numbers of English speakers, backpackers and city-break tourists. It is not such a great thing that locals are edged out of here, but the novelty value is most powerful for those who visit rarely, or once. What they have created is immune from becoming passé to all except local residents.
Once inside, there’s a universally friendly feel the place exudes which seems to rub off on all who enter, creating a place with a genuine buzz and excitement. The sights, sounds and smells of wandering through the entrance never fails to wow on a first occasion, and welcomes you home like an old friend each time after that.
Szimpla is the cornerstone of a great night out in Budapest, and the most significant bar of the 21st century.
Szimpla is our #1 Bar in Europe, 2019!
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