Five ways to Explore Budapest's Cool Underground Scene
Grandiose architecture and socialist-realism style statues, mixed with hip, underground bars and arts festivals: Budapest pulls of that former communist bloc, retro-chic look like it’s nobody’s business.
Blink, and you’ll miss the best time to be in Budapest yet.
The Hungarian capital is quickly emerging as one of the go-to destinations, not just for tourists, but for young, long-term travellers, backpackers and expats as well.
And there’s little wonder why.
It’s a bit like Berlin – but smaller, cheaper, and less on the average tourist’s Euro-trip radar – a former Eastern bloc city now boasting a cool scene for those who know where to look for it. And, just as its German cousin is separated into East and West, Budapest is divided into two halves by the Danube River – Buda, and Pest – yet connected by seven bridges.
It’s not hard to completely immerse yourself in the city’s trendy vibe – especially when a beer will set you back about 350 HUF (that’s as little as one euro!).
Want to experience the best Budapest’s underground scene has to offer? Here are the five best ways to do it.
Explore the underground ruin bars
Sure, the more popular they get, the less ‘underground’ they are – but there’s still an element to the Ruin Bars that make them super edgy and exciting.
It all started in the Old Jewish Quarter in District VII, an area of ramshackle shops, houses and empty lots left to decay in the second half of the century, after the World War. In the early 2000s, the first bar was founded by a group of young locals looking for a cheap place to drink (or so the story goes). That bar, known as Szimpla Kert, still stands today, and started the trend for several more ‘ruin bars’ in the same, eclectic style.
Szimpla Kert itself is a mishmash of flea market furniture, artworks scrawled on walls, and a large outdoor patio with an old Trabant car in the middle. Other popular venues include Instinct; a club located in an entire abandoned apartment block, and Fogashaz, a newer, more arty and low-key bar with bicycles hanging from the ceiling.
Most of the bars, from the outside, appear to be just normal houses – with many coming and going as the area is slowly gentrified or when the local council cracks down on the good old fashioned ‘bootlegging’. But that’s all part of the fun – and what makes these bars such an important aspect of the Budapest scene.
Get your game on
From the classics, to the puzzles, to the just plain bizarre, it’s a little known fact that Budapest loves a good game. And no, I’m not talking sports (although the city is home to no less than 19 professional football teams) – I mean arcade games; like the city’s popular Pinball museum, 400 square metres of retro pinball machines to test your skills.
Budapest is also mad about escape games, which are, quite simply put, games where you have to escape. Down dark alleyways and hidden between ruin bars, these venues feature locked rooms that you need to try to escape from – using puzzles, logic and clues. One of the most popular is Exit Point, where one vault is fashioned into a surreal, Lewis Carroll-style world; complete with rabbits, mushrooms and tea sets.
For the classic games enthusiast, you can’t go past a quite chess match in the Szechenyi Baths. Budapest is home to several, grand thermal baths, the most well-known of which is Szechenyi. For a small fee, you can spend hours soaking in the medicinal waters in the complex’s several indoor and outdoor pools, and, if you’re up for it, challenge of the locals to a good old fashioned game of chess at one of the bath-side boards.
Uncover the arts and music scene at a local festival
There are countless city-wide festivals dotting the Budapest events calendar, showcasing some of the best, alternate artists and performers, and unearthing fresh up-and-comers.
Number one on the list is the ultra-cool Sziget, a week-long, music and cultural festival held on an island in the middle of the Danube. In its 22-year history it’s hosted big-name acts such as Oasis, Prince and Blink-182, among several others. Access to the August festival is only by boat, but some revellers often try to cross the 100-metre stretch by swimming, or paddling inflatable rafts.
In early September the annual short film festival descends on the city, featuring a whole host of young, talented filmmakers on the big screen in the retro Vörösmarty Cinema.
There’s also a craft beer festival in early June, which brings together vendors from over 60 microbreweries across Hungary. Then, of course, you can’t miss a winter bath party throughout February and March, where you can keep warm in the city’s steamy, thermal pools while dancing along to some of the best local DJ acts.
Feed your inner foodie
The Hungarian capital is a foodie’s paradise; beyond just the traditional dishes of goulash and spicy paprika chicken, there are a whole heap of pop-up gastrobars and food festivals to keep your belly full.
February is heaven for foodies, with a four festivals taking over the city’s local squares and eateries. There’s the VinCE wine show, where you can taste the gourmet drops of over 160 Hungarian wine producers, and the iconic Gluttonous Thursday; one night when you can eat in some of the city’s top restaurants at half the price.
Over the first weekend of February, Szabadság Square is filled with the ‘Mangalica Festival’, celebrating the country’s curly-haired, heritage breed pig. It came close to extinction just a few decades ago, but a large increase in the pig’s population means that you can now eat it in a variety of ways – in a sausage, as a salami, or on a stick.
Then, of course, there’s the four-day fish festival; a gastronomic event celebrating seafood pulled out of the freshwater Danube. Chug down a bowl of the famous Fisherman’s Soup, a spicy mix of paprika and river fish, with a shot of the local brandy, known as Pálinka.
Relish the retro communist art
There’s something so other-worldly about socialist or communist realist art – you know, those almost caricature-like, dramatic statues and posters that were once used as a form of propaganda. Hungary was a communist state for more than 40 years, throughout the Cold War, and the period’s remnants still stand today – immortalised in bronze.
Memento Park, on the southern outskirts of the city, is an outdoor ode to the Soviet era. It features statues of Lenin, Marx and Engels, as well as a six-metre tall Liberation Army Soldier, bearing a machine gun and hammer and sickle flag.
One of the most haunting sculptures in the park are a bronzed pair of Stalin’s shoes, symbolic of the 1956 Hungarian revolution. As the citizens pulled down the Soviet dictator’s statue, nothing remained on the pedestal but his boots.