Szimpla "Ruin bar" © Bachtrack Ltd / David Karlin
Szimpla "Ruin bar"
© Bachtrack Ltd / David Karlin
It is a well-known secret that the Jewish Quarter is the coolest part of Budapest. Dangerously so, in fact – there is so much going on in this relatively small triangle of streets that it would be virtually possible to spend all of your time here without realising it. Kiraly St is the official ‘party street’, lined with clubs, cafes and bistros, it’s more than possible to stay out until 7am (which is when the street cleaners arrive to herald a new day). But scattered throughout the area are some particularly exciting venues which you should be sure to seek out. Szimpla Kert is perhaps the most well-known, even internationally; it’s the oldest and largest of Budapest’s famous ‘ruin bars’ – alternative and edgy nightlife spots constructed out of what are essentially the shells of ruined buildings. Szimpla’s sprawling open plan has bars round every corner, and plenty of nooks to sequester yourself in. You sit in bath-tubs and converted Trabants (a car so bad that it’s probably better used as a seat, but which is a nice nod to the country’s communist past), whilst chairs hang from the ceiling as decorations. Watch out for the nice people inexplicably selling raw carrots - you didn’t know you wanted one, but you do.

However, should the carrots not prove quite filling enough, then just across the road is Bors GasztroBár, a tiny little soup-and-sandwich shop run by an ex-Michelin star chef who decided to throw it all in to come and be happy in Europe’s party central. No, really. Don’t go here until your last day or there’s a significant chance that you might not eat anywhere else; the food is cheap and delicious, the menu varied and the staff welcoming, even if seating is a little limited. You’ll stand, it’s worth it, I promise you.

Bors GasztroBár © Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
Bors GasztroBár
© Bachtrack Ltd / Hannah Marcus
Should you manage to drag yourself away from these two big players – both found on Kazinczy utca - then there’s plenty going on in the surrounding are. Look out for the Gozsdu Udvar, a passageway between Király utca and Dob utca which is home to many lively bars and restaurants, (and also a classic car exhibition, if you fancy that sort of thing). The Blue Bird Cafe is famous for its coffee, whilst Yiddishe Mamma Mia is, despite the comedic implications of the name, a surprisingly upmarket Italian/Jewish fusion restaurant, decorated with Italian spices and pictures of Jerusalem. Exiting this passage onto Síp utca, you’ll find the Spinoza Cafe, whose red wallpaper and nostalgic prints makes it feel like you’ve stepped straight into a fin de siècle artiste’s salon. Watch out for the Friday night dinner and klezmer nights, but if swing is more your thing, the underground Lampas bar is just next door, albeit a little underground.

At the other end of the passge, you’ll find the favourite late-night snacking spot of the area’s party goers: at around 3am the queues for Pizza Mamma-Sophia snake well out the door and down the street. At that time of night, you probably won’t want to venture any further afield, but if you find yourself feeling braver the next day then there are plenty more interesting places in the city to explore – if located less conveniently adjacent to one another. For your hangover breakfast (or normal breakfast, or lunch or dinner), where better than Rétesház, the first ever strudel house? The interiors once again tap into that mixture of cosiness and opulence that suggests the intellectual community of the late 1800s, but more importantly, the strudel is to die for. If you arrive at the right time, you can see it being made in front of you, and a video of the history of the restaurant is available on request.

Strudel at Rétesház © Bachtrack Ltd / David Karlin
Strudel at Rétesház
© Bachtrack Ltd / David Karlin

All that strudel has probably given you a taste for more national food, but you’re not sure whether you want to eat it all, or give it to your family back home. Luckily, there’s a place where you can do both, in the vast market at Fővám tér. Inside this mammoth underground complex, you’ll find the bottom floor entirely given over to local foodstuffs; grocers, butchers and of course spice-vendors, for that famous Hungarian paprika. (Try to buy the stuff in plain red packets, it’ll be better and cheaper than the more garish tourist offerings). Upstairs you can find a craft and knick-knack market for all those things you didn’t know you wanted until you saw them, and a food court with a tempting array of local dishes; look out for Kolbasz, the traditional Hungarian sausage, and lots of different goose themed dishes. It’s all delicious though, so be adventurous. More upmarket, albeit slightlly further from the city centre, is Gundel's Restaurant, which serves some of the best food in the city in opulent old world surroundings, and even has their own band to entertain you (their patisserie also shows up at various places in the city, as far afield as the airport).

Gellért Thermal Baths © Gellért Thermal Baths
© Gellért Thermal Baths
The question every visitor to the city gets asked is: ‘have you been to the baths yet?’ And if your answer is no, the correct response is ‘why not’? Perhaps the best answer to the city’s question of ‘what did the Ottoman empire do for us?’, there are many of these spa/swimming pool/thermal bath combinations to choose from and each local will have a different one that they swear blind is the best. The three I’d highlight are: Szécheny (up by Heroes' Square, this is the biggest, most popular and has a whirlpool to recommend it), Gellért (if you venture over to the Buda side, these slightly smaller baths are incredibly beautiful) and Veli Bej, which is less grand to look at, but is favoured by locals and has a friendlier, but simultaneously more exclusive feel.

There are plenty of other places and things for a curious traveller to find and make their own. Instant is the other original ruin bar of the city – it is nowhere near Szimpla, but if you manage to find it then it has several clubbing floors and a more serene underground bar (if complemented by some bewildering decorations). The oldest shop in Budapest is Gallwitz, which is the only family business still running from the Austro-Hungarian days – legend has it that Stalin was such a fan that it was the last business to be deprivatised. Be warned, you didn’t think you had a need for a pipe and/or walking stick, but the coziness of the green wallpapered interior might start to convince you otherwise. At the other end of the spectrum, Paloma is one of the newest shopping opportunities in the city; a ruined space that is being converted into a community for designers and artisans. The first challenge is to find it – hidden on Kossuth Lajos tér – the second, once you get there, is not to buy everything.

Perhaps distressingly, I cannot help but know that for every one of these places I found in the city, there are at least three more that I missed. Budapest is a city that is constantly growing, developing and changing - so everywhere you go you should chat to the people who live there, and who will all have a favourite secret they’d be more than willing to share with you. Pop into places you pass that look interesting; you never know when they’ll be run by an ex-Michelin chef. The best soup you’ve ever tasted could be right around the corner.