Any decent guidebook, travel blogger, or Instagram user who wants to tell you about Budapest will, undoubtedly, bring up the city’s unique ruin pub scene. In the early 2000s, as Hungary prepared to enter the EU, Budapest was experiencing the beginnings of a tourism boom, but it lacked the well-known nightlife scenes of cities like Berlin or Barcelona.
Enter Szimpla Kert in 2002. For two years, Szimpla was a pop-up bar occupying various un-utilized urban spaces that were (and still are) scattered about Budapest. In 2004, the year Hungary official became an EU member, the founders of Szimpla discovered the massive, disused, crumbling factory—slated for demolition—which houses it to this day. The idea was to establish not just a “club” but a community center, an incubator for the kind of diverse and energetic urban life that was beginning to take off. In the fifteen years since Szimpla was founded, it seems they’ve succeeded: it’s on every “must see” list of Budapest, always accompanied by a paragraph detailing its “eclectic décor” and paying it deference as the founding entity of the city’s “world famous ruin pub scene.”
So, of course, we paid a visit. Because we’re not really night-owls anymore—and we work remotely on weekdays—we wandered to the crumbling, textured façade of Szimpla on a Sunday afternoon, while the farmers’ market was full swing. The market featured beautiful fresh fruits and vegetables along with a breathtaking variety of cheeses and cured meats. We roamed the diverse crowd packed on the first floor, past the vendors’ tables, through the courtyard and the café. We climbed the stairs to the second floor to find a less crowded complex of rooms where we could get a beer, sit, and relax.
The décor did not disappoint: the walls truly are crumbling, covered in thirteen years of graffiti, and somehow successfully contain a riot of, well, junk, but somewhat whimsical junk, filling every room. It is, indeed, a cool place, and appears, by any measure, to live up to its mission of being “a post-modern cultural center.” In all, Szimpla houses nine bars, a café, the farmers market, a bike shop, a design shop, and a recording studio (they also host music and film festivals).
After doing a little research, it’s difficult not to ascribe the extremely pedestrian-friendly, shop-filled character of Kazinczy Street entirely to the globe-spanning influence of Szimpla. So why, as we sipped our beers, did we feel anything other than awe? Why, as we spent the afternoon drifting between various ruin pubs in the heart of Budapest, did something feel off?
Maybe it was that it was all so cool. Very cool. Too cool. Or is that true? To answer that, it’s necessary to define what, exactly, “cool” is, and it very quickly becomes clear that the impossibility of that definition is the heart of the problem. A place like Szimpla has lofty objectives, all laudable, and all, apparently, successfully implemented. But when you sip your beer on a Sunday afternoon and watch elderly fanny-packed Americans taking pictures of graffiti—the thrill of a brush with what appears to be the edge of “normal” society painted across their faces—you start to realize how limited your (our) definition of “cool” is, how potentially revolutionary the objectives of a place like Szimpla can be, and how, by constantly chasing such an exclusionary idea of cool, some people, ourselves included, have completely missed what cool really is.
It’s a commonly held belief these days that most innovation is disruptive and as such, occurs by necessity at the edges of the larger society: The Underground. The Underground is the definition of cool—it’s the thing you aren’t cool enough to know about until someone lets the secret out, then, if you’re early (and cool) enough, you get to be in on what’s cool before it becomes a commodity, and all the uncool people come in with cameras snapping so they too can brag about how cool they are. We’ve lived in New Orleans, where this is practically the circle of life: we know what the birth and death of cool looks like. Or do we?
Over time, we’ve come to see how utterly broken the common understanding of cool is. Cool is not exclusionary, and by asserting this, Szimpla calls out the ruin of cool. Because cool is ruined, it has fallen into disuse, to be occupied only by those who have the freedom to see it, and that freedom is either an undeserved privilege—or a privilege won on the back of a lot of hard work and sacrifice—so people tend to guard such a treasure jealously. But cool doesn’t belong to anyone in particular: cool is inclusive. So what if Szimpla looks like the kind of place a gang of drug addicts would live in? Who cares! Come in, have a drink, buy some food, meet people, relax, and be a part of a unique scene.
The idea that environment somehow dictates the worth of a place is ridiculous. Sure, some of the tourists roaming through these rooms seem to think they’re slumming and they’re proud of themselves for that, but that’s no different than looking at them and judging them for thinking that they wouldn’t have the courage to step foot in somewhere truly “cool.” It may be true that many cool things appear in the forgotten margins of the normal world, but they never stay there. In New Orleans, we were always so quick to bemoan that the germ of cool, once planted, is doomed to growth, dilution, and eventual absorption into the accepted world. Szimpla looked at the problem of growth versus cool and, in order to solve it, totally ignored it!
Ruin pubs are everywhere in Budapest now, and yes, many of them are just labyrinthine Applebee’s-like dance clubs relying on cracked plaster, busted vintage furniture, and worn concrete walls for atmosphere. We won’t venture to differentiate between the extremes here: we saw many ruin pubs that embraced the role of community center, featuring art markets, great drinks, and happy people—there’s a ruin pub for everyone.
Even so, knockoffs are the price of cool—but so is popularity—and Szimpla seems to have embraced its popularity as being in line with its mission: bring the tourists on, bring the kids, and hell, bring grandma, too; this is a community. Come for groceries and gifts, come for lunch, come for an afternoon drink, come to unwind after dinner, listen to some music, stay and party till the small hours of the morning, it doesn’t matter.
The ruin pub was built from the ruins of an old and defunct social order to act as a center for a new, wild, post-modern culture, and how, we ask, could anything hoping to embrace and nurture culture be anything but hypocritical if it didn’t welcome everybody with open arms? Is Szimpla, or any of the other ruin bars we visited, some edgy secret experience? Of course not. But they don’t claim to be; that’s not their purpose. If the blossoming of Budapest as an international destination was to happen and is to continue, it would be best served to continue on lines like those established by places like Szimpla: free thinking, eclectically unique, and most of all, welcoming.