Immortalized in the writings of Charles Bukowski, the dive bar is a cherished institution among destitute drunkards, ne’er-do-well artists, and slumming hipsters. Almost every American town has at least one dive bar (usually detested by local leaders), characterized by a genuinely aged appearance, cheap drinks, and shabby seats imprinted by the derrieres of countless dipsomaniacs. Budapest definitely has an abundance of unpretentious pubs that could qualify as dive bars – complete with sleazy clientele – but these tattered taverns are perversely appealing for their plentitude of personality.
In some respects, Amigo Bar doesn’t belong on this list – the interior design resembles a rowdy countryside roadhouse more than a proper dive… but by dint of its almost-windowless location on a dingy side street near Keleti Station, this longtime haven for Budapest’s rockabilly devotees has ample allure for daylight-dodging drunks. Festooned with faded portraits of Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Wanda Jackson, and other pioneering rockers alongside reel-to-reel tape recorders, antique radios, and black leather jackets (both for decoration and hung by present patrons), this high-spirited hangout is frequented by guys with pomaded pompadours – particularly on Friday and Saturday nights when live bands fill the basement. Drinks here aren’t exactly cheap – a large Dreher beer costs 550 forints, and cocktails range from 990 to 1,800 forints – but guests play pool for free from Mondays through Thursdays, and the excellent ever-blasting old-time rock ’n’ roll makes the experience well worthwhile.
Where: Budapest 1072, Hársfa Street 1.
It may be named after Hans Christian Andersen, but this subterranean tavern on Krúdy Gyula Street looks nothing like a fairy-tale setting. Beneath fluorescent bulbs with old burlap coffee-bean bags for lampshades, the wood-paneled walls are lined with vintage signs from Budapest government offices and buses; their provenance is best left unknown. After walking past the rough-hewn bar with a tip jar topped by a Barbie doll with splayed legs, Andersen Pub guests pass through two chambers where teens waste precious youth at rickety picnic tables, before reaching the grotto-like back room with sheeny spill-proof sofas and a single foosball table. Nonetheless, this place provides a weirdly warm atmosphere for friends to gather for slurred conversations, and the price is certainly right – it costs less than 1,200 forints if you buy ten small beers at a time, while several varieties of Hungarian house wines are all priced for 169 forints per deciliter… but as far as quality is concerned, you get what you pay for.
A few steps away from Pest’s busy nightlife lane of Nagymező Street, this nonstop watering hole is prized as a place for beginning and/or ending an evening out on the town, primarily for its low-cost libations – a large mug of Dreher costs only 340 forints, while house wines are proffered for a pittance of 150 forints per deciliter, and the most expensive four-centiliter shots of Hungarian pálinka brandy will set you back a mere 520 forints apiece. However, B. City Pub has more going for it than cheap prices – with a far-reaching cinematic theme, the walls are covered to the ceiling with black-and-white portraits of silver-screen superstars like Clark Gable, Audrey Hepburn, and Cary Grant, along with quite a few familiar faces from Hungarian and European feature films, and even a carefully rendered mural of a scene from Alien vs. Predator. Other draws include foosball and darts facilities, and, umm, did we mention that it’s open nonstop, and that drinks are really cheap here? Oh yeah, we did.
Address: 1066 Budapest, Zichy Jenő utca 32.
During our visit to Íjász Söröző in late February, Christmas baubles still dangled above the bar – perhaps unmoved since a holiday season of years ago. These were the brightest decorations at this playground for profligates, although some slightly disturbing animal masks also adorn the place along with historic Budapest postcards (and some from the Caribbean isle of Guadeloupe, for random reasons). Numerous pool and foosball tables fill large rooms on two stories here, with scattered seats apparently salvaged from a decommissioned bus for spectators and skinflint sippers – while a large Dreher beer costs a relatively high 500 forints, house wines can be had for 160 forints/deciliter, and two-centiliter shots of Royal or Kalinka vodka are sold for only 300 forints. Sited near Nyugati Station, this is surely a scene where many travelers stop in to catch a buzz before boarding a train, and surely many of these prospective passengers end up getting way too wasted and miss their planned departure.
Where: Budapest 1132, Váci Street 8.
A surreal setting awaits guests at Buda’s Pingvin Söröző, first heralded by the semi-functional neon sign of the titular penguin hoisting a mug of suds. Inside, a somewhat older crowd engages in various activities – at the tall bar surrounded by wallpaper inexplicably printed with London landmarks (well, some early Antarctic expeditions did begin in Britain’s capital…), a guy blearily examines his lottery tickets; in the back room, several thuggish men in nice suits discuss business matters that should probably not be overheard; and every other Thursday night, a lounge singer and his synthesizer-playing partner perform classic ballads for the vaguely indifferent crowd, sometimes including an old lady fixated on her iPhone. This scene may be a bit intimidating for first-time visitors, but once settled in with a few reasonably priced refreshments (a large Dreher beer is 460 forints and a Cuba libre costs 490), the overwhelmingly friendly spirit of this place soon thaws any chilly feelings.
Where: Budapest 1113, Bocskai Street 33.
Buda’s hilly Rózsadomb district is one of the most posh parts of the Magyar metropolis, but fortunately it seems like the proprietors of Rózsadomb Presszó didn’t get the memo on that. Obviously operating for decades with minimal renovations, this low-key locale is something of a museum for retro Hungarian artifacts – bathed in pink and blue light, the front room is decorated with a hodgepodge of antique soda-water bottles, teakettles, and an old record player, while another chamber is papered with cartoon-laden pages from 1980s editions of Hungary’s communist-era Ludas Matyi humor magazine, and the upstairs “Rózsa Lounge” is filled with comfy threadbare couches. At this laid-back hangout popular among all ages, drinks are especially cheap for this part of town – a large Dreher lager costs 400 forints, house wine goes for 150 forints per deciliter, and a Long Island iced tea can be had for just 840; burritos and hot dogs are also available, but finer cuisine can surely be found elsewhere in the neighborhood.
Where: Budapest 1024, Margit Boulvard 7.
Be careful when stepping down the steep stairway into Klub Vittula, and even more cautious when staggering back out – the descent into this underground hideaway can be hazardous in more ways than one, but it’s almost always a good choice to come here. With a fun-loving punk spirit and graffiti scrawled across every wall, the anarchic atmosphere here draws a hard-drinking horde almost every night, yet the prevailing mood is lighthearted and friendly; on a recent visit we met a philosophizing drunk guy from Hungary’s Szabolcs County (near the Ukrainian border) and a trio of nubile Frenchwomen, all in a matter of minutes. Great DJs keep the scene grooving with wonderfully weird fast-paced tracks, and inexpensive drinks flow frequently for the eclectic crowd – a large Soproni beer is priced at 360, house wine costs 180 forints per deciliter, and a vodka-soda cocktail is only 600. Appropriately, this is the site of the final readings for Budapest’s annual “Write Like Bukowski” literary competition.
Long before Kazinczy Street became the heart of Budapest’s nightlife, Wichmann’s Pub was already there. Founded by a world-champion Magyar canoeist in 1987, the scene at this delightfully dingy pub remains mostly unchanged since then (including many of its clients), even as its surroundings are turning untenably hip. From the outside, it’s hard to tell that this yellow-windowed establishment welcomes the public, but once inside, guests can relax at one of the chipped tables and admire various boating relics like a life preserver and a painted paddle. The drink prices are certainly from an earlier era of Budapest’s bar scene – a large glass of the pub’s own beer costs just 280 forints, while a deciliter of the house white wine is only 70 forints (red runs for 80), and a large shot of peach pálinka will set you back 280 forints. Surprisingly, this isn’t a bad place for food, either – try the genuinely delicious chicken-fillet sandwich, or visit on Thursdays to chow down on some homemade chili.
Tucked between two megamalls in downtown Buda, Csiri Jó is a little too pristine to earn real dive-bar status – but with a little time and neglect, this could someday change. Some promising signs: it’s open 24 hours daily and drinks are fairly priced, particularly for this part of town (a large Soproni costs 360 forints, house wines are 160 per deciliter, and several large shots of brand-name booze are available for 400); also, the interior is illuminated by garden lamps powered through exposed wiring. However, the tables are too clean, the leather seats are too new, and the bar area is adorned with a bright floral pattern that looks more apropos to a specialty patisserie than a rough-and-tumble taproom; also, visitors can order fancy coffee drinks like a mélange, caffe latte, or vanilla frappe, which definitely doesn’t fit the dive-bar profile. Still, as this neighborhood becomes ever ritzier, this pub might just become a local bastion of unpretentious binging – we certainly hope so.
Where: Budapest 1024, Lövőház Street 13.