Ask pretty much anyone what they recommend you do in Budapest and they’ll likely suggest a night out at Szimpla Kert. The iconic party place is undoubtedly the city’s most famous nightspot, and has inspired wave after wave of “ruin pubs” that have popped up in the years since it opened. We sat down with one of the owners, Ábel Zsendovits, to talk about the role Szimpla has played in Budapest becoming one of Europe's top tourist destinations, particularly among young people. While you might think he’s too busy running his Szimpla empire to have a lemonade with us, he was generous with his time.
The initial Szimpla Kert opened way back in 2002 at another spot just a few streets from the current location. But in 2004, a chance presented to move to a bigger building in what was then a relatively quiet spot in the VII District. The building in question, at 14 Kazinczy Street, had housed homes and a factory, but by 2004 lay in ruin. The four Szimpla owners saw opportunities in the building, that was slated for demolition, where others might have only seen dilapidated walls, a tarpaulin where a roof should have been, and not much else. The Szimpla founders thought the "ruin" building was perfect, and this spot has become the epicentre of Budapest’s nightlife.
The idea was for a big open community space in Budapest with a relaxed vibe. Somewhere anyone could come as they are - and as they please. Ábel says the basic premise was that people could come, have a look, stay if they liked it or leave if they didn’t. No worries. And while more than a decade has passed since the opening, the philosophy remains the same - and very much at the heart of what makes Szimpla Kert work.
This “come as you are” philosophy seems to apply to both guests as well as the interior design. There’s stuff everywhere. You could spend days just looking at all the random bits and pieces covering the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and leaning on just about every surface. Currently there’s even an open-top Trabant car where you can sit at a table where the car seats used to be.
Part of the attraction of Szimpla Kert - and ruin pubs in general - is the eclectic collection of bric-a-brac. Funny, rude, weird, broken - nothing matches, yet everything belongs. That seems to be the point for both the guests and the interior design.
By Ábel’s own admission nothing works at Szimpla Kert. The walls are crumbling in parts, there are terrible acoustics, the toilets don’t always flush properly and the toilet seats have long been missing. Not a day goes by when there isn’t someone up a ladder fixing or affixing something. Kind of like the city itself, Szimpla Kert is more popular than ever, yet still a work in progress.
One of the most common criticisms is that you can be hard-pressed to hear anyone speak Hungarian at Szimpla Kert. On average about 80 per cent of the guests are foreigners. Nonetheless the place is quintessentially Budapest. It’s symbolic of the rebirth of Budapest’s nightlife in the new millennium and it represents entrepreneurship and making use of the architectural opportunities of the city – even if that means the city's ruins. Szimpla Kert was a game-changer in Budapest, it changed the direction of the city’s nightlife scene and unintentionally created the “ruin pub” genre, for which Budapest is now famous around the world.
Countless other ruin pubs have followed in the footsteps of Szimpla. So much so that there are now even specifically designed venues aiming to be romkocsma-esque. The idea of converting buildings that lay in ruin into lively venues seems so simple in its resourcefulness that the idea has taken off in other cities in Europe too.
At night Szimpla Kert is pumping. Some are drinking beer or cocktails while yet others are smoking shisha pipes. It’s crowded. One guy’s even lounging in a bathtub. Yes, a bathtub (and therein lies that charm)! The inner-courtyard is packed and there are people chilling in themed smaller rooms (for example, one is filled with computer monitors showing psychedelic patterns).
The place has grown so popular that some nights there’s a line to get in. This isn’t that pretentious, manufactured kind of line where a bouncer’s only letting certain kinds of people in, it’s just that the capacity has been met. While about 600 people fit, some nights more than 5000 people will rotate through the thick plastic curtain hanging at the door.
Ábel says they’re used to queues during summer’s Sziget Festival but they were somewhat surprised when a line snaked out the front even in quiet January. The place never went out of its way to become more popular or conversely to remain underground - its only goal was to be a place of freedom where anyone - and everyone - could turn up.
Szimpla Kert is open during the day too. And it's then that there aren’t crowds, and people having a beer or lemonade mingle happily alongside the tradespeople up ladders and suppliers dropping off kegs of beer.
There are also various community projects organised by the Szimpla crew, or created in partnership with them. For example on Sundays there’s the Szimpla Farmers’ Market where local producers sell cheese, honey, fruit and veg, and so forth. They also have the Szimpla Bringa bicycle flea market, movie screenings, live music events, exhibitions and even events like the Kazinczy Living Library. They are always open to new ideas and new uses of their space in their attempt to promote community-building in Budapest. One of their current projects is lobbying to try to turn Kazinczy into a pedestrianised street.
Also in the Szimpla “franchise” are other spots like Szimpla Háztáji, Szimpla Design Shop, Szimpla Café and Craft Beer Bar and the new Szimpla Bakery. Szimpla has also spread its wings, opening three spots in Berlin.
As Ábel points out, Szimpla Kert is number 11 on Trip Advisor’s list of things to do in Budapest, even ahead of major sites like the Matthias Church, the Chain Bridge and the Hungarian State Opera! It seems Szimpla Kert is truly more than a nightspot, it’s an icon on Budapest’s jam-packed map of sights.
And the throngs of foreigners visiting Szimpla Kert are smitten. Among the many gushing reviews on Trip Advisor Pauliina S writes “I'm speechless. Just go there, you'll see.” While another, TKos88, writes “this place is touristy, like absolutely rammed with tourists. It is like Erasmus exchange heaven. But you know what, join the herd and check it out. The place is popular for a reason.”
It’s a question of chicken or the egg. Was Szimpla simply at the right place at the right time or has it played a significant role in helping create Budapest’s current popularity, particularly among young people? We’ll never know, but in Budapest’s fickle nightlife scene, where venues come and go, it’s a testament to its winning formula that Szimpla Kert has been going strong for more than 10 years.
There's no doubt this ruin pub is the king of reinvention, an open place where people from all walks of life are welcome to drink, meet and mingle - or just lounge in a bathtub, if that's what you feel like. It seems the secret to its success is as szimpla as that.