Neighborhood Watch: District VII, Budapest

From 19th-century gem to wartime ghetto to shabby Communist afterthought, the Jewish Quarter is now alive with ruin bars, design stores and escape games
Neighborhood Watch: District VII, Budapest

When my father bought this place, there were just grey, empty buildings running on either side,” says Richárd Máj, owner of Muter, a thriving bar festooned with old beer ads, statuettes of jazz musicians and 1950s signage. “That was seven years ago. Last year, he called me. At the time, I was working in New Zealand. He said, ‘Quick, Richárd, come home. It’s all happening. We should get this bar open straight away!’”

Richárd Máj’s father, György Máj, was right on the money. After two decades of running his own nearby junk shop, Antik-Bazár, and having raised his sons in the same streets where he grew up, the canny collector of Sputnik-era Hungarian paraphernalia could see that Budapest’s District VII—the traditional Jewish quarter that had become a tangle of forgotten businesses and echoing courtyards—was on the rise. Muter, which opened in 2016, sits at the funkier end of the once-forsaken Gozsdu udvar, an elongated courtyard behind Budapest’s Great Synagogue. The area, at the western end of District VII, leads toward the Danube, and has, in recent years, become a hotbed of hip bars, restaurants and retailers. Around the adjoining streets of Király utca, Kazinczy utca and Dob utca, Jewish residents go about their business while tourists stop for selfies in front of huge murals created by the area’s burgeoning artistic community.

This compact, hugger-mugger neighborhood once housed the wartime ghetto. Depopulated and increasingly dilapidated after 1945, it saw the arrival of a younger generation in the 1990s, setting the stage for a new kind of underground nightlife. So-called ruin bars—riots of mismatched color, DJ sounds, wall projections and skip-found furniture in otherwise abandoned residential buildings—had brightened the somber streets, bringing waves of partygoers to this centrally located zone. And, over time, these bars begat design stores, tours, eateries and yet more bars.

Within a few years, District VII wasn’t just on the map, it was placing its own customized street plans on T-shirts and courier bags. People who came here would take pictures of the area and share them online, and this trend became an industry. “More and more film crews were coming in, needing authentic uniforms, hats and ornaments,” says György, his store a mishmash of 20th-century Hungary in poster, postcard and paper-money form.

While the purpose of many buildings may have changed, their exteriors have been preserved. The streets here have doubled as East Berlin, Moscow and Perón-era Buenos Aires, and served as atmospheric backdrops in music videos by the Chemical Brothers, Katy Perry and Gwen Stefani.

Off the Gozsdu courtyard, on an adjoining pedestrianized strip that links to the buzzing street of Kazinczy utca, Oran MacCuirc, an Irish veteran of Budapest’s alternative scene, has created his latest venture, Félix Hélix, a cubbyhole of bonhomie that spreads over a long terrace in summer. “I knew this was where I had to set up shop,” says MacCuirc, who has operated bars around the city since the 1990s, attracting a following of writers, artists and filmmakers. “How it’s going to pan out from here, who knows?” he says, adding that a 300-room hotel is due to be built on the other side of the bar terrace—a sign of the boom.

Though MacCuirc has opened drinking spots throughout Budapest, it all started in District VII, where his Sixtus on Nagydiófa utca, the bar with no façade, was an original cult hangout in the ’90s and set the tone: off-beat art, slacker vibe, carefully chosen soundtrack. Félix Hélix represents a fitting return to the now thriving neighborhood.

Helga Progl of Budapest Bike, a cycle-hire and guided-tour company, gives three-hour walks of the area where she has spent most of her life. “District VII is known as the Jewish quarter, but there are many other influences—cultural, religious and architectural,” she says. “When Budapest was flowering in the late 1800s, grand boulevards were created, like Andrássy út. But alongside, its little sister, Király utca [in District VII], had been in place for much longer and had a life of its own.”

While the Jewish population set up businesses here in the 1700s, significant wealth only came about in the 1860s, after Budapest was made twin capital of the Habsburg Empire. Poverty endured on the streets behind the Great Synagogue, but richer families set up in glitzier District VI, which eventually had a knock-on effect. At the turn of the 20th century, relatively ambitious structures—such as Klauzál Square Market Hall, in the heart of District VII—carried a promise of their own.

The mid 20th century was a brutal time for Hungary, but especially District VII. During World War II, the area was dotted with so-called yellow-star houses—designated residences for the Jewish population. But the city had its heroes: Swiss Vice-Consul Carl Lutz saved thousands from the camps. His memorial stands by the Dob utca end of Gozsdu udvar. After the war, the nation became a satellite of the USSR, and the government nationalized Gozsdu udvar.

Communism kept the Gozsdu courtyard and its surrounding streets frozen in time, its buildings growing shabbier while areas closer to the Danube, such as Váci utca and the Danube embankment, were revamped for the tourist trade. After 1989, a free-market economy helped independent businesses set up, patronized by a new type of Western visitor keen to explore this once forbidden frontier. Gozsdu udvar passed into private hands in 1999, but it took years of red tape before this 200-meter-long passageway sprang to life.

In 2002, Szimpla Kert, the daddy of all ruin bars, opened its doors. Szimpla took the lead from boho spots such as Oran MacCuirc’s Sixtus, then ran with it. “We had no idea how successful this would be,” says program organizer Orsolya Liptay, against the hubbub of the Sunday morning farmers market that sets up around Szimpla’s ground floor and garden. “First we were an alternative party bar in a cool space, hiring DJs and showing films on the back wall.” Now the bar is family-friendly by day and still zings at night, having paved the way for many nearby alternative hangouts—Ellátó Kert, Fogas Ház, Instant. Four in every five customers are foreign visitors. “Since the boom, property prices and rents have soared,” Liptay says. “I’ve even had to move out myself, ironically, to the city center where it’s cheaper.”

As we chat, crowds browse stalls of artisanal cheeses, home-harvested honeys and cured hams, set to the soundtrack of a live scat band. Each producer lives locally, and each has a backstory. The outlet for fresh greens from Zsámboki Biokert, a four-hectare organic vegetable farm, is co-run by Logan Strenchock from Pennsylvania, who came to Budapest to go to university and never left. In another corner is the deer salami of András Detky, from a family of hunters outside the nearby town of Szentendre. Serving familiar Hungarian dishes, the staff of Profilantrop put the profits toward their charity shop. At the bar, Szimpla’s own craft beers and wines also do a brisk trade.

“A District VII outlet was paramount for what we wanted to do,” says Zita Majoros of Printa, a gallery and café 20 paces from the Great Synagogue. “I moved to Budapest in 1999 and have always lived in this neighborhood. Back then there were no ruin bars, just a particular atmosphere. Today, because of the footfall, we’re able to produce our own accessories, T-shirts, cushions, prints and belts, much of it from re-used material.”

Next door, goatee’d baristas at specialist spot Blue Bird offer 13 global varieties of coffee as hungover casualties from the night before sip Ethiopian macchiatos. Nearby, at Mazel Tov, a buzzy Mediterranean eatery, Márton Varga preps for a busy day. “What has happened around here is simply amazing,” he says. “Not long ago there were only a couple of bars and restaurants. Now this is like the Soho of Budapest.”

Szilárd Schalknáz’s escape games hit the next level

Two signature concepts have spurred the Budapest boom. One, the ruin bar, helped initiate the other—the escape game, in which groups of people use logic and deduction to find clues, crack codes and break out of a room in which they have been entrapped. The time limit is 60 minutes. Themes vary.

“It’s the kind of thing you can play as a family, with a bunch of mates or as team-building exercise,” says Szilárd Schalknáz, whose Emergency Exit comprises three such games in a labyrinthine basement off Klauzál tér.

“Everyone’s doing Ancient Egypt, murder investigations and so on,” says Schalknáz, who left kitchen work in five-star hotels to set up his business. “I thought 1984 would be a more interesting concept.”

Competition is fierce. Budapest, cradle of the Rubik’s Cube, has more than 100 escape games and staged the world championships in March 2017.

Mazel Tov marries ruin bar ambiance with Mediterranean-infused food

We wanted to capture that ruin bar vibe while bringing you top-quality food at the same time,” says Márton Varga, a key mover behind popular eatery Mazel Tov.

A combination of table-waited restaurant and laid-back urban nightspot, Mazel Tov occupies a beautiful, stripped-back, bare-brick courtyard in Akácfa utca, where regular live music, DJs and exhibitions also share the spotlight.

The open kitchen still dishes out tray loads of creamy hummus and hot-pan shakshuka, but head chef Áron Kelemen has upped the ante on this contemporary Mediterranean restaurant with fare such as rosewater and pistachio soup, chermoula fish and sweet malawach. Each dish has a wine pairing, or you can choose from 30 cocktails.