Budapest bar tour: The best and most popular drinking spots in Hungary

"I guess she can drive!" we all cry, clinking our glasses in unison. According to Fanni, our smiling guide from Urban Adventures, this is the closest approximation to "egeszsegedre!" or "cheers!" in Hungarian.

Given Hungary's location in the heart of Europe, you'd think its language might resemble that of one of its neighbours – Austria or Croatia perhaps? Not a chance. Its closest relative is the equally tongue-troubling Finnish.

Still, with this all-important phrase under my belt, I feel suitably equipped to tackle an evening of bar hopping around Budapest. Given it's a Saturday night, I'm surprised to discover there are only two of us on this Fine Wines & Ruin Bars tour (there are normally around six). More unexpected is that my drinking comrade, Nada from Morocco, doesn't actually drink. Oh well, all the more for me.

We begin at one of the city's most popular venues and with one of Hungary's most popular drinks. Located in the heart of Elisabeth Square, on the Pest side of the Danube, Akvarium is an intriguing mix of outdoor bar, nightclub and cultural centre. While we take a seat in the lively sunken courtyard, Fanni fetches us two "froccs" – Hungarian white wine spritzers. She explains that when the country was under communist rule, the wine was so bad they had to mix it with something else to make it palatable.

Fortunately, things have improved on the wine front (Hungary now has 22 wine regions), and it's the perfect tipple for a warm summer's evening. Even Nada has a sip.

From Akvarium we stroll into the heart of the Jewish Quarter, a district that in the space of 15 years has been transformed from a maze of crumbling ruins into the city's hottest night spot. Fanni says that the neighbourhood is still home to around 80,000 Jews, who live in a curious harmony with the nightly influx of revellers. Right on cue, an Orthodox Jew walks past wearing a wide brimmed black hat and a sombre black suit. Behind him is an inebriated hen party in matching pink T-shirts and black miniskirts.

The district is justifiably famous for its "ruin bars" – dishevelled drinking dens in formerly abandoned buildings – but there are also more sophisticated options.

We start our explorations at Doblo – an eclectically furnished wine bar that feels like a cross between a cellar door and a New York loft. We sample two Hungarian wines – a fruity riesling and a minerally rose – both made from vineyards near Lake Balaton, a picturesque region south-west of the capital. They're easy drinking drops – intended as a gentle introduction for the country's predominantly beer-drinking population.

Next up is the bar that's credited with kick-starting the district's renaissance. In 2004 a group of entrepreneurs turned a decaying block of flats into a ramshackle bohemian hangout. Today, Szimpla is an intriguing two-floored warren of graffiti-covered bars clustered around an outdoor courtyard. While it's undoubtedly worth a visit, the trick is to arrive early. When we get there at 7.30pm, there's no queue and it's bearably busy. When I stroll past again at 11pm, it's crammed with people and the line is 100 metres long.

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It's time for some sustenance and conveniently located two doors down is Karavan – an outdoor courtyard filled with food trucks serving everything from nachos to pancakes to goulash. We're here to sample the traditional Hungarian staple of langos. This deep-fried dough smothered in garlic, sour cream and cheese might just be the perfect hangover preventer. It's also an ideal stomach liner for what's about to come next.

"My grandfather had one every morning," says Fanni, referring to the innocuous looking shot of clear liquid on the bar. Palinka is Hungary's version of grappa – a 55 per cent brandy made from fermented fruit.

I choose the innocent-sounding cherry flavour and – as instructed by Fanni – down it in one. Big mistake. It's almost 10 seconds before I can speak again and a full minute before my eyes stop watering. Fanni says her grandfather used to call it "the water that helps you find the target". Any more and it'll be a miracle if I can find my way home.

Rob McFarland was a guest of U by Uniworld, Aria Hotel and Urban Adventures.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/budapest

www.budapestinfo.hu 

TOUR

Urban Adventures' three-hour Fine Wines & Ruin Bars tour visits five bars and includes five drinks and some snacks. Cost €72 a person. See www.urbanadventures.com 

STAY

Ideally located near St Stephen's Basilica, the music-themed Aria Hotel features a striking glass-covered atrium, a swanky subterranean spa and a stunning rooftop bar. Rooms from €221. See www.ariahotelbudapest.com 

CRUISE

Aimed at the "young and young at heart", U by Uniworld's activity-packed seven-night cruise from Regensburg to Budapest includes visits to Linz, Vienna and Bratislava. From $2099 a person (twin share). See www.ubyuniworld.com 

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