Budapest’s Eighth District, on the Pest side of the river Danube, used to have a pretty poor reputation as rough, crime-ridden and best avoided. This was a mark of its sad decline: from its former grandeur as an area of large and ornate aristocratic town houses to one that was synonymous with the seamier side of Budapest life. The area suffered a great deal of damage during World War II, and it still bore the scars of the 1956 revolution. However, the past decade or so has seen Józsefváros shaking off this image to become one of Budapest’s most interesting and lively districts, where its faded and picturesque 19th century glamour provides the setting for everything that is lively, trendy and bohemian, with an attractive mix of modern café culture, art galleries, live music venues and interesting little specialist shops. These days, any tour of Budapest that leaves out a few hours exploring the Eighth District is missing out on one of Budapest’s most distinctive attractions.
In a marked contrast to the fate of the city centre, which received a large injection of state funding following Hungary’s joining of the EU in 2004, the Eighth District struggled financially and culturally. Its revival began in 2000 with the installation of security cameras. It never looked back. Crime rapidly began to decline in the area, which then became attractive to entrepreneurs aiming to take advantage of the low rents and grand architecture. This is an irresistible mix, which has made similar unloved areas of cities the world over come back to life.
While some travellers may still be wary of exploring Józsefváros, especially at night, these concerns have been outdated by the years of development and its transformation into one of Budapest’s most colourful districts, which might be a little shabby in parts but is not dangerous. Additional investment by the Budapest City Council is helping to ensure a bright future for the district as the country begins to recover from the banking crisis, while numbers of tourists looking for good deals in developing travel markets such as Hungary are beginning to rise. Most people travelling to Budapest will probably be new to the country, so getting updated information about the exchange rate, your likely day-to-day expenditure, travel cover and health protection, and learning something about the culture and history of Hungary is essential. Eastern Europe is rapidly changing. This means that it is becoming on the one hand more tourism-friendly, but on the other hand it may be more expensive than you expect. Budapest is still one of the best destinations in terms of value, and in up-and-coming areas such the Eighth District you can experience a city on the cusp of that change between a place that is devoid of tourists to one that is beginning to attract them and welcome them without changing its essential character.
Art and music, food and drink
The Eighth District extends south behind the Hungarian National Museum, between the river Danube to the west and the People’s Park to the east. Beyond a block of typically huge mansions is the hub of the district’s developing bohemian life, with a proliferation of cafés, restaurants and shops along Krudy Gyala Street and around Mikszáth Square—a peaceful little space with gardens, seating and a statue of the 19th century Hungarian writer and politician, Kálmán Mikszáth, to whom it is dedicated. On a corner of the square is the Zappa Café, named after the musician, Frank Zappa, who performed here in the 1990s when it was an alternative rock music venue called Tilos az Á. Hungarian punk music, rock ’n’ roll, blues or jazz can still be heard in the café’s basement, in the atmospheric Trafik Klub—great if you like relaxing on a beanbag and singing along.
Continuing the musical line of exploration, farther along the street is a shop called Ethno Sound. From the outside this may at first seem like your average hippy shop, but it actually houses an incredible collection of what seems like the world’s most exotic and unusual percussion instruments—guaranteed to get any visitor tapping, banging or shaking everything in sight. The Budapest Jazz Club is the best if not the only venue in Budapest that showcases Hungarian and international jazz artists: find it just around the corner from the National Museum. It’s open every day except Sunday from 4.00pm till midnight. If contemporary photography is more your scene, the nearby Lumen Kávézo, holds regular exhibitions of foreign and Hungarian photographers as well as being café, pub and wine bar, where you can relax over a coffee or a beer, or come back in the evening when it becomes another live music venue.
A short walk east of Lumen Kávézo, Ateliers Pro Arts houses artist’s studios in a converted pipe factory. You can visit its light and airy gallery space and relax in the cheerful and trendy Bar ApaCuka in the same building, which serves a robust menu of Hungarian dishes such as roast duck and potatoes. In the Café Csiga, which also has artworks covering its walls, you can enjoy another choice of Hungarian dishes, even though its owner is an ex-pat Irishman. Many Hungarian restaurants advertise a very reasonably priced lunch offer, and this is no exception. For less than €2 you can set yourself up for the day with a bacon and egg breakfast, or try a delicious lunch of buzdás kenyér, or bread dipped in egg, fried and served with cheese and sour cream.
Spend only a short time in the Eighth District enjoying its arty atmosphere, the people, the food and drink, and you’ll forget you ever heard this was the wrong end of town. It’s a testament to the enduring appeal of those simple pleasures shared in good company and in convivial surroundings, which only needs a little encouragement and investment to flourish again in a forgotten corner of any city.
Contributor: Susie Catesby