From dimly lit bars to atmospheric burger joints, Budapest pulses with the sultry beats of jazz. The Hungarian capital has had a centuries-long love affair with the genre that shows no sign of letting up. Here we explore the humble beginnings of jazz in Budapest along with the finest places to catch its smooth sounds every night of the week.
The Budapest jazz explosion officially began in the 1940s, but it was during WWI when a blanket closure of New Orleans bars and watering holes promoted a mass exodus of down-on-their-luck musicians to seek their fortunes in Europe. Many descended upon Budapest—to be more precise, the basement bar of the Hotel Astoria. During the 1940s this joint was an incubator for Budapest’s burgeoning jazz scene, where the city’s own gypsy musicians jammed alongside American artists. Thus, the city fell for jazz’s laid-back beats.
Jazz aficionados should make a beeline for Budapest Jazz Club, easily the city’s finest destination for the biggest international and local stars. Open six days a week, the intimate hangout presents performances from jazz icons such as James Carter and Terence Blanchard, often followed by free jam sessions for the public. There’s a smart bistro attached to Budapest Jazz Club, perfect for a pre-concert dinner.
Having opened its doors in 2013, Opus Jazz Club may be a newcomer to the scene, but its incredible acoustics and pioneering programme of emerging talent make it an essential jazz venue in Budapest. Marvel at the skill of leading pianist Károly Gáspárs as he tinkles the ivories or tap along to the gear-shifting folk-funk of local trio, Jinja. Follow the locals’ lead and tuck into a gourmet burger—as well as smooth sounds, Opus Jazz Club serves up the most lavish beef patty in town, created from Angus sirloin.
With its fringed lampshades and wood-panelled walls, Cotton Club is a smoky speakeasy that’s straight from the 1920s. Evoking the ambience of an all-American jazz club, Cotton Club has been smashing out hi-hats since 1928. Sink back in a plush velvet chair and immerse yourself in a live performance, put on each night except Sunday. For those authentic prohibition-era vibes, Cotton Club even has its own smoky cigar lounge.
Doblo is first and foremost a wine bar serving exceptionally sourced biodynamic and artisanal wines. But its daily programme of little-known jazz acts transforms the space into the cosiest of venues. Stocking Hungarian-only tipples, Doblo is a marvelous spot to get acquainted with the local grape while listening to a relaxed jam session. Not to be missed are Doblo’s delicious platters of fine cheese and charcuterie.
Splicing Budapest clean in half is the winding Danube, and where better to sample live jazz than afloat this legendary river? Moored on the Buda side of the city, A38 is a former Ukrainian ship, re-purposed as a dazzling event and concert space. Not strictly a jazz club — it hosts pop, rock and even magic performances, too – A38 showcases a more avant-garde take on the genre, including punk-jazz fusionists Kinetic Erotic.