Specialty and third-wave coffee shops have exploded in popularity in Budapest, but they haven’t displaced the Hungarian capital’s historic coffee houses and grand cafes. These timeless spaces – decked out in classic marble-topped tables, gold-accented mirrors, crystal chandeliers and curved wooden chairs – offer a flavor of old-world charm that’s unique to central Europe.

Once a hub for Hungarian writers, artists and revolutionaries, these cafes have an impressive history and thought-provoking atmosphere. You might just find inspiration for your own creative endeavors, or you can sit back and relax with a cup of coffee and a decadent cake and simply admire the beautiful surroundings.

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Admire the beautiful architecture at New York Café

The moment you stroll through the heavy glass doors flanked with torch-bearing gargoyles, it’s easy to see why New York Café ranks high on the list of the world’s most beautiful coffee houses. With enough gold leaf, milk-white marble and red velvet to keep a Habsburg happy, this spectacular cafe doesn’t skimp on opulence. The prices may mirror its grand surroundings, but you’re not just having a coffee here – you’re languishing in a palace that was once a melting pot of artists and nobility. Newspapers were edited in its gallery, and urban legends permeate its marble halls.

If you arrive after the 8am opening, you’re likely to miss the crowds and get the upper part of the cafe almost to yourself.

Traditional Hungarian Esterhazy cake, torte. Marble background. Close up.
Tasting traditional cakes like Esterházy torte is all part of the experience © AnnaPustynnikova / Getty Images

Toast history at Ruszwurm Cukrászda

Occupying a green baroque townhouse in the Castle District, Ruszwurm Cukrászda is the oldest cafe in Budapest: it has been baking delicious cakes since 1827. Compared to the city’s other classic confectioneries and coffee houses, this family-run establishment is modest, with whitewashed walls and a 200-year-old cherry-wood counter.

Despite its spartan interior, Ruszwurm counted nobility among its loyal clientele, who frequented the cafe twice a week to indulge their sweet tooths. Today it’s hard to get a seat on the weekend, but if you can snag a table, grab a coffee and a freshly baked cake, such as the Ruszwurm Cream Cake (made with vanilla egg cream and flaky pastry) or the Dobos Torte (a chocolate sponge cake topped with a caramel glaze).

Put on your writer's hat at Centrál Grand Cafe & Bar 1887

More than just a grand old coffee house, Centrál Grand Cafe & Bar 1887 became a focal point of Budapest’s literary scene in the early 20th century. With stucco ceilings, marble tables and tan leather booths, the Centrál Grand Cafe encapsulates the coziness that drew in Hungary’s belle époque writers to the gallery above the main floor.

Under the 20th century communist regime, this famous cafe was closed for decades, but it triumphantly re-opened once the Iron Curtain came down in 1989. In 2022, it opened its doors again after renovation work. Although the cafe no longer has the dark wood paneling that gave it an old-fashioned feel, it maintains its classic look with a lighter color palette of cream and pastels.   

Men having a coffee at a Budapest coffee house
Budapest's coffee houses are part of the living culture of this city © Karan Kapoor / Getty Images

Experience the classic and contemporary at Hadik Kávéház

For a classic coffee house with a twist, Hadik Kávéház on hip Bartók Béla út blends the Budapest of yesteryear with contemporary trends. It opened in 1911 on the ground floor of an art nouveau block of apartments and became one of the legendary literary cafes of the early 20th century.

Famous Hungarian writers and journalists – including Frigyes Karinthy, Zsigmond Móricz and Dezső Kosztolányi, whose portraits you can still see on the mural of Hadik’s staircase today – frequented the establishment. Despite its modern remake with exposed brick walls and Edison bulbs, Hadik carries on its tradition and occasionally hosts literary salons. These days you might be sitting next to a budding writer with a cup of coffee hiding behind a laptop.

Cafe Gerbeaud a traditional Budapest coffee house at night
The opulent Gerbeaud has been serving locals and the aristocracy since 1870 © titoslack / Getty Images

Order a slice of cake at Gerbeaud

This cafe and confectionery on Vörösmarty tér opened in 1870 and soon reeled in an esteemed list of guests, from composer Franz Liszt to Austro-Hungarian Empress Elisabeth, more affectionately known as Sisi. Dripping with crystal chandeliers in its opulent damask-draped salons, Gerbeaud captures the aristocratic feel of a former world. It’s not as dramatic as the New York Café – instead, it has a more regal, intimate atmosphere where you can slip into a mahogany chair with a decadent slice of cake.

Try the house specials, such as the Gerbeaud Cream Cake (with flaky layers of buttery pastry and vanilla custard cream) or the Gerbeaud slice (with ground walnut and apricot jam in shortcut pastry with chocolate glazing on top). If you can’t choose just one and want a taste of different Hungarian cakes, order the Hungarian Classics on One Plate option, which can be paired with Tokaji dessert wine.

Hang out at Művész Kávéház before a show

Dubbed the "Little Gerbeaud," Művész (which means "artist") is a great alternative for the classic cafe experience without the price tag that comes with its more glamorous counterpart. It opened in 1898 during Budapest’s golden age, and it still operates on the grand Andrássy Avenue, just across from the Hungarian State Opera House.

Its location close to the opera and just a corner away from Nagymező utca (Budapest’s own Broadway, where the city’s most famous theaters jostle each other along one block) make it a great place to meet friends before seeing a show. While you wait, try one of the fancy coffees, such as the iced coffee with vanilla ice cream, chocolate syrup and cream, or go for one of the wonderful house cakes. 

This article was first published Aug 7, 2018 and updated Jul 1, 2022.

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