When it comes to making a pilgrimage to the great coffee houses of Europe, Budapest may not be the first city on your list, especially when competing with the likes of Paris and Vienna. But take a closer look and you’ll find some of the continent’s most gorgeous cafes hidden in the neo-Renaissance palaces, 18th-century townhouses or art-nouveau residential buildings of the Hungarian capital.
Just like in Western Europe’s famous capital cities, Hungarian history and literature scribbled their marks across the marble-topped tables of these caffeinated establishments. So take a step back in time, and get inspired for your next creative outburst or just enjoy a porcelain cup of the black stuff in some of Budapest’s classic coffee houses.
The Renaissance-style New York Café occupies the ground floor of the Boscolo Budapest Hotel © Jennifer Walker / Lonely Planet
New York Café: the world’s most beautiful
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 on its gallery, and urban legends permeate its marble halls. If you’re feeling bohemian, order the ‘Writers’ Plate’ – a collection of charcuterie that was popular with the former resident writers. The best time to skip the crowds is just after the opening at 8am, when you’re likely to get the upper part of the cafe almost to yourself.
Ruszwurm Cukrászda: Budapest’s oldest coffee house
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. Although its spartan interior may make you think otherwise, 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 one of the freshly baked cakes, such as the Ruszwurm Cream Pastry (a creamy cake made with vanilla egg cream and flaky pastry) or the Dobos Torte (a chocolate sponge cake topped with a caramel glaze).
A traditional Budapest cafe, Centrál Kávéház is a great spot for pavement people-watching © Jennifer Walker / Lonely Planet
Centrál Kávéház: the literary hub
More than just a grand old coffee house, Centrál Kávéház (which dates back to 1887) became a focal point of Budapest’s literary scene in the early 20th century. With dark wood-panelled walls, stucco ceilings, marble tables and tan-leather booths, the ‘Central Cafe’ encapsulates the cosiness that drew in Hungary’s belle-époque writers to the gallery above the main floor. Just in case you fancy playing writer, the table mats with poetic prompts invite you to scribble your own verse over an espresso. Under the 20th-century communist regime this famous cafe was closed for decades, but it triumphantly reopened once the Iron Curtain came down in 1989.
A revived old-world cafe, Hadik Kávéház is back in full swing after being shut down in 1949 © Jennifer Walker / Lonely Planet
Hadik Kávéház: the classic cafe with a modern face
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 flats, 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 may even find a few budding writers hiding behind a laptop with a cup of coffee.
Gerbeaud has been the most fashionable meeting place for Budapest’s elite since 1870 © Stefano Ember / Shutterstock
Gerbeaud: a coffee house with aristocratic opulence
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).
Művész Kávéház: the pre-show hangout
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 counterparts. It opened during Budapest’s golden age, in 1898, and still operates on the grand Andrássy Avenue, just across from the Hungarian State Opera House. 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. Its location close to the opera and just a corner away from Nagymező utca (Budapest’s own Broadway, where the city’s most famous theatres jostle each other along one block) make it a great place to meet friends before taking in a show.
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