The Ottoman Turks may have introduced coffee to Hungary in the late 16th century, but it was the Viennese of the Austro-Hungarian Empire that brought it to the kávéházak, or coffee houses. Starting in the 19th century, Budapest’s coffee houses provided not only caffeine-and-sugar-laden fuel to residents, but also served as smoke-filled meeting rooms for the artistic types. The cafes served as safe, supportive environments for writers and journalists to debate current events, as well as inspiring settings for artists and poets to daydream. Budapest cafe culture was so prominent that at one point there were 400 coffee houses scattered across the city.
The tradition of lingering with friends and colleagues over strong coffee and cigarettes has continued over the years, though in recent times locals tend to frequent more modern cafes and bars. In today’s traditional coffee house, you’ll find more tourists than poets, more lattés than espressos, and the smokers have to sit outside. Still, the cafes have preserved, or in some cases reconstructed, their 19th century charm.
I visited three unique cafes during our recent visit to Budapest and found that while some impress with their grandeur and others tempt with their cozy simplicity, they all provide a perfect environment to let an afternoon pass.
Budapest cafe #1: Ruszwurm
Ruszwurm is the oldest coffee house still in existence, established in 1827. Located at Szentháromság utca 7 on the Buda Castle hill, it welcomes guests with a modest sign and a green facade. Depending on the season, you may not find a table in the one sitting room, decorated with historical photos of the confectionary and furnished in the traditional 19th century style. It’s not difficult to imagine the poetic brooding that took place over clinking of ceramic cups.
If you are lucky enough to find a table, try a slice of their best-selling almond cake and be sure to power-walk several laps around the Castle afterward.
Budapest cafe #2: New York Cafe
The moment we walked into New York Cafe, which opened in 1894 at Erzsébet körút 9-11 (Pest), I immediately missed my grandmother Jean Marie, who loved all things elegant. With it’s grand high ceilings, extravagant gold moulding, and crystal chandeliers as big as tables, you can’t help but feel you should have donned your white gloves and patent leather shoes. Staff also immediately addressed us in English, a telling sign that the locals stay far, far away. This wasn’t always the case: in its early years, New York Cafe was a writers meeting place, the second floor even serving as an editing room for the influential literary journal Nyygat.
Today’s prices would probably bankrupt a struggling writer, so we shared the dark chocolate lemon mousse cake ($9.60), during which we couldn’t help notice that the window needed some serious cleaning. Nice to see some of the grit from the old days still remains.
Budapest cafe #3: Európa Kávéház
Európa Kávéház at Szent István körút 7-9 (Pest) is neither bashfully quaint nor lavishly opulent. Despite its questionable history—it used to be called Sziget Kávéház but I found no other historical information—its marble tabletops and modernized neo-classical interior suggest an environment where writers could have pondered away the hours. Given Európa’s modesty, it’s not as touristy as other cafes, and you might see locals meeting or sitting solo, staring out at the streets.
But what Európa’s lacks in extravagant décor, it makes up for in its several seductive dessert cases.
Some believe a visit to Budapest is not complete without a stop at Gerbaud, the city’s most famous and therefore most touristy cafe, or Central, another elegant choice with a rich history. Thanks to the resilient Austro-Hungarian cafe tradition, Budapest cafe culture offers plenty of options for sipping espresso, sampling a Dobos Torte, and pondering your masterpiece.