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 trip 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

Budapest cafe culture

Today the smokers have to sit outside. Ruzswurm café on an August afternoon.

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.

Budapest cafe culture

Almond cake at Ruszwurm cafe is the sugar addict’s sweet dream.

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

Budapest cafe culture

New York Cafe glitters.

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.

Budapest cafe culture

Perhaps the most expensive dessert in Budapest: dark chocolate lemon mousse cake.

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

Budapest cafe culture

Meet the locals at 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.

Budapest cafe culture

No need to read the menu at Európa Kávéház.

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. Visiting those standbys is one of the top things to do in Budapest. But 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.

16 Responses

  1. Our First Taste Of Europe

    […] So for all intents and purposes this would again be a new experience for both Nathan and I. Budapest may not flaunt such a blatant fairytale-esque complexion as Prague but it carries an air of […]

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  2. Jean

    Oh Budapest you have stolen my heart and my sweet tooth! Looks like my kinda place. Coffee and cake? Where do I sign up?

    Reply
  3. sherianne

    OMG! Everything looks wonderful. I need to be there… right now! Since I’m not, I will pin for the future and eat an granola bar

    Reply
  4. Siddhartha Joshi

    Fascinating read, especially the bits about the how coffee moved across in history. As a tourist it’s often my favourite thing to do – visit cafes and meet some locals. However, you are right – I often see more tourists than locals, especially in the famous ones…

    Reply
  5. Laura Lynch

    I love the coffee house culture. It’s fun as a traveler to mingle with locals and join a tradition (even if it’s just sitting for a coffee and cake). It makes you feel part of things. I can’t believe there were over 400 cafes.

    Reply
  6. Suruchi

    400 Coffee houses in Budapest. Wow! That is a huge huge number and it clearly depicts the coffee culture. I am myself a big coffee fan and usually meet friends and people on coffee. The three cafes you listed here are actually awesome and unique in their own ways. I am already drooling over the cakes in the pictures.

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  7. Carmen Edelson

    Cakes, glorious cakes! They all look to die for. I absolutely love New York Cafe. I’d return to Budapest in a heartbeat. Now to go find some cake… 😉 Thanks for sharing and happy travels!

    Reply

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