Old World Meets Third Wave: Explore Budapest's Evolving Coffee Culture with Local Expert Szabolcs Temesvári

Coffee culture in the Hungarian capital is evolving
Coffee culture in the Hungarian capital is evolving | © milarka / Getty Images
Photo of Alex Mackintosh
5 December 2019

Budapest is renowned for its opulent fin-de-siècle coffee houses, historically frequented by the city’s literary crowd. Now, historic classic cafés are joined by stylish third-wave coffee spots, lending the coffee scene a contemporary edge. Local coffee expert Szabolcs Temesvári gives the lowdown on where to enjoy a brew in Budapest.

Coffee culture in the Hungarian capital is evolving: the impressive 19th-century coffee houses for which Budapest is known now sit cheek by jowl with modern cafés serving filter coffee and speciality roasts. As one third of the team behind Hungarian coffee roaster Casino Mocca, Szabolcs Temesvári has witnessed the evolution of Budapest’s approach to coffee first-hand.

Founded six years ago by three friends (and regulars on the barista competition scene), Casino Mocca was a pioneer on Budapest’s coffee roasting scene. The trio realised that “coffee roasting and green coffee sourcing is something that could be taken more seriously in Hungary,” explains Temesvári. After years of planning, Casino Mocca opened in 2013, at a time when speciality coffee in Hungary was just beginning to gain momentum. “As we’ve been the first of our kind on a domestic market that basically didn’t exist and has grown along with us, we had the luxury of growing organically,” he says. Today, Casino Mocca occupies more than double their original floor space, supplying the ever-increasing number of coffee shops across the Hungarian capital.

Budapest’s 19th-century coffee houses now sit cheek by jowl with third-wave cafés | © Ódor Dorottya / EyeEm / Getty Images

The success of Casino Mocca mirrors the increase in popularity of the third-wave coffee movement in Budapest. The Hungarian capital is embracing a more modern approach to coffee, with speciality coffee shops popping up across the city. Szabolcs agrees, “The city was thirsty for something new, and both consumers and entrepreneurs rode the wave.” Alongside this, he argues that “consumers are getting to be more educated” when it comes to coffee, with “a new wave movement sweeping through the whole food and beverage sector”. In contrast with previous years, “younger people are now accepting filter coffee, which was practically a swear word for the previous generation”.

While Budapest may still be in the fairly early stages of its speciality coffee revolution, its cafés have been part of its fabric for centuries. The Hungarian capital has grand coffee houses to rival those of Vienna, giving visitors a taste of fin-de-siècle opulence and grandeur. Frequented by Budapest’s literary and artistic elite, here, writers, poets, composers and artists would meet to debate and create over coffee. Two world wars and decades of Communist rule saw the city’s classic cafés fall out of favour. Today, Temesvári says, “the classic features of the once-traditional Hungarian coffee houses have now moved to less historic establishments, like the Kelet Café, on the Bartók Béla Boulevard on the Buda side of the city.” While debate and discussion may have transferred to the city’s modern cafés, the lingering beauty of the city’s original coffee houses remains a draw, with visitors frequenting their gilded halls in search of a taste of old-world charm.

There’s no shortage of cafés serving speciality coffees in Budapest | © Harriet Bailey / EyeEm / Getty Images

But it’s not just their sense of history that keeps people coming to Budapest’s cafés today – coffee in Budapest is an opportunity to relax and take a break. “Takeaways, or quickly sipping your short black standing at the counter, is something that is alien to our culture,” explains Temesvári. From grand historic establishments to third-wave cafés, there are plenty of places to grab a coffee across Budapest.

Third wave

Espresso Embassy

Coffee Shop, Pastelaria, Coffee, Pastries, $$$
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Espresso Embassy
Espresso Embassy is a pioneer of Budapest's third-wave coffee scene | Courtesy of Espresso Embassy
Run by Hungarian barista champion Tibor Varady, whom many credit with having sparked Budapest’s interest in third-wave coffee, Espresso Embassy is a popular coffee shop in downtown Budapest. This is, according to Temesvári, “the successor of the first third-wave café in Budapest; one of the most visited speciality coffee places, and also one of the busiest of all”. Its interior is all exposed brick and industrial-style furniture, while the coffee menu features options such as batch-brew or single brew filter coffee, and includes beans from Casino Mocca alongside local cakes and pastries. With its central location, a coffee at Espresso Embassy can easily be combined with visiting popular sights such as St Stephen’s Basilica and the Chain Bridge.

Cube Coffee Bar

Cafe, Coffee Shop, Coffee, $$$
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Cube Coffee Bar
Cube Coffee Bar offers speciality coffees alongside a menu of light snacks and meals | Courtesy of Cube Coffee Bar

Located in Budapest’s VI district, Cube is a cosy coffee shop overlooking Hunyadi tér, a quaint green square that is also home to a local food market. Opened in 2017, Cube serves a selection of speciality coffees alongside a menu of light snacks and meals. “The owner, Anikó, is Canadian-Hungarian – so expect to see many international regulars here when Anikó is behind the counter!” says Temesvári. There are themed brunches every Sunday, while if you’re looking for something sweet to go alongside your filter coffee, Temesvári recommends the homemade pastries – “Lemon squares are a must!” Cube is tucked away off the beaten track on Hunyadi tér, but within easy distance of attractions such as the House of Terror museum, which tells the story of the Budapest’s time under Fascist and Communist regimes.

Fekete

Bar, Hungarian, Fast Food, Coffee, Tea , $$$
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Tucked away in a peaceful courtyard just off a bustling boulevard in Budapest’s V district, Fekete is a popular place to grab a filter coffee or a flat white while exploring the city. The Hungarian National Museum is just down the street, while the Great Synagogue is just a few steps away. It’s frequented by both tourists and locals, and as Temesvári says, “Fekete is one of the very first speciality cafés in Budapest.” As well as coffee, there’s a food menu featuring all-day breakfasts and Hungarian/Scandinavian pastries.

My Little Melbourne

Bar, Cafe, Hungarian, Fast Food, Coffee, Tea , $$$
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Coffee at My Little Melbourne
My Little Melbourne is an Australian-inspired café | © Alaeddin92 / Shutterstock
As its name suggests, My Little Melbourne is an Australian-inspired café, and can be found in Budapest’s Jewish quarter. Opened in 2012, it was one of the city’s first speciality coffee shops, and as such has a reputation for an excellent brew, as well as a cult following. This popular café is split into two halves: My Little Melbourne and My Little Brew Bar. The former serves coffees from lattes to flat whites, alongside light bites such as sandwiches and pastries; the latter is the first of its kind in Hungary, and serves exclusively filter coffees, including V60, Chemex and Aeropress. As an indication of how seriously they take their coffee, their motto is, “Life is too short for bad coffee.”

Kontakt

Cafe, Coffee Shop, Pastries, $$$
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Kontakt coffee house
Forget snacks – coffee is the star of the show at Kontakt | Courtesy of Kontakt
Kontakt takes coffee very seriously: you won’t find any sugar here, and there are no americanos – instead, long black coffees are exclusively served filter-style, alongside a concise menu of espresso-based options. The focus is very much on coffee, and no food is served; however, their sister café, Szimply, is just across the courtyard and serves a creative all-day brunch menu. Nitro cold-brew coffee is also available on tap, which is a rarity in Budapest. Kontakt’s downtown location, just a few steps from the bustling Vorosmarty tér and on the border of the Jewish Quarter, makes it a practical option for coffee enthusiasts exploring the key sights of the Hungarian capital.

Old world

New York Cafe, Erzsébet körút

Cafe, Restaurant, Coffee Shop, Hungarian, Coffee, Pastries, $$$
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The historical cafe inside the New York Palace in Budapest
Visit New York Café for its opulent interiors | © S Parente - Best of Travel - RM / Alamy Stock Photo

If luxury and grandeur are on the agenda, New York Café is the place to go. This opulent coffee house, located on the busy Erzsebet Korut, is known more for its awe-inspiring interiors and rich history than it is for its coffee. Statues by Hungarian sculptor Károly Senyei adorn the exterior, while inside you’ll find marble columns, impressive frescoes and intricate gold detailing. Opened in 1894, the New York Café once played host to famous Hungarian writers including Zsigmond Móricz and Sandor Marai; a ‘writers’ bowl’ was even available on the menu, offering a cheaper dish for writers who otherwise couldn’t afford to eat here. Today, New York Café is more popular with visitors to Budapest, who come for a taste of a past era.

Cafe Gerbeaud

Cafe, Coffee Shop, Hungarian, Coffee, Pastries, $$$
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Café Gerbeaud
Courtesy of Café Gerbeaud

Opened by Henrik Kugler in 1858, in its heyday this luxurious café on Vorosmarty tér welcomed guests such as the Empress Elisabeth of Austria and the composer Franz Liszt. It was taken over by confectioner Emile Gerbeaud in the late 1800s and gained a reputation as one of Europe’s finest coffee houses, known for its takeaway cakes and grand interior. This 19th-century café survived two world wars and a period of nationalisation under Communist rule (during which time it was renamed Vorosmarty), before being restored to its former glory in the 1990s. Today, it stands as a reminder of a bygone era, and still serves the patisserie and confectionery it was once known for. This includes the trademark Gerbeaud cake, made with layers of pastry sandwiched with ground walnuts and homemade apricot jam beneath a decadent chocolate topping.

Hadik Café, Bartók Béla út

Restaurant, Cafe, Coffee Shop, European, Hungarian, Coffee, $$$
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A popular literary hangout in the early 20th century, Buda-based Hadik Café had little of the splendour displayed by its counterparts across the Danube, such as Gerbeaud and the New York Café. However, its run-down interior didn’t put intellectuals off, and Hadik was often visited by writers such as Frigyes Karinthy and Zsigmond Móricz. After a prolonged closure between 1940 and 2009, Hadik reopened with a stripped back interior combining old world with modern touches, along with a menu featuring their own speciality coffee blend. The café has even managed to retain its literary following: there’s a regular programme of cultural events, while Hungarian director László Nemes wrote the script for the Oscar-winning Son of Saul (2015) here.

Centrál Kávéház

Cafe, Coffee Shop, Coffee, $$$
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Central Cafe and Restaurant (Central Kavehaz). Budapest, Hungary
Centrál Kávéház dates back to 1887 | © Mariano Garcia / Alamy Stock Photo

One of Budapest’s oldest coffee houses, Centrál Kávéház first opened its doors in 1887, and quickly became a hub for the intellectual minds of the 19th century. Writers, poets, artists, scientists and composers could often be found sipping coffee here, as could the founders of the progressive literary journal Nyugat. During the Communist era, the Art Nouveau café became a canteen for students of the nearby ELTE University, before being restored and reopened in 2000. Its classic interior, featuring dark wood, leather and chandeliers, is slightly more understated than that of its peers.

These recommendations were updated on December 5, 2019 to keep your travel plans fresh.