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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.