The 19th Century Coffee Houses of Budapest

Indulging in the cafe culture in Budapest was a high point of my visit to the Hungarian capital.Budapest has a long coffee tradition that started in the 1600s with the Turkish occupation. Later during the 19th century, when Hungary was experiencing their Golden Age, there were over 400 coffee houses in Budapest alone. These coffee houses catered to writers, poets and artists during this time by providing them with free paper and ink as well as a special discounted menu. It’s no surprise that these cafe’s became a mainstay for Budapest intellectuals. Unfortunately, the tradition of these grand coffee houses fell to the wayside under the communist rule of the 20th century. But, in recent years they have seen a revival. Many of the large cafe’s from the 19th century have been restored and are now open for business serving coffee to tourists and locals alike. I was lucky enough to visit two of these coffee houses during my trip.

The New York Cafe

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The New York Cafe is on the ground floor of the immaculate Boscolo Hotel. Walking in, you’re almost overcome with just how decadent the interior is. I’ve read  a few guides where  people remark that it’s “just like stepping back in time” and it truly is. The cafe’s interior is incredible with white marble floors and stairways, gold molding, painted frescoes and of course sparkling chandeliers. The tables are all topped with white table cloths and the chairs are plush and red. There isn’t a plain or ordinary spot in the entire place. The cafe was opened in 1894 and was a particular favorite for writers and editors. There is even a legend that Ferenc Molnar, a well-known Hungarian novelist, threw the keys of the New York Cafe into the Danube so that it would be open all day and night.

However, once you get past the overwhelming grandness of the New York Cafe, the feeling of stepping back in time quickly fades like a clever illusion.

The place was full to the brim with tourists and hotel guests. There were cameras going off at almost every table, despite the fact that there was a large sign at the entrance stating that photography was prohibited.

After being seated and having time to digest my surroundings, I realized that there was something a bit off about the cafe. While it was beautiful and the coffee and desserts, while over-priced, were tasty…it didn’t quite feel like a cafe.

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It seemed like everyone was gawking at the interior or getting up and taking photos in front of it. No one seemed to really be focused on being there for breakfast. It was like being at the Sistine Chapel, only there was the option of coffee.

Then it hit me.The New York Cafe was a bit like a nostalgic spectacle of old grandeur that tourists have come to see. My partner summed it up pretty well when he remarked that “The soul of this place died a long time ago.”

While I had been excited to see the New York Cafe especially after learning about it’s rich history, it was a huge disappointment to see that it’s become more of a tourist attraction than a cafe — an image that it seems to play to.

Thankfully, The New York Cafe was not the only restored coffee house that we stopped at.

The Book Cafe

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After the New York Cafe, I was determined to find another vintage coffee house in the area. A quick internet search led us to The Book Cafe, which according to the map was less than a five minute walk from the flat we were staying in. Intrigued, we were lead to the Andrassi Ut (one of the main shopping streets in Budapest that ran parallel to our road). There still wasn’t any sign of a coffee house.  After looking around the street for a minute,  we walked into a book shop that could have been the Hungarian equivalent of a Barnes and Noble. Once inside the book store, we noticed an escalator heading up to another level. We took it to the top floor and  lo and behold — the Book Cafe.

The fresco ceiling is the first thing I noticed. Numerous figures such as weavers, beer makers, carpenters decorate the top part of the room. Several chandeliers hang down the length of the space. An ornate espresso machine and dessert case sat on the far left of the room. A grand piano stood at the center and tables filled the rest of the area. Ornate glass windows on the far side of the room faced the street our flat was on.

The Book Cafe (Lotz Hall) was built in the late 19th century when the building served as a shopping center. Karoly Lotz, painted the frescoes on the ceiling and even included a self portrait as one of the tradesmen. Lotz is famed for also painting murals in Budapest’s nearby Opera House and the Hungarian Parliament Building.

The Book Cafe had a smaller but similar coffee menu to that of the New York Cafe. The coffee was good but the croissants were the best I have ever tasted! They were fresh baked and brought to the cafe from a local bakery.

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The cafe is about the size of a ball room yet it gives off a more intimate atmosphere. While it was busy, it wasn’t crowded or overwhelming. The cafe appeared to be frequented by both locals and tourists. While there were a few pictures taken of the interior, the guests at the cafe seemed content to have a cup of coffee and chat with their friends or read a book. Unlike the New York Cafe, the place still had the nostalgia and spirit of a former time while also having brought itself into the 21st century as a high end venue.

Overall, the Book Cafe was a fantastic find. We went back several more times including in the evening for cocktails, cake and live piano music.

Photo Credit: New York Cafe image was taken by Yelkrokoyade and obtained through Wikimedia Commons

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A Coffee Snobs Guide to London

The first thing I do when I travel/move to a new area is to seek out a place I can get good coffee!  But, wait…you may ask “What about a certain global coffee chain that has invaded every corner of the world?!” Oh yes, Starbucks. To put it bluntly — I don’t like Starbucks. The coffee is over-roasted so that it tastes burnt and often (no matter what country you’re in) it’s twice as expensive as the local (and much tastier) alternatives. Therefore, when I first moved to London I began my arduous search for quality coffee. Thankfully, London offered numerous options that satisfied my taste buds and my caffeine addiction!

Monmouth Coffee Company (Covent Garden)

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As mentioned in my previous post —  American Favorites in London — Monmouth Coffee Co. was my go-to coffee place in London. I was lucky that it was popular enough to have more than one location and that it was distributed to several other local coffee houses. The location I frequented was, of course, on Monmouth street in the Seven Dials area of Covent Garden. The shop has a friendly, yet bare-basics atmosphere and the staff are incredibly helpful. However, the shop is constantly busy and there is often a queue (line) out the door. I recommend buying a latte to go and if the weather is nice; walk to the famous Seven Dials pillar on the junction to sit and enjoy your coffee with ease.

The Speakeasy (Carnaby Street)

The Speakeasy was the usual destination to catch up with friends who had also moved to London or were down for a visit! It’s a small cafe located just off Carnaby Street. Despite that the place is surrounded by large chain stores, the cafe manages to give a very boutique feel. The coffee is consistent and the pastries are worth a try! It’s a perfect spot to sit and rest for awhile after maneuvering around Oxford street.

The Coffeeworks Project (Islington)

My Canadian friend, Andy, described The Coffeeworks Project best when we stopped in for an afternoon coffee break — “This is the most hipster place I’ve seen outside Montreal!” It’s true, the Coffeeworks Project has a very rustic yet minimalist vibe with recycled furniture and high coffee bar stools. The baristas are friendly and have their intricate coffee art down pat. The clientele is all under 30 and working away on an iPad or Macbook. Friends from Seattle: I give you your home away from home! In all seriousness though, the coffee here is up to standard and goes superbly with one of their rich brownies.

Ginger & White (Hampstead)

Located in upscale Hampstead, Ginger & White offers delicious espresso courtesy of Square Mile Coffee Roasters. This is truly a neighborhood cafe and has a very local feel. Unlike some of the other coffee shops on this list, G&W’s location is ideal for avoiding crowds.  I stopped in for a coffee on a cold autumn day before heading to Hampstead Heath and was struck by how laid back the atmosphere was. The coffee will get you in the door but the cafe itself will keep you coming back!

Kipferl (Islington)

This was a treasure I discovered right before I left London and was disappointed I hadn’t found it sooner!  Having visited Kipferl, I feel like I got a good sampling of a Viennese Cafe. When you order a coffee it comes with a small glass of still water (as is typical with Austrian coffee). The coffee is strong but not bitter and perfect with one of Kipferls homemade pastries. I enjoyed my latte with a slice of their apfelkuchen (an apple cake with lemon and cinnamon.)  Kipferl is less than a minutes walk from The Coffeeworks Project and a short way from Angel Tube station. If you’re looking for more of a European cafe experience rather than intricate coffee art and hipster baristas — this place is for you!

Next time you’re in The Old Smoke, I urge you to set aside the convenience of Starbucks and get to know a little bit of London’s coffee culture!

Photo credit to Andy Melan for Monmouth Coffee Cup image