By Jacquelin Carnegie – (Budapest, Hungary)
Long before “café culture” flourished in Paris and Vienna, it thrived in Budapest. The custom of drinking coffee was introduced by invading Ottoman Turks in the 1500s. During Budapest’s Golden Age, between 1870 and 1910, there were some 500 coffee houses in the city.
In their heyday, Budapest’s cafés were hangouts for aspiring writers, poets, artists, and the local intelligentsia. Before the age of television and the Internet, people spent hours in their favorite café, sharing ideas, gossip, and reading the newspapers, provided for free.
|New York Café|
These Budapest coffee houses had sumptuous interiors with lustrous chandeliers and frescoed ceilings to rival the Sistine Chapel. But, after two world wars and the communist era in Hungary, the old famous cafes had been destroyed or closed. In recent years, many of these once-grand cafés have been restored to their original splendor:
New York Café
|New York Café|
New York Palace Hotel, Erzsébet körút 9-11; Tel: 01/886-6111; www.newyorkcafe.hu; Metro: M2 – Astoria; Open: 9am-midnight
Opened in 1894 on the ground floor of a stylish office complex, designed by architect Alajos Hauszmann and financed by a New York life insurance company (hence the name), the café was a favorite haunt of the writers and editors who worked in the building (now a five-star Boscolo hotel). For struggling writers, the New York provided free ink and paper and offered a low-cost "writer's menu" (bread, cheese & cold cuts). During Budapest’s Golden Age, much of the city’s creative business took place here or at the Café Central.
Károlyi Mihály utca 9; Tel: 01/266-2110; www.centralkavehaz.hu; Metro: M3 - Ferenciek Tere; Open: 8am-midnight
Opened in 1887, the Central was a popular meeting place for writers, poets, editors, and artists. In the 1890s, writers sitting around the café began an influential literary periodical, A Hét (Week). A few years later, another group of regulars, who divided their time between the Central and the New York, launched Nyugat (West), which became one of the most influential Hungarian literary journals in the early 20th century.
Vörösmarty tér 7; Tel: 01/429-9000; www.gerbeaud.hu; Metro: M1 – Vörösmarty tér; Open: 9am-9pm
Founded by confectioner Henrik Kugler in 1858, this is regarded as one of the most elegant and refined cafés. In 1884, its Swiss pastry chef, Emile Gerbeaud, took over the establishment, making it as famous for its cakes as its coffee.
BookCafé Párizsi Áruház
Alexandra bookstore, Andrássy út 39; Tel: 01/461-5835; www.parisi.hu; Metro: M1- Opera; Open: 10am-midnight
|BookCafé Párizsi Áruház|
This stunning café is located on the third floor of, what is now, the Alexandra Bookstore. The Art Nouveau building, designed by Zsigmond Sziklai, was opened in 1911 as Párizsi Nagy Árúház, Budapest’s first modern department store. The café, in Lotz hall, is resplendent with restored frescos (done by painter Károly Lotz), large mirrors, and magnificent chandeliers.
Andrássy út 29; Tel: 70/333-2116; www.muveszkavehaz.hu; Metro: M1- Opera; Open: Mon-Sat, 9am-midnight; Sun, 10am-10pm
Around since 1898, Művész means artist and since the café is located opposite the Budapest State Opera House, over the years, it’s attracted its fair share of artists and performers.
Gerloczy u. 1; Tel: 01/501-4000; www.gerloczy.hu; Metro: M1, M2, M3 – Deák Farenc tér; Open: 7am-11pm
On a leafy square, in a pretty 1892 building, the Gerlóczy has the feel of a Parisian café with its wonderful croissants and freshly-baked pastries—some consider it the best breakfast in town. At night, a harpist adds to the atmosphere. Another unique, Gerlóczy offering: 19 stylish rooms in its upstairs boutique hotel, so you never have to leave!
|Stay at the Café Gerlóczy|
Getting There: The best time to visit Budapest is between March and October. Both Delta and American offer connecting flights.
Read Before You Go: "The Great Escape” by Kati Marton: This wonderful book, about influential Hungarians, describes life in the Budapest cafés at the turn of the 20th century.