Budapest, where cafés and history mix

Budapest - Spice of europe

Budapest
Greater Budapest

Plaques and statues delineate the history of many a city, its cultural shifts and seminal events. Budapest has many of these to admire, of course, but the visitor can discover much more about Hungary’s capital just by sitting over a cup of coffee. The cafés of Budapest tell the story of a metropolis that arose from the provincial outpost left behind by the coffee-drinking Ottomans to a booming twin imperial capital in which Hungarian culture could flourish in these ornate ...

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The story now comes full circle with the city’s burgeoning new-wave cafés, and their accompanying cosmopolitan lifestyle. A number of the gilded coffeehouses of the Belle Époque remain, however, spanning a century of history within four walls.

 

Still popular to this day, the Ruszwurm stands a few steps from Matthias Church. Confectioner Ferenc Schwabl opened this venerable establishment in 1827, and it retains its Biedermeier furnishings. Its cakes and pastries remain legendary – Empress Elisabeth of Austria, a great Hungarophile, would have them delivered to her.

 

The classic era of the coffeehouse, however, came a century or so later, with the development of Pest as an urban hub. Until the mid- to late 1800s, the common language in Budapest was German. As Pest was built block after block, cramped, dimly lit apartments encouraged the menfolk to meet elsewhere, in the coffeehouse. Here, the common language was Hungarian. Writers, artists and people of influence would be able to convene for hours over a single cup of coffee. The coffeehouse became a forum, where ideas could be exchanged, most notably at the Pilvax in the city centre, where Sándor Petőfi and his contemporaries plotted the uprising against their Viennese masters in 1848.

 


Once Budapest gained its elevated status as a twin capital of the Dual Monarchy, so the Hungarian capital flourished, culturally as well as architecturally. The city gained theatres, a daily press, book publishers, and these actors, journalists and writers would gather. Editorial meetings took place, magazines were conceived – most notably, the seminal Nyugat at the Centrál, opened in 1887.

Other grand institutions thrived. Some survive to this day, some have been recently revived. The Gerbeaud café and confectionery still carries the name and divine desserts of the Swiss-born entrepreneur who took it over in the late 1800s. On Andrássy út, the Divatcsarnok, later known as the Paris Department Store, saw the opening of the Café Párisi in late 2018. Frescos by the famed Károly Lotz and chandeliers from the Golden Age echo the élan of yesteryear. Designed as a bank more than a century ago, the ornate Párizsi Udvar has been reconfigured as a high-end hotel, with an elegant café operating under a spectacular atrium.

 

The grandest of them all, however, is a café that was later converted into a hotel. The New York Café opened on the Nagykörút in 1894, commissioned by the New York Life Insurance Company, hence the name – though only the ground floor operated as a café. Embellished with a fountain, Venetian chandeliers and ceiling frescos, it took coffeehouse elegance to a new level.

 

Its legend was established the day it opened, when playwright Ferenc Molnár was said to have thrown the keys into the Danube so that it would never close. Writers, naturally, were offered a special menu.

 

The New York caught the tail end of Budapest’s Golden Age and would be a forerunner of the Silver Age after World War I, attracting personalities from the burgeoning world of cinema as well as literature. It was here, for example, that the later director of Casablanca, Mihály Kertész, would meet later renowned UK film producer Sándor (Alexander) Korda.

 

Like so many of Budapest’s most illustrious landmarks, the New York received a contemporary makeover in the early 2000s, the Italian Boscolo group reviving it as a luxury hotel – while also re-establishing the café.

 


Today’s café culture is based on far more than literary legend. The coffee itself is an essential element. Kávétársaság (’Coffee Company’) on Nádor utca supplies the numerous new-wave cafés in town with quality dark roasts and arabicas. These are especially prevalent in the up-and-coming district of Újlipótváros, where young professionals linger at Madal and My Green Cup, and along Bartók Béla út, at Kelet and, revived from a century ago, Hadik. Exciting initiatives in Budapest’s coffee scene are Espresso Embassy and My Little Melbourne in the inner city. If you want freshly roasted coffee in the neighbourhood of Kálvin tér, you should visit Tamp & Pull Espresso Bar, Double Shot or Kaffeine.