Budapest’s classic coffeehouses are a sight to behold, their fin-de-siècle splendor a backdrop to a coffee-drinking culture that dates back centuries. Many were cradles of culture, literary haunts for many of Hungary’s prominent creatives. Most establishments have been revamped while staying true to their original design – and spirit. As well as providing timeless treats alongside new-wave desserts, they allow us to take a trip back in time and spend a beguiling hour over a rich, aromatic coffee and a delicate cake served in traditional fashion.
Welcome to Ultimate Budapest! In our ultimate series we list the best of Budapest, its bars and spas, its boutiques and cafés, its sights and restaurants. Regularly updated, always on the ball, this is your go-to guide for everything that’s great about this great city.
Celebrating its 130th anniversary in 2017, Centrál Café is one of the oldest coffeehouses in Budapest, safeguarding a prominent past but with a progressive mindset, offering an inspiring atmosphere enhanced with ample sunshine flooding through huge windows that open in summer to the sidewalk-seating area. At the onset of the 20th century, this huge downtown locale was a highly frequented hangout for Hungary’s literary luminaries and was a regular retreat for the editorial team of Nyugat, the most influential literary journal in Hungary of the day. Many prominent writers are memorialized here with portraits decorating the classic wooden walls. Visitors to Centrál are embraced by a splendid vintage vibe enhanced with cutting-edge facilities.
The impressive selection includes fine Hungarian dishes and international ones, while the coffee assortment is complete with both standard and new-wave java specialties. A delicate line of desserts is also offered here, with each piece made on the spot at Centrál’s own subterranean confectionery. Guests can try Hungarian sweets such as Esterházy torte (a buttercream cake made with layers of almond meringue), Dobos torte (a caramel-topped sponge cake layered with chocolate buttercream), Rákóczi túrós (a sweet cottage-cheese cake), Austrian Sacher cake, colorful French macarons or lime cheesecake. One of the house’s specialties is the Centrál Cakelet, a creamy coffee-infused mousse atop a soft sponge cake.
Centrál also keeps tradition alive with a simple gesture; whenever a customer orders coffee, it is served with a paper placemat featuring a piece – and its English translation – by a prominent Hungarian writer who was a regular here. On the other side, you are encouraged to grab a pen and share your own literary masterpieces. Often a small card is added to the order with an eloquent description taken from a literary piece by a Hungarian writer.
- 1053 Budapest, Károlyi Mihály utca 9.
Located on ever-bustling Vörösmarty Square, the Gerbeaud café and cake shop has more than 150 years of experience behind it, making it one of the oldest, best-known and most prominent coffeehouses in Budapest. The interior is decorated with gilded stucco, wood paneling, impressive chandeliers and marble counters – sampling coffee and dessert here makes you feel like a royalty. Gerbeaud was opened in 1858 by Henrik Kugler, but was made world-famous by Swiss confectioner, Emil Gerbeaud, who bought and refurbished the building in 1898.
Emil Gerbeaud‘s two famous and must-try inventions are the so-called konyakos meggy, sour cherry matured in cognac and covered in dark chocolate, and the zserbó szelet, layers of sweet cake, jam and ground walnuts topped with chocolate glaze. The assortment is complete with other traditional Hungarian delicacies, as well as new-wave confections made with cutting-edge technologies and, of course, mouthwatering coffee concoctions. Gerbeaud’s spacious interior is able to accommodate 330 people at one time, and in summer a terrace spreads out over this prime spot for people watching.
- 1051 Budapest, Vörösmarty tér 7.
Enhanced with old-world charm, Gerlóczy Café is like a petit piece of Paris in downtown Budapest – it even served as a stand-in for a Paris café when Stephen Spielberg was filming Munich in Budapest. Wood, marble and leather dominate the intimate interior that makes guests feel as cozy as at home. Huge windows let in lots of sunshine, reflected by a beautiful and massive mirror on the wall. Visitors can sink into comfortable leather seats, enjoying various kinds coffee and sweet treats, taking in the downtown buzz from their tranquil vantage point.
The menu constantly changes according to season. Mostly French flavors dominate, but sometimes Mediterranean spices appear. The breakfast menu includes all the favorites, pastries, sandwiches and bistro dishes that come with tasty coffee concoctions, the evening given over to glasses of fine wine.
- 1052 Budapest, Gerlóczy utca 1.
In the early part of the 20th century, Hadik was also a haunt for famous Hungarian writers, but not nearly as ornate and magnificent as Centrál or the New York Café over in Pest. The simple interior, brown walls and peculiar vibe were compared to a rural train station or to an “overlit granary” by prominent Magyar writer Zsigmond Móricz, while with his characteristic sarcasm, Frigyes Karinthy compared Hadik to a shopping bag – immortalized in the name of the adjacent Szatyor Bar. Hadik closed down in 1940, and was only reopened in 2009, but the atmosphere was not quite the same as in its golden days. In 2016 however, Hadik was once again revived, and the minimalist new appearance is now somewhat truer to its original spirit, helping it regain its role as a hub for the local literary and artistic scene.
The most eye-catching changes in the new-old space are the modern exposed brickwork, industrial lamps and wooden surfaces exuding faux historic grandeur. The classic old chandelier, Thonet chairs and wooden tables remain, but the armchairs have since gained worn leather covers instead of plush upholstery. Hadik is now once again an established hangout for local creatives, artists seen staring into space, lost in thought. Oscar-winning director László Nemes-Jeles wrote the script for Son of Saul here and donated two pages of the original work to the café. The food selection stretches from snacks through burgers to classic main dishes, which can be washed down with a tasty coffee, a cocktail or a pint of local craft beer.
- 1111 Budapest, Bartók Béla út 36.
Stepping inside the Művész Café feels like teleporting back in time to the Belle Époque, stepping into the lounge of an aristocratic Hungarian family. The interior is decorated in Biedermeier style, enhanced with wooden details, magnificent chandeliers and elegant tapestry. Művész was opened in 1898, but its history unfortunately cannot be tracked all the way back. However, this café used to be a store of the Gerbeaud family. Due to its location on ornate showcase Andrássy Avenue, the café was frequented by the artists of the Opera House diagonally opposite. The elegance of this bygone era still lingers, an attraction in itself, enticing all kinds of custom, from writers and artists to shoppers and tourists. However, if not reason enough, their additive-free cakes and tasty black coffees should tempt you to step inside.
The beautifully presented coffee concoctions are created from black arabica beans, while the cakes are made from homemade sponge and instead of aromas and additives, brought to perfection with quality spirits. Művész also proffers a few tasty main dishes, cocktails, breakfasts and various creamy delights.
- 1061 Budapest, Andrássy út 29.
New York Café
At the New York Café – once chosen the most beautiful coffeehouse in the world – you can truly immerse yourself into authentic 19th-century coffeehouse culture amid gilded and marble surfaces, fragrant flowers, crimson colors, crystals and frescos. Live Hungarian music often imbues the aristocratic atmosphere. During Hungary’s Belle Époque, renowned writers were often seen putting pen to paper here, and the New York Café was another important clubhouse for the Nyugat crew. Legend has it that on the opening day of the café in 1894, Hungarian writer Ferenc Molnár and his journalist friends threw the keys of the locale in the Danube, trying to encourage the management to keep the café open 24 hours a day. Ferenc Molnár later wrote his famous Paul Street Boys here. After thorough renovation a decade or so ago, the New York Café today looks just as lavish as it was in its glory.
A wide assortment of Magyar-style dishes, desserts, coffees and lemonades await visitors. Traditional Hungarian desserts such as Rákóczi cottage cake, Dobos torte and Somlói sponge cake are all available, alongside international favorites, while customers can also order various kinds of tasty black java. A visit to the New York Café is still a must, and an elegant contrast to the constant tram traffic along the Grand Boulevard.
- 1073 Budapest, Erzsébet körút 9-11.