Cafés of Budapest

Adopted from the Ottomans who occupied Budapest in the 16th and 17th centuries, coffee drinking seeped into local Hungarian culture sooner than elsewhere in Europe. While the early coffeehouses, chaotic spaces filled with tobacco smoke and noisy merchants, resembled the Turkish bazaars, they later became centers of Budapest's cultural and social life. They played a key role in bringing together people from different backgrounds at a time when the country was firmly divided by social-class with little room for mobility. Penniless artists with big dreams were nursing their coffees alongside established statesmen who held court at a nearby table. Countless stories of the colorful figures from the coffeehouse-era have become part of Budapest's collective memory.

Like it or not, however, long gone are these grand, sumptuous coffeehouses that once dominated Budapest's streetviews (at the peak in 1896, there were 600 of them in the city). And while a handful of them have been recently revived, like the New York Café and Café Gerbeaud, they've become overpriced tourist attractions and lost much of their native spirit.

Coffee houses, similar to all other private enterprises, couldn't escape the nationalization that swept through the country under communism. Many of them shuttered permanently, others carried on as "eszpresszó" establishments (no-frills drinking joints in-between a café and a bar). But eszpresszós no longer enjoyed the social and cultural relevance that coffee houses had attained before WWII. Part of this had to do with the repressive political regime that supervised all platforms of social gathering, as well as more mundane reasons as the emergence of TV equipment in people's homes that diminshed the importance of cafés as exchanges of information.

Today, the contemporary coffee scene in Budapest is all about craft coffee. Hand-roasted, small batch, and single origin beans seem to be the buzzwords at every café that sprouts up. It's as if Budapest is developing into a mini Williamsburg, the hip neighborhood in New York, where V60 pour-overs and cold brew dominate the coffee scene.

The good thing about this trend in Budapest is that now it's fairly easy to find excellent coffee almost anywhere in the city. Remember, all this is pretty new: until less than a decade ago few Hungarians knew the difference between a dark and a light-roast. But while all this is a positive and welcome change, one often wishes these new places would have more character and reflect the local environment rather than resembling places in other parts of the world.

Kontakt, Espresso Embassy, and My Little Melbourne are three of the hottest specialty cafés in downtown Budapest at the moment. They all use premium coffee beans and make a range of espresso-based and filter coffees (including cold brew). For similar quality but more locals, go to Kelet Café or Műterem Kávézó, or check out the full list of the best third-wave cafés in Budapest.

Hungarian Wine And The Wine Bars

In parallel with a burgeoning coffee culture, Hungarian wine-making has experienced a revival in the post-communist era. Despite its relatively small geographic size, globally Hungary ranks as the 15th largest wine producer, with 22 unique wine regions (it were the Roman legions who first planted vineyards in today's Hungary in the 3rd century AD).

Wines from the Tokaj region are the most well known outside of the country, possibly you're already familiar with them. Tokaji wines can boast several prominent fans over the centuries, including King Louis XIV of France and Thomas Jefferson (in fact, a Tokaji was the most expensive wine Thomas Jefferson ever bought). The aszú variety is the most famous, which actually owes its beautifully golden color and sweet, fruity flavors to a fungus that attacks the grape in humid conditions. But Hungary produces a host of high-quality wines outside of Tokaj too, in both red and white varieties.

The most popular red wines come from the Villány wine region near the Croatian border, which is known for its high-tannin reds. But winemakers from Eger, Szekszárd, Badacsony, and the Northern Balaton region also make excellent wines. If you want to try something local, Furmint and Hárslevelű (white), and Kadarka (red) are made from grapes indigenous to the region. Bortársaság, a wine retailer with a store network throughout Budapest, carries an array of Hungarian wines from all the major Hungarian wine regions.

You can sample over 140 types of Hungarian wine at Kadarka Bar and DiVino, both trendy wine bars in central Budapest. In restaurants, bottles of Hungarian wine in the range of €15-20 (HUF4,500-6,000) are unlikely to leave you disappointed, and most wines above €20 are considered high quality vintages.

Hungarian Beers And Spirits

Wine may hold a special place within the heart of Hungarians, but several fledgling microbreweries are working to give it a run for its title by producing craft beers that may change local preferences. Élesztő and Jónás Craft Beer House, brewpubs located in District 9, are both great places to sample Hungarian craft beers on draft.

If you're looking for something of a stronger vein, give Unicum a try. Typically drunk as a digestif or apéritif, Unicum is a herbal liquor made from a secret formula containing more than forty types of herbs. Unicum was initially prepared in the 18th century for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems. Presently the company is again owned by descendants of the original founders, the Zwack family, after a tumultuous ownership history during communism. To learn more about the storied family business, see the production plant, and taste Unicum, visit the Zwack Museum located not far from the city center.

Aside from Unicum, the other national drink in Hungary is pálinka. A fruit brandy made from apricot, plum, pear, or cherry, pálinka production dates back to the Middle Ages. First time users beware, this concoction can knock you off your feet before you know it, particularly home-made varieties.

The Budapest Bar Scene

The bars of Budapest fall into four broad categories. The first one includes a true Budapest invention, the so called ruin bars. They offer an informal atmosphere, a uniquely eclectic interior, and dirt-cheap drinks. Ruin bars are indigenous to Budapest but they're increasingly imitated in other cities around the world. Szimpla Kert, the mother of all ruin bars, is still all the rage and well-worth a visit within the old Jewish Quarter.

The second category comprises a myriad of bohemian bars. Budapest's sizeable alternative/artistic crowd likes to frequent these dimly lit, cheap, and typically lively places that swarm the Jewish Quarter and District 8. Besides live music performances, they often display contemporary art pieces on the walls which can be purchased. Kisüzem and Dzzs Bár are two of the favorites (see the full list of the best bohemian bars in Budapest).

On the other are hand are the fancier, higher-end bars and cocktail joints where bartenders with chiseled jawline mix stiff cocktails of ingredients you've never heard of. These types of places are still relatively new to Budapest because for a long time few people could afford to spend money on cocktails. But with burgeoning tourism and more financially successful Hungarians, plenty of trendy cocktail bars have opened (try Boutiq Bar for the best experience).

The final category includes the so called "borozó" (winery) and "eszpresszó" establishments. These are bare-bones, dirt-cheap, often grungy wine bars that have remained here from communist-era Budapest (eszpresszó, serving coffee too, is a notch above borozó). As you can imagine, they serve much different kinds of wines than the trendy wine bars, but that's not even the point here. Borozós and eszpresszós offer an honest look into the everyday Budapest drinking crowd, so be sure visit one of them. And go before it's too late - they're a dying breed. Try Bambi Eszpresszó, Wichmann, or Villányi Borozó (see the full list of the best ones).