Like it or not, Budapest's contemporary coffee culture hardly resembles the grand, sumptuous coffee houses that were so prevalent at the turn of the 20th century across the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rather, the city's coffee scene these days is more similiar to that of Williamsburg in Brooklyn, where specialty cafés and buzz words like V60, Aeropress, and French press carry the day.
All this is pretty new to Budapest. Until recently, there was a conspicuous absence of places offering quality coffee and inviting interiors. As our new-wave coffee toplist shows, this has really begun to change in the past five years or so, and a number of new-wave cafés have opened to fill this void, and many of which you can find reviewed on this site. While they're a positive and welcome change, one often wishes their aesthetics would have more character and reflect the local environment rather than resembling places in other parts of the world.
Three of the hottest specialty cafés in Budapest at the moment are Kontakt, Espresso Embassy, and My Little Melbourne. They all use premium coffee beans and make a range of espresso-based and filter coffees (including cold brew). For similar quality, but a milder ambiance and more locals, go to Műterem Kávézó.
Those searching for the grand air of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, try Café Gerbeaud, New York Café, or Central Café. Just so you know it, expect to have to push your way through camera-wielding tourists (particularly at New York Café) and pay above-average prices.
In parallel with a burgeoning food culture, Hungarian wine-making has experienced a revival in the post-communist era (since the 1990s). Despite its relatively small geographic size, globally Hungary ranks as the 15th largest wine producer, with 22 unique wine regions.
Wines from the Tokaj region are the most well known outside of the country, possibly you are already familiar with them. Tokaji wines can boast about several high-profile fans over the centuries, including Louis XIV and Thomas Jefferson (Tokaji Aszu was the most expensive wine Jefferson ever bought). However, there are a host of high-quality alternatives to Tokaji, in both red and white varieties.
Besides Tokaj, the southern Villány wine region (known for its high-tannin reds) is the most popular within the country, followed by Eger. Fine wines are also produced at smaller vineyards in Szekszárd, Badacsony and the Northern Balaton region. If you want to try something local, Furmint and Hárslevelű (white), and Kadarka (red) are made from grapes indigenous to the region.
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 Beer 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 inviting place to sample (largely Hungarian) craft beers served 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. Initially prepared for the Habsburg Emperor in an effort to aid his digestive problems, the company was created in 1790. 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 not far from the city center.
Aside from Unicum, the other national drink in Hungary is pálinka. A fruit brandy made from plum, apricot, 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.
Good to know
The bars of Budapest generally fall into two categories. On the one hand, myriad of ruin bars offer an informal atmosphere with no-frills-but-dirt-cheap drinks. On the other are the fancy, higher-end cocktail joints where bartenders with chiseled jawline mix stiff cocktails of ingredients you've never heard of. The in-between territory is noticeably thin. You know, a laid-back bar to pop in after a long day’s of work for a well-deserved highball of scotch and soda. Kisüzem and Nappali Kávéház are two exceptions well worth visiting.
For a deep immersion into the local drinking crowd, visit one of the "borozó" (winery) or "eszpresszó" establishments in the city. These are no-frills, often grungy wine bars remaining 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 they are worth experiencing for their unique ambiance and local crowds. For the best experience, visit Bambi Eszpresszó, Wichmann or Villányi Borozó.