The 7 Best Coffeehouses in Budapest

Like Vienna, Budapest enjoyed a thriving coffeehouse culture during the Austro Hungarian Empire around the turn of the 20th century, more than 500 cafés swarmed across Budapest. Apart from low-priced caffeine, coffeehouses offered a home away from home to the city's fast-growing populace. These high-ceilinged spaces were also central to social life: Many artists and journalists camped out for the whole day, even directing their mail to their favored café.

Most coffeehouses have long since disappeared but a few are still around (or have reopened), drawing a tourist-heavy crowd. If you're curious about the contemporary "coffeehouses" of Budapest, drop by some of the top specialty coffee shops, too.

Gerbeaud is a historic pastry shop and café in Budapest's downtown. It was Swiss-Hungarian patissier Emil Gerbeaud, who, after taking over the business in 1884, revolutionized the Hungarian confectionery industry with inventive sweets and pastries.

Today, still, Gerbeaud puts out some of the best traditional Hungarian and Austro-Hungarian pastries, including Dobos, Esterházy, and Sacher tortes, krémes, and the namesake Gerbeaud cake. You can also try two of their signature treats: konyakmeggy, a brandied sour cherry bonbon enclosed by a chocolate shell, and macskanyelv, a milk chocolate shaped like a cat’s tongue.

The inside is lavishly decorated with crystal chandeliers, marble-topped tables, and cherrywood paneling. Café Gerbeaud has always been known as a see-and-be-seen hangout for Budapest's upper crust; it maintained an air of splendor even in the Communist era (1947-1989), under national ownership and a less Western-sounding name.

While Gerbeaud is mainly a tourist attraction today, I recommend you stop by for the pastries and a glimpse of the city's now-vanished coffeehouse culture. Part of the experience is basking in the historic glow of the space, but note that all to-go orders are half-priced.

Budapest's New York Café is a historic coffeehouse on the ground floor of the New York Palace, a grand 1894 building and today home to a five-star hotel. The café's fame harks back to the pre-war days, when renowned Hungarian journalists, artists, and entertainers spent wild nights here fueled by cigarettes and alcohol. Countless stories of their debauchery have become part of Budapest’s collective memory.

The space itself has had its ups and downs — during the Communist era (1947-1989), in the 1950s, a sports retail store operated here, selling sneakers beneath the frescoed ceilings. It is thanks to a 2006 gut-renovation that the New York Café has regained its former glow: Marble columns, bronze statues, and stuccoed angels burst once again from the gilded interior.

Today, the New York Café is a major tourist attraction, always with a line outside. Prices aren't exactly wallet-friendly (a cappuccino runs €10 including the mandatory service charge). There's a full breakfast, lunch, and dinner menu of similarly pricey Hungarian classics. Every day, a live band performs cabaret music between 11 a.m. and 5 p.m. Despite a somewhat engineered experience, you may still want to visit for a glance at Budapest's once thriving coffeehouse culture.

Matild is a grand coffeehouse in downtown Budapest, right in the city center. The spacious, two-story space has been beautifully restored recently with Art Nouveau and classical details to bring alive the ambiance of Budapest’s pre-war coffeehouse culture. Opened in 1901, Belvárosi Kávéház, its original name, was frequented by a well-to-do crowd, then it drew a more literary clientele in the 1950s (the venue was later converted into a restaurant and a night club).

Similar to New York Café and the nearby Central, prices are mainly geared to visitors, but it’s one of those places that are worth experiencing during a Budapest trip for a coffee and a classic Hungarian cake, such as a Dobos, an Esterházy, or a Rákóczi torte.

Central is one of the few remaining coffeehouses dating back to Budapest’s golden era, before WWI. At the time, the city was swarming with cafés like Central that stayed open around the clock and attracted artists who've spent endless caffeine-fueled hours working and socializing under the sky-high ceilings. Today, one of Central's walls is blanketed in framed photos of prominent writers, poets, and editors who were once regulars.

The elegant space complete with mahogany wall paneling and red leather banquettes didn’t escape Budapest’s tragic post-war history, but in 2000, Central was restored to its former glory, preserving an essential slice of the city's cultural history. The place wears many hats these days, being a pricey café, a bar, and a restaurant all at once. Most people come here for breakfast, coffee, or cakes, and also to people-watch from the outdoor tables. Note that the pastries are among the best in Budapest.

Gerlóczy is a snug café and restaurant tucked away on an unusually quiet pocket of Budapest's downtown. The charming square outside the restaurant, surrounded by elegant pre-war buildings, is a well-kept secret of this otherwise tourist-heavy neighborhood. Gerlóczy's interior evokes French bistro vibes, featuring small round tables, leather banquettes, and a high ceiling. In the warm months, the outdoor terrace is especially enjoyable.

The breakfast menu includes reliable pan-European staples like a pair of frankfurters with a side of mustard and various omelets. Be sure to also order a bread basket with warm and crusty slices. The dinner menu is a hodgepodge of dishes spanning chicken paprikash, seafood pasta, and pricey steaks. If you like the atmosphere, note that Gerlóczy operates a boutique hotel on the upstairs levels.

Budapest’s oldest hotel, the Astoria (1914), has been a close witness of history: the short-lived first Hungarian Republic was proclaimed from its balcony in 1918; the Gestapo headquartered here during the occupation by Nazi Germany in 1944-1945; the Revolution of 1956 nearly knocked down the building. Thou glorious 20th century.

There's a grand coffeehouse on the hotel's ground floor with public access. Somehow the owners haven't spent any money on maintaining the premises, so an emphatic pallor sits over the lavish and gilded surroundings. In our age of all things sleek and polished, perhaps not such a bad thing.

So many details to take in! The Borrominesque ceiling stuccoes. The Baroque mirror frames. The giant windows that snake around the block (a pity they overlook a five-lane highway – or is it six? – instead of the people-filled promenade Kossuth Lajos utca once was). The longtime waiters and their adorably uncommercial attitudes. It's a miracle that Cafe Astoria hasn't yet morphed into a squeaky clean cash-cow aimed at tourists – enjoy while you can.

Amid downtown Budapest's overpriced tourist traps and dime a dozen “Irish pubs” hides Három Holló, a bar with an entirely different philosophy. Named after the favorite watering hole of Endre Ady, one of Hungary’s poet laureates from the early 20th century, Három Holló occupies a three-story space that fuses a cafe with an exhibition space and a concert venue. On any week, there might be a photography pop-up and a couple of contemporary jazz concerts. (See their packed event calendar.)

Most patrons are musically-inclined, left-wing intellectuals from Budapest. Don’t be surprised, though, if Teutonic chatter fills the high-ceilinged space as one of the owners is a German expat. I only wish they'd work a bit more on the decor — softer lighting and denser furnishings would extract more charm from the historical interior.