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Cafe culture: celebrating 20 of Europe's greatest cafes

Meeting places, melting pots and more than just a spot for coffee, the cafe is a true cornerstone of European culture. From Moscow to Madrid, we celebrate 20 of the best greatest cafes on the Continent.

By Nicola Trup
Published 20 Mar 2020, 07:00 GMT
Coffees at Hotel Sacher
The Cafe Sacher, at Vienna's Hotel Sacher, is one of the city's most celebrated cafes. Expect long queues for its iconic chocolate cake, sandwiched with apricot jam and coated with a glossy coat of more chocolate.
Photograph by Hotel Sacher

Cafes are part of the fabric of European culture. For centuries they’ve been where political rebellions have started, and where writers, artists and other great thinkers have exchanged ideas. The coffeehouses of London and Paris were central to the Age of the Enlightenment, when philosophers and scientists talked up their intellectual revolution over hot drinks and confectionery. In the 1830s, meanwhile, the temperance movement ushered Britons out of pubs and into tea rooms.

Today, Europe is full of cafes with rich histories, incredible interiors, and often both. And these establishments play a key role in the present as well as the past. So much so that French President Emmanuel Macron has committed $165m to ensuring the survival of 1,000 cafes at risk of closure – mostly in small towns, where they’re at the heart of the community.

So, whether you’re on the trail of Byron or Bowie, or want to admire the handiwork of some of the world’s best designers, there’s no shortage of places to do it.

Café Sacher, Vienna
For decades, Café Sacher – within the Hotel Sacher – was engaged in a lengthy legal battle with its rival, Café Demel, over which had the right to use the phrase ‘the original Sachertorte’ to describe its dessert. Eventually, Sacher won out, and you can still expect long queues for its iconic chocolate cake, sandwiched with apricot jam and coated with a glossy coat of more chocolate. Other confections on offer in the red-and-white dining room include apple strudel and spiced bundt cake. 

Café de la Paix, Paris
Opened in 1862 and now an officially designated historic site, Café de la Paix sits on the ground floor of the InterContinental Paris Le Grand Hotel. Just across the street from the Palais Garnier, the state opera house, it was once a hub for the great and the good of the city's arts scene. The décor is wonderfully over-the-top, with gold columns and listed frescoes, while the menu serves up French classics, from frogs' legs and escargot to delicate mille-feuille pastries and layered opera cake. 

Sally Lunn's, Bath
Set within one of the oldest houses in Bath, this eating house is named for the Huguenot baker who supposedly created the first Bath bun on this site in the 17th century. Tuck into one of the large teacakes (also known as Sally Lunn buns) with salmon, or with jam and cream as part of an afternoon tea, before visiting the micro-museum downstairs, where Sally's original kitchen is on display. 

Pastéis de Belém, Lisbon
Selling around 20,000 pastries a day, it's no surprise Pastéis de Belém almost always has queues snaking out of the door. But it's worth the wait for its pastéis de nata (custard tarts), which are said to have been created in 1837 by monks from the neighbouring monastery, and have gone on to become a Portuguese classic. They're still made to the original secret recipe and can be enjoyed with a strong coffee in the large dining room – or boxed up to savour later. 

Bewley's Grafton Street, Dublin
This Dublin icon, owned by Bewley's tea and coffee company, has been serving the Irish capital since 1927. Still with its original 'Bewley's Oriental Cafes Ltd' signage outside, inside it's filled with mahogany, sculptures and art, as well as six stained glass windows created by artist Harry Clarke just before his death in 1931. The interiors are such a draw that the cafe even offers guided tours. After that, settle down with an Irish coffee, made using one of Bewley's signature blends. 

Schwarzes Café, Berlin
The name, which translates as 'Black Cafe', is a reference to the anarchist movement of the late 1970s, when this spot off Savignyplatz opened. But the rebels it's attracted over the years have tended to be more musical than political, from David Bowie to Iggy Pop. The décor is dive-bar-meets-art-gallery, and the cafe is open 24 hours, with teas and coffees turning to beers and vodkas after dark. The breakfasts are a particular favourite, whether or not you've been to bed. 

Government-protected since the 1950s, little has changed at Antico Caffe Greco in Rome; it's decorated with hundreds of framed paintings, and there's even an artist in residence.
Photograph by Getty Images

Antico Caffe Greco, Rome
Once a watering hole for Shelley, Keats and Byron, and later Hollywood stars Hepburn, Taylor and Welles, Greco is Rome's oldest coffee shop, having stood near the Spanish Steps since 1760. It's been government-protected since the 1950s, so little has changed in the decades since; it's decorated with hundreds of framed paintings, and there's even an artist in residence. You might finish an espresso in minutes, but you could easily spend an afternoon staring at the paintings on the walls.

Caffè Florian, Venice
With a strong claim to being the world's oldest continually operating coffee house (it’s celebrating its 300th anniversary this year), Caffè Florian was a favourite with the likes of Goethe, Proust and Dickens. Tucked under the colonnades of St Mark's Square, it has outdoor tables for espresso and tiramisu al fresco, but then you'd be missing out on the gloriously decadent 'halls' inside. The Senate Hall, Oriental Hall, Hall of Liberty et al are more like the rooms of a grand palace than those of a cafe, adorned in gold, velvet and elaborate frescoes. 

Cafe Pushkin, Moscow
In the days of the Soviet Union, Cafe Pushkin known as a place where you could eat Western-standard food and talk freely away from the prying eyes – and ears – of the KGB. In truth, it's more of a restaurant than a cafe, with a menu of refined local classics such as borscht, blini and an array of desserts, served in surroundings that look like a 19th-century Russian aristocrat's home – all antiques and book-lined walls. It's also open 24 hours. 

Grand Cafe, Oslo
Right on Oslo's main street, Karl Johans gate, you'll find the cafe where artist Edvard Munch once offered to exchange a painting for 100 steak dinners, and where playwright Henrik Ibsen ate lunch daily. The pair, who famously fell out with each other here, are depicted in a large mural on one wall, painted in 1928. The rest of the space has been modernised in recent years, however, and it now dishes up modern Nordic cuisine to match. 

Mackintosh at The Willow, Glasgow
Influential architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh created several Glasgow tea rooms in his time, but this spot on Sauchiehall Street is the only one that remains. Originally known as the Willow Tea Rooms (that name now belongs to another business), it serves breakfast, lunch and afternoon tea across its three floors, where you can admire the recently restored interiors, featuring art nouveau flourishes such as decorated mirrors and curving metalwork. 

Kavarna Slavia, Prague
This 1884 coffee house is arguably Prague's most famous. It was once a meeting point for intellectuals and anti-Communist dissidents such as Václav Havel, who later went on to become president, and attended a demonstration to return the Kavarna Slavia to its former art deco glory. The crowd these days encompasses everyone from students to patrons of the nearby National Theatre. Order a coffee and a sweet crepe to enjoy with views of Prague Castle and the Charles Bridge. 

Cafe Gijón, Madrid
It first opened in the 1880s, but after the Spanish Civil War, Cafe Gijón gained a reputation as a meeting point for writers and artists – so much so that it has a literary prize named in its honour. Ava Garner, Orson Welles and Ernest Hemingway also visited over the years, and today you can enjoy dishes such as Ibérico pork in rioja, either in the wood-pannelled, checkerboard-floored cafe itself, or out on the terrace, across the street from the National Library. 

Café Américain, Amsterdam
The canalside American Hotel has been an Amsterdam fixture since 1882, and the Café Américain is its star attraction. The menu may now be modern brasserie in style, but the interiors are classic art deco, including Tiffany lamps, decorative tiles and stained glass. The walls, meanwhile, are covered with intriguing artworks, including murals of scenes from A Midsummer Night's Dream. Not in the mood for coffee? This place also does a strong line in cocktails. 

At Cafe Gerbeaud in Budapest, guests can choose their treat from the display cabinet before enjoying it in rooms decked out in glossy wood, marble and chandeliers.
Photograph by Gerbeaud Gastronomy Ltd

Café Gerbeaud, Budapest
For more than a century, this has been considered one of the best patisseries in Budapest, serving Hungarian classics such as dobos torte — a buttercream-filled layered sponge with a hard caramel topping – and the eponymous Gerbeaud cake, another layered sponge, sandwiched with ground walnut and jam, topped with chocolate. Choose your treat from the display cabinet before enjoying it in surrounds filled with glossy wood, marble and chandeliers. 

Cafe Majestic, Porto
You can't miss this local institution, thanks to its curving marble facade, decorated with a pair of cheeky cherubs. There are more angelic sculptures inside, too, where you can sip coffee surrounded by striking beaux-arts décor, including some beautifully carved mirrors. Having opened in 1921, the cafe fell into disrepair during the Second World War, but was restored in the '90s, based on old photographs, with replicas even commissioned of the original lamps. 

Café Central, Vienna
Everyone from Freud to Trostky has sat beneath the vaulted ceilings of Cafe Central, a Viennese landmark since 1876. Positioned within the former central bank and stock exchange, it was a hit with the early 20th-century intelligentsia, who'd gather for discussions over coffee and cake, or a game of chess. Today, it still draws a crowd, with its beautiful interiors including marble columns and parquet floors and display cases of intricate pastries. 

Cafe Procope, Paris
Hidden in the 6th arrondissement, Procope is sometimes credited with popularising the concept of the coffee house – and indeed cafe culture itself – in France. It opened its doors in 1686, and when it started attracting a highbrow crowd from the Comédie Française theatre across the street, its reputation was cemented. Today, in its smart rooms decked out with gold-framed portraits, leather banquettes and chandeliers, you can order from an extensive menu that includes several 'historic recipes', including a 1686 calf's head casserole. Or just settle for a café noir. 

New York Cafe, Budapest
The Hungarian capital isn't short of opulent places to eat, but the New York Cafe, within Pest's Boscolo Hotel, may just take the prize. After losing its sheen during the communist era, this double-height space was restored in 2006, and is now awash with gold leaf, ceiling murals, lacy balconies and an array of other ornate decorations. As for the menu, you can order everything from goulash to burgers, along with desserts that look as good as the decor. 

Conditori La Glace, Copenhagen
The oldest pastry shop in the Danish capital has been serving sugary treats since 1870, which are best enjoyed in one of its simple but elegant dining rooms. Highlights from the display cabinet of puddings include valnøddekage – a combination of walnuts, whipped cream and mocha icing – and the house speciality, sportskage ('sports cake'). Created in 1891, it incorporates crushed nougat, whipped cream and caramelised choux pastry, and is so popular the cafe runs occasional workshops on how to make it. 

Published in the European Cities Collection, distributed with the April 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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