In Europe, you can have an entire vacation just spending endless hours sipping coffee at an outdoor or indoor cafe, while away the time, people watching. When you have enough coffee, continue to the next cafe for dessert or cheese and wine. Even if you don’t add anything else to your tour agenda, you’ll learn a lot about European history, culture, and lifestyle.
Mention European cafes to anyone, and the conversation will undoubtedly lead to the old cafes in Paris, Vienna, and Rome. In fact, the oldest coffee shop is in Paris. Started in 1686 by Italian Francesco Procopio dei Coltelli, Cafe Le Procope has hosted revolutionaries like Voltaire, Rousseau, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin.
Consequently, the burgeoning European cafe culture and tradition owes its roots to the Parisian cafes. It started as a gathering place for conversation and has become a launchpad for economic, literary and political reforms. Going to a cafe was never about the quality of the coffee or food. Rather, it was a place for public and private debates, and for work and leisure.
There’s a vast difference between the cafe culture and coffee culture.
The historic cafes of Vienna, Prague, and Paris aren’t the same as the specialty coffee shops.
Specialty coffee shops pay close attention to the quality of coffee from seed to cup. Meaning, the specialty coffee shops are serious about the harvesting, drying, roasting, grinding and methods of extraction of their coffee.
Whether you are a coffee snob or one that couldn’t care less how your coffee tastes, you must make time to visit a few cafes in Europe. You’ll find great inspiration, learn about the history and culture – the places that evoke an air of opulence and mystery. You may even experience the best local food and coffee in the city. If that is the case, you’re in a great spot, and you must let us know where you went. While we are at it, let’s take a look at 9 European cafes we visited:
1. New York Cafe, Budapest
Eat and drink beneath the gilded and extravagant ceilings in Budapest’s New York Cafe. This eclectic Italian Renaissance-style cafe opened in 1894 as the New York Palace. It was and still is known as the most beautiful cafe in the world. Now, part of the New York Palace Boscolo Hotel, New York Cafe had a live classical music presentations when we were there.
2. Anna Cafe, Budapest
Located near the Danube riverbank and on the busy and touristy Vaci Street, Anna Cafe has the best spot for people watching and to rest your tired feet. You may have to wait for a pavement seat during peak hours. Take a look at this plate we had. By the way, the mojito was refreshing at 4 pm!
3. Cafe Slavia, Prague
Deemed as a Prague institution since it first started in 1884, Cafe Slavia is the place where stories, paintings, music, ideas occurred. It was Prague’s most prominent cafe in the 1920s, the period of Czech civic pride, and Czech literary movement. It stayed open throughout World War II and the communist era.
Inside are large bay windows offering views of Vltava River, Petrin Hill and the Observatory Tower, a mini version of Paris’ Eiffel Tower. Writers favored the bay windows facing the tower because it reminded them of Paris’ Seine River and Eiffel Tower. On another side are views of the National Theater, Charles Bridge, the castle and Mala Strana. Guests can sit with a cup of coffee and admire picture perfect views from inside.
Artists, intellectuals, writers, painters, and political dissidents gathered in the cafe. Today if you’re seeking inspiration you may find it in Cafe Slavia. Sit on the chairs and eat and drink coffee at the tables that were once used by Jaroslav Seifert, Jan Zrzavy, Bedrich Smetana, Jiri Kolar and Vaclav Havel. Havel was a playwright, and the leader of the 1989 Velvet Revolution and Cafe Slavia was his favorite cafe in Prague. Hilary Clinton was there too (see photo below).
Read Prague Cafes where we listed Cafe Savoy and three other cafes in Prague.
4. Cafe Singer, St. Petersburg
Located next to Kempinski Hotel at Nevsky Prospect, St Petersburg’s main street, Café Singer offers a panoramic view of Kazan Cathedral and the best people watching spot. To get to the cafe, you need to go to the second floor of Dom Knigi bookstore. Getting a window seat by the huge arched windows is the best option when dining at Café Singer.
It was named Cafe Singer because it occupies the building that was the headquarters for Singer sewing machine company. A building designed by Pavel Syusor for Singer, the American sewing machine company, Singer occupied the building until 1917. Café Singer has Venetian green plastering, antique wood chairs, square and round tables.
5. Confeitaria Nacional, Lisbon
Founded in 1829 by Balthazar Rois Castanheiro, Confeitaria Nacional is the oldest pastry shop in Lisbon. This two-floor pastry and coffee shop serves breakfast and lunch, but the main draw is the pasteis de nata (Portuguese custard tarts) and coffee. Located on Praca da Figueira, one of the main thoroughfares in downtown Baixa, Confeitaria Nacional has French style decor and mural paintings and spiral stairs that lead to the second floor.
Take a seat by the window in the room upstairs and enjoy the view of the square.
6. Cafe A Brasileira, Lisbon
Lisbon’s Bica, or espresso for the Portuguese, was coined in Cafe A Brasileira. Opened in 1905, this was the place that attracted the city’s artists, writers, and elites. On the pavement is a bronze statue of poet Fernando Pessoa. Inside, there are wood paneling, mirrors, chandeliers and checkered tiled floors – typical Art Deco of the early 1900s.
Take a seat at the pavement seat and enjoy your coffee.
7. Majestic Cafe, Porto
Dine a la Belle Epoque in Majestic Cafe, one of Porto’s oldest cafe. Located in Santa Catarina, a pedestrian-only shopping street, Majestic Cafe offers outdoor and indoor seating. Like many of Europe’s historic cafes, Majestic’s Art Nouveau decorations include large mirrors, wood furnishings, and elaborate light fixtures.
Try the afternoon tea or the codfish with olives tapas.
8. Cafe Mozart Salzburg
Unlike the iconic Cafe Mozart in Vienna that started in 1794, Cafe Mozart in Salzburg came about only in 1922. Located on the second floor on the famous Getreidegasse, a few minutes walk from Mozart’s House (Mozart’s birthplace), this cafe seems to have more locals on the day we visited. Its decor has none of the grandeur of the older cafes. It’s casual and laid-back.
The most famous dessert to get here is the fluffy Salzburger Nockerl.
9. Cafe Vrijdag Amsterdam
In Amsterdam, coffee shops offer more than just coffee. These are places where buying and smoking marijuana is legal. According to The Telegraph, half of these establishments have closed in the last two decades. Mellow Yellow, the first of such coffee shops since 1972 is now permanently closed.
If you want coffee and a meal without cannabis, head over to cafes like Cafe Vrijdag. It’s not a famous cafe but it’s cozy and has delicious bitterballen, a must try Dutch pub snacks. Bitterballen are fried meatballs served with a dipping sauce.
Every cafe has a story to tell – some were closed for a period and reopened after the fall of Communism in Europe. Most have stood the test of time and are still going strong.