What could be better in winter than to soak in hot thermal waters and enjoy some very fine cakes? As a child, we usually travelled to Hungary during late spring for a week’s holiday. We had to apply vor a visa months in advance and could only change a small amount of our currency into Hungarian Forint. This was enough for the Leanyfalu Baths, but we never ate put and shopped in supermarkets only – with the exception of a single trip to the then Cafe Hungaria which stuck in my impressionable 12-year old head.
But really, hot baths and cakes is a winter thing. And Budapest has some visitors in winter, but it’s nothing like the summer crowds. So, off, off, on a 50 EURO flight, for just under three days before family obligations at Christmas! I wrote about the thermals baths here, now let’s do the cafes!
Here come, in no particular order, the great coffee houses of Budapest! Budapest has a lot of third-wave coffee shops, too, but since Berlin is packed with them and does not have the grand cafe culture of Budapest, Prague or Vienna, we stuck to the grander places (and the ones close to our apartment)
At nearly 200 years old, this is the oldest of the bunch, and probably the smallest. A stone’s throw from the St. Matthias Church, this one probably gets mobbed by tourists. But not in winter!
Enter late December for Elevenses, and you get a seat by the chimney-like Biedermeier oven straight away. This is, first and foremost, a traditional patisserie, specialising in Hungarian and Viennese cakes, and they do small meals and a few speciality coffees in the Viennese tradition.
You may have heard of Einspaenner, an espresso or mokka topped with whipped cream and caster sugar, or Wiener Melange, sweet coffee mit milk and whipped cream or milk foam. Try them here in the Biedermeier cosiness of the tiny cafe! They are more reasonably priced than the grander bar-cafes of Pest and if it’s cake you’re after, this is perhaps your best bet. I recommend you start with the classic Dobos Torta, made of thin layers of bisquit and chocolate buttercream, topped with a hard caramel blanket. Another Hungarian classic is the Esterhazy Torta, another multilayered work of art, this time from macaroon and white vanilla or cognac buttercream, topped with a layer of apricot jam and the traditional white fondant layer decorated with a grid of chocolate lines.
Ruszwurm Cukrasda, Budapest, Szentháromság u. 7 // www.ruszwurm.hu
Next up, an all-day classy breakfast spot, quiet lunch room, bar for every time of the day. Believe it or not, but this very old-world dame was only founded in 1999 – yet nothing here is fake. In an earlier incarnation, the cafe was a meeting place for writers of the literary magazine “Nyugat”. In Communist times, this was turned into a student club, and following extensive renovation in the 1990’s, this now looks like the perfect fin-de-siecle timewarp, yet is kept fresh and modern with simple and unfussy table settings and modern portraits of the greats that once dined here. You can’t always eat cake, though my better half still managed to stuff a small delicate Dobostorta down his throat, while I stuck to the home-made lemonade. Definitely try the home-made lemonade in Budapest – it is an elaborate affair, made fresh for every order, comes in exciting natural colourways and is garished with half an orchard hanging down the rim of the glass.
Budapest, Károlyi Mihály u. 9 // www.centralkavehaz.hu
New York Cafe
Here it is, the Cafe Hungaria of my childhood memories. It was around 1985, and our Hungarian friends brought us here for a special treat. I wasn’t interested in the food, but spent the entire hour walking around the upper gallery marveling at the gilt. it’s not like we didn’t have gilt and glitz in Eastern Germany, but it was usually attached to a piece of baroque art in a museum and sometimes in need of a gentle restoration, and to see all this out in the wild in a cafe was something new. So, when I booked our last-minute flights to Budapest, I yearned to come back here, but could not remember its name. None of the cafes I researched online rand a bell, so what better to do than visit them all and wait til the penny dropped? Of course, I could have asked my mother, who, when I told her of my Budapest Cafe Odyssey, said “Did you go to Cafe Hungaria?”. “Yes, we did, and it only took me two days of drinking my way round the other establishments!”
Nowadays, the gilt looks even more polished. And its clientele are mostly tourists – apparently the high prices have driven local custom away.
But… how beautiful are these halls? We had to invest in a coffee and a dessert, at least.
Gilt, gilt, gilt… the penultimate Grand Cafe…
A modest dessert was still in the budget.
The Cafe Hungaria was closed in the late 1990’s and the entire building (which was once a bank) bought by a hotel group which did a fine job in restoring the stucco- and gilt-heavy interior. They probably still need to claw back their expenses, because even a snack here doesn’t come cheap, and the menu is somewhat international and not distinctly Hungarian. Mostly tourists and hotel guests come here, far fewer locals. However… I fully indulged in an hour and a half of Neo-Rococo overload and had a lot of fun.
Budapest, Erzsébet krt. 9-11 // www.newyorkcafe.hu
Cafe Astoria Restaurant
Right in the thick of the business district in Pest, on a busy road crossing, sits the squat dark Grand Hotel Astoria, modelled on the Waldorf Astoria in New York.
Its restaurant with its panoramic windows is much less a tourist draw than any of the above places – when we visited on an afternoon, it was rather quiet, except for a few lone travellers. It does not specialise in patisserie, it’s rather a brasserie and bar, rather dark and sombre.
We had a late lunch here – it was served with great fanfare and proper silver service, but the food was, while okay, nothing out of the ordinary. Also, vegetarians won’t have a lot of choice here. Still, top marks on ambiance! There is live music most evenings, The hotel part also looked good and in winter, we found some very good offers online below the 100 EURO mark.
Many of the turn of the century Budapest cafes have these little galleries. Perhaps designed to hide away with your lover? Or to discreetly people watch?
Budapest, Kossuth Lajos u. 19 // www.cafeastoriabudapest.hu
Compared to all of the above, the Evropa is a rather modest establishment with very few original features or fancy stuff. We came for breakfast and ended up eating cake, as this was the most appealing on the menu… coffee and cake were okay, service friendly, and in a street full of supermarkets and generic restaurants, this is a nice coffee stop but I wouldn’t call it a destination cafe.
Budapest, Szt. István körút 7-9 // www.europakavehaz.hu
Grand but not exactly traditional: The Art Nouveau Splendour that is the Four Seasons Hotel Gresham Palace
I had noticed the impressive Art Nouveau Palace strategically positioned at the Pest end of the Chain Bridge (Szechenyi Lanchid). Built by the Gresham Life Assurance Company, it served as an apartment building during tghe Communist Years and fell into disrepair until it was bought and restored by a private company. Fittingly for a Four Seasons Hotel, it has a fine and classy interior, and the public areas of the hotel retain many original features. We had a breezy walk across the bridge en route to… somewhere in Pest, and decided to pop in for a cup of tea. We ended up staying two hours lingering in deep sofas, enjoying a very fine green tea and hot chocolate, as well as a dainty Dobostorta, all presented impeccably, and although we were neither guests nor particularly wealthy-looking, we received a warm welcome.
Budapest, Széchenyi István tér 5 // www.fourseasons.com/budapest
The not-so-grand Wild Card: Bambi Eszpresszó
Bambi occupies a bright street corner s tone’s throw from the Danube in Buda. If you are on your way to the Kiraly Baths, or wish to walk up Buda Hill from the North, this makes a convenient stop.
It was once an intellectuals hang out and its interior has not changed much since the 1960s: red leather benches, matching chairs and tiny metal tables on tiled floor, with cute ceramic wall ornaments, a 1960’s Buffet, and huge glass windows that let sun and light in. Don’t expect fine dining when you come here, as the menu is also of the retro variety: eggs, sausage, some simple sandwiches. The coffee, however, is excellent, and very cheap. The cafe is open all day and turns into a bar in the evening, where drinks are simple and cost very little. A wonderful place to sit and chat, and some people even seemed to hold business meeting here – the slightly grumpy-looking wait service doesn’t bat an eyelid. If the food were a bit better, this could have easily been my favourite.
The coffee is strong and of very good quality, and comes in these cuted dotted pyrex cups.
Budapest, Frankel Leó út 2/4 // www.facebook.com/bambieszpresszo
So, what about the others?
Yes, we did not set our foot in Cafe Gerbeaud, for no particular reason. We crossed Vaci utca once and thought, nah, not our scene. In fact, the whole area of Vaci utca, Great Market Hall and Dohanyi Street Synagogue was a bit too touristy for our liking. I am sure there is nothing wrong with Gerbeaud, and here are the details: Café Gerbeaud, Budapest,Vörösmarty tér 7. www.gerbeaud.hu.
Another one I wanted to visit but simply ran out of time is Művész Kávéház. Another Grand Dame, high-ceiling, wicker chair, mothball type of place, with perhaps the most consistent artist patronage over the years: Budapest, Andrássy út 29, http://muveszkavehaz.hu. (Don’t look for the neighboring Book Cafe, also known as Lotz Terem, in Andrassy ut 39. Once part of the chic Paris Department Store, it sadly closed in early 2017, as the book store it was located in experienced financial difficulties.)
And another one that got away: When we passed Auguszt in Feny utca (just off Deak Ferenc Ter, an important transport hub), we were so stuffed from lunch/another pastry that it would have been a bit gluttonous to go in… here’s another old-style patisserie that is little known outside Hungary that may just deliver your favourite piece of cake. They have three location, two of them conveniently in Pest: Budapest, Kossuth Lajos u. 14-16 and Sasadi ut 190. The Buda Branch is in 8 Feny utca – don’t miss the Feny utca Market Hall round the corner – great for Hungarian products, much less touristy than the Great Market Hall.
Just make sure you send enough time outside to walk off all the cakes and take a sunset picture or two. Here is the Szabadság híd (Freedom Bridge), my personal favourite.
We rented a holiday apartment in this building with a very photogenic staircase. The apartment itself was a tidy studio apartment with high ceilings and balcony – if you are interested, a link to the listing is below.
Best time to travel: For us, definitely out of season, October to April, perhaps May. Summer months make the city hot and crowded, plus hotel rates shoot up. Due to its Eastern Location in the Middle European Time Zone, it gets light early in the morning but can be dark by 16.00 – the perfect time to disappear tin the thermal waters. Winters can be cold, with harsh Easterly winds, but nothing that you shouldn’t be prepared for in most of Europe, and we were also lucky to have sun for most of the time we visited in December.
Getting there: Both national carriers and budget airlines all fly to Liszt International Airport. There are some trains from Germany, the UK and France, all involve changing, and are likely to be more expensive as flights are so plentiful.
Transport: I recommend getting a Budapest Card, as it gives you a 20% discount on most thermal baths, free public transport and entry to many state museums. It is also very simple to use and saves you from buying paper tickets all the time. We bought ours at a very obvious stall right after customs in the arrival area of the Airport – its valid for transport from the airport as well. If you just want unlimited public transport, there is a Budapest Travel Card. Controls are frequent, so don’t even think travelling without a ticket. Budapest has a great tram network, with frequent trams plying all the Pest rings as well as the banks of the Danube on both the Buda and the Pest side. It also has a retro 1980’s Metro which is fast and efficient, but also quite far underground, so for travelling within the city centre, trams are more convenient. There are city buses, but given the abundance of trams, we only used the bus once on the Castle Hill.
Accommodation: Most traveller accommodation, budget as well as top-range, is on the Pest side. Most baths are in Buda, though, so we chose an apartment in walking distance from the Danube, with a tram stop just 200m away, between Fö utca and Roszadomb. You can find the actual listing here, but there are plenty of holiday rentals in this area. We found the area safe with great transport links, and quite a few nice restaurants, though most close at 21:00.