The Brithish poet of the 20th century Τ. S. Eliot oh-so eloquently reflected on the passing of time by saying, “I have measured out my life with coffee spoons.” So have we. For most of us, coffee breaks taken during busy work days are those 15 minutes we most look forward to.
When European cafés became the preferred hangouts of their city’s intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, they turned into cultural institutions with ornate, palatial interiors. Many if not most of them remain open today, although the main visitors are now tourists guided by their guidebooks. Those cafés are now essentially museums where coffee and pastries are served at high prices, while others have been turned into full-blown restaurants, and a few still attempt to keep their cultural heritage alive by hosting literary and other cultural events.
Some of the most extraordinary cafes are located in Hungary, Venice, Paris, and Buenos Aires. Here, you can enjoy some of these truly beautiful cafés from across the world:
1. Cafe New York: Budapest
This Budapest legend, in the early 20th century, was a meeting place of artists, writers, musicians and poets. Recently renovated by designer Adam Tihany, it maintains a dazzling gilded interior featuring ornate lamps and paintings on the ceiling mixed with contemporary furnishings. Found connected to the New York Palace Hotel, it is now both a café and full-blown restaurant, welcoming locals and tourists who sit at the mirrored tables for traditional Italian and local dishes to the sound of chill-out music and often short performances by local actors.
2. Café Central, Vienna
The Café Central in Vienna was opened in 1860, and became a key meeting place of the Viennese intellectual scene. Frequent visitors were Stefan Zweig, Vladimir Lenin, Leon Trotsky, and many others. Housed in a historic palace, it features marble pillars, grand chandeliers, and arched ceilings that have welcomed intellectuals since the turn of the 19th century. Nowadays, many tourists are attracted here by impressive interior and uniformed waitresses. Its historical ambiance is something no visitor wants to miss.
3. Café Imperial, Prague.
Café Imperial is situated in Imperial Hotel. It brings back the magnificence of the turn of the century in Prague. The interior is stunning with millions of ceramic tiles covering the walls. The pillars in floral and animal designs bring back the atmosphere of old days. The Imperial Hotel and café, designed by Jaroslav Benedikt, was built in 1913 and 1914. It was reconstructed from 2005 to 2007, restoring the original glamour and beauty. Here, you can simply feel the golden time of European grand cafés. Its ornate mosaic and tile-covered interior is one of the world’s most incredibly beautiful backdrops for breakfast in the morning, afternoon tea, or to try a selection of Czech dishes.
4. Cafe de la Paix, Paris
The world’s first café is said to have been Paris’ Le Procope, but the city’s most famous coffee shops are Café Flore and Les Deux Magots. They’re the ones that come in every guidebook and that get inundated by tourists every day. Equally touristy is Cafe de la Paix, but this one is truly worth venturing into, as it has the French capital’s most stunning café interior. It was built by the same architect as the Opera House seen across from it, with an ornate stucco ceiling, gilded walls, and marble tables. Equally monumental are the pastries, often sculpted by local designers.
5. Cafe Majestic, Porto
Café Majestic in Porto opened its door in 1921 and still offers the same ambiance like 90 years ago. It is indeed majestic by its architecture and attracts not only tourists but also many celebrities, media personalities and artists. Here, in the decorous surroundings, guests may enjoy a “meia de leite” or a “tosta mista”. The café is located on Porto’s lovely pedestrian street, Rua Santa Catarina, and still offers refined atmosphere and service that made it famous and popular 90 years ago.
6. Cafe Confeitaria Colombo, Rio de Janeiro
Inspired by the grand European cafés, Confeitaria Colombo was the place to be in Rio at the turn of the 20th century. It hosted fancy balls and cultural events, and was the site of much gossip during the afternoon teas of the city’s upper-class. Its huge stained glass, tiled, and mirrored interior features materials from France, Portugal, and Belgium, all creating an opulent art nouveau space for classic Brazilian and Iberian cuisine, delicious pastries, or simply a cup of tea or the famous Brazilian coffee.
7. Cafe Tortoni, Buenos Aires
Inspired by late 19th-century European coffeehouses, this art nouveau café became an essential cultural stop in Buenos Aires over the years. Many of the city’s famous names made it their second home, and it remains a must-see for its stained glass, marbles, bronzes, woods, and photos on the walls. In addition to coffee and some wonderful pastries, it also offers tango shows and poetry recitals at night. Locals still outnumber tourists, who especially love the “chocolate con churros” specialty surrounded by the timeless atmosphere.
8. Antico Caffè Greco, Rome
Rome’s oldest and most famous café has served coffee to many of Europe’s historical figures, and remains a haven for intellectuals and politicians today. Its location in the city’s most luxurious shopping street by the tourist-magnet Piazza di Spagna guarantees that it’s always busy and with plenty of atmosphere. The décor is all about mirrors, romantic paintings, gilt, wood, marble, and period furnishings, lending a unique charm to each of the small rooms that make up the interior.
9. D’espresso by Nemaworkshop, New York
10. Loveat Jaffa by Studio Ronen Levin and Eran Chehanowitz – Tel Aviv, Israel
Converted from an orange-packing plant, this colorfully industrial coffee shop fits into the corner of a former hangar. As the designers explain, they were “inspired by the building’s history, so they divided the cafe into small boxes of different sizes, stacked like crates. The kitchen has been placed inside a steel cargo container while the toilet is hidden inside a box of timber planks.”
Nahalat Binyamin 37, Tel Aviv-Yafo, Israel.