Budapest's New Buzz: Savoring Third-Wave Café Culture in a Historic Coffee Capital
In Budapest, thanks to a recent efflorescence of specialty brew bars, it's never been easier to find an enlightened cup. Ask any well-caffeinated local to recommend a favorite—you're likely to get an annotated hit list and the lowdown on a beloved featured roaster. These days, Budapesters know where their coffee is coming from (increasingly: small, handpicked producers), and visiting aficionados lack for nothing; the nitro cold-brew is strong, the drip is light-roast, and the crema a rich honey gold.
Whether they favor pour-overs made by sugar-eschewing purists or the outré concoctions of madcap mixologist-baristas, Gyde & Seek's resident coffee fiends agree: today's crop-to-cup menus would have been hard to imagine in the Budapest of their youth. "It was called Douwe Egberts Omnia," says Daniel, remembering the coffee his family consumed at home in the '80s, when Hungary was still under Soviet rule. "It came in a silver package you can still buy today. It was extensively advertised, so for a lot of older people it is still the standard. It is the worst." He recalls pouring the dreary grocery-store beans into massive self-serve grinders.
"The coffee was not good at all," says Gabriella, "but people drank what was available. Coffee has been important in Budapest since the Turks left this habit here, and coffeehouses played an essential role in Hungarian intellectual life from the late 19th century until World War II." The capital's restored turn-of-the-century cafés, once haunted by the likes of Endre Ady and Sándor Márai, have long been a rite of passage for first-time visitors. And with good reason. "They're ornate but affordable," says Anna, "and of course, nostalgic. My grandma, who is a very elegant lady, used to take us to a spa-town when we were little—the kind European royal families frequented before the world wars. Every afternoon, we would go to a café where she ordered coffee for herself and cake for us, kids. She would always give me a sugar cube dipped in her espresso. So now, I think of her when I go to a café like Auguszt, for example, and I always order a slice of cake with an espresso. One sugar, black."
Today, the progressive new cafés at the center of Budapest's coffee renaissance offer an interesting counterpoint to nostalgic rituals and old-fashioned opulence. "We've been a few decades behind the world in many respects, owing to our 45 years of Communism," says Daniel, "but now we're rapidly catching up." If the fervor of the last several years is any indication, they may soon be setting the pace. "Now Budapest is on the specialty coffee map," says Gabriella, "and shops are packed with customers who really care about quality. It's amazing to see. It's a revolution."
Ready for a taste? Below, our coffee correspondents share the new-school cafés that are spearheading the movement (and fueling their habits).
Blue Bird Roastery
Rumbach Sebestyén u. 12
"If you're strolling around the vibrant Jewish Quarter, you'll find Blue Bird easily—just follow the scent of coffee. Among the first specialty cafés in Budapest, Blue Bird was founded in 2013 not far from the Rumbach Street Synagogue. Unique for its in-house roastery and incredible variety, the café offers a rotating selection of up to 12 different coffees sourced from all over the world. The huge sacks of beans, roasting machine, and friendly, professional baristas contribute to the special ambiance, and there are offerings to suit all palates, from excellent cortados to V60 pour-overs and AeroPress." – Gabriella
Mantra Specialty Coffee Minibar
Veres Pálné u. 17
"Mantra's passion for coffee and tea goes way beyond trends, and they take education very seriously. I learned everything I know about coffee through their trainee program. They decided to work with Gardelli (Italy's Brewer's Cup roasting champion for four consecutive years) and are excellent ambassadors for the brand. My favorite summer drink here is the "Pinky": Mizudashi cold-brew coffee blended with fresh mango juice, watermelon, and ice—super refreshing. If I want to sit down with a friend to chat, I always go with a filter coffee; it's lovely to sip slowly and notice subtle changes in flavor as the temperature lowers. Mantra also offers delicious cakes, often vegan ones!" – Judit
Arany János u. 15
"After his rapid success at Printa's Rumbach Street café and a number of medals and diplomas from international barista competitions, Tibor Várady, who is also known among locals for his former career in green/liberal politics, opened Espresso Embassy just a stone's throw from Saint Stephen's Basilica. Now an institution, this place will always be a benchmark of good coffee. It's the size of a small restaurant and offers a wide range of new-age brews as well as exceptional cakes. The beans are of course direct-trade, each with a story, and can be purchased in decorative packages. Enthusiasts have a wide array of equipment to choose from as well." – Daniel
Hollán Ernő u. 3
"Each week, Madal, a local chainlet with three different locations in Budapest, introduces new artisan coffees from around the globe. The original branch on Hollán Ernő is my go-to, conveniently situated along the popular 4/6 tram line on a pleasant pedestrian block close to the Margaret Bridge. Even though I know the experts say that to fully experience a coffee's flavor, it's better to drink espresso, I'm still a latte person! To ask for a latte in Hungarian, you can say, 'Egy tejeskávét kérek' (tejeskávét meaning 'coffee with milk') or simply 'Egy lattét kérek.' Madal also happens to serve delicious smoothies; I love the ginger shot—pure ginger juice, a rarity!" – Brigitta
Múzeum krt. 5
"I love Fekete (the name means 'black' in Hungarian!) at the Astoria. They serve beautiful light-roast coffee and homemade cakes in the interior courtyard of a gorgeous old building, so typical of our city. I can't have dairy, so I usually order a cappuccino with rice milk, and I think the natural sweetness of the rice milk complements the acidity of the coffee nicely." – Anna