The Best Cafes in Europe
Published: May 2009
By Anya von Bremzen
Our favorite spots for lounging and lingering in six European cities
Europe without cafés?As unimaginable as a house with no living room, a theater without a stage — a continent without content. And as any European worth his beans will attest, the perfect café is a lot more than the sum of its parts: a tingling dose of caffeine, rattan chairs, an hour with your most cherished printed matter. It's a chance to put your nose in the foam of the city, exchange hot gossip, and stir yourself up with the richly roasted textures of the past. Here's our pick of Europe's quintessential coffee haunts — from grandiose landmarks that nurtured popes and poets to Baroque drawing rooms and swank boîtes for the 21st-century flaneur.
La Palette 43 Rue de Seine; 33-1/43-26-68-15. Trail the camera-toting crowds prowling Boulevard St.-Germain and you'll end up at Café de Flore or the adjacent Deux Magots. Follow a savvy local's advice and you'll find yourself at La Palette, a Gitane-stained institution that's straight off the back lot but seems just as vital today as it did when Braque and Picasso sauntered in for a glass of absinthe. The waiters, like the onglet (hanger steak), are crusty on the surface but tender inside, and the clientele convincingly creative—mostly dealers and aspiring artistes from the nearby École des Beaux-Arts. The vest-pocket-sized Belle Époque room, with its distressed mirrors, gilt-framed artworks, and bright murals, is a monument historique . . . though the real action is out on the terrace. Relic lovers, take note: the "Turkish" bathroom is a sight to behold.
Café Marly Cour Napoléon du Louvre; 33-1/49-26-06-60. Paris, 1984: brothers Jean-Louis and Gilbert Costes opened the Philippe Starck-designed Café Costes, and Paris society never looked back. The café closed in 1993, but its success spawned even cooler creations: Café de la Musique, Café Beaubourg, and, most recently, Le Georges, which arrived this year at the Pompidou Center. Best of all is Café Marly, whose terrace stretches under the arcades of the Richelieu galleries of the Louvre. (The interior is designer Olivier Gagnère's riff on a Second Empire theme.) The same magnetically modish crowd that descends on the Hôtel Costes bar nightly spends the day at Marly, gossiping and posing in the shadow of I. M. Pei's pyramid. You, too, can feel fabulous lounging in a swank burgundy velveteen chair with a tomato-and-chèvre tart, Madame Figaro, and a perfect citron pressé. So fabulous you'll forget all about your appointment with Mona. Hanging out at Marly, ignoring the Louvre—how parisienne.
De Jaren 20-22 Nieuwe Doelenstraat; 31-20/625-5771. A glassed-in oasis of sleek modernity sandwiched between some of the city's most florid façades, De Jaren is Amsterdam's living room, meet market, smoking den, library, and caffeine emergency ward. In summer, the whole town crams onto its two terraces overhanging the Amstel River; the mood is a lot more languid in winter, when modern-day Dutch genre scenes unfold quietly inside. Here, fueled by reassuringly ordinary latte and bowls of fragrant Thai chicken soup, habitués flirt, commune with their iBooks, or simply survey the tatty announcements plastered on the walls: A wild night of salsa?An evening of Fassbinder or Brahms?Nah, better to stay here doodling in book margins.
Café de Prins 124 Prinsengracht; 31-20/624-9382. Go figure: Amsterdam's "coffee shops" ply you with marijuana instead of macchiatos, while the city's "brown cafés," so named because their walls are atmospherically dingy from years of cigarette smoke, would be called pubs anywhere else. Here's another conundrum: Why is the Café de Prins so unbelievably popular?By day, as the second home to rumpled students, lunching old ladies, and a sprinkling of neighborhood lifers, it seems nothing more than a dingy old den with uneven floors. But for serious pub-crawlers, a late-night tipple on Café de Prins's canal sidewalk—so mobbed you risk falling into the water—is a sacrament. Go on, order kopstoot (a shot of Dutch gin accompanied by a beer), and slurp the gin down, as you should, without touching the rim of the tulip-shaped glass. You'll be grateful for that pilsner chaser.
Caffè Greco 86 Via Condotti; 39-06/679-1700. Okay, so you might get a better espresso at Tazza d'Oro, and the coffee granita at Caffè Sant'Eustachio will bring tears to your eyes. Still, who can roll down the Spanish Steps without falling into the drawing-room splendor of Caffè Greco, one of Italy's oldest and most ornate coffee shrines, where the list of former patrons reads like the syllabus for Romanticism 101?Never mind the smug, penguin-suited camerieri, and forget the front room, with its clutter of D&G bags sprawled around tables full of Japanese tourists. Instead make your way to the catacomb of small salons in the back, settle into a crimson banquette, and spend an eternity scribbling postcards—just as Keats or Stendhal might have done. Was it Giorgio De Chirico who suggested that Caffè Greco is where you sit and await the end?
Caffè della Pace 3-5 Via della Pace; 39-06/686-1216. Known more for its pricey cocktails than for its impeccable espresso, Caffè della Pace is an olive's toss from tourist-besieged Piazza Navona, but a world apart. Lacking anything cutting-edge—Rome is just a big village—the city's jeunesse dorée selected this vintage bonbonnière of a café as their after-hours club (their parents come, too). You want a scene from La Dolce Vita restaged for 2000?Come here on a Saturday night, claim a marble-topped table set against the vine-strewn façade, and watch society preppies in well-ironed T-shirts exchange ciao bellas with Claudia Cardinale doubles just back from the beach. Or thread your way through a grove of immaculate bodies to the antique bar, where Vespa boys stand ready to light cigarettes for chignoned Scandinavian bombshells. It's voluptuous decadence all around. Marcello, where are you?
Café Central 14 Herrengasse; 43-1/533-3763, ext. 26. The challenge of choosing among Vienna's historic cafés can cause more jitters than a triple espresso. Hawelka's sweet buns still inspire the city's bohemians; Frauenhuber is an irresistible Biedermeier confection; and you'll find the best Sacher torte at, well, the Sacher. But we give our nod to the majestic Central. Think polychrome neo-Venetian vaulting supported by a forest of sandstone columns, a Rolls-Royce of dessert carts, and a lineup of international newspapers to rival a Swiss hotel's. And your Apfelstrudel will taste that much sweeter when you think that this is where Freud pondered, Schnitzler pined, and Trotsky plotted.
Café-Restaurant Kunsthaus 14 Weissgerberlande; 43-1/712-0497. Leave it to the enemy of the straight line, that wacky Viennese artist and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser (who died in March), to dream up a canteen for his own museum that feels like an extravagant nursery plunked into some tubular Legoland. Everywhere you look, flowers and plants—lavish rose centerpieces, sunflowers on tables—testify to Hundertwasser's obsession with all things organic. (The café's owner doubles as a gardener.) For a place where right angles are banned, the lunch menu is surprisingly square. But hey, why complain when the wurst is juicy, the potato soup rich and creamy, and the cheese strudel arrives in a lake of sublime vanilla sauce?
Café Comercial 7 Glorieta de Bilbao; 34-91/521-5655. The chichi Café Gijón may be more revered by the Spanish literati, but the vast Comercial, with its battered dark furniture and faded terrazzo floors, is an even more precious slice of old Madrid. Opened in 1887 for merchants who came in for the trade fairs—hence the name—the Comercial became a gathering point in the 1930's for artists, rakish matadors, and anti-Franco partisans. Today it's the sort of place where academic types procrastinate in cracked leather chairs, dunking churros (fried crullers) into cups of frothy and dense chocolate; where the smart set rendezvous for cañas (draft beer) before hitting the nearby cinemas; where sturdy old men in black berets take their breakfast as they've done daily since the Civil War. In other words, an iconic Madrileño café.
Café del Círculo de Bellas Artes 42 Calle Alcalá 34-91/360-5400. So you're dedicating the day to the arts. Need a strategic place to refuel between the van Goghs at the Thyssen and the Goyas at the Real Academia de Bellas Artes?Head for La Pecera ("aquarium"). That's what insiders call the café at the Círculo de Bellas Artes, Madrid's premier exhibition space and live-wire cultural center. The café itself occupies a palatial hall with shiny parquet floors. At lunchtime, La Pecera's hearty cocido (a Spanish stew) lures Prada-toting señoras as well as dark-suited politicians and bankers from the nearby parliament building and Banco d'España. In the evenings the art crowd raids the bar for fresh and tasty tapas and La Pecera's signature rum cocktails. The Círculo used to be a members-only club; though it's now open to the public, you still might feel as if you've crashed a private party. Not that party-crashing isn't a favorite sport in Madrid.
Einstein 58 Kurfürstenstrasse; 49-30/261-5096. On a leafy residential street in the Tiergarten district, this classic Jugendstil mansion had been a silent-screen star's home, a posh bordello, and an army club—no, not simultaneously. It's probably happiest in its latest incarnation as the grand ballroom of coffeehouses, vaguely Viennese but with that unmistakable, world-weary Berlin veneer. It's 11 p.m.: politicians claim the white-clothed tables set for a supper of oysters and cold Tafelspitz (boiled beef); illicit lovers guzzle Sekt in the romantic, lantern-lit garden; exhausted French horn players, cheeks sagging after an evening of Mahler, prop themselves up against the worn brown banquettes to coddle cups of superb Melange. Edgy, chaotic Berlin seems a distant memory.
Zucca 11-12 am Zwiangraben; 49-30/2472-1212. Ah, the new East Berlin. So desolate and yet so alive. Here are the dour socialist apartment blocks, there an unfinished glass-and-brick extravaganza. Right in the middle of it all is Zucca, a café-cum-bar that pierces the cavernous Hackescher Markt. The jung and the hip are all here, lured by Zucca's sternly mod design (sponged gray walls, black-lacquer trim), the credible focaccias and Mediterranean salads, and an enticing list of coffees and wines. Judging from the size of the patrons' nose rings—tiny—you might conclude that Berlin's counterculture is on its last gasp. Oh, well . . . at least the coffee culture is flourishing.