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?