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The Best Cafes in Europe

VIENNA

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?

MADRID

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.

BERLIN

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.

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