10 City Cafés to Visit For a Shot of History

Grab a coffee at cafés that served Tagore, the Beatles and many others.

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Freud sipped coffee at Vienna’s Café Central (left), where 18,000 slices of apfelstrudel are served annually; A couple steals a moment at Buenos Aires’s Café Tortoni (right). Photos: Benoit Decout/Rea/Redux (cafe), Javier Pierini (couple)

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Back before the triple-shot-nonfat-soy macchiato entered the realm of possible potables, a different sort of café culture thrived. Buzzing on a caffeinated current, espresso shops and tea spots have presented spaces that provide the warmth of home and the stimulation of society. To amble into a classic café is to achieve a local perspective on life. Passports may help you get away, but a storied space can make the world’s most faraway places feel like home.

Indian Coffee House at College Street in Kolkata, India

Generations of writers, artists, and scholars have turned this caffeinated space near the University of Calcutta into a home base for intellectual exchange. Political and cultural movements gathered steam in this café, which opened in 1942, as luminaries such as Bengali Renaissance man Rabindranath Tagore, filmmaker Satyajit Ray, and singer Manna Dey fuelled their intellects here. Today, the small café still simmers with students from the university nearby, and a variety of coffees.

Central Kavehaz in Budapest, Hungary

This elegant escape from Budapest’s bustle has hummed along since 1887 as an intellectual centre (barring stints as a paprika market, disco, and arcade). Inkwells, not iPads, populated a large writers’ table in the early 20th century, counting such national notables as Jozsef Kiss, Mihály Babits, and poet Géza Gyóni as regulars. Writers are still celebrated under the café’s high ceilings, brass fixtures, and grand windows. Bring a book, sip a frothy cappuccino, and nibble on confections such as cseresznyes joghurtos piskota—a tart cherry-yogurt sponge cake.

Cairo Egypt Mint Tea El Fishawy

El Fishawy in Cairo, Egypt, has served mint tea for over two centuries. Photo: Anna Serrano/Sime

Long Bar, Raffles Hotel in Singapore

Ceiling fans, rattan chairs, and candy-coloured cocktails re-create the sensations of a Malaysian plantation at this two-storey retreat from the heat. The Singapore sling (gin, cherry brandy, fresh pineapple juice, and a variety of other spirits) was invented here by bartender Ngiam Tong Boon around 1910, but the most famous names are those of the writers who have graced these low tables and stepped over thousands of empty peanut shells. Ernest Hemingway, Rudyard Kipling, and W. Somerset Maugham each spent hours here, sweating out the noonday sun and dreaming up their spirited fictions.

El Fishawy Coffee Shop in Cairo, Egypt

For more than two centuries, this smoky, mirrored café has been an inviting respite within the labyrinthine tangle of the 14th-century Khan el Khalili bazaar. Beneath chequered archways and tin lamps, wobbly brass-topped tables teeter under the traffic of steaming glasses of mint tea, dark coffee, and apricot-flavoured shisha tobacco from hookah pipes. In this hazy atmosphere, Nobel Prize–winning Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz sipped his way to inspiration.

Kathmandu Guest House in Kathmandu, Nepal

This budget hotel and backpacker mecca in the Thamel tourist district witnessed a Beatles invasion in the late 1960s, when the Fab Four made their subcontinental meditation circuit. While the guesthouse itself is a bit rough around the edges, its breezy garden retains some meditative powers, enhanced by hot masala chai—sweetened tea spiced with cardamom, cinnamon, cloves, fennel seeds, and ginger and creamed with milk.

Le Procope in Paris, France

What do Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus, and the Lost Generation have in common? They were coffee lushes with a fierce veneration of Left Bank cafés. The coffeehouses of the sixth arrondissement from Hemingway’s Les Deux Magots to Apollinaire’s La Closerie des Lilas—trace their roots to Le Procope, the oldest café in the City of Light. Founded in 1686, Le Procope hummed with the brainpower of Voltaire, Ben Franklin, and Victor Hugo.

Café Tortoni in Buenos Aires, Argentina

Talk about porteño pedigree: Since opening in 1858, Argentina’s oldest café has been a hotbed of culture that merges a Parisian aesthetic with an Argentine intellectualism. Launched by a Frenchman to recall the elegant coffeehouses of his homeland, Café Tortoni is an amber-lit gallery of ceiling-high columns, stained-glass panels, and marble-topped tables. Buenos Aires-born writer Jorge Luis Borges frequented this café; Albert Einstein ate alfajores (dulce de leche cookies) here. A basement stage hosts jazz jams, tango shows, and poetry readings.

Lai Jin Yu Xuan Teahouse in Beijing, China

The humble teahouse assumes an imperial role at this historic social spot in Zhongshan Park, southwest of the Forbidden City. Enclosed by flowering gardens and willow trees and a short stroll from ancient pavilions, this teahouse was frequented by Chinese writer Lu Xun—considered the founder of modern Chinese literature, who held salons here in the 1920s. Today, this ornate hideaway offers a tranquil break from the crowds and cacophony of Beijing’s streets. The café’s formal counterpart is a luxe restaurant serving a menu based on banquet dishes (try the steamed pork buns) inspired by the 18th-century Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber.

Vienna Café Central Austria Apfelstrudel

Apfelstrudel, or apple strudel is popular at Vienna’s Café Central. Photo: James Baigrie/The Image Bank/Getty Images

Antico Caffè Greco in Rome, Italy

Marble tables, upholstered chairs, gold and crimson damask walls, jacketed waiters, and countless mirrors reflect an age of elegance that’s remained suspended in time since 1760 in this classic café on stylish Via Condotti near the Spanish Steps. Decades of travellers on their Roman holiday have made this a must-stop, where the café macchiato is molto delizioso. But what else did you expect? Goethe, Byron, Berlioz, Dickens, Keats, and Mark Twain were a discriminating lot—and each of them whiled away the hours in one of the oldest coffeehouses in the Eternal City.

Café Central in Vienna, Austria

Say you want a revolution? Vladimir Lenin and Leon Trotsky did—the Russian Marxists brewed up big ideas beneath the vaulted ceiling of Vienna’s central gathering place. Great Austrians, from Sigmund Freud to architect Adolf Loos and modernist poet Peter Altenberg, energised their ideas with a steady diet of coffee and apfelstrudel at this landmark café, which was opened in 1876 and glimmers today with gilded columns and a glowing pastry display offering a treasury of sweets, including Linzer, Esterhazy, and Sacher tortes.

Appeared in the December 2012 issue as “Sipping Rooms”. This story was updated on March 17, 2016.

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  • GEORGE W STONE is Editor-in-Chief, National Geographic Travel. He tweets as @travelerstone.

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