I remember when I first went to Europe in the 1980s and became enchanted by the cafe culture there, then came home and bemoaned the fact that there were precious few places where I could relax with a coffee and do a bit of work or reading. Now, of course, the U.S. is overflowing with coffee shops, and even though many of them are chain-owned and similar in appearance, the situation has vastly improved during the past two decades.
Still, there is something to be said for the cafe culture that has developed over decades or centuries in some other countries, so here is a compilation of my favorite international cafe cities. Perhaps some other time I’ll follow with my favorite North American locales. Remember, these are only places that I’ve personally experienced, so I’d love to hear your thoughts on other cities that I’ve missed.
1. Paris, France – People either love or despise this city. I love Paris. I love the history, the art, the gardens, the romance, and the food. And the cafes. How can you not enjoy sitting at a sidewalk table at a Parisian cafe with a coffee and a chocolate croissant? Or a coffee and a good book? The Austrians may have invented Europe’s cafe culture (see below), but nowhere is it as satisfying as it is in Paris.
2. Rome, Italy – I went to Italy expecting to love Florence and to tolerate Rome, but my experience was just the opposite. Yes, the art in Florence is difficult to top and the view of the historic city from Piazzale Michelangelo is memorable, but the city often felt like to me like Epcot Center on steroids. Rome seemed more authentic and enjoyable. And the art and history are pretty breathtaking there, as well! As are the cafes.
3. Buenos Aires, Argentina – The Argentines learned a thing or two about cafe culture from their Italian and Spanish ancestors and nowhere is this more evident than in Buenos Aires, a vibrant city of wide boulevards, romantic people, and an eclectic collection of cafes. If you want a heavenly experience, find a seat outside on a sunny day in Plaza Dorrego in the San Telmo area of the city and order a submarino (a mug of steamed milk and melted chocolate), then sit back and watch the tango dancers heat up the cobblestoned square.
4. Hanoi, Vietnam– Not many Asian cities are regarded as great cafe venues. But the French colonial influence left a mark on Southeast Asia, most notably in Hanoi. The Old Quarter of the city is an ancient and charming maze, filled with people, produce peddlers and motorbikes. Relax with a coffee and watch the buzz of Vietnamese life. If it’s too hot for a coffee, try a fresh fruit shake, which are delicious and available throughout Vietnam.
5. Dahab, Egypt– The more conventional Egyptian choice here would be Cairo, where coffeehouses abound. But I had a more enjoyable experience in the small town of Dahab, on the east coast of Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where we could relax in a cafe for hours just feet away from the lapping waters of the Red Sea. It’s a Bedouin town that has been overtaken by tourism, but is still small enough and slow-paced enough to be truly relaxing.
6. Vienna, Austria – The legend is that the first European cafes were opened in Vienna in the late 17th century with beans that were left behind by defeated Turkish soldiers (as the Ottoman Turks already had a coffeehouse tradition). No one knows the real truth, but there is certainly a long and glorious cafe tradition in Austria and Vienna is a great city in which to experience it, perhaps while pondering why so many great composers came from there. Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and others all once called Vienna home.
7. Prague, Czech Republic – The Czechs share a history with the Austrians, as they were once part of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire, and they also share a love of coffee and cafes. Old Town Square survived World War II with much of its historic core still intact, and is today one of the most beautiful and best preserved squares on the continent. It’s a wonderful place to have a coffee and soak in the atmosphere of old Europe.
That’s my list. What is yours?
Photo credits: Bob Riel