A Crash Course in European Cafe Culture

Europeans have been kicking back at communal gathering places and cafes for hundreds of years, with some coffeehouses in Turkey dating back to the 14th century. Check out this simple introduction to Europe’s renowned cafe culture to get acquainted with one of the continent’s favorite pastimes.

Cafe Culture for Beginners

Cafe life in Istanbul by amitd (CC)
Cafe life in Istanbul by: amitd (CC)

You’ll quickly discover that this age-old tradition is very much alive and kicking in the modern era. Remember that most cafe culture isn’t like going to a drive-through or Starbucks at home, and you won’t find many (or any) double-venti, keg-sized coffee servings in most European destinations. It’s espresso, rather than drip coffee, that rules around here. Stronger, more concentrated coffee makes for smaller servings that pack a punch, but can be disconcerting to North American eyes. Fear not: that Euro espresso served in a tiny ceramic cup will surely make up for its lack of size with an intense dose of flavor and caffeine. As for other beverages, soft drinks can be expensive, and you’ll be charged for bottled water in plenty of places unless you specifically request it from the tap. Serving procedures for beer and wine will be pretty familiar, and cheaper destinations in Eastern Europe often feature alcohol drinks that check out cheaper than good old H2O.

Picking the Perfect Place

Parisian Cafe by Christine Olson (CC)
Parisian Cafe by: Christine Olson (CC)

Location is everything when it comes to really getting in touch with the cafe culture vibe that predominates in Europe. Larger cities, even the less coffee-oriented urban centers of Scandinavia and the British Isles, generally provide plenty of pedestrian thoroughfares and secluded squares where you can enjoy a drink or a snack. Siena’s Piazza del Campo, Krakow’s main market square, Tbilisi’s Rustaveli Avenue, Yerevan’s Liberty Square, Belgrade’s Skadarlija, and even Amsterdam’s Red Light District—all are bursting with activity and perfect places to grab a pick-me-up. At night, many public spaces come alive with entertainment, from street musicians and artists to traditional dances and crowd-pleasing performances. Keep in mind that plenty of cafes and coffee spots in Europe feature differing prices for sit-down drinks and standing-room only, which for the uninitiated can be a bit of a shock when the bill arrives.


Cafe Diglas, Vienna by La Citta Vita (CC)
Cafe Diglas, Vienna by: La Citta Vita (CC)

This is a critical juncture where many visitors fall flat: more than anything, the cafe experience is about relaxation and leisurely lingering. You’ll find that all over Europe, particularly on warm days in outdoor areas, cafe seating is often packed to the brim with patrons. They’re not just there to sip coffee, either: meeting at a cafe constitutes an important form of social interaction for friends, couples, and locals in general—a place to see, and be seen. Particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe, grabbing a cafe table and ordering a drink means it’s more or less yours for as long as you’d like, and in popular spots seats may be few and far between. Get on local time and take an hour or two to decompress from your sightseeing. Check out a local newspaper, read up on your surroundings from your travel guide, admire historical architecture, or simply observe the buzz of activity around you. Whatever you do, just make sure that you sit, sip, and indulge yourself.

Top Cafe-Culture Destinations in Europe

Sarajevo by Andreas Lehner (CC)
Sarajevo by: Andreas Lehner (CC)

Europe is awash in charming, hole-in-the-wall, artsy coffeehouses and bustling streetside cafes, and you’ll find examples of this laid-back culture across the continent. However, not all locales are created equal when it comes to the cafe lifestyle, so you’ll want to seek out some of the best. Southern Europe is renowned for its cafe-heavy focus, and places like Italy, France, Spain, and Greece provide tons of opportunity to try it out for yourself. The streets of Rome, Milan, Vienna, and Paris are particularly legendary and make good cities to start with in the west. Head east and you’ll find the ubiquitous cafe culture continues: Belgrade in Serbia, Istanbul in Turkey, Sofia in Bulgaria, Sarajevo in Bosnia, and even Yerevan in Armenia are all prime locations for kicking back and watching the world go by. They also have the added bonus of featuring far lower prices than the tourist-heavy nations of Western Europe.

No matter the region of Europe you find yourself in, be sure to seek out cafes nestled in winding alleyways or situated along buzzing boulevards and squares in order to get the most out of your time enjoying la dolce vita. And whichever cafe-culture destination you choose, use Inspirock’s free Europe trip planner to see and do more in between long espresso sessions.

Latest posts by Alex (see all)