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Seven cities with amazing café cultures

Coffee has never been just a drink. Coffee, unlike other beverages, has a way of bringing people together. Maybe it’s the warm, invigorating quality, maybe it’s the fragrant aroma, maybe it’s the caffeine, or maybe it’s just cultural influence. Whatever the reason, many of us can’t go a single day without one cup or more.

If you’re a coffee aficionado, you can appreciate when a city has an amazing café culture. If you’re looking to discover a range of delightful coffee shops, a wide selection of unique coffee, and a chance to soak up the local culture, here’s my vote for the top seven cities with amazing café cultures.

1. Paris

Parisian cafés are renowned throughout the world for their relaxed atmosphere, friendly culture, and wide selection—after all, the very word café is French! Enjoying a pleasant afternoon in a Parisian café might be one of the finest pleasures of this world-renowned city.

Although the word café means coffee in French, the correct term for the Parisian café is the “café-bar”, since cafés in Paris serve all kinds of beverages ranging from herbal teas, to mineral water, and of course wine and beer – which many Parisians will enjoy in the afternoon. They’re also famous for their selection of breads, pastries and other light meals. The one menu item that you may have more difficulty locating is American-style coffee, which is a little ironic if you happen to be American.

The key to enjoying Parisian café culture is to understand that sitting, sipping, and lounging is the point. Whether you take your time to catch up with some reading, chat with friends, gaze out the window, or work on your screenplay, there’s never a need to feel rushed.

2. Lisbon

Aside from being a beautiful city in one seriously gorgeous country, Lisbon is also home to some of the world’s most celebrated coffee. Lisbon’s coffee houses are lovely and comfortable, and you can enjoy relaxing and unwinding with a cup of bica. This black coffee is similar to an espresso but with a very distinct flavour that comes from slow-roasted coffee beans.

3. Ho Chi Minh City

When Starbucks recently opened its first location in Vietnam in February 2013 as a part of its Asian expansion strategy, Western business reporters sent to cover the opening were surprised to discover that local café owners weren’t the least bit worried about the arrival of this global behemoth. That’s because Vietnam already has a well-entrenched coffee culture with its own unique traditions. As one café owner said, “Our prices are affordable for average Vietnamese. Expensive coffee is just for the children of government officials, or people who have lots of money.”

Ho Chi Minh City might be the last place you’d expect to find a coffee culture so dominant that it doesn’t fear disruption by Starbucks, but Vietnam inherited its distinct coffee culture from French colonialists in the 1800s. Since then, Vietnam has evolved a coffee heritage of its own, blending colonial traditions with its own local flavour. The drink of choice is a Vietnamese coffee, brewed from robusta beans. These pack a powerful caffeine wallop that’s quite a bit stronger than the typical European espresso. Vietnamese coffee is usually served with sweet condensed milk and is sure to rattle the average tourist’s palate.

4. Seattle

As the home of Starbucks, the biggest chain coffee house in the world, Seattle is one of the most famous cities in the world when it comes to coffee. Seattle experiences a lot of overcast, rainy weather, so there’s nothing more satisfying to a Seattle resident than a warm cup of coffee in a cosy café. Visiting Seattle, you can explore one of the world’s most famous coffee scenes—and Starbucks is only the beginning. There are many wonderful local, independently owned coffee houses throughout the city.

5. São Paulo

Did you know that 40% of the world’s coffee is produced in Brazil? So it should be no surprise that São Paulo is one of the biggest café culture cities on the planet. You’ll love the inviting little coffee shops throughout town and the delicious coffee brewed in Brazil, combining the flavours and styles of Portugal and Italy.

6. Vancouver

Vancouver is considered to be one of the most sophisticated and cosmopolitan cities in North America and the world. It is also home to a fine cup of coffee and—during the summer—one of the best patio scenes in the world. You’ll find numerous exciting little cafés and coffee houses lining the beautiful streets of Canada’s most beloved city. Vancouver isn’t all that far from Seattle geographically and, like Seattle, it has a lot to offer the coffee aficionado.

7. Istanbul

Coffee-house by the Ortaköy Mosque, Constantinople by Ivan Aivazovsky

"Coffee-house by the Ortaköy Mosque, Constantinople" by Ivan Aivazovsky (1817-1900)

Turkish coffee has a long history, dating back to the 16th century. In the 1640s, Ibrahim Pecevi documented the opening of Istanbul’s very first coffee house roughly 90 years earlier. The first coffee house opened up in Tahtakale, and before that, according to Pecevi, there were no coffee houses in the region at all. The trend certainly caught on though, and today Istanbul is famous for its coffee. Coffee is a prominent drink throughout the countries of the Middle East, and Turkish coffee is legendary for its strong, rich flavour. While tea is the main beverage in Turkey, coffee doesn’t lag far behind. If you visit Istanbul, you can enjoy the unique experience of strong Turkish coffee brewed specially in a cezve and poured into a special cup without a sieve.

These seven cities span four continents—North and South America, Europe and Asia—and they each offer a completely unique coffee drinking experience. All seven of them have histories which are as richly brewed as their famous beverages, and if you ask around while you’re at the coffee houses, you’ll doubtless learn a lot about recipes, the histories of different coffee houses and businesses, and the influence that coffee has had on the local culture.


Nate is an avid traveller, blogger and co-owner of Cupcoffee.ca. There are few things he enjoys more than an afternoon with a fresh cup of coffee in hand at a bustling local coffee house.

2 Comments

Dave McMahon 20-04-2013, 09:04

Great article, Nate.

I have to say I’m surprised not to see Vienna on the list! But I’m sure everyone has their own list of favourites.

Mike K-H 27-04-2013, 09:57

I’ll back Dave’s suggestion of adding Vienna. Even the French serve a ‘café viennois’, with a lush topping of sweetened whipped cream over a good aromatic arabica. I’d also add Milan and Madrid. But if you have access to local knowledge, you can get a decent coffee in some unlikely cities – even London isn’t just Starbucks, Costa and similar competitors, and an Italian friend once tracked down a French-owned café in Stuttgart.

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