Call it nostalgia, golden age thinking, or even denial. But there’s something romantic about the idea of escaping to the past to sit alongside the great writers of the last century in the cafes they once haunted. Heck, Woody Allen even created a box office hit about it.
Continental Europe is brimming with literary cafes such as these, and, although you won’t get to share a drink with Gertrude Stein, you don’t have to magically transcend the limits of time in order to visit them.
Think Scott and Zelda strolling along the Seine. Think John-Paul Sarte and Simone de Beauvoir waxing philosophical among the existentialists. Think Hemingway drinking whiskey in a smoky Montparnasse bar. In other words, think Paris.
A literary Mecca, cafes frequented by writers of the past pepper the streets of the City of Light. Certainly, the most famous are the dueling cafes, Les Deux Magots and Café de Flore, situated next to each other in Saint Germain des Prés. Given their famous patronage (Sarte, de Beauvoir, and Camus to name a few), they are popular destinations for lovers of literature and philosophy.
Venture a little deeper into the sixth arrondissement, and you’ll find Closerie des Lilas on Boulevard du Montparnasse. A favorite among American expat writers, including Pound and Fitzgerald, Hemingway wrote most of The Sun Also Rises at this cafe. He also features Closerie des Lilas in A Moveable Feast, his memoir about his years in Paris.
Les Deux Magots, 6 Place Saint-Germain des Prés
Café de Flore, 172 Boulevard Saint-Germain
Closerie des Lilas, 171 Boulevard du Montparnasse
If visiting the Imperial City, stop for breakfast or an afternoon coffee at Café Central, a quintessential Viennese cafe in the center of town. Writer and poet Peter Altenberg practically lived there. Sigmund Freud (as well as a few unsavory historical characters of the 20th century) also visited the cafe in the months leading up to World War I. Today, it is popular for its magnificent arched ceiling and decadent desserts, such as the Peanuts Caramel.
For film lovers, consider walking just south of the city center to Café Sperl. In Before Sunrise, Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke reveal how they feel about each other during a mock telephone conversation while sitting at one of Café Sperl’s booths.
Café Central, Herrengasse 4
Café Sperl, Gumpendorfer Strasse 11
While walking along the Limmat River, stop for an Aperol Spritz or Hugo at Odeon Café, an art nouveau cafe in Bellevue. A popular meeting place for exiled artists and intellectuals during the wars, James Joyce and Albert Einstein were among those who sipped coffee within its marble interior.
Afterwards, step across the street to the Kronenhalle for dinner. Joyce wrote large chunks of Ulysses at Kronenhalle, and many artists and designers, including Coco Chanel, Yves Saint Laurent, Pablo Picasso, and Marc Chagall, sat at its tables. And don’t leave without perusing the dinning room walls. They’re decked with Picasso, Rodin and Matisse originals.
Odeon Café, Limmatquai 2
Kronenhalle, Rämistrasse 4
For more literary cafes in Europe, see the author’s blog, This Off Script Life.