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Cafe Kappeli, Helsinki, Finland

Top 5 Cafés

I hate coffee. Fortunately, the world’s best cafés offer much more than that bitter brown beverage, so I often found myself acquiring some sustenance in their establishments while traveling around the world. Café culture varies around the globe, but some commonalities filter through all of them. Across the board, they’re social hubs for locals to meet in a casual setting. Although a formal restaurant may be the scene of extreme-stakes business negotiations, you are unlikely to find highly caffeinated conversations at a café. Rather, customers engage in chats that gently percolate in a relaxed manner that can extend for hours, pore over the newspaper, or just placidly watch the world go by without any qualms about not fretting over what needs to be done next. These are my favorites.

#1 Robert’s Coffee Jugend (Helsinki, Finland)

Robert's Coffee Jugend, Helsinki, FinlandNow Robert’s Coffee Jugend, the former Aschan Café promoted itself as the most beautiful café in Helsinki. That’s a big boast—but it turned out to be true, despite some tough competition (see #3, below). The café occupies the ground floor of a building completed in 1827 for a Russian-born merchant for both commercial and residential use. Renovations in 1904 converted it into a bank and the Art Nouveau fantasy it remains. Under the arched entrance, a small vestibule sports some stone booths and tables for two, with owls carved into the seating dividers and sculptures of men in various poses, including one happily amassing a pile of coins. Inside, the café becomes church-like. A central nave with a vaulted ceiling and skylight accommodates the service and main seating areas. The walls tilt inward, springing from arches and robust pillars decorated with sculpted flora and fauna—leaves, cat heads, and water elements in particular. Two side aisles feature additional seating, with rich Art Nouveau ornamentation and earthy colors. At the far end, a broad arch leads to what could easily be an apse, a semicircular seating area under a wonderful mural of an autumnal forest scene with the city skyline silhouetted in the background across the water. There is not a more atmospheric spot in the city to enjoy your coffee break with a tasty lemon croissant.

#2 Café Christiania (Oslo, Norway)

Cafe Christiania, Oslo, NorwayAlthough it seems like this café/restaurant has been around for decades, Café Christiania opened for business only in 2005. Located across the street from the Norwegian Parliament building, the café occupies the ground floor of the handsome main lodge building of the Norwegian Order of Freemasons. The bow section extends from the building in a stone semicircle with large windows and outdoor seating on the rooftop terrace—prime viewing areas for people-watching in one of Oslo’s liveliest areas. Inside, the café exudes decades of history via its collection of Norwegian country store items from the first 60 years of the 1900s. From mismatched chandeliers to stylish hats, from cookie tins to advertisements for all things Norwegian, the assorted bric-a-brac has the potential to make the place feel a little kitschy, but somehow the medley of curios transcends that, and Café Christiania comes off as elegant. You may want to pop in for the cafe’s proper afternoon tea six days per week, but I settled in for dinner: an appetizer of fresh asparagus with greens and Serano ham, followed by halibut with garlic foam, puréed carrots, potatoes, and sweet onions with a touch of licorice, and a “chocolate nemesis,” served with a sorbet of blood orange and berries, and a raspberry syrup.

#3 Café Kappeli (Helsinki, Finland)

Cafe Kappeli, Helsinki, FinlandSet in the heart of the city and just steps from Robert’s Coffee Jugend, the elegant Café Kappeli has been satisfying customers since 1867. Helsinki’s signature café was a meeting place right from the start, not only for hungry patrons, but for artists, musicians, and poets eager to exchange ideas and philosophies. Fronting Esplanade Park, Kappeli boasts two very dissimilar faces: The central entrance is a façade of slender columns, a trio of arches, caryatids, and a highly sculpted, classical pediment; the other, to either side, with ceiling-to-floor ornamented windows, domes, and green roofs. Inside, the posh yet comfortable décor includes crystal chandeliers, friezes, archival photos of the city, statues and paintings by famous Finnish artists, and a bar with a wonderful plaster and gold-leaf ceiling. I would pass by every night on my way back to my hotel, the superior Hotel Kämp, and pop in for dessert—a slice of light chocolate cake and an Italian strawberry soda one night; a slice of mouthwatering mango-lime cake and a cup of wild berry tea on another. In fairer weather, grab a table at one of the city’s largest outdoor terraces to engage in some people-watching or to listen to live music on the Espa stage just a few feet away.

#4 Fat City Bar and Café (Sacramento, California)

Fat City Bar and Cafe, Sacramento, CaliforniaI built up an appetite by roaming around Old Sacramento, a historic district along the Sacramento River filled with cobblestone streets and beautifully restored Gold Rush–era buildings where I could easily imagine damsels in distress and shootouts between sheriffs and bandits, and by spending some time in the California State Railroad Museum, with more than 20 locomotives and railroad cars, including the car that carried the golden spike used at the completion ceremony of the first Transcontinental Railroad. Craving some food, I stepped into Fat City Bar and Café, a one-story brick building with a broad covered wood-plank sidewalk. Originally a general merchandise store built in 1849, it opened in 1976 as the café, the dream of a Chinese immigrant, Frank Fat, who worked his way up from a dishwasher to a businessman. The spectacular interior features a 150-year-old bar, Tiffany-style lamps, leaded glass, tin ceiling, and stained-glass art, including the Purple Lady, a work that won first prize at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair. The menu’s just as enticing, and I could not have asked for a more perfectly prepared meal of flank steak with lime juice, basil, and paprika, and a side of garlic mashed potatoes.

#5 Abecedarium (Ljubljana, Slovenia)

Abecedarium, Ljubljana, SloveniaAfter falling in love with Ljubljana’s Prešeren Square and its iconic Triple Bridge, I followed the winding Ljubljanica River just a bit before wandering into an inviting cobblestone courtyard with a fountain and statue for a very late lunch at Abecedarium. This delightful café is situated in the oldest house in the Slovenian capital, built in 1528 and once the home of the man who wrote the first book to be printed in Slovenia. The café took its name from that book, Abecedarium, which, in itself, is the word for an inscription consisting of the letters of an alphabet, almost always listed in order (this one pronounced “A-B-C-Darium”). Under an umbrella at an outdoor table protecting me from some midlevel rain, I enjoyed a scrumptious meal of mushroom soup; Styrian beef fillet with roasted potatoes, vegetables, fried olives, bacon, and anchovy butter; and delicious Nutella cake, all while sipping fine red Slovenian wine and indulging in the city’s best café culture.

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