Historical cafés in Trieste are an urban institution: they are and always have been places for talking about business, playing chess, reading newspapers and having a chat.
The historical cafés in Friuli’s capital were part of the city’s middle and upper class tradition, and often drive their roots down into the Habsburg era. In 1830, about one hundred cafés had already been registered – some of which are still in business today. They were meeting places for students, professors, writers, anti-Austrian patriots… sometimes busy with their own activities, others enthralled in conversation.
Some of these establishments have survived almost two hundred years of history perfectly intact. Local author Claudio Magris, a nostalgic patron of Caffè San Marco, once noted, “if the Empire was still in place, everything would be the same: the world would continue to be a Caffè San Marco.”
But not everyone was happy about these cafés: in one of his novels, Adalberto Thiergen – a popular writer and journalist in 19th-century Trieste – wrote:
“When Ferdinand found himself in the street, he quickly walked to a would-be coffee shop in the old city; we say ‘would-be’ because the word ‘coffee’ was only meant to conceal the true purpose of such places, which was to collect the most notorious and inveterate drinkers of alcoholic spirits, as well as boys who spent hours there day and night, wasting time and money, often have stolen from their poor parents; there, they got used to ephemeral pleasures of idleness, vice and corruption, and caught the most destructive habits…” (translated from “Nuovi misteri di Trieste, ossia i Dieci Comandamenti”, Coen Editore, Trieste 1854).
It was a serious issue. Today, the Empire is gone and Trieste’s historical cafés are simply magnificent places where time has decided to stop for a break. Let’s visit some of them today.
We start from the newest, Bar Cattaruzza (featured in a previous article of ours). Opened in 1938 in the city’s famous “Red Skyscraper” – officially known as Palazzo Aedes, designed by architect Arduino Berlam in the mid-1920s – it is between Piazza Duca degli Abruzzi and Corso Cavour. It is a 20th-century establishment with gorgeous Art Deco furnishings, a striking bar and finely sculptured wood paneling.
Piazza Duca degli Abruzzi, 1
Tel.: +39 335 818 0170
Turning time back one whole century, we go south to Molo Audace, heading to Caffè Tommaseo (also already showcased in an article of ours. Having opened in the 1830s, it is one of the most ancient in the capital of Friuli-Venezia Giulia; this is where Stock Market bankers, artists, lawyers and literary men – including Stendhal – stopped for a drink. Other famous patrons were James Joyce, Italo Svevo and Franz Kafka.
Joyce, Svevo and Kafka were also partial to Caffè degli Specchi, on the ground floor of the beautiful Palazzo Stratti on Piazza Unità d’Italia. Opened in 1839 by a leading figure in the city’s Greek community, it is named after the many mirrors that used to decorate its interior, which are almost all gone today. It was an important meeting place for “irredentisti” fighting for Trieste’s annexation to Italy.
Caffè degli Specchi
Piazza Unità d’Italia, 7
Tel.: +39 040 661973
Just a few steps away from the harbor and towards the heart of the city, we find Caffè Tergesteo – its unique shop windows telling stories about the city’s history. Opened in 1863, it is famous for being mentioned by Italian novelist Italo Svevo in his “Zeno’s Conscience” (the protagonist stops there to get closer to the world of trade, as the café is located in the Gallery of the Stock Exchange square) as well as by poet Umberto Saba (“Caffè Tergeste […] / with joy I look at you today. / And you reconcile Italian and Slavic, / late at night, along your billiards.”)
Piazza della Borsa, 15
Tel.: +39 040 365812
A few meters further into Trieste, we visit Antico Caffè Torinese on Corso Italia 2. It is a gem of Art Nouveau style, where you can still admire the original 1919 furnishings – some of which designed by Giuliano Debelli, the Trieste-born ebonist who was entrusted with the interiors of ocean liners Vulcania and Saturnia. Don’t miss the wonderful counter and chandelier.
In 2017, Caffè Stella Polare, on Via Dante Alighieri, will celebrate its 150th birthday: inaugurated in 1867, it flaunts a century and a half of illustrious frequentations. Next to the Serbian Orthodox church of Saint Spyridon, it was always one of Trieste’s most famous meeting spots. For a few years, during the British-American occupation in the 1940s and 1950s, it turned into a dancehall.
Caffè Stella Polare
Via Dante Alighieri, 14
Tel.: +39 040 765420
Last but not least, we come to perhaps the most famous historical café in our itinerary, the San Marco. Famous patron Claudio Magris wrote “it opened on January 3rd 1914… and immediately became the main meeting point for the young ‘irridentisti’, as well as a workshop of counterfeit passports for anti-Austrian patriots who wanted to escape to Italy…” Now, Magris goes on, “hours here pass pleasant, nonchalant, almost happy.”
Photos via: ©Enrico Sottocorna, ©Andreas Berdan, ©www.caffesanmarcotrieste.eu, ©www.anticocaffetorinese.ts.it, ©www.discover-trieste.it, ©www.finanzaonline.com, ©Stefano Crialesi, ©danieledemarco.com, ©a Blonde around the World