Born from war, Vienna’s cafés serve a heady mix of coffee, confections and centuries-old charm
Update: Also read Where to Stay and Eat in Vienna, for more coffeehouse recommendations.
It was the September of 1683. For nearly two months, troops of the Ottoman Turk had besieged Vienna. The final assault lasted two days, but the Turks were no match for the imperial forces. Routed, they fled, leaving behind food, cattle and bags full of coffee beans. Shortly after, in 1685, Vienna got its first coffee house. The coffee managed what the Turks couldn’t—rule the minds and lives of the people of Vienna.
|Image Credit: Café Central at Palais Ferstel, Vienna|
With the coffee came the newspapers and pool tables, followed by warm meals and alcohol, and eventually, in 1856, the women. For the Viennese people who lived in cramped apartments, coffee houses (or kaffeehäuser) became public living rooms or second homes, where they’d meet friends, read the papers, have a smoke and nurse a coffee (or something stronger). The coffee house also became a meeting spot for intellectuals and artists of all callings – writers, poets and painters. Some, like Austrian poet Peter Altenberg, worked out of cafés. He even had his mail delivered to Café Central, his favourite coffee house.
The coffee house culture is so entrenched in the Vienna’s fabric that in 2011, it was added to UNESCO’s list of national intangible cultural heritage, which acknowledges “identity practices” including performing arts, social practices and traditional know-how. Today, there are some 2,500 coffee houses in the Austrian capital. Before you go café-hopping, here’s one important tip: take your time. Café-hopping in Vienna is quite easy. Coffee houses are everywhere – along grand avenues, inside tiny alleys, and at town squares big and small.
|Image Credit: Café Central at Palais Ferstel, Vienna|
Unlike the cafés in Italy, where I’d rather grab my espresso at the ‘bar’ like the locals, in Vienna, the coffee houses are designed to linger – over the papers in German (which I couldn’t read), or a book (which I could) or to people-watch. Coffee and cake was my preferred method of lingering at these coffee houses, though I did eat a schnitzel at Café Central since I visited during lunchtime. Here’s my pick of the city’s must-visit coffee houses:
Café Central: a favourite with Trotsky, Hitler
Since its opening in 1876, Café Central was the key meeting place of the intelligentsia and the artists. Apart from Altenberg, it was popular with political leaders like Hitler, Lenin and Trotsky, author Arthur Schnitzler and architect Adolf Loos. Sigmund Freud, too, was often spotted at the café. Today, despite being a tourist magnet, it retains its old-world charm and is one of Vienna’s most elegant coffee houses.
Warmly lit even in the afternoons, its glinting chandeliers, red-and-gold décor and tall marble columns give it a lofty air. The vaulted ceilings, large portraits of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Sisi and the rustle of newspapers, all whisper of the past. The ‘travellers’ who look down upon the ‘tourists’ will tell you to shun Café Central and visit one of the more offbeat places. But it is at Central that you will really get a feel of the literary history and the glorious coffee house culture of Vienna. Order a cake or one of their excellent savoury meals (try the schnitzel) to go with your coffee. And rest assured that the waiters are less snooty than what you have been led to believe!
Herrengasse 14, Innere Stadt, Vienna (+43-1-533-37-63; Website)
Café Sacher: home to the legendary Sacher Torte
I am a bit wary about hyped up places and their ‘must-have’ concoctions, so it was with some trepidation that I stepped inside Café Sacher to kill time before a rendition of Romeo and Juliet at the Staatsoper (State Opera House). The café is located directly opposite the opera house, on the ground floor of the five-star Hotel Sacher (built: 1876). Its legendary Sacher Torte certainly lives up to its reputation. It’s a decadent combination of two layers of a light chocolate cake, interspersed with apricot jam and with a smooth chocolate icing on top, usually served with whipped cream. I’d also highly recommend a slice of the Gewürzgugelhupf – Viennese ring cake with candied oranges and ginger.Philharmoniker Strasse 4, Vienna. (+43-1-514-56-0; Website)
Café Demel: for lovers of pastries
|Image Credit: ©Wien Tourism photo by Peter Rigaud|
Demel is another legend in Vienna since 1786, now less a traditional coffee house, more a pastry wonderland. Its ever-changing window display of edible art pieces is reason enough to pay a visit. The erstwhile Imperial and Royal Confectionary continues to turn out some outstanding cakes and pastries. It serves its own version of the Sacher Torte, but what I recommend here is the Esterházy Torte – an airy sponge cake layered with cognac-laced buttercream.
Kohlmarkt 14, Vienna. (+43-1-535-17-17; Website)
Relatively new amongst the Viennese coffee houses, the tiny Kleine’s Café has been around since the 1970s. What it lacks in size, it makes up for in atmosphere – shabby-chic interiors, low arched ceiling, old-fashioned leather sofas, a coat-stand at the door – it’s like walking into someone’s living room. In good weather, you can sit outside on the cobble-stoned square, which is dominated by the Renaissance façade of a church and a fountain that depicts Moses striking water from a rock. If you’ve had enough coffee for the day, order a glass of Riesling and watch the city go by.
Café Sperl: the local favourite
|Image credit: Julius Silver with special permission for Café Sperl|
You are more likely to rub shoulders with the locals at Café Sperl than at other coffee houses. Away from the city centre, this elegant café has also been popular with artists and military officers alike. Founded in 1880, Sperl is a quintessentially Viennese coffee house with its cosy booths, marble-topped tables, bentwood chairs and pool tables. The café features in the charming 1995 movie Before Sunrise – there is even a tour that takes you to locations featured in the film. Get a slice of Sperl Torte—a heady combination of almonds and chocolate—to go with your coffee.
Gumpendorfer Strasse 11. (+43-1-586-41-58; Website)