Exploring the café culture of Vienna
By Smita Chandra and Sanjeev Chandra
We have experienced Vienna’s charms in many different ways: visiting museums, listening to scintillating concerts, admiring baroque palaces and simply walking along its grand boulevards. But for us, the real Vienna lives in the coffee houses that are at the heart of the city’s culture.
For centuries, the aristocrats, intellectuals and artists who made Vienna one of the most exciting cities in the world flocked to cafés to meet, flirt, gossip and debate. Philosophers, writers, musicians, even revolutionaries, had their favourite cafés, and many of the intellectual and political movements that defined the twentieth century were shaped in heated arguments over cups of coffee.
Vienna claims to have the oldest cafés in Europe, dating back to the late seventeenth century. A frequently recounted story traces the founding of the first café to 1683 when the Ottoman Turks, who had besieged the city for months, retreated hastily while abandoning most of their supplies. Among these was a large stock of coffee beans, which were widely used in the Middle East but little-known in Europe at that time. The only person to recognize their value was Georg Franz Kolschitzky, one of the Viennese defenders, who had spent time in Turkey. Kolschitzky promptly commandeered the beans, opened a café, and served coffee with milk and sugar to make it more suitable for western palates. This story is now part of Vienna lore, immortalized by a statue of Kolschitzky pouring a cup of coffee, placed on a street named after him.
Cafés soon came to define Vienna’s cosmopolitanism and charm. For the price of a cup of coffee, any ordinary person could enter a world of luxury, sink into an armchair, and be waited upon deferentially. Cafés set out a wide selection of newspapers for their patrons and provided chess boards and cards, giving them more reasons to linger. Pastries and food were added to the café menu, so that customers could stay all day if they chose. Young artists and intellectuals, who often had no other space to congregate, found a new home in cafés and made them the hub of Vienna’s buzzing political and creative life.
The cafés of Vienna are as busy as ever and serve a bewildering variety of coffees. However, asking for coffee will only get you a perplexed look for they have developed their own unique terminology which you should learn before you order. You can choose between a Schwarzer (espresso), Brauner (espresso with cream), Melange (espresso with steamed and frothed milk), Franziskaner (espresso with steamed milk and whipped cream), or Einspänner (diluted espresso with whipped cream). Here are a few we recommend:
Every one of Vienna’s historic cafés has a hundred stories to tell of the people who passed through its doors, but only Café Frauenhuber, Vienna’s oldest, can truthfully claim that both Mozart and Beethoven played music here for their guests. The décor inside the café is understated by Viennese standards, but still full of charm. This a place where you can relax and linger over your coffee. They also serve meals with all the Austrian classics such as schnitzel and goulash on the menu, and it is a great place to try strudel, both the common apple strudel and the harder to find plum strudel.
This is a place that exudes Viennese elegance at its best. Housed in a building modelled on a Venetian palace, it has high vaulted ceilings, soaring marble columns and portraits of Austrian royalty on the walls. Leon Trotsky was a regular at Café Central during his time as an exile in Vienna and met Joseph Stalin there. They may have caught sight of the foreign minister of Austria, another frequent visitor, as they plotted to undermine the great empires of Europe. The café was a favourite meeting place for writers such as Stefan Zweig and Peter Altenberg, the latter who was famous for having his mail and laundry delivered to the café. Altenberg’s devotion to Café Central has been memorialised by a life-size figure of him at a table near the entrance. Seat yourself next to him and order a slice of their signature chocolate-orange Café Central Torte.
In a city famous for lavishly furnished and decorated coffee houses, Café Hawelka defiantly stays the same modest haunt for artists that it was half a century ago. Leopold and Josefine Hawelka opened the café in 1945 and ran the place for the next 66 years during which time it entertained visiting celebrities such as Andy Warhol, Arthur Miller and Peter Ustinov. Entering Café Hawelka is like stepping back in time, as it has not been renovated since its founding and still has the scarred wooden chairs, creaking floors and vintage posters on the wall that make it a unique Vienna institution. You can dawdle as long as you like, leafing through one of the many newspapers provided. There is no menu, but the food on offer is listed on a blackboard. Try the buchteln, sweet jam-filled buns made according to Josefine’s original recipe.
Franz Landtmann’s ambition was to build the most elegant coffee house in Vienna, and most people would judge that he succeeded when he opened his establishment in 1873. Renovated several times, its stylish interior is marked by wood panelling, high-backed sofas and glittering chandeliers. Sigmund Freud often dropped into Café Landtmann, where he was likely to encounter other regulars such as composer Gustav Mahler or writer Thomas Mann. They offer an extensive selection of pastries – try their unique Maroniblüte, a waffle cup filled with sour cherries and chestnut mousse.
Franz Sacher, an apprentice cook at the imperial palace, saw his opportunity to advance when the royal chef de cuisine fell ill just before an important banquet in 1832. He did not fail, serving a chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam covered with chocolate icing. This dessert so captivated the diners that it was henceforth known as the Sachertorte and became one of the most beloved of Viennese specialities. Franz’s son Eduard went on to found the Hotel Sacher, whose café now has the exclusive right to sell the “Original” Sachertorte. Café Sacher is located next to the Vienna Opera House, making it a great place to watch the crowds go by. The interior is in classic Viennese style, with couches covered in red velvet, which is reminiscent of the splendour of imperial Austria.