Vienna Coffee House Culture
There may well be any number of things I appreciate more than a historic cafe with a cozy atmosphere and superbly tasty coffee, but anytime I’m in Vienna the memory of those others seems to get lost in the search for the perfect Wiener Melange.
Vienna Coffee House Culture has its origins in the Siege of Vienna by Ottoman armies in 1683, but many of the modern trappings like marble tables / newspapers from around the world / the freedom to linger as long as you like date from closer to the heyday of Viennese Cafes at the beginning of the 19th century. Trotsky and Klimt and Hitler and Freud all frequented these establishments, which were the social heart of the city of Vienna and so by extension the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In 2011, UNESCO even listed Viennese Coffee Culture as intangible world heritage – to be protected and preserved.
With this impressive history in mind, then, I’ve made a point on my recent visits to Vienna of trying as many historic coffee shops as I could, squeezing in a quick cake or coffee between tours I had to photograph and skipping proper meals in favor of a quick wurst from a street stand (to leave more time in the afternoon for yet another Wiener Kaffeehaus!). Its a hard life out there on the road, but somebody has to be doing the tough research for the betterment of us all!
The obvious first stop as a tourist in Vienna is the Cafe Central. The coffee is undeniably rich and delicious and the epic cake selection leaves little to be desired. Sitting inside, the quiet tinkling of the piano late on a weekday night barely registers under the vast ceilings of the vaulted dining room roof. The service is traditionally awful, though, and the fact that it sits right on the tourist trail combined with the higher prices make this a “visit once and move on” sort of thing.
Apple Strudel: €4.30
I’ve also visited old stalwart Demel, of course, which has been making the ‘Sacher Torte’ at that same address just across the street from the Hofburg Palace since 1857. The coffee is tasty, the Sacher scrumptious, and the atmosphere comfortable. Even better, my seat by a window made for decent people watching out towards Kohlmarkt as well. This is just the start of exploring Viennese cafes, though, and after making the pilgrimage here to one of the paragons of Vienna Coffee House Culture it was time to start really exploring!
Sacher Torte: 4.10€
Only five years younger than the Demel yet somehow significantly less famous amongst tourists, the Cafe Wortner is a bit further from the city center (but actually pretty close to the Belvedere Palace). True to historical form, the staff here were surly and not very willing to put up with a non-speaker of German who also didn’t have any idea of the finer points of Viennese coffee house culture. The relaxed yet elegant ambience here was reminiscent of sunny Sunday afternoons. (Note: the author visited on a Sunny sunday afternoon.) While waiting quite a while for my order I had time to inspect the handful of other customers and the Marilyn Monroe posters and occasional Buddha statues that lined the walls. Once my melange and apricot dumplings showed up, though, the wait was all worthwhile.
Weidner Hauptstrasse 55
Apricot Dumplings: 4.80€
While we’re talking about age before beauty, the Cafe Frauenhuber deserves a mention as well. Claiming to be the oldest cafe in Vienna as well as the location of Mozart’s last public concert, you could certainly visit here for the history. With the huge street-facing windows and outdoor terrace, you could drop in for some people watching as well. If you’re looking specifically for good coffee, however, this was actually one of my least favorites.
Apple Strudel: €4.30
Many of these traditional Viennese cafes have long been the haunts of artists and poets, and the Cafe Hawelka is no exception. Though it hit its cultural peak between the ’30s and ’60s, the place is now a popular tourist spot both for its fame and for its location just off of Stephansplatz. Directly across this small alley is the (delicious) Trzesniewski sandwich shop, and between the two you could take an afternoon break from sightseeing near St. Stephen’s and Graben without going more than a few minutes away.
Buchteln pastries: Next trip.
Another spot popular with tourists is the Cafe Museum just down the street from the MuseumsQuarter, Karlsplatz, and Naschmarkt. This was the only cafe I visited where all of the waiters reliably addressed me in English as I walked in, which I think speaks to the current locals/tourists balance of this longtime presence that has been on the scene since 1899. To take it even further, they saw my Vienna Card and proactively told me there was a discount for buying one of their dessert selections. The coffee was good and the ambience nice enough, but this was perhaps my least favorite of the ‘notable coffeehouses in Vienna’ that I kept seeing mention of online.
Apple Strudel: 4.90€
If the Cafe Museum was slightly disappointing, the Schwarzenberg later that evening made up for it. As I was meeting a friend I totally forgot to take a photo of the interior, but the live violin and piano in the back made for time that passed quickly and the brightly lit interior seemed like a beacon in the night as I walked towards the cafe from down Vienna’s Ring Boulevard. The Schwarzenberg was really good, though not *quite* my favorite.
Kärntner Ring 17
Cream Strudel: 5.50€
Perhaps the best find on my most recent trip to Vienna was the Cafe Jelinek. A bit far from the city center near the Mariahilfer Straße shopping street, Jelenik would totally be worth the trip for a long lazy afternoon. If every Viennese coffee house is an extension of your living room, Jelinek is the living room of the college house you shared with a couple of friends. Book discussions, quiet corners, and of course plenty of coffee and cakes to go around.
If Jelinek is a place to go and be social, then the Cafe Prückel feels a lot more like the sort of coffee house where you could ignore the world with an ebook for the day. With understated decorations that feel more 1950’s than 1904, the lack of fancy is a welcome change at times from places like Demel and Central.
Ice Cream: €3.90
Having received recommendations by a number of different locals to visit, I was somewhat disappointed with the Cafe Tirolerhof. The location almost at the foot of the Albertina Museum is super convenient, to be sure, and the coffee/cake tasty. As one of only other two customers early on a friday evening, however, the padded benches and granite tabletops have the feel of a movie set where all the extras have already left for the evening. This is one where I’m willing to try a second visit, so perhaps my opinion will change once I get back.
Chocolate Cake: €4.30
The Cafe Bräunerhof isn’t particularly beautiful or really even particularly noteworthy; I probably walked right past 10 or 15 times before it was pointed out to me by Wolfgang of the Vienna’s Sweet Side tour. In the inner city (just steps away from Hawelka and not far from Demel/Grienstedl, in fact) and the center of the tourist district this place is surprisingly quiet. Though they’re of limited number, the seats that look out onto the street make for a great place to sit and pretend to read a book or newspaper for a few hours. No matter where you sit the food is good and the service friendly, and the coffee isn’t bad either.
Poppy Seed Cake: €3.20
Though not necessarily the most delicious or most refined or most photogenic, the Cafe Sperl wins my top spot of Viennese Cafes largely because it was the one that just felt most right. For starters, it was the only place on this list that sounds like a proper coffee house should. As the din of conversation in a number of languages melts into the ‘metal on porcelain’ peal, barely audible underneath it all page after page of newspapers turn. The Sperl has been serving coffee to Vienna since 1880, and sitting in a little bench seat at one of the windows overlooking Gumpendorfer Straße I can almost see the place in grainy black and white out of the corner of my eye. The Cafe Sperl doesn’t have the same pretensions to fancy dress and surly waiters as most of the historic Vienna cafes, but if I were to choose a ‘local’ in Vienna one day this would likely be the one.
Gumpendorfer Straße 11
Sperl Torte: Next time.
One last special mention. Aida. I know, I know, calm down Viennese Coffee House snobs. This is not exactly Starbucks, but definitely has a chain feel to it. With over 30 branches in Vienna alone this is also not trying to be your typical Viennese coffee house. This chain has and does cater to the working man, a little bit quicker and a little less fancy and a bit less expensive than many of the other on this list. It HAS been in existence for over 100 years, however, so it isn’t as if this is some generic transplant to the city. Especially if you’re up early on a Sunday morning and nowhere else is open, one of these could definitely be worth your time.
Golatsche pastry: €1.80
(Note that they also offer a 20% discount for those with a Vienna Card.)
I’ve visited Vienna several times, both as an independent traveler and while working as a photographer with GetYourGuide. Most of these cafes are relatively easy to find and even without much German you can get by. GetYourGuide offers a Culinary Tour of Vienna’s Sweet Side, which was brilliant in that it offered lots of background info (and some free chocolate tastings!) but unfortunately didn’t actually stop in anywhere. However, the owner (Wolfgang) did mention that there is an option to extend for an extra hour and taste a couple of delicious things.
At some of the more popular Coffee Houses, the Vienna City Card will save you a few Euros. If you plan on getting one anyways make sure to check. If you’re looking for somewhere to stay in Vienna, I really enjoyed the Hostel Ruthensteiner for a chill hangout while Wombats was an interesting party hostel if you’re so inclined.
I’m still never made it to the Sacher or Landtmann or Grienstedl or Diglas, so I’ll definitely have to find my way back to Vienna to do so. They’re included on the map here for your reference, however, and be sure to tell me how they are if you drop by one of them!