Traditional Viennese coffee is served on a silver tray with a glass of water. // © 2014 Creative Commons user MiiiSH
Austria’s love affair with coffee dates back to the late 1600s, when Ottoman Turkish forces in Vienna fled from a surprise attack and left behind hundreds of sacks of green coffee beans in their haste. Legend has it that Franz Georg Kolschitzky — the same man credited for helping the Austrians defeat the Turkish invaders — soon after opened the first Viennese coffee house, The Blue Bottle.
Hundreds of years later, Viennese coffeehouse culture is such an integral part of Austrian life and history that it was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2011, and today’s coffeehouses, from the fancy to the casual, are still brimming with guests.
“You have to remember that, until recently, most of the people in Europe lived in pretty small apartments,” said Peter Katz, director Western U.S.A. for the Austrian Tourist Office. “You didn’t have a big living room and a pool and garden. People wanted to get out and one of the places they could go to socialize, people watch and eat cake for an affordable price was the coffeehouse.”
According to Katz, artists, scientists and politicians would often gather at their favorite coffeehouses — some were at a particular coffeehouse so often that they had their mail delivered there. At the time, inviting guests over to one’s house wasn’t customary. Instead, you met at the coffeehouse and talked or debated intellectual ideas over coffee and pastries served on a silver tray.
“There are certain coffeehouses that haven’t changed since 1920, and there are modern coffeehouses that appeal to the younger generations,” said Katz. “The main thing is that all of them are social meeting places, just as they have been for generations. At three or four o’clock, having coffee and cake became a fixture, a routine, and 100 years ago you would dress up for the outing. And while it was a more refined experience, anyone could partake. It was the great democratizing institution.”
Following are five Viennese coffeehouses to visit for a taste of the city’s coffeehouse culture.
Opened in 1936 by Leopold and Josefine Hawelka, Cafe Hawelka is known for its carefully preserved decor and famous Buchteln, sweet rolls filled with jam. When the couple first opened the shop they made coffee on a wood-burning stove fueled with logs Leopold would gather himself from the Vienna Woods.
“Cafe Hawelka is an institution,” Katz said. “Historically it was the artists’ hangout, and before new smoking laws were passed it was one of those bars that you went into and couldn’t see more than one foot in front of you because of the smoke. But that was part of the atmosphere. Everyone knew each other, and it was a cozy.”
Today, visitors can sit in the same Thonet chairs around marble tables that guests have used for decades. Be sure to peruse the wall of posters advertising current art exhibitions and performances, as well as the wall that showcases a collection of art made by cafe guests.
This elegant, upscale coffeehouse adjacent the Burgtheater and City Hall has welcomed patrons since 1873, Sigmund Freud and Max Reinhardt among them. Whether customers dine indoors or on the spacious outdoor patio, they are certain to experience the refined service that has made Cafe Landtmann an absolute must-visit when in Vienna. Austrian fare beyond coffees and cakes is also available here.
“Being a waiter in a famous coffeehouse such as Cafe Landtmann is a very prestigious profession,” said Katz. “If you work at a Starbucks in the U.S., you’re likely a student or someone waiting to find a ‘real’ job. But in Austria, to be a waiter in a cafe is a career — you have to be an apprentice for quite awhile and you are trained in hospitality. They’re very proud, similar to how waiters in certain Parisian cafes are known to be a little huffy. You’re part of a play, really.”
Fine homemade pastries and Austrian cuisine and exquisite architecture have drawn guests to Cafe Central since its inception 1876, including writer and poet Peter Altenburg, Marxist theorist Leon Trotsky and architect Adolf Loos. Today early risers can munch on a la carte breakfast items that range from croissants to cold cuts and cheeses. For lunch, a changing weekly menu offers Viennese specialties such as goulash and Wienerschnitzel. The cafe’s apple strudel or famous Kaiserschmarrn pancake are great at any time of day.
“I recently visited Cafe Central with a group of Virtuoso travel agents, and there was a line into the street just to eat lunch,” said Katz. “Shops like this one have become a main part of the overall Vienna experience.”
Cafe Sperl, opened in 1880, is another example of a traditional Viennese coffeehouse. Prior to World War I, the cafe was a second home to artists, military personnel and government officials, including archdukes Josef Ferdinand and Karl Ferdinand — a mingling of social circles that is characteristic of most Vienna coffeehouses.
Thonet chairs, marble dining tables and billiards tables fill the restored interior of Cafe Sperl, where savvy guests linger over the Sperl torte, a creamy cake of milk chocolate, cinnamon, vanilla and almond paste. Of course, the recipe is a secret. Other snacks and long menus of pastries, coffee and tea are also available.
Demel is Vienna’s most famous pastry and chocolate shop, and it’s also a terrific place to spend an hour or two over Viennese coffee and friendly conversation. Servers here have been exclusively female for 200 years. Known as Demelinerinnen by the Viennese, the ladies wear black uniforms with hints of white showing and speak to customers in the third person, a tradition that imbues the experience with a sense of formality characteristic of earlier times.
If visitors don’t have time to sit in Demel’s Rococo-style salons, a stroll past the shop’s sidewalk window display is also a treat, showcasing the bakers’ artful sweets and enticing hungry passersby.