Like Rome and Paris, Vienna is famous for its coffeehouse culture and which has been listed by UNESCO as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage’. The first coffee house was opened in 1685 and they peaked around the turn of the nineteenth century. Thye became centres of public life, both for living and working, and attracted many famous artists, scientists, and politicians for meetings and disucssion. In 1913, Hitler, Trotsky, Tito, Freud and Stalin were all in town at the same time, quite possibly in the same cafes. However, fast forward to 2018 and sadly I found some of these establishments to be overhyped tourist traps, although there were a couple I quite enjoyed. You’ll find everywhere I mention and more on my Google map.
First though, a few words about the kinds of coffee available. My coffee of choice was the famous Melange, similar to a cappuccino but without cocoa powder. It’s topped with half hot milk and half foamed milk. However, in some places whipped cream replaces the milk, in which case it’s known as a Franziskaner. If you want an Americano, ask for a Verlängerter (literally, “longer”). A plain coffee with cream is known as a Brauner, while an espresso or double espresso is referred to as a Schwartzer. A Mozart is a true dessert in its own right; a double espresso served with a big mound of whipped cream and with a small glass of sherry on the side.
Café Sacher (Advanced B+), in the Hotel Sacher, 4 Philharmoniker Strasse, www.sacher.com
As the home of the world-famous Sacher-Torte, a chocolate sponge cake made with here with two layers of marille marmelade (apricot jam) and topped with chocolate icing, this is the tourist trap par excellence. It has to be experienced once though, but probably not for a second time.
You can expect to queue for up to twenty minutes on a busy day. Is it worth the wait? Not really. I liked the café’s classic interior but I’m not really a fan of the cake. I find it too dry (the squirty cream helps but proper whipped cream would be better) and it’s too sweet while simultaneously not being chocolatey enough. But, you should to go and try it to make your own mind up.
Café Sacher was engaged in ‘the cake war’, a nine-year legal battle which they fought with Café Demel (below) over who could use the expression ‘the original Sacher-Torte’. The tiff ended in 1963 when both parties agreed that Hotel Sacher could use ‘the original’ but Demel would be allowed to decorate its cakes with a triangular seal bearing the name of the original inventor Eduard-Sacher-Torte. He worked at both establishments which lead to the competing claims. It was worth the fight as the Sacher brand now sells 360,000 a year, compared to Demel’s 67,500. Their recipe is a closely guarded secret for this reason.
It’s best eaten with a Melange or black tea. A Melange and a single slice of Sacher-Torte cost me a hefty €12.80.
Café Demel (Advanced A), 14 Kohlmarkt, www.demel.com
If you’re an obsessive completist like me, then of course you have to go and eat the Sacher-Torte at Demel as well, even if you’re not a big fan of the cake.
The café itself is in the backroom as the their primary business is as a patisserie and chocolatier (once patronised by the Viennese royal family).
I enjoyed the experience more here as I didn’t have to wait and there are beautiful displays to look at…
…as well as a glass walled kitchen where you can see the cake-making production line.
Unfortunately my second experience of the famous cake just confirmed that the Sacher-Torte is not for me. Unlike the Café Sacher, Café Demel only uses one layer of apricot jam, otherwise it was pretty indistinguishable (slightly sweeter perhaps?), right down to the unwelcome squirty cream which really takes away from the presentation. It’s a shame they can’t whip up a fresh batch of Chantilly but that would be more labour intensive, and expensive.
Other cakes for sale include the Pralinen, Senegal, Truffle, Sand, and Maximilian tortes, as well as Gugelhupfs (cream-filled horns).
Café Central (Advanced A), Herrengasse 14, www.cafecentral.wien, open Monday to Saturday from 7:30am to 10pm, Sunday 10am to 10pm.
Central is the most famous of all the cafes in Vienna. Dating from 1876, it’s one of only a few tourist trap cafes that I would actually recommend, simply because of the beautiful interior with its elegant arches, marble columns and parquet flooring.
Legend has it that Freud, Lenin and Trotsky all liked to stop in here for refreshments.
From the many desserts on display, I chose a slab of Altenbergtorte which is with white, dark and milk chocolate mousse (much nicer than Sachertorte)…
…and married it with a glass of Shockolade Amaretto (both A).
Total cost €12. You should expect to queue at busy times but I only waited about ten minutes or so.
Café Prückel (Intermediate A), 24 Stubenring, www.prueckel.at
As I say, I’m not a big fan of many of the tired formal cafes in Vienna but I make an exception for this classic coffee lounge with its beautiful 1950s interior and tuxedo-clad waiters. It was added to the UNESCO Cultural Heritage list in 2011.
The atmosphere is very relaxing with a friendly pianist tickling the ivories and smiling at the customers.
The service from my young waiter was rather lacklustre but I’m sure he was an aberration.
They do a very good Apfelstrudel for dessert here, unusually served without cream or custard, unless you ask for it. Apfelstrudel is a classic Viennese cake cake made with a light pastry dough and filled with apples, sugar, raisins, lemon, rum, cinnamon, and cloves and garnished with breadcrumbs mixed with nuts and a dusting of icing sugar.
It cost me €11 with a melange and a glass of schnapps.
Café Diglas (High Intermeidate B+), Wollzeile 10, www.diglas.at, open daily from 7am to 11pm
Another nice old café with a piano player and original fittings dating from 1934. It’s defintely worth a visit if you’re passing but don’t make a special trip. I can recommend their Muscatel wine (A) and there are a few good drier options too (B).
Café Sperl (Intermediate B+), 11 Gumpendorferstrasse, www.cafesperl.at, open Monday to Saturday 7am to 11pm and Sunday 11am to 8pm (closed on Sundays July to August)
Sperl is another classic coffeehouse, unusual in that it has remained unchanged since it opened in 1880. The original fin de siècle decoration is still in situ.
In 1998 it was designated “Austria’s best coffeehouse of the year.” I had a decent breakfast here on my way to the gallery quarter.
Café Landtmann (Advanced B+), 4 Universitätsring, www.landtmann.at, open daily from 7:30am to midnight (lunch 11:30 till 3, dinner 5 till 11)
This is yet another venerable institution, dating from the 1880s, and favoured by the celebrities of the age. It was Freud’s favourite apparently.
I just popped in for a glass of wine so can’t really say much about it. There are lots of different seating areas ranging from large rooms to smaller nooks. The service was friendly.
A couple of places I think it’s best to avoid:
Café Mozart (Intermediate C), 2 Albertinaplatz, www.cafe-mozart.at
A famous yet faded institution, hugely popular with tourists. It’s on the main road, just around the corner from the Hotel Sacher, and opposite the Vienna State Opera House. It gets a mention in The Third Man, Graham Greene’s famous novel set in Vienna, as it was hugely popular with celebrity intellectuals and artists throughout the 19th century. However, neither the food nor the interior make it worth bothering with in my opinion.
They are known for their Goulash (Hungarian paprika stew) and their Apfelstrudel. I went in for the strudel and it was okay (B) but swimming in a pool of unrequested custard (C).
Café Hawelka, formerly Café Leopold, (Intermediate C), 6 Dorotheergasse 6, www.hawelka.at
A famous café dating from the 1930s. In the 50s and 60s it attracted notable intellectuals and artists like Andy Warhol and Arthur Miller though I have no idea why. The interior has retained many of its original features such as the marble tables and Thornet armchairs but it feels very tired and worn. You can safely leave it out if you’re short of time.
I had a Puntigammer Brandy here for €4.40 which was okay (B). The waiter was very nice and there’s a terrace for sunny days.
Café Goldegg (Intermediate C), 49 Argentinierstraße, www.cafegoldegg.at
A faded old Art Deco establishment with a pleasant atmosphere. Handy for the station, but not worth a detour.
The service was good and I had a well-made cheese and ham omelette (B) and a couple of melange coffees for €15.
There are more cafes but I think I got most of the important ones. My views are of course entirely subjective, you might have very different experiences, but hopefully this brief guide will save you some time.
Moving down market to the hotdog stands next!