Kaiser, Kitsch und Kaffee in Vienna
Uncovering the Viennese coffee tradition
There is no doubt about it. Vienna is a magnificent place. It’s majestic, beautiful and very, very posh. It’s the living monument to many centuries of Habsburg rule, which was undoubtedly one of Europe’s most important royal houses. The city is so full of palaces that you half expect the ghosts of Kaiser Franz Joseph and Kaiserin Sisi to pass you by in one of the many horse carriages that line the city’s streets. I couldn’t help but think that Vienna probably looks like what some German cities like Berlin, Dresden, Königsberg and Munich would have looked like if they hadn’t been flattened by two world wars.
Despite being a large capital city, I have never come across anyone who said: “Let’s go to Vienna for a crazy rave”. Although I am sure it also has its fair share of underground techno parties, it is by no means a rival to its bigger sister to the North.
No, what Vienna is known for is its unrivaled arts culture, which lives through its many museums, theaters and the world famous Wiener Staatsoper. On this trip I even had the unique opportunity to attend the world premiere of Rossini’s La Cenerentola (Cinderella), which was quite frankly, pretty amazing.
And what to do with all these artists and intellectuals, you might ask? Well, start a legendary caffe culture is the answer.
What pubs are to the English and beer gardens are to Bavarians, Kaffeehäuser are to the Viennese. Following a sharp decline in the 1950’s & 60’s following the rising popularity of television and Italian style Espresso bars, Vienna’s coffee houses have experienced a renewed interest in recent years from both locals as well as tourists. In 2011 The Viennese Coffee Culture was even listed as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by an Austrian agency linked to UNESCO. Great news for people like me because the ones that are left are really thriving.
Despite the fact that the coffee itself is not necessarily what I would call “specialty coffee” (the three specialty coffee shops that I had researched are closed on weekends. Boohoo!) and on some occasions tasted pretty poor you actually really go to a Kaffeehaus to experience the unique atmosphere, to have some food, to people watch and to forget about time. Therefore, no visit to Vienna is complete without visiting at least 2-3 of these unique establishments. Here’s a run-down of the ones that I managed to visit:
This is one of Vienna’s most pompous cafes, which has counted Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud and even Adolf Hitler as its guests. Like almost all other cafes, waiters wear black suits with bow ties and there’s plenty of cakes, Viennese food and coffee specialties to choose from. The quality of the Wiener Melange is not always the great. This one was actually rather bad (despite my silly face). If you’re feeling peckish you should try the Frittatensuppe, which is a lovely broth with thinly sliced pancakes. Oh how Viennese!
Technically, if you don’t have cake with your coffee, you’re cheating. But you’re forgiven if you don’t. They are, after all, very very rich. One thing that is true across the board is that the coffee is usually really expensive. But, buy one drink and you can stay all day. No one will ask you toorder more.
Probably one of Vienna’s coziest coffee houses, Hawelka is a family institution that feels more like an English pub than a cafe. My sister and I got a table at the back where some locals were enjoying one or two beers too many (it was 3 pm). What amused me the most was that I could hardly understand a word they were saying. Viennese German at it’s best! In German I would describe this cafe as being very “urig”, which can be roughly translated as “rustic”. You just want to get your book out and read for hours.
When I walked into this cafe I felt like I walked through a time portal, back to the 1960’s with their cheap decor, ugly lamps and plastic chairs. Although it seems more like the lounge of an old train station, you immediately felt a sense of comfort. They’re famous for their Apfelstrudel, which did look very tempting. Sadly I was already full from eating too much cake at the other cafes. There’s only this much that fits into my little body 😉
As my neighbour got up to leave I asked him how long he had been sitting there. He said: “I came about 3 hours ago to do a bit of reading. Then I did some work, had some dinner, drank a beer and now I’m going home”. What a life!
This little gem of a cafe, located slightly off the beaten track on the Franziskaner Platz is the smallest and most unassuming place I visited. Unfortunately it was also really packed so I didn’t end up having a coffee here but from what I was told, it’s quite “rock’n’roll”.
One final note: If you’ve been wondering what a Wiener Melange is, I want to quote the waiter at Hawelka who said to my sister, after she ordered a Cappuccino: “Lady, we don’t do Cappuccinos. They’re called Wiener Melange here”.
Have you been to any of the above cafes? What did you think? Which one was your favourite? Please do leave a comment and share your views.