Of the things to do in Vienna, visiting a traditional Viennese coffeehouse tends to be one of the most popular. Drinking coffee in Vienna is an experience on its own which is why so many tourists are keen to see what it’s like. It’s more than just coffee and cake in a cafe, it’s an institution, an ingrained part of the local culture.
Now, I haven’t put together a guide to Vienna’s best cafes, mainly because it would look an awful lot like this fantastic one. But beyond finding where to go, there are a few things you should know before wading into this whirlpool of melange and sachertorte. So instead of a cafe guide, I thought I would help you navigate some of the complexities of this beloved Viennese ritual. If you want to make the most of getting coffee in Vienna and come away happy and caffeinated, here’s some things you really ought to know.
1. Coffee with a Dash of Formality
With a long sense of tradition, a visit to a Vienna coffeehouse is likely to be a tad more formal than you’re used to. At first it might seem unsettling to see a waiter approach, dressed in a waistcoat and bow tie. Coupled with the grand decor inside many of these cafes, it would be understandable if you felt out-of-place in such a refined place. Marble columns, chandeliers and vaulted ceilings will do that, you know? The truth though, is that you’re perfectly welcome as you are to experience this cherished Viennese custom.
The formal nature of getting coffee in Vienna extends beyond what the waiter wears of course. For instance, you’ll find that these cafes always have table service and you’re expected to wait at your table rather than come to the counter. Then there’s the silver trays on which your coffee is brought out to you. There are the little things to the experience as well, like the way your teaspoon is placed over your glass of water to indicate that is has recently been filled. Yes, as in many places in Europe, you will always be given a small glass of water for after you’ve finished your coffee.
Ultimately, expect drinking coffee in Vienna to feel more elaborate than you’re used to, but in a good way. There’s a reason it’s a quintessential local experience after all.
2. Expect a Long List of Different Coffees
For first timers to a Vienna cafe, figuring out what to drink can actually be a challenge of sorts. That’s because you’ll be overwhelmed with coffee names you’re not familiar with and have to work out what you might actually like to order. Beyond espressos and cappuccinos, many drinks will actually be fairly familiar, but will bear names wholly different to what you’re used to.
Rest assured, the drinks available will still be totally traditional – you won’t hear the words frappe or pumpkin spice here – just slight and interesting variants on what you’re used to. To help you along, I’ll explain a few of the more common ones. My regular drink is a verlängerter, which like an americano, is an espresso with hot water and a small side of milk. Another favourite is the melange, which is essentially a verlängerter with frothed milk and minutely different to a cappuccino. Then there are the drinks like the einspänner and fiaker that are both topped with whipped cream, although the fiaker also has a shot of rum in it as well.
Yes, it may come as a surprise but you’ll likely find a long list of alcoholic coffees on many cafe menus too, under the “specialties” section. Not content with adding whipped cream to their cuppa, the Viennese often add all sorts of liqueurs and spirits to their drinks. Whether rum, whisky or Mozart liqueur is added, these coffees are great during winter as they’ll warm you to your core.
3. Coffee is Ingrained in Vienna’s History
Coffee may seem like a modern addiction in the west, but for Vienna it has been a part of the culture since the first coffee-house opened in 1683. Vienna wasn’t the first city to develop a love of coffee but that doesn’t make the bond here any less strong. Having spent centuries going to coffeehouses, you can understand how drinking coffee in Vienna has become a tradition or custom for locals. Given the ambiance and lively social atmosphere felt inside some coffeehouses, I’m glad to see this custom of getting coffee has survived all these years.
Much like the act of getting coffee, some coffeehouses have managed to weather the test of time. The oldest running cafe in Vienna is Cafe Frauenhuber, which has operated from its premises on Himmelpfortgasse since 1824. Many others have lasted almost as long, from Cafe Sacher Wien opened in 1832, to Cafe Hawelka that has been run by the same family since 1945. Beyond their advanced age, part of the popularity of these places is that many famous people visited these coffeehouses in the past. Mozart and Beethoven performed for patrons in the salon of Cafe Frauenhuber. Cafe Central had a long list of renowned regulars, including names such as Freud, Trotsky and Lenin.
Visiting these places is more than just getting coffee, it’s experiencing a long-held tradition that also crossed paths with some very influential people.
4. A Love of Coffee Chains
I don’t know whether it’s a coffee snob thing, a Melbourne thing or what, but I know many people who look down on coffee chains. I’ve certainly visited quite a few on my travels, but would agree that they can feel soulless and offer a lower quality of coffee and food on occasion. For a city with such a proud coffee tradition though, Vienna doesn’t seem to have a problem with coffee chains, as long as they’re local franchises.
While the city centre of Vienna does have a couple of Starbucks, the locals chains are far more common and popular. You don’t need to go far in Vienna to come across an Aida or Oberlaa cafe, the city’s two largest cafe chains. You can also bet that these cafes will be just as busy with locals as any of the big name independent coffeehouses. What’s more, the cake and coffee tastes just as good as any of the historic establishments. As for the Starbucks in the city, you’re most likely to find only tourists or younger students inside and little of the typical Viennese ambience inside.
5. It’s Not the Same Without Food
Getting coffee in Vienna – or Austria for that matter – rarely means just having a cup of coffee. As you enter any cafe in Vienna, you’ll surely pass the large cake display full of cakes, crumbles, strudels and cream slices. In Vienna, a coffee looks lonely if it doesn’t have a slice of something sweet by its side. I’m sure it’s a cultural custom that most people will happily get behind.
Perhaps the hardest part though is the decision of which cake to have. Once you’ve gotten a table, it’s perfectly normal to return to the cake display and make the painstaking choice. Some cafes like Gertsner actually evolved from bakeries for the Emperor, which explains their strong focus on cakes and desserts. You will find that each cafe tends to have their own signature cake, like the famous sachertorte from Cafe Sacher. Some staples that always seem to be on display include the classic apple strudel, topfentorte – a baked cheesecake, kardinalschnitte – a sponge slice, and Esterházy torte – a layered almond cake.
Most traditional Viennese coffee houses don’t just do solely cafe and coffee, they generally offer restaurant-style main meals as well. Visit during lunch and you’ll see just as many people having soup and schnitzel as coffee. Essentially, you could spend all day and eat all your meals in these cafes, speaking of…
6. Stay As Long As You Like
In Vienna, there are really two types of places you can get coffee from: a place that does “To-Go Coffee” and a Viennese cafe. If you want coffee to go, you’re best off finding a street cart or a more modern-style cafe that has “coffee to go” written in the window. So it’s certainly possible to get coffee to go in Vienna, just not at a typical Viennese coffeehouse. No, these places are definitely a “sit-down kind of place” and not a place for somebody who’s in a rush. Vienna coffeehouses are reminders of a bygone era before the modern age of quick convenience.
In fact, rather than quickly rushing you to make way for new customers, it’s generally accepted in Viennese cafes to stay as long as you like. Once you’ve made a purchase, you’re welcome to take your time. You’ll regularly see groups spend hours chatting away inside long after their cup is empty. Just as common is to see a lone person reading a book or sitting with a newspaper on a stick, an amenity long offered in Vienna. Interestingly, you’ll see few people using technology or working, as Viennese cafes are more for socializing and relaxing. So take your time and enjoy the atmosphere of the coffeehouse free of any worries of being hurried or hassled.
7. Get Ready to Queue
One thing I can’t get used to with Vienna’s most recognised cafes is that they often have a decent line of people waiting out the door. Popular establishments like Café Central, Café Sacher and Demel each regularly have queues that only get worse on weekends. While some are tourists who want to experience a Viennese cafe, you’ll still find plenty of locals held up in these queues too. Each of these places does have reason to draw in big crowds but they’re certainly not the only place to get coffee in Vienna. It’s perhaps best to think of these popular spots like great brunch places.
Ironically, each time I tried to get a photo of any of these cafes with a queue outside, there were none. And yet, I myself have waited in line several times for Cafe Central. To avoid lines, consider either arriving at these places before 11am, or instead an evening visit after 6pm. Many are open quite late which is fine if you’re more into the ambience or signature food than a pick me up.