A weekend in Vienna’s coffee houses (Wiener Kaffeehäuser)

September 4, 2013 at 8:47 am

A weekend in Amsterdam’s coffee shops is a tourist cliché. Turn up, shell out, skin up.

Wanna go and see the Van Gogh museum? Nah, I’m comfy here and the hot chocolate is lovely.

Time spent in Vienna’s coffee houses, on the other hand, will leave you full of energy. A sunny summer weekend offered Slip of the Tongue a chance to get a heavily caffeinated taste of Viennese café culture.

Einspanner at Cafe Landtmann
Einspanner Coffee at Café Landtmann

The tradition in these establishments (known as Kaffeehäuser – coffee houses) is to buy a cup of coffee, find a comfy corner and then sit for hours reading the newspaper, writing your novel or planning the revolution, while the waiters leave you to it, occasionally topping up your water. Modern Vienna is a hip, innovative city, but this is one treasure that has been gladly passed down through the generations.

Saturday 09:00

First impressions of Vienna: what an impressive city. When the Hapsburgs built something, they built it on a scale fit for an empire. A couple of centuries later, Vienna is the capital of a small but charming European country, and supposedly one of the world’s best cities to live in.

First stop is the Café Frauenhuber (Himmelpfortgasse 6) which claims to be the oldest coffee house in the city (legend has it both Mozart and Beethoven tickled the ivories in the building, although before it became a café). Some of the waiters look like they have been there since the early days.

Cafe Frauenhueber Breakfast

Breakfast at Café Frauenhuber is very traditional. You can order from an a la carte menu or there are some set breakfasts. Following the advice of my local expert, we combine the two, ordering a standard Austrian breakfast with rolls, jams and pâté, with an extra plate of meats and cheeses. The outside tables are small, so the waiter brings extra tables to load up with jams, cheeses, meats, eggs and so on. Tasty stuff.

The coffee drinking begins with a mélange – something like a cappuccino, with half espresso and half hot, frothy milk. It goes down very smoothly and I am ready to face the city.

Saturday 11:45

sacher vienna
Café Sacher waitresses at work

Walk past the Café Sacher – intimidated by the price of the Sachertorte in the window. Keep walking.

Saturday 12:00

Time for another coffee, this time at the Café Landtmann. My local guide says that this has become a tourist destination as opposed to an authentic Viennese café, but if it was good enough for Sigmund Freud…

cafe landtmann vienna

Because the weather is fine, the terrace is heaving. Most of the customers are, indeed, tourists.  But deep inside, in the gloomiest corners, there are the old guys, reading the newspaper and nursing empty coffee cups. Some of them might have actually been there when Freud would sit in his corner, thinking inappropriate thoughts about his mother.

Cake-o-rama

The cakes were particularly tempting. “Kaffee und Kuchen” is one Austrian tradition it is easy to love.

cafe landtmann vienna

At this point, it is appropriate to mention some of the different varieties of coffee available in Vienna.

Kleiner Schwarzer – small espresso

Mokka/Brauner – espresso with cream

Melange – can’t tell the difference between this and a cappuccino

Franziskaner – a melange with cream instead of milk

Verlängerter – stretched espresso, ie. a normal coffee

They always arrive with a little glass of water to refresh the palate.

Saturday 15:00

Next stop is Café Hawelka (Dorotheergasse 6). Another classic Viennese coffee house, this was the hangout of Vienna’s literary and artistic avant garde in the 1950s. Local legends like Friedensreich Hundertwasser (famous for the Hundertwasserhaus), Ernst Fuchs, Rudolf Hausner were joined by international visitors including Arthur Miller and Andy Warhol.

cafe hawelka vienna
Café Hawelka

It’s dark, but not especially dank in the Hawelka. There’s also a nice terrace where you can claim a corner and watch people go by for hours. According to UNESCO, Viennese Coffee House Culture is “Intangible Cultural Heritage”. The Viennese coffee house is described as a place “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”

The waiters so far have all been cut from the same cloth: they are curt and a little rude but in a nice way, if that makes sense. They occupy a unique place in Viennese heritage and many of them have apparently been working in the same cafes for decades.

My heart is a little livelier than usual after coffee number three, so this seems like a good time to sit down for a while and read the paper. They are clamped together for some reason, perhaps it helps to stabilize the paper in shaky caffeinated hands.

Saturday 20:00

In the early evening, as the sun goes down, the Museumsquartier is where the action happens. Young people flock to the wide, sunny central square to drink, people-watch and flirt. The weather is warm so the square is busy from the early evening until late.

Museumsquartier, Vienna
Museumsquartier at night

After a confusing moment ordering bitter chocolate ice cream in German (“Bitter bitte”), I take a seat and observe proceedings.

The square looks like the Southern European cities where students stay out on the streets until the early hours, but the Viennese version is strangely devoid of physical contact and hand gesturing.

Sunday 03:00

Cannot sleep. That last verlängerter was a mistake.

Sunday 10:00

I now actually really need a coffee. Huebler (Lorenz Bayer Platz 19) is a new kid on the block that has been recommended by my local guide. It was founded in 1955.

cafe huebler vienna
Hübler Kaffee Konditorei

This café is a tram ride away from the city centre, close to the Ottakringer brewery. It’s best known for its cakes, but this is also a prime place to sit down for breakfast. The sun is shining so the terrace calls.

Breakfast is almost identical to yesterday (the Austrians know what they like), the coffee is good and I am now ready for a full-on day in Vienna.

Sunday 11:00

Oh yes, everything is closed in Austria on Sundays.

Sunday 11:30

Well, not quite everything. The excellent museums are open. The Leopoldmuseum has a permanent collection of work by Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, which really gives you a feel for the city that Vienna was 100 years ago: one of the world’s most important artistic and intellectual centres.

Sunday 14:00

oktogon am himmel, Vienna

Now in need of some sunshine after spending most of a sunny weekend in dark coffee houses, the final stop is Oktagon Am Himmel, which is an octagonal restaurant a little way out of town to the north, where you can enjoy a panoramic view of the city. The fresh air helps. The fresh air is good.  I vow not to drink coffee again this week. But this was a thoroughly enjoyable, caffeine-fuelled weekend in Austria’s capital.

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