Up until last week, I didn’t think that I would like Vienna – I’m neither a fan of opera nor classical music; I don’t like overly decorative architecture that reminds me of wedding cakes or Disneyland; my attention span in museums can be rather short. After spending a few days in Vienna, I’ve changed my mind. I actually like Vienna enough to want to visit the city again!
I was in Vienna for work and only managed to explore the area around the Ringstraße (Ring Road) as the hotel that I was staying in was located along the boulevard. In spite of my brief stay, I saw some excellent exhibitions and collections at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Museum for Applied Arts (MAK) – more to come on these – as well as experienced Vienna’s coffee house culture.
Often referred to as the city’s “public living rooms”, the coffee houses in Vienna are typically located in ornate salons and are integral to the way of life in the Austrian capital. So much so that the Viennese coffee house culture has been included in the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage since 2011.
Dating back to the late 17th century, there are certain elements that distinguish this unique culture: From the design and furnishings (marble-top tables, bentwood chairs) to the menu (breakfast, coffee served with a glass of water), as well as the waiters’ attire and providing guests with newspapers and entertainment (live piano music, billiard tables). But of course, the coffee house culture goes beyond just the physical attributes and relates also to the ambiance and how people spend their time here, be it reading, chatting with friends or playing chess.
In the three days in Vienna, I visited three coffee houses, each with a distinct design and personality.
Café Prückel @ 24 Stubenring
I had dinner at Café Prückel after visiting MAK, which is just across the road from it. Here, I met a pair of friendly locals (Wolfgang and Eve) that I had bumped into at the museum and so I joined them for food and drinks. Eve didn’t speak English so Wolfgang sat between us and translated questions and comments. The café has been in operation for more than a century and was last renovated in the 1950’s, and its interior is completely reminiscent of the latter era. I was busy chatting with Wolfgang and Eve and didn’t take any photos except for the one below that was taken with my Blackberry. I’d love to pop by here again, in the daytime as it looks remarkably different in natural light.
Trivia: The family-run café is frequented mostly by locals who are considered to be part of the ‘avant-garde’ set.
Café Sperl @ 11 Gumpendorfer Straße
The following day, I was at Café Sperl and lunch was a simple schnittlauchbrot (buttered bread with chives) with a fried egg served atop it, followed by coffee and an apfelstrudel (applestrudel). Everything was delicious! The decor is reminiscent of what I’d associate with traditional Viennese style – elegant Jugendstil touches, crystal chandeliers hanging from the high ceilings and an intimate, cosy air.I was in a slight hurry to get back to the hotel to catch up for work, but eventually gave in to the unhurried pace at Café Sperl, which I found quite charming and wished I could linger longer in my window seat and read more of Man with a Blue Scarf (which I picked up at the excellent Lucian Freud exhibition at Kunsthistorisches Museum).
Trivia: The telephone scene between Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy in Before Sunrise was filmed here.
Café Central @ 14 Herrengasse
On the third day, I was with a group of journalists on a walking tour along the Ringstraße. While there was no snow, it was rather frosty and windy, and we opted to have an early coffee break at Café Central. This is one of the city’s most famous coffee houses and has always been a popular meeting venue for Viennese society – including Stefan Zweig, Sigmund Freud, Adolf Loos and Peter Altenberg – and international personalities such as Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin since 19. The café was buzzing when we arrived and I imagine that the chatter was further amplified by the high arched ceilings. We tried the classic Mélange (half espresso, half milk) and had our fill of pre-lunch sweets with Sacher torte, chocolate cake, etc. Suffice to say, we warmed up nicely in Café Central.
Trivia: Café Central, a meeting point of academics and artists in the early 20th century, was the inspiration for the “Chestnut Tree Café“, a gathering place for thought criminals in George Orwell’s 1984.
For more information about Vienna’s coffee houses:
Everything that you might need to know – from the ‘state of mind’ to different Viennese coffees
Traditional coffee houses, according to the Vienna Tourism Board, in the Old City
Cafés in a class of their own – The Daily Telegraph recommends 10 favourite coffee houses
Saving the Vienna Coffee Houses – Travel + Leisure finds out how the 300-year-old cultural institution retains its spirit while remaining relevant in contemporary times