Vienna is a city rich with culture and history, yet the fast-paced modern era pumps energy through its streets, creating a wonderful contrast of old and new. Tourists to the City of Music are bombarded with museums, palaces and concerts, and the urge to see everything is hard to resist. Yet there are places where time pauses and that rush to go, go, go! simply stops.
These sanctuaries of time are known as coffee shops. Scattered throughout Vienna, these calm cafés are places where hours pass like minutes.
It is there, tucked in the centuries-old coffee shops, where the true heart of Vienna can be found.
A Guide to Coffee Shops in Vienna
Vienna may not be the first city that comes to mind when thinking about coffee, but the bean-based brew is so essential to Viennese culture that its coffee houses were listed as “intangible cultural heritage” by UNESCO in 2011. The shops do more than serve caffeine; they are places where people meet to relax, read the paper, enjoy conversation or even have a bite to eat.
The relaxing atmosphere is so welcoming that I often found myself sitting for hours in a coffee shop sipping on melange (espresso served in a large cup with steamed milk and milk foam) while people-watching or writing. I adored the way coffee was served on silver platters, always with a glass of water, by servers wearing uniforms of white shirts, black ties and long, floor-length aprons.
One of my most memorable moments from Vienna was at Café Sperl, famous for being a favorite of Viennese writers, artists, composers and military officials since 1880. Its tiny, marble-topped tables and piles of newspapers from around the world are typical of coffee shops throughout the city.
I ordered a slice of gugelhupf (a Bundt cake with an almondy, cinnamony flavor) to nibble on with my melange, and stayed there enjoying myself so long that I didn’t even realize the warm, sunny day had evolved to rain.
At Café Central I ate the most delicious cheese strudel doused in warm vanilla sauce while I admired the decorative ceiling from 1876. The coffee shop, once famous for hosting Sigmund Freud, Adolf Hitler and Leon Trotsky all in the same month, is now better known for its food. It serves a full menu of traditional Viennese classics with an emphasis on exceptional pastries.
Demel, too, is now known more for its culinary confections than its coffee. The chocolaterie first opened in 1786 and has been in the same building since 1857, where the Demel family made pastries for the royal court of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The shop is somewhat of a tourist destination and waiting in line to enter is common, but chocolate cake I had there was more incredible than any other I’ve ever tasted. And I mean ever! (The melange was a perfect pairing, too.)
Although each bite of Demel’s chocolate cake sent a flurry of wonderful feelings through me, it’s not as famous as the sacher torte at Sacher Café in Hotel Sacher. The namesake pastry, a dense chocolate cake with a tiny layer of apricot jam covered with chocolate frosting traditionally served with a side of unsweetened whipped cream (“mit schlag“), was created at the hotel’s cafe in 1832 for the prince of Vienna.
The cafe has traditionally elegant decor with uniformed waiters and a full menu of Austrian food. The hotel, where Vivaldi once called home, is across the street from the Vienna Opera House and makes for a perfect post-performance pick-me-up. But be prepared to stand in line. After all, the sachertorte is one of Austria’s most famous exports.
The coffee culture in Vienna is such a contrast from the drive-through Starbucks style that we have in the United States. Coffee was not meant to be chugged while en route to the next errand. It was meant to be sipped and enjoyed, over conversation or contemplation, in a welcoming setting. Doing so makes life feel less hectic, and encourages reflection on what a beautiful world we live in. Especially when in Vienna.