Winter is the perfect time to relish coffee as it was meant to be enjoyed: in the grandeur of Vienna's legendary coffeehouses
Winter in Vienna rightly conjures up images of Christmas markets and the magical Fasching (Ball Season), but for me, shorter days and falling temperatures provide an ideal excuse to relive the opulence of fin de siecle Vienna in the comfort of the city’s famed coffeehouses, while indulging my passion for real coffee.
To enjoy Vienna’s coffeehouses to the full, you also need to sample as many different types of coffee as possible. The Viennese drink twice as much coffee as beer, but few actually ever order a straight kaffee. And while coffeehouses are rightly renowned for their range of confectionery, their amazing variety of coffees is less well known.
The traditional coffeehouse, with its unhurried atmosphere, attentive waiters and secessionist architecture, is a world away from the frenetic, food-to-go mentality of British high street coffee outlets, with their ubiquitous frothy milky drinks. So, ensure you consign your tepid latte and its polystyrene cup to the nearest bin, before enjoying coffee the way it was meant to be – strong, with or without cream, sometimes with a warming shot of alcohol, but always in a china cup, along with a glass of water and mouth-watering pastry.
I headed first to Café Central (1 Herrengasse 14; www.ferstel.at). Emerging from the nearby Herrengasse U-Bahn station, the grandeur of the buildings gives some idea of Vienna’s historic power and influence. With its unrivalled location at the junction of Herrengasse and Strauchgasse, Café Central is usually considered to be the most famous of all Viennese cafés and was once the meeting-place of literary intellectuals and famous socialists, including Leon Trotsky. Restored to its former glory in the 1980s, it retains its air of Hapsburg glamour, with a beautiful vaulted ceiling. Arriving mid-morning, I ordered a Traditionelles Weiner Fruhstuck (classic Viennese breakfast with impeccably soft-boiled eggs, rolls and preserves) perfectly set off by an invigorating Brauner (black coffee with a spot of cream). At just under seven euros, this breakfast represents good value in such a tourist magnet as Café Central. Coffee, like everything else in Vienna, is not cheap but, given the quality and diversity on offer, the three to four euros generally charged in traditional coffeehouses compares well with prices in the multinational outlets.
While some coffeehouses were havens for writers and political leaders, others were patronised by famous musicians. A short stroll across the Innere Stadt, past the Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral) took me to Café Frauenhuber (1, Himmelpfortgasse 6; www.cafe-frauenhuber.at), the oldest coffeehouse in the city. As I sunk into the plump burgundy upholstery I tried to imagine its most famous former pianist, Beethoven, playing for the regulars. Fiaker is another Viennese speciality coffee and its rich roast, merged with whipped cream and rum, felt entirely appropriate in this atmospheric café that also hosted Mozart's last public performance on March 4th, 1791.
No trip to Vienna is complete without visiting Demel (1, Kohlmarkt 14; www.demel.at). Situated just behind the Michaelerplatz in elegant Kohlmarkt, Demel’s windows are, perhaps, as well known as its cakes and coffee. Here, the skill and beauty of the confectioner’s art are displayed, often illustrating topical events. Inside its gilded salon, the cake displays are equally legendary.
The day was mild and drizzly, but if your visit coincides with the first cold day of winter, in another of the café’s enduring traditions, you can join “the ladies of esteem and importance” and order a thick, sumptuous cup of hot chocolate. I stuck to a Kurz (Viennese espresso) to accompany my Topfenstrudel (strudel with sweet curd cheese filling) as I watched the master bakers draw and lay out the gossamer thin pastry used in all the varieties of this famous confection.
Part democratic club, part library, part refuge from the ills of the world, coffeehouses had become Vienna’s most important social institutions by the late nineteenth century, a period that also witnessed the Secessionist movement in art and architecture. So, by now, suffering from a serious caffeine and calorific hangover, I took a stroll around the Ringstrasse and MuseumsQuartier to check out some of the finest examples of this Art Nouveau (Jugendstil in German) design still evident in some of the city’s other coffeehouses.
Café Schottenring (1 Schottenring; www.cafe-schottenring.at) retains its original high stuccoed ceiling from 1879 and also sells a range of coffee beans, including its own classic, aromatic eponymous blend. After finding the famous Staatsoper (State Opera House; www.wiener-staatsoper.at), I wandered around the corner to Café Museum (1, Friedrichstrasse; www.cafe-museum.at) to study the simplicity of Alfred Loos’ décor. So avant-garde was his design in the early twentieth century, it was nicknamed Café Nihilism.
A brisk stroll to the MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Art; www.oesterreicherimmak.at) to look at the Jugendstil exhibits, including furniture from the Scottish Art Nouveau genius, Charles Rennie Mackintosh, revived my appetite. After gazing at the museum café’s marvellous coffered ceiling and enjoying a delicious “Tafelspitz“ (boiled prime beef with hash browns, apple horseradish, chive sauce and preserved wild cabbage) I decided a Pharisaer (glass of coffee, topped with whipped cream, with a little glass of rum on the side) was an appropriately indulgent way to round off my tour.
Where to stay
Ideally, every visitor to Vienna should experience the imperial grandeur of the Hotel Sacher Wien but if you can’t quite manage the room rate of 400-600 euros per night, then at least pop in for a coffee and a slice of the legendary, original Sachertorte.
For those on more realistic budgets, Hotel Lucia has large, clean en-suite rooms for around 50 euros per night, and helpful multi-lingual staff. It’s convenient for the Westbahnhof and a few moments from the Johnstrasse U-Bahn stop where, in minutes, Vienna’s ultra efficient, cheap public transport system will whisk you into the city centre.