To visit Vienna is to experience a slice of imperial history and be transported back to when the city was one of the leading metropolises in the world. It is a city that set trends, anointed the wealthy and invented cultural phenomena. It is also famous for its coffee houses (Kaffeehäuser), often top-notch eateries serving hearty Austrian fare. In fact, so integral is coffee culture to the Viennese identity that coffee-house owners have their own waltz ball – the Kaffeesiederball.

The Sachertorte at Café Sacher
The Sachertorte at Café Sacher © Hotel Sacher

Viennese café culture was an integral part of the empire’s cultural export. When the city flourished in the 19th century, it became an unmissable stop for the continent’s rich and famous, and the Viennese Kaffeehäuser – with their grand, spacious rooms, red leathered seating, exquisite chandeliers, newspaper stands and billiards tables – sprung up across the domain. Vienna is not the pioneer of café culture in Europe – that title belongs to Venice, where the continent’s first coffee house was established in 1647 – but the Viennese Kaffeehaus remains distinct and, some would argue, unsurpassed. Vienna’s coffee houses are stately, subdued, sophisticated. They were not only made for socialising but also to read, to write and to contemplate the world. They became the primary place for the city’s intelligentsia to gather. As Stefan Zweig wrote, “The Viennese Café is an institution of a special kind which is not comparable to any other in the world.”

Café Central, founded in 1876
Café Central, founded in 1876 © Café Central/Verkehrsbuero
Inside Café Central
Inside Café Central © Café Central/Verkehrsbuero

Most visitors to Vienna will have heard of Café Central and Café Sacher, the classic, grand coffee houses from the Habsburg times. In that same vein is Demel, opened in 1786 and nestled on the famous Kohlmarkt, the premier luxury shopping street that stretches all the way to the Hofburg. Few places in Vienna are better representatives of the experience than Demel, with its palatial dining room that feels straight out of the royal palace next door. This KuK Hofzuckerbäckerei, a designation for official suppliers of confectionery products to the Habsburg court, is such a cultural institution that the Viennese have come up with a word for Demel’s waitresses – “Demelineren”. Home to the violet sorbet and famed for its Kaiserschmarrn (a shredded pancake) and its dazzling range of Kuchen, from Sachertorte to Marmorguglhupf (a marbled cake with a hole in the middle), this was one of Empress Sisi’s favourite confiserie. Even the Emperor Franz Joseph I himself was a frequent patron, writing his private letters from this royally appointed establishment.

Demel, located on Kohlmarkt since it was founded in 1786
Demel, located on Kohlmarkt since it was founded in 1786 © @demel_wien
Annatorte and passionfruit cakes at Demel
Annatorte and passionfruit cakes at Demel © @demel_wien

Not far from Karlsplatz, Café Sperl has less of the monarchical sheen but is nonetheless a city landmark. Built in 1880, it was one of the favourite haunts of artists, musicians and military officers during the city’s golden age, including Archdukes Josef and Karl Ferdinand. Seven founding members of the Vienna Secession movement had their first meeting here, a sign of its cultural significance. The café’s Apfelstrudel with fresh cream was a delight when paired with the classic Viennese melange, a milder Austrian variant of cappuccino. Then I sat by the window, read, and watched Viennese life pass by.

The façade of Café Sperl
The façade of Café Sperl © Café Sperl
Marble tables and parquet floors at Café Sperl
Marble tables and parquet floors at Café Sperl © Café Sperl

Café Sperl is an archetype of the cafés on the Ringstrasse, most of which date from the late 19th and early 20th century. The circular marble tables, the bentwood chairs, the parquet floors and the pocketless carambole billiard tables are all hallmarks of the more bourgeois-facing coffee houses. For those looking for a similar atmosphere, pay a visit to Café Landtmann, a one-time rendezvous spot for figures such as Gustav Mahler, Max Reinhardt and Sigmund Freud. 

Café Landtmann in 1978
Café Landtmann in 1978... © ArchivLandtmann
Café Landtmann in the present day
...and in the present day © Nuriel Molcho

At Café Prückel, my Austrian friend from the ministry for digital and economic affairs introduces me to the Vienna of the 1950s. Its decor is diner-style, with neon signs and tall mirror panels. This is a Kaffeehaus for the locals: the clientele here is an amalgamation of students and young business professionals. I ordered a Topfenstrudel, its flaky layers filled with lemon- and vanilla-flavoured farmer’s cheese and drenched in custard. Another classic to be checked off an extensive list.

Café Prückel, a throwback to the 1950s
Café Prückel, a throwback to the 1950s
Newspapers for customers at Café Prückel
Newspapers for customers at Café Prückel

At Vollpension, the coffee house becomes a venue for pensioners to find employment, re-engage with society and feel self-empowered. With cakes almost exclusively made by retired seniors, it is making a name as the “granny’s café” and is rapidly becoming a favourite among locals eager to support their cause. It also helps that they serve excellent cakes and desserts, including its signature yeast buns with vanilla sauce. 

Outdoor seating at Café Europa
Outdoor seating at Café Europa © Ana Laura Santos Ribeiro
English breakfast and spinach dumplings at Café Europa
English breakfast and spinach dumplings at Café Europa © Pia Pauli

I ended my tour at Café Europa, a boisterous but chic establishment that offers Viennese staples such as beef goulash and Apfelstrudel until the early hours. People come for birthdays, date nights and pre-drinks. You can eat a final Apfelstrudel at 4am, and then digest with drink and conversation that runs all through the night.

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