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Vienna's Iconic coffee houses

Isabel Putinja

Contributor

More than a meeting place, the Viennese coffee house was a second home for the city's renowned intelligentsia and literati who spent the day discussing, debating, and reading the daily papers, while regulars even received their mail there. Today Vienna's cafés are mostly places to socialise, but their old world charm is intact and you can still stay as long as you like with a single cup of coffee. Many are over a hundred years old, and 'Viennese Coffee House Culture' is even on UNESCO's list of Intangible Cultural Heritage. For the Viennese coffee house experience, head to one of these iconic cafés.

Café Central

Located on the corner of Herrengasse and Strauchgasse in the city's historical first district, Café Central is one of the best known of Vienna's historical coffee houses. The elaborate columns, painted vaulted ceilings, herringbone wood floors, and Art Deco-style lamps and chandeliers also make it one of the most elegant and atmospheric. Established in 1876, this was the gathering place for philosophers, storytellers, poets and even revolutionaries: Stalin and Trotsky famously played chess here, and Sigmund Freud was a regular. Today Café Central is on every tourist's must-see list, so don't be surprised to see long queues snaking out the door at peak times and on weekends. Avoid a long wait by reserving in advance.

Café Museum

Café Museum dates back to 1899 when it opened its doors on Operngasse just a short walk from the Opera House. There are plenty of architectural and historical details that keep drawing visitors here for more than just a cup of Wiener Melange (the Viennese version of cappuccino). The original interiors were designed by renowned modernist architect Adolf Loos, but they underwent a stylish update in 2010. Purists say Loos, who believed in functionality rather than embellishment, wouldn't approve of the makeover, but the wooden floors and red velvet couches are still there, as are the eye-catching steel globe lamps hanging from the ceiling. A new addition is the library room lined with shelves of books tucked in the back of the café, a nod to writers like Karl Kraus, Arthur Schnitzler, Robert Musil and Peter Altenberg for whom Café Museum was a second home. The literary tradition continues with free monthly readings hosted here. 

Cafe Hawelka

Its exterior is unassuming and inside, the space is cramped and understated compared to grander coffee houses, but Café Hawelka has been an institution since it opened in 1939. On a lane just around the corner from St Stephan's Cathedral, this was another popular hangout for Vienna's artistic and literary types. Many of the sketches and artworks adorning the café's walls were 'payments' made by artists to settle their bills. The cosy atmosphere created by soft lighting, wood-panelled walls, and striped upholstered sofas is a draw for tourists, as are the Buchteln (jam-filled sweet rolls) the café is famous for. The café is buzzing day and night, so don't be surprised if you're asked to share a table. The cloud of smoke that once hung heavy here is now gone thanks to Austria's ban on indoor smoking introduced on 1 November 2019. Better late than never.

Café Sperl

Occupying a handsome corner building just a few streets up from the Naschmarkt in the sixth district, is Café Sperl. The coffee house's original 1880 décor of high ceilings, wood panelled walls, marble tabletops, window seats and billiard tables has been carefully preserved. The regulars who once rubbed shoulders here long ago were an eclectic group: the usual artists, architects and composers but also military leaders and officials. This was the favourite haunt of more than one Archduke. Visitors can expect the full Viennese coffee house experience: coffee served on a silver tray accompanied by the obligatory glass of water, a big selection of international newspapers and magazines to browse through, a display case filled with delectable pastries and cakes, and a menu that includes Austrian specialities like Wiener Schnitzel, Gulasch or Knödel (dumplings).

Café Demel

Café Demel's ornate neo-Baroque interiors of gilded mirrors, crystal chandeliers, and carved wood furnishings are just as elaborate as the fancy cakes, pastries and chocolates on offer here. Located just a few steps away from the Hofburg Palace on the pedestrian Kohlmarkt in the first district, this famous pastry shop and café has been satisfying the capital's sugar cravings since 1786. The Habsburg royals were regular customers after Demel was given the emperor's stamp of approval by Franz Joseph I in 1874, granting it the title 'purveyor to the Habsburg court'. Typical of Viennese coffee houses, there are over a dozen different types of coffee to choose from: there's the much-loved Wiener Melange, Kleiner Brauner (small espresso), Verlängerter (a diluted espresso) or the Franziskaner served with cream, to name only a few. If you're having trouble pairing your coffee with one of the many sugar-filled delights, try the classic Viennese apfelstrudel or a slice of the iconic chocolate Sacher Torte.

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