(For the different Viennese coffee drinks, go here)
September 12, 1683. Vienna. After two months of siege by the Ottoman Turks, the legendary Polish Prince Sobieski and his winged hussars turned the tide and repulsed the invaders, saving not only (an exhausted) Imperial Capital but Christendom herself. The Turks were chased back in such fury and disarray that they had left most of their equipment and belongings behind. Coffee beans was one of them. A mysterious Polish merchant bought many bags of these beans (which were seen as worthless) and opened the first coffeehouse of Europe.
Vienna was the first point of entry of coffee in the Western World, and as such, it influenced much of European coffee culture. The French owe croissants to Viennese kipferl; there is even a word in French – viennoiserie (literally, ‘things from Vienna’) which describe the kind of baked pastries which are eaten with coffee at breakfast.
If coffee in Italy is an all-standing and mostly on-the-go affair, Viennese coffee culture is the opposite: it was their version of the Enlightenment salon where one could converse for hours on philosophy, politics, and literature. It is, as Austrian writer Stephan Zweig wrote, “actually a sort of democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.” To appreciate this atmosphere, visit Café Central in the first district. Despite the high ceilings and spacious area, it is a very cozy place. The day’s newspapers are available by the counter to be read at your seat.
If the highbrow, philosophe tone of many of Vienna’s cafés is too snooty, or you want food before coffee, Schwarzenberg is an exemplar choice, one of the oldest establishments on the Ringstraße. Try the gulaschsuppe (goulash) or the apple strudel, which is traditionally served in a ‘soup’ of warm custard. Not for those with faint arteries.
For a more sleek and modern look, try Julius Meinl, right at the end of the Graben. They make a killer franziskaner (a double-shot topped with whipped heavy cream).
If you find yourself in need of a little pick-me-up in your post-dinner stroll, stop by the charming little Leopold Hawelka coffeehouse in the 1st district. Many students frequent this shop which is famous for its buchteln, which are basically warm yeast rolls. They go quick!
Finally, dont forget that any Viennese coffee experience isn’t complete without a torte or pastry on the side! You can go to the famous Hotel Sacher for the sachertorte, but most cafés make their own cakes and pastries. My personal favorite is the Eszterhazytorte (ESS-ter-hah-zee-tor-tuh), a crunchy delight made of layers of cream and cake which is filled with crushed almonds.