In search of a respite from the chill of Vienna, I retreat indoors into one of the city’s living rooms, the kaffehäus. For centuries these spaces have seen Vienna discuss, argue, write, compose and idle the day away over a newspaper, steaming brew and perhaps even a slice of cake. Coffeehouses in Vienna are institutions in themselves; cultural attractions where admission comes by way of a waiter in a tux. Just as Paris has its bistros and London its tearooms, Vienna has its coffeehouses. If you are visiting Vienna for the first time and in search of a hot beverage, here’s what you'll need to know about the Viennese coffeehouse tradition.
A Bit of Caffeinated History: Part of the Vienna coffeehouse experience comes through understanding a bit of the history behind these institutions. The city supposedly grew addicted to a cup of Joe after a failed Ottoman siege in 1683. When Vienna was victorious over the Turkish forces, they snatched up bags of coffee beans that the Turks had brought with them, so the story goes. The first documented coffeehouse in Vienna dates back to 1685 when a man began serving coffee out of his house. Some argue that the idea of the Viennese coffeehouse was born long before the invasion. Regardless, these spaces became cultural icons in town by the 19th century as a who’s who in Vienna and Europe would gather in them over a coffee.
The Five Star Style: After a long morning of touring Vienna in your jeans and T-shirt, you might step into a Vienna coffeehouse and think you are a tad under dressed. While some coffeehouse still boast the original style of being a dark and somewhat gloomy place, many look more like palaces today. You won’t be hard press to find one of these institutions with marble pillars, glittering chandeliers and furniture more fitting for a museum exhibit than a coffeehouse. However, this is the style of many coffeehouses in town. The waiters mostly adorn in tuxedos, harking on the Habsburg days when the coffeehouses in Vienna were spaces for the intellectual, artistic, scientific, economic, and political elite. When the Habsburg Empire fell apart, these traditions for opulence within a simple coffeehouse remained. Many feature newspapers for reading and a cozy atmosphere where a stranger could be at your table or dangerously close to it.
The Silver Trays and Treats: Most Vienna coffeehouses don’t just throw you a cup of coffee in a paper cup. Not only will your brew arrive by way of the arms of a tuxedo-clad waiter, but also it just might arrive on a silver tray. Some coffeehouses in Vienna still utilize the silver tray tradition. Your cup of coffee is served on these trays along with a little glass of water. The idea behind the water is that it refreshes the palate and brings out the delicious taste of coffee. If you order cream on the side, it will also come in miniature, usually in a small pitcher. Also, it is not uncommon to find sweet treats in Vienna’s coffeehouses. In a city that came up with the Sachertorte, you can expect the coffeehouses to have their priorities straight with sweets. Many will even serve light meals.
The Coffee and the Houses: Vienna is littered in coffeehouses throughout the old city and even in the suburbs. Some of the famous include Café Bräunerhof. The café was a favorite of novelist Thomas Bernhard. The wrinkled old newspapers and dark interiors of Café Hawelka have long attracted travelers and locals. And the literati have enjoyed a good cup and conversation at the grand Café Central. On a recent trip to Vienna, I noticed that when it comes to ordering in these spaces, the waiter generally stands at your table without a menu, waiting for your order. You can quickly sound like you know what you are doing by ordering a brauner, black espresso served with cream.
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