Grab a Cup in Vienna, Austria's Best Coffee Houses
by Susan McKee
Schlagobers drew me to Vienna the first time. Such a wonderful word, it’s Austrian dialect for the mounds of whipped cream piled on a cup of coffee in a Weiner Kaffeehaus. I learned about the indulgence during a sixth grade German class, and spent years dreaming about traveling to Austria to experience it for myself.
Coffee has been the life blood of Vienna ever since the Turks brought the dark, rich brew to this part of Europe. Well, actually, the Ottomans were bent on conquest, and left some roasted beans behind after their defeat in the 17th century -- but, heck, the Austrians quickly figured out what to do with the booty (grind, brew and filter!) and café life was born.
Coffee houses are used like second living rooms by Austrians. For less than 5 Euros, you can sip just one cup of coffee but have its accompanying glass of tap water refilled all day if you’d like. In every café, you’ll see people reading, writing, studying or just hanging out.
Traditional establishments, such as Café Diglas, Café Central and Café Prückel, offer piano music in the evenings and occasional social events like literary readings. Between March 1 and November 15, Kaffeehauses can get authorization from the government to set up chairs and tables on the sidewalk outside.
My very first Kaffee mit Schlagobers was in Café Demel, right in the middle of town. The purists tell me that the place is famous more as a purveyor of delicious baked sweets than coffee, but I was happy. Milk moustaches have nothing on those left on the upper lip from sipping cup after cup of coffee laced with, oh, cherry brandy, and topped with whipped cream.
A stop in a Viennese café is a ritual of many a visit to the capital (both political and cultural) of Austria. One peruses the available newspapers (or brings one along), orders a coffee then sits and contemplates the future of the universe.
One can imagine that a traveler from Seattle experienced an epiphany in a Kaffeehaus that resulted in the now ubiquitous Starbucks chain. Yeah, there are actual Starbucks now in Vienna, but only the people who seek out McDonald’s restaurants in European capitals go there.
Thus fortified, it’s off to see the city – and what a magnificent sight! My favorite area is the Museumsquartier, claimed as the tenth largest cultural area in the world by the Vienna Tourist Board. It is about 15 acres in the middle of town stuffed with museums, cafés, shops, restaurants, bars, Baroque buildings and trendy modern architecture.
The Leopold Museum was in the news lately when it had to give up some of its Gustav Klimt artworks after a court case (seems they were stolen by the Nazis during World War II), but it’s still one of my stops. The museum also owns 200 paintings, drawings and watercolors by Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele.
Across the courtyard, there’s the Museum of Modern Art. I’m still trying to understand its specialty: Viennese Actionism, Austria's "radical and essential contribution to the international development of avant-garde art." Hmmm.
Not far away, the Kunsthall Wien with its contemporary exhibitions. Also on my list for my next visit is something more traditional: a performance at the Spanish Riding School by the famed Lipizzaner stallions. In August, visitors can buy tickets for the troupe’s morning exercises from 10 a.m. 'til noon any day except Monday. The Vienna Boys Choir doesn’t resume regular performances until September.
Speaking of music, one can't forget Mozart. The entire world is celebrating the 250th anniversary of the birth of the Austrian composer and performer who was born in Salzburg and spent most of his productive years in Vienna.
There are Mozart-centric events everywhere in the city, and even a new museum - Mozarthaus Vienna – devoted to all things Mozart. It's in an apartment the composer and his family lived in between 1784 and 1787.
From the Musikverein to the Konzerthaus, playbills include performances of guess-who’s music. St. Stephen’s Cathedral – and 20 more churches – will feature Mozart’s sacred music in their regularly scheduled religious services.
I've not been to Vienna in the summer, but friends who have rave about the city’s music film festival on Rathausplatz, held outdoors with the NeoGothic City Hall as a backdrop. This year, of course, it features Mozart operas and concerts projected on the giant screen. There’s no charge for the shows, beginning every evening at twilight through early September, and you can bring or buy food and drink to enjoy while watching.
St. Stephen’s, by the way, is part of a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in the historic center of Vienna. This is where you feel the influence of the Hapsburgs most directly, by touring the Imperial Palace for example, or visiting the stables of the Lipizzaner horses.
Vienna has lots of accommodations. I’ve stayed in these three:
The location for Hotel Das Tyrol can’t be beat: this boutique property is right in the center of town at Mariahilfer Strasse 15. Mercure Grand Hotel Biedermeier Wien, at Landstrasser Hauptstrasse 28, is close to St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the direct train line to the Vienna Airport. Austria Trend Hotel Rathauspark is adjacent to the city hall (a perfect place to stay during the summer film festival).
Vienna is almost as far north and east as you can get in Austria, less than 38 miles from the Hungarian border. With a population of about 1.6 million in the metro area, Vienna is by far the largest city in Austria.