With winter creeping up on us, no matter where exactly north of the equator you live, chances are high that you’ll get cold before summer comes back. What better way is there to warm up your cold fingers than on a cup of nice, hot tea or coffee?
Although this winter is supposed to turn into the harshest winter we’ve seen in Europe in a century (fear not; they’ve been predicting this years), I doubt that a century ago they didn’t have to deal with harsh winters, too. But what’s very different from today, though, is that people living in 19th and 20th century Vienna solely had oil, coal or wood to warm their poorly insulated homes with, both not being very economical options.
So, if you were to travel back in time and saw yourself in that chilly position – wouldn’t you, too, rather stay warm and enjoy a strong cup of coffee at your local café, meet and talk to new people and listen to some live upbeat piano music?
In Vienna, this had been the way until World War II, which has led the majority of popular coffeehouses to close down – mostly due to a change in leisure-time activities such as watching TV at home and the rise of more modern espresso-bars throughout the city. Fortunately, the few grand coffeehouses that have survived got to celebrate a revival thanks to the renewed interest in coffeehouse tradition during the early 1990s.
If you, too, want to see where writers, poets, composers, musicians and actors met over coffee and cake, you should visit one of the famous coffee houses that have defied time and get a glimpse into “the good old days”. To avoid a grumpy waiter’s disapproving stare, make sure to never order a cappuccino – ask for a “mélange” instead.
Here is a little selection of my favourite coffeehouses:
1. CAFÉ KORB
Café Korb opened its doors over a century ago in the very heart of Vienna, near St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Even the emperor stopped by for coffee! Although it now looks bright and colourful, the atmosphere of a traditional coffee house remains – authentic and full of charm. The meals are delicious, big and not expensive, the cakes and strudel are everything you can hope for, too. The waiters are surprisingly friendly and treat you like a regular – it’s definitely a place of the locals. If you’re lucky you might run into the owner of Café Korb, Susanne Widl, a Viennese actress, artist, model and art collector.
2. CAFÉ DRECHSLER
One important reason for why Café Drechsler is near the very top of our list: it’s open pretty much all the time. Many restaurants, bars and cafés in this area (the beautiful Naschmarkt) tend to be very crowded, busy and, most of all, touristy. Here though, they offer great cake, their own coffee, serve wonderful breakfast and also big traditional meals – even very late at night! Locals like coming here after a night out – which might be why people who like a quiet cup of coffee either don’t come at all or end up joining the crowd.
3. CAFÉ SPERL
A historic coffee house in a late 19th century building, housing a large wooden bar, marble coffee tables and numerous large pool tables loaded with newspapers. Here, an “Ober” (Viennese German for waiter) still wears a white shirt and vest and serves first class coffee, savoury Austrian meals and the amazing “sperl torte” which, it is said, is better than the world famous sachertorte – rich chocolate cake, enhanced with some apricot jam in the middle and covered in thick chocolate icing. Because of the old cushions, broken tiles and ancient looking wall papers, this café’s golden days might be history – but these flaws give it a very authentic and cozy touch.
4. CAFÉ PRÜCKEL
What makes this place extra special is its untouched 1950s interior design in the main room, which makes you feel very at home (or right in your grandma’s living room). Large windows and mirrors guarantee not only a friendly bright atmosphere, but also that nothing and nobody escapes your watchful, curious eye – not inside nor outside. Further special features are the renovated Art Nouveau wing in the back of the coffee house and the small cabaret in the souterrain. During lunch time Café Prückel is particularly busy with locals working in the area, students from the University of Applied Arts across the street and other regulars residing in the neighbourhood.
5. CAFÉ CENTRAL
Last but not least is this gem of a coffee house, the “Café Central”. You might have seen this place in your typical travel guide, yes, but we do have to admit that it’s simply iconic and worth a visit. Café Central does attract lots of tourists, but don’t let that put you off – locals do come here, too! The interior is beautiful, the Venetian Trecento-era inspired architecture is fascinating and the cakes and other pastries taste at least as delightful as they look. Although you can get most meals all day around, I recommend coming after 5 pm to enjoy some of the live piano music and maybe even stay for dinner.