Once the capital of the grand Habsburg Empire, echoes of Vienna’s imperial past still remain – nowhere more so than in Austria’s hubs of culture, cake and Sacher: the coffee house.
Unequivocally a Viennese institution, the coffee house is a living monument to Austria’s grand and sometimes difficult past. In the summer of 1913 alone, Trotsky, Stalin, Hitler, Tito, Lenin, Freud and Franz Ferdinand were all said to have lost time beneath the lofty vaulted ceilings of the ever popular Café Central.
Marble table tops, Thonet chairs, parquetry flooring and gargantuan period light fittings; here, Baroque, Biedermeier and Art Nouveau all share the stage. One might imbue the spirit of Hundertwasser at Café Hawelka or maybe Gustav Mahler at Café Landtmann – Vienna’s coffee house is a place where culture transcends time and social strata, where yuppie, hipster, tourist and well-to-do old biddy commingle harmoniously beneath towers of cake, coffee and cream.
Beyond the infamous chocolate of the royal Sacher Torte and the fruity, flaky, buttery goodness of the world-famous Apfelstrudel, there lies a profusion of Mehlspeisen, or delectable, complex Austrian pastries boasting technicolour icing, candied fruit, nuts, cream, more chocolate, more cream, Kardinalschnitte, Mozarttorte and Esterházy Torte.
It is without doubt the myriad desserts, beckoning from illuminated glass display cabinets, that crave the most attention however. Beyond the chocolate of the “Sacher Torte”, the fruity, flaky, buttery goodness of the world-famous “Apfelstrudel”, there lies a profusion of “Mehlspeisen”, or delectable, complex Austrian pastry. Technicolour icing, candied fruit, nuts, cream, more chocolate, more cream. “Kardinalschnitte”, “Mozarttorte”, “Esterházy Torte”.
Perhaps the simplicity of a freshly baked “Buchtel”, or yeast bun filled with a sugary mass of poppy seeds might curtail the extravagance. Variety is indeed the spice of life.
Served on a silver tray with a ubiquitous glass of water and often with the simple enquiry "Schlagobers?", or, “would you like whipped cream with that?” – your coffee, whether Wiener Melange, Kleiner Schwarzer, großer Brauner or Einspänner, is a symbol of Vienna’s extravagant culture (and always reply yes).
The sumptuous Fiaker, named after the romantic horse and carriage takes you a step further - a self-indulgent encore with an extra shot of coffee, more whipped cream, the addition of rum or schnapps and occasionally adorned with a cocktail cherry. Vienna in a mug.
Emperor Franz Josef I once proclaimed "Sie haben's gut, Sie können ins Kaffeehaus geh'n!" Literally: you’re good, you can go to the café! We don’t disagree. As part of Vienna’s intangible cultural heritage, UNESCO put it oh so well, “The coffee houses are a place where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is on the bill.”
For more on Austria’s infamous outputs peek at our travel journal pieces on Helmut Lang, our Vienna Design Guide and stay of course at art hotel, Hotel Altstadt, sitting in the centre of Vienna on the edge of the cool, creative district.
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