Sangeeta Kocharekar takes a trip to Vienna for a taste of a coffee culture so important to the city, it’s listed with UNESCO.
It’s a Sunday afternoon in Austria’s capital Vienna, and sunlight is streaming through the tall windows of the otherwise dark Café Westend. Coffee cups clink and newspapers rustle. A family of four in a semi-circular suede banquette chatters quietly. One over, two men deep in conversation, tuck into large slices of chocolate cake. It’s my last day of a four-day trip, and this scene shows the recurring theme I’ve discovered at Vienna’s many coffee houses, which are all about close interaction and connection.
But before I get too comfortable, it’s wine that calls.
Grapes were cultivated in Vienna as early as 1132 CE and there are now more than 630 producers and 180 wine taverns. At Wieninger am Nussberg winery, owned by Fritz Wieninger, the vineyard sits at the top of Nussberg hill, close enough to the city that I can make out the Danube River in the distance. If I squint, I can see the spire of St Stephen’s Cathedral too. Cityscape views aren’t unusual for Viennese wineries. In fact, the city is known for its urban wine production, with 680 hectares of vineyards, many within walking distance of the city centre.
Fritz’s vineyard is one of the most well-known, and features Vienna’s classic wine, Wiener Gemischter Satz DAC. The specialty drop involves the planting and fermenting of at least three white varietals of grapes together to create one blended taste. Fritz calls it. “A wonderful piece of Viennese art”.
Originally designed to minimise the risk of a poor harvest, over the past 20 or so years winemakers like Fritz have singlehandedly brought it back into the spotlight. Today, it’s Vienna’s most exported wine.
We decide to stop in at Mayer am Pfarrplatz, a heuriger (tavern), where accordion music and wine-infused laughter fill the room. Locals pack wooden booths, tucking into portions of schnitzel and salad. Meats, pickled veggies, potatoes and salads are served buffet-style. And, as I learn that night when halfway through my meal I stumble on half my group sipping and swirling in another room, mid-meal wine tastings are to be expected. The rest of the night is a long blur of buffet runs and more wine. Before I know it, it’s the morning and now I’m craving a caffeine fix.
Coffeehouses are a fascinating fixture of Viennese culture, and having experienced buschenschenken (wine restaurant) and heurigen, I was eager to learn about them, too. Austrian author Stefan Zweig once wrote that Viennese coffeehouses are where a guest can “sit, discuss, write, play cards, receive mail, and above all, consume an unlimited number of newspapers and magazines for hours on end”.
The culture is a precious one. Legend says its tradition sprang from the abandoned coffee beans left by the Ottomans after their failed siege of Vienna in 1683. Years later, it nearly became extinct when modern coffee chains began popping up around Vienna, putting the traditional coffeehouses out of business. In an effort to preserve them, the culture was added to the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list in 2011. As a result it’s now thriving.
Cafés like Westend, owned by Hansi Diglas, the youngest in a family of coffeehouse owners, showcase prime examples of it. Westend is one of three cafés the family owns. Family-run is only one of the features that distinguish traditional Viennese coffeehouses. Here marble tables, suited waiters, and a spread of local and foreign-language newspapers and magazines replace the usual café staples of laptops and mobiles. Most coffeehouses also have high ceilings and windows; all are considered second living rooms, places to simply sit and, as Diglas called it, “consume time”.
“It’s a meeting point for everyone,” he explains. “For young people, for old people, for rich people, for poor people. You can come in a tie; you can come with a t-shirt.”
There’s one aspect of them though that Diglas says is very traditional: “Most of the old traditional coffeehouses have waiters who are funny, but a little bit rude too – like wiener schmäh, a kind of Viennese humour.”
Visitors needn’t be intimated though – Viennese coffeehouse waiters are known for their exceptional service. And, with a laundry list of exotic coffee names like verlängerter (the equivalent of a café Americano), kaffee verkehrt (a latte macchiato), and frankziskaner (like a cappuccino, but with whipped cream), it’s
Other typical Viennese coffees include einspänner (two shots of espresso topped with whipped cream and served in a glass), fiaker (includes a shot of rum), and Maria Theresia (with apricot liqueur). If in doubt, go with a melange, essentially a cappuccino without the foam on it, and easily the most ordered coffee among them.
Coffees are always served with a small glass of water – the idea is to rehydrate as you dehydrate – and usually also with a pastry, such as apfelstrudel, or a cake like a sachertorte.
On Monday, across town in the sixth district, the inside of Café Sperl is also strewn with sunshine. Two businessmen sit facing one another in a worn velvet-upholstered booth. Groups, including a family of three, and four Japanese tourists sit at the window tables. Here patrons are abiding by a propped, gilded-framed
sign reading ‘Bitte keine Handy’ meaning ‘Please, no phone.’
While not all Viennese coffeehouses ask this of patrons – some are even equipped with WiFi – in general, using technology within them is frowned upon.
“Coffee houses should be a place to chat with each other, and the Viennese people are very proud of that – that you can go here, and put your cell phone away,” says Diglas. “If you want to read and inform yourself, you have a lot of newspapers. You don’t need a laptop.”
Over in the first district, Café Landtmann is another of the city’s traditional coffeehouses. It boasts a large outdoor dining area that, come weekends, is always a lively spot.
Café Supersense and Café Balthasar in Praterstrasse in the second district are among the newer coffeehouses. At Supersense, after a coffee in the front café, patrons can wander to the back to browse a concept store of all-analogue products.
Café Prückel is a bright and airy space with large windows looking out at Vienna’s popular Museum of Applied Arts (the MAK). It’s the perfect backdrop for people-watching.
“It’s a little bit like a museum because you see the main Vienna,” says Diglas. “That’s how it was 100 years ago. In traditional coffeehouses, you can see what it looks like when real Viennese people come together, and how they act. We’re trying to keep the tradition.”
I pack up my things and head onto the street. Breathing in the crisp autumn air, I decide to wander and end up at River Wien. The leaves are yellow and brown, and the park that runs alongside part of it, Ernst-Arnold, crowded.
A man is playing an accordion on a bridge. Kids are frolicking on the grass. Couples are spilling out of cafés and restaurants. Despite all its preserved elements, Vienna is no stuffy city. Along with the traditional, it is filled with a culture that is fresh and new. Take avant-garde eatery Skopik & Lohn. White paint with thick black scribbles decorates its ceilings. And though Wiener schnitzel features on its menu, chestnut gnocchi, goat cheese soufflé and oxtail soup do too.
At the architecturally stunning SO/Vienna, where I am staying, breakfast is held on a glossy, floor-to-ceiling windowed top floor that looks out onto the city. Chia seed pudding with coconut milk and slices of gourmet cheeses can be enjoyed in the sleek space.
What I learn most is that the Viennese are fiercely proud of their centuries-old epicurean traditions, and have fought hard to preserve them. It’s that which makes a visit here so special.
For a prime sightseeing location and views of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, stay at SO/Vienna in the Praterstrasse.
For easy access to one of the largest cultural quarters in the world and a quirky hotel experience, stay at Hotel 25Hours MuseumsQuartier.
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