March 29, 2012

Oh Vienna

The hills are alive … but it’s not the sound of music that brings people to Austria in January – it’s the snow! And in early January, it was the snow that took me to Austria. Well, snow and coffee. Having exhausted ourselves on the slopes for 5 days, Habib (Maarbani) and I headed to Vienna to check out the café scene.


’m a sucker for café-hopping. I’m keen to sample the local brew wherever in the world I find myself. Having taken a break from university in 2011, I decided to spend my time travelling the world and managed to café-hop in some interesting places – from Vietnam to Hong Kong, Italy to London and now Austria.

Each one of these countries has taught me something new about coffee and how people enjoy the beverage around the world. When I’m travelling, I don’t seek out cafés that make coffee in a specialty way. Rather, I seek out coffee that is made by the local technique, which is probably why I’ve enjoyed my world coffee journey so much. Understandably, I was over the moon to be in the café-capital of Europe, Vienna.

Vienna is an elegant city, where beautiful buildings meet cobblestone streets and ball gowns are commonplace – particularly in January, when over 300 balls are held. Needless to say, the cafés in Vienna are elegant also, with many of the city’s most famous cafés dating back decades, if not a century or so. As with each of the countries I’ve had the opportunity to visit, I found the café culture in Austria to be quite unique.

Unlike Italy, where patrons slam back espressos like tequila shots, the café culture in Vienna is all about taking time out. Cafés are large, restaurant-like spaces that are able to accommodate many people at once. Despite this, the old-world décor of many Viennese cafés – large upholstered chairs, cosy booths and low hanging lights – make these large spaces welcoming at any time of day.

Interestingly, though all of the cafés I visited were busy, none of them had the usual ‘bustling café’ vibe. It was as though patrons and staff alike shared a kind of mutual agreement to keep noise to a minimum, giving each and every café a sort of quiet, library-like reverence. Perhaps this is why so many Viennese cafés are filled with patrons on computers, or with their faces buried deep in books. I also note that Starbucks was a popular choice, with many younger folk taking advantage of free wifi.

Overall, it seems to me that cafés in Vienna have evolved as places to consume both time and coffee, with the atmosphere of a place having as much to do with its popularity as the quality of its coffee and cake.

Which brings me to my next point. Given the emphasis on ‘taking time’, it was not surprising to learn that the most popular beverages in Viennese cafés were rather large and milky. I found the milk coffees in many places to have a strong ‘kick’ to them, while espressos (served with a dollop of fresh cream on the side) I found to be rather smooth and easy to enjoy. The preference of the locals, though, is for large drinks, that they can enjoy while reading the paper and generally consuming time.

Alongside coffee in Vienna belongs cake – and the Austrians know a thing or two about cake! The best coffee houses in town are famed for their sweets, rather than their coffee. Imagine over 20 cakes on offer in any given store: tortes are the specialty, followed by delicate jam pastries and tarts. It’s no secret that the Austrians like to indulge – rich foods, cigarettes and alcohol dominate  – and this is reflected in their cafés.

It’s normal practice to enjoy a coffee, cigarette and a slab of cake of an afternoon – that’s the epitome of Viennese café culture.

In all, I found the café scene in Vienna to be an enjoyable one. It seems that cafés are deeply ingrained in the lifestyle as places to consume time and indulge, whether the experience is about the coffee, the cake or the company. It was refreshing to see a culture in which taking time to relax is an important part of each day. Perhaps we could all learn something from the cafés of Vienna.

If you’re lucky enough to find yourself in Vienna, here are my picks …

Demel – Kohlmarkt 14 A-1010 Vienna

Café Sperl – Gumpendorfer Straße 11, Vienna

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