Lately I’ve been drinking coffee. It seems appropriate in Vienna where coffee is revered, however, I haven’t been drinking coffee like a true Viennese. Instead, I’ve been grabbing it on the go to stay awake during long days and I think I may be insulting the city with my paper cups and sprinkle of brown sugar.
Vienna is a city of refined pleasures and high culture. The hotbed of intellectual and cultural activity has historically been the cafe also known as the coffee house and it is the continued symbol of Austrian imperial greatness and fashion.
Legend has it that coffee entered the Viennese social scene in 1683 on the heels of the second Turkish seige on the city. Successfully driven out by the Polish-Habsburg army, the Turkish invaders left their bags of coffee beans behind in their haste. Consequently, the first coffee house opened its doors in 1685 and a new tradition was born in the Imperial City.
How many coffee houses and cafes does Vienna have? Too many to count – though it sounds like a fun challenge. Among the most notable are Cafe Hawelka opened in 1939 in the first district; Cafe Central in operation since 1876 also in the first district; Cafe Schwarzenberg on the Ringstrasse since 1861; and Cafe Sperl, an institution since 1880, in the sixth district.
For the price of a single cup of coffee, Viennese cafes and coffee houses offer respite for intellectuals, politicians, aristocrats, and civilians alike. In the 19th century the coffee houses of Vienna attracted the likes of Karl Kraus, Arthur Schnitzler, Stefan Zweig, Gustav Klimt, Adolf Hitler, and Sigmund Freud to name a few. Today, the coffee houses of Vienna serve celebrities, regulars, and tourists alike making it a perfect venue for people-watching at its finest.
A single cup of coffee sounds much simpler than it is in Vienna – care for a Wiener Melange? How about a Verlaengerter? Or perhaps you are in the mood for an Einspaenner? Vienna takes pride in a coffee tradition that rivals the institutions that house it. While trendy espresso bars erupt all over the city in the fashion of George Clooney’s Nespresso ads, the Viennese coffee houses remain the living arbiters of age-old tradition.
In a world of to-go cups, Vienna has relented and made way for some concessions. One of these is the Kaffeefabrik , a small coffee house in the 4th district that is less conducive to sitting and more conducive to stopping by. The name is deceiving – the Kaffeefabrik is not a nameless, faceless factory churning out product for the caffeine-crazed among us. The baristas at Kaffeefabrik take pride in their product; each drink is prepared with care and quality. Drinking coffee at the Kaffeefabrik, however, is not an event; for some it will be a necessity and for others, a pleasure, but it is a distinctly different experience than traditional Viennese cafe culture.
I’ve had the pleasure of sidling into one of these cafes, parting the heavy velvet curtain as I step into a living portrait of Viennese daily life. The waiters are still primarily men and are visibly proud of the tradition they have inherited, balancing trays with elegance and ease as they sidestep errant strollers and backpacks that now pepper the narrow spaces between table and chair. These days the patronage is quite colorful, young families and students nestle between dogged gentleman and elegantly appointed women. Amidst the low din, a white noise conducive to introspective newspaper reading and contemplation, I can’t help but wonder…did Einstein ever take his coffee to go?