The Sacher should be everyone’s first stop when visiting Vienna.
It’s not the one on Kärntner Straße, with its high stools and people photographing their slice of cake from three different angles, then from up beside their face, then from up beside their face with their fingers in a peace sign, that I’m talking about. This is the Sacher Eck, and if you want a quick cake and a chat later on, this will suffice.
Your first stop should be the Rote Bar on Philharmoniker Straße, which is right around the corner. There are two descriptions in the Michelin Guide: restaurant and bar. However, if you sit in the conservatory with black-and-white tiled walls that overlooks the opera house, you will be in a café. Alternatively, you could order the Sacher-Torte mit Schlagobers (whipped cream) or their yeast dumplings with yogourt, which are referred to as Gebäckene Mäuser, which translates as “baked mice.” Alternatively, the Sacher-Ganselebertorte, a goose liver tart with elderberry and apricot served on a hazelnut brioche, is another option.
One person will seat you, another will take your order (make it a piece of Sacher-Torte and a mélange), another will deliver it, a fifth will clear it away, and a sixth will deliver your bill. But you’ll have to pay a sixth, who will almost certainly be a redoubtable older gentleman, possibly large, who is, in keeping with a longstanding tradition of Austrian and German commerce, the only one who is allowed to handle the money. This is, despite the fact that it is more extreme than what you will find in most other cafes, the essence of the Viennese café experience. Their shit is taken very seriously by them, and has been for several hundreds of years. They are well aware of what they are doing.
The Central should be everyone’s second Viennese café of choice. Despite the fact that it’s been around for a long time (it first opened its doors in 1876), it was originally housed in a less impressive space in the same building, which was formerly a bank. Following World War II, it was closed for 30 years before re-opening in time for its centennial celebrations. It has remained a popular tourist destination ever since. But don’t let that deter you from pursuing your goals. Despite the fact that there will almost certainly be other tourists there, it is still a grand café with vaulted ceilings, a grand piano, and a smoking area until 2018. (so you may still catch a whiff). During the height of Vienna’s café society in the nineteenth century, this was where everyone in the city congregated: Freud and Tito, Stalin and Stefan Zweig, Trotsky and Hitler, all drank and smoked and talked, drawn to the Palaisviertel, or Palace Quarter, which has been a focal point of Viennese energy since the aristocracy built their small palaces there (including the Palais Ferstel, where the café now stands) to be close to
Paris comes to mind for many people in North America when they think of the cafe society. Paris does have some excellent cafes, and the people of Paris do tend to spend a lot of time in them. The servers do not clear away plates or cups, or in any other way suggest that you should be spending less than four hours with a small coffee and a large book, which is a common misunderstanding in the United States. Forgive me if my perspective is a little skewed by the fact that it has been several years since I last visited Paris and that I have spent a significant amount of time in Vienna in recent years, but here’s what I think: Cafes in Vienna are given more attention, and they are integrated into more aspects of the city’s urban life as a result. With the exception of a couple of notable historic exceptions, time spent in a café in Paris is considered a break; in Vienna, it is considered a normal part of life.
The Café Imperial is an excellent example of this. Even though there’s a lovely room on the inside, the best seats are on the outside, on a busy, noisy street (the Kärntner Ring). On the inside of the building are photographs of early twentieth-century notables sitting and discussing on this small terrace, and on any given weekday, you can see early twenty-first-century notables doing the same thing on this small terrace. To separate the seats from the traffic and the customers from the trucks and buses, there would be a wide sidewalk in Paris. That is not the case here. And the location is better as a result of it. For the simple reason that you don’t have to flee Vienna.
This one is best visited in the middle of the morning. Order a cup of Mozartkaffee and a slice of Imperial-Torte to go with it. Even though it’s not as well-known as the Sacher’s cake down the street, this cake is just as delicious: a square of almond and marzipan-based cake that’s completely enrobed in milk chocolate. I think it’s $10 a piece (about the same price as at Sacher), which is pretty reasonable. They have the option to charge more. You’ll want to look around the hotel a little bit before checking in. Queen Elizabeth II described it as “the most beautiful hotel” she had ever stayed in, despite the fact that she had previously stayed in a slew of beautiful hotels. Grand hotels such as the Plaza in New York City and the Ritz Carlton and other such establishments were inspired by this establishment, and when Richard Wagner stayed there shortly after it opened, it signaled what has turned out to be a permanent shift away from notable/rich people staying in the grand homes of other notable/rich people when they travel to staying in grand hotels. In addition to a beautiful bar, the staircase just to the right after you pass through reception is a model of the modern major staircase, with a classical nude sculpture at its apex that both refers to the classical staircases by Bernini and Borromini, as well as requiring covering when friends and family of the hotel’s new owner, Chalaf Ahmed al-Habtur of the United Arab Emirates, come for visits (as management informed me).
Not to be too harsh on Paris cafes (I adore you, Paris), but the best pastries in Paris are found in patisseries, where you’re expected to order, bag, and leave with your purchases. If you go to a good café, you’ll get a good croissant, and it doesn’t matter if they’re made down the street (or across town). However, it is not quite Vienna, where the best cakes in this cakiest of caketowns are often found in the places where they are made and where they can be consumed at one’s convenience.
The Hotel Bristol, which is directly across the street from the Sacher (which is also a hotel), is the third member of the Viennese triumvirate of extraordinary hotels and world-beating cafés. The Bristol Lounge, the hotel’s (excellent) restaurant, is located in the same building as the Rote Bar and has a conservatory that overlooks the pedestrianized Mahler Straße as well. Try pairing a Großer Brauner with a slice of Bristol-Torte for a delicious meal. At this point, readers who have been paying attention will have noticed at least a couple of trends, one of which is that many establishments bake their own cakes. It’s a regional thing in Austria. In contrast to the moist but not unctuous cakes at the other two hotels, Bristol’s is creamy, which means that, unlike those cakes, the Bristol’s cannot be packaged and shipped because the cream would curdle. So if you’re looking for a taste of Bristol, you’ll have to head to the Bristol Hotel. Another one of the distinct and exquisite pleasures of travel is the opportunity to do things, see things, acquire things, and taste things that are not available to you at home. I’m not going to rank the cakes because I enjoy them all (though I will say that the Sacher, which is now mass produced for global consumption, is perhaps a little dryer than it once was), but the Bristol is the one you should not miss if you’re in town because, if time runs out and you can’t get to one of the others, you can always order one up online. You’ll want to take a stroll through the Bristol Hotel, which was once home to Mahler and Caruso as well as the Prince of Wales and Wallace Simpson prior to their public relationship becoming public knowledge.)
Another trend that you may have noticed is the names of the coffee shops. It’s a component of the effortfulness I mentioned earlier. There are several types of coffee available in France, including espresso, cafés au lait, and café crème; in Italy, there is espresso, cappuccino, caffe latte, macchiato, ristretto (ristretto is a type of ristretto), Americano, and occasionally espresso Romano. There are many types of coffee shops in Austria, including the Schwartzer (also known as a Mokka), the Brauner, the Verlängerter, the mélange, the Kaffee verkehrt, the Franziskaner, the Mozart Café, the Einspänner (which has unexpectedly become popular in Korea), the Fiaker, Wiener Eiskaffee, Maria Theresia, Biedermeier, and the Häferlkaffee. (There are some good local definitions and photos on this page.)
If you think about it, there are different levels to Viennese cafes, or strata, depending on who you’re most likely to meet when you go there. The Sacher Eck is the most popular of the three, and it is also one of the most popular tourist destinations in all of Vienna. The majority of those in the Rote Bar will be foreigners, though many will be hotel guests. The Imperial will be filled with local high rollers as well as international visitors. There will be a mix of tourists and locals, primarily of the studentish or otherwise underemployed variety, at Café Central (pronounce it French-like) (at least in my limited experience). For example, Café Hawelka, a charmingly low-rent café still in the heart of the city, whose 1940s founders only recently passed away, leaving it to their children and grandchildren, who have carried on the business largely unchanged, with the day’s newspapers laid out on their eclectic collection of otherwise bare wooden tables, is another example.
The Café Landtmann, on the other hand, is at the top of the next stratum down (or up, depending on your perspective), the cafes that are more popular with locals than with tourists. With its sumptuous upholstery, dark and light woods, brass fittings, and strict adherence to the highest levels of Austrian propriety still in existence, this is the café most likely to host a mayor’s retirement party, for example, and is at least as formal as the Rote Bar. Café Drechsler in the Naschtmarkt (don’t miss the semi-hidden private room, which has remained unchanged since the 1950s), Café Sperl (which hosts regular operetta performances in honor of a deceased regular who was a star), and Café Prückel, a mid-century modern masterpiece (its chandelier design has become eponymous), which is also a literary and music hub, are also included on this list.
Mozart Café, a chain with a flagship location in the heart of everything on the Albertinaplatz, near the famous Albertina museum, is on a completely different level altogether. Consider its own self-description and you’ll understand why no Viennese, or even a knowledgeable outsider, is likely to recommend it. It’s deceptive, which is something Austrians, and Austrian cafes, are not proud of being associated with. It goes without saying that this is a country that is only now (and has only just now) coming to terms with the fact that the story it has been telling itself for the past 75 years about being the “first victims” of the Nazis is precisely and villainously false. Café Mozart was not established until 1794. (three years after the composer died). Nothing more than a lovely 19th-century building in a convenient location, which is owned by the enterprising Querfeld family (which also owns the Landtmann). However, once you step inside, you’ll notice that there are a lot of locals in there among the tourists who haven’t read anything about which cafés to visit. There are a lot of seats and it is convenient, so people flock to it for the same reasons they would flock to a food court. Across the street from the Sacher used to be a funny Starbucks, which was funny because, in this city of glorious cafés, you were more likely to run into a local there than you were across the street from the Sacher. For those with extra time on their hands, stop by the Mozart as well (and indulge in an Übwerstürtzer Neumann, which is a small amount of coffee poured over whipped cream, somewhat similar to an affogato, which not everyone does).
However, under no circumstances should you leave Vienna without paying a visit to Julius Meinl. A large chain that has contracted into a single café in Vienna’s upscale Goldenes Quartier (golden quarter, where Gucci, Vuitton, Europe’s largest Prada, and other high-end brands are located) and two in Chicago for some reason, concentrating instead on the presumably more profitable business of selling coffee beans to other cafes. I’m not sure what happened to this company. However, this particular café in Vienna has evolved into something of a shrine to Vienna coffee, with detailed descriptions and explanations of all the styles and artifacts displayed on its walls (and a grocery store in the back for some reason). They are good at what they do; their whorled cups (which can be found in cafes across Europe that sell their coffee) are among my favorites, and their high tables have plenty of space underneath them for all of your shopping bags to be stacked. (They also have a poetry fetish, and they apparently used to — and possibly still do — accept poetry in exchange for coffee; check out their occasionally perplexing website for more information.)
Other things to do in Vienna — I’d recommend going to the opera, getting a hot dog from a stand that also serves Champagne (Austrians love their Champagne), and looking at Augarten’s porcelain and Lobmyer’s glass — but if you set aside enough time for three coffees a day, separate from any you might have incidentally with your breakfast, and spend a week there, you’ll have a good idea of the city’s best cafés.