Mum and I sat opposite each other on the train, speeding across Austria towards Vienna, the final stop on our European adventure. We were passing the time by compiling a list of the things we were determined to do before we headed home. By the time we arrived at our destination our list consisted of fourteen items. Of these, seven were things to buy and seven were things to eat – clearly some coffee, cake and retail therapy were in order!
Vienna is well known for its café culture – every second street seems to have its own Kaffeehaus (coffeehouse, as you may have guessed). At least this was the case in the areas I visited, which were admittedly very touristy (you’ll have to forgive me, it was the end of a long trip and we were in no mood to go exploring off the beaten track). Fortunately we managed to sample a good range of these homages to the art of coffee and cake during our brief stay!
I’ve heard it said that the Viennese have perfected the art of sitting in a café. Well, if they’re not perfect I reckon they’re pretty close! In celebration of that heavenly coffee/cake combination, I present to you TP’s five top tips for appreciating Viennese café culture.
- Eat Sachertorte
Sachertorte is a quintessentially Viennese delicacy. This bittersweet chocolate cake with apricot jam and chocolate icing was invented at the opulent Hotel Sacher in 1832 and has become known and enjoyed worldwide (in fact, the official website makes the bold claim that it is “the most famous cake in the world”, which I actually do believe). To enjoy Sachertorte in the café of the Hotel Sacher itself is, I think, a must-do, not to mention surprisingly reasonably-priced – the price was on par with the other cafés we visited despite this being the ‘original’, and located in a luxury hotel to boot!
Entering the gilded, maroon-hued interior of the Café Sacher and sitting at a table enviously eyeing the cakes of all varieties arrayed on the huge cake-stand in the middle of the room is quite an experience for one unaccustomed to the reverence with which the Viennese treat coffee and cake. I must say that, although they advertise ‘The Original Sachertorte’, the Sachertorte at the Café Sacher didn’t seem noticeably different to the Sachertorte we had in the café in our hotel the day before – perhaps it is the case that every Sachertorte in Vienna is delicious! A visit to the Café Sacher, however, is worth it for the atmosphere and the excellent apple strudel alone, though having a slice of Sachertorte does give the feeling that you’re eating a piece of history (a very tasty piece, that is)!
- Visit Café Central
Café Central is slightly further from the centre of town than the Hotel Sacher, though only by a very short U-Bahn hop (you could walk, but we were conserving our energy for an afternoon of shopping). A popular haunt of writers and thinkers in its earlier days, it’s said that one poet spent so much time at the café that he listed it as his home and work address! His statue stands near the door, inviting patrons to experience the café that he loved so much.
The pillars, vaulted ceilings and huge paintings on the wall give this café such wonderful old-world atmosphere, and the food is excellent. The stand-out feature, though, is the cabinet of cakes on display. I will not hesitate to say that the cakes from Café Central were the best that we experienced in Vienna, both in looks and, for the one we tried at least, in taste.
- Beware the hype surrounding Demel
When I arrived in Vienna, I was determined to go to Demel. I had heard about this famous café and patisserie from a friend who raved about its delectable treats and extravagant window displays. I knew I couldn’t miss it. But when we found Demel, on Kohlmarkt among the designer boutiques, I must say I was a bit disappointed. The window was not as grand as it had been made out to be. Inside, the cakes seemed a little lacklustre (although we had just been to Café Central, so they were up against some pretty stiff competition). We did buy a little box of chocolates to take home, which turned out to be delicious though, so maybe we were overly quick to judge. As we left, a tour guide was leading his group along Kohlmarkt. He stopped just near us, outside the door of Demel, and proudly declared, “Here is the most famous bakery in all of Vienna!” – how could you argue with that though?
- Coffee connoisseurs be warned
I am about to write something that I suspect will instantly have me labelled as a coffee snob, but so be it. Despite raving about the cake component of coffee-and-cake, I actually found Viennese coffee to not actually be that good. Let me clarify. Where I live, in Sydney, coffee is somewhat a way of life. Excellent coffee can be found everywhere, so excellence is always expected. Australian coffee is so good that (apparently) it’s the only place in the world where Starbucks failed to take off, because the alternatives were just so much better. Compared to home, all European coffee is (dare I say it) not that great, so mediocre coffee was not purely a Viennese issue.
The Viennese do get points for novelty value, however, as they have their own special way of serving coffee – the Wiener Melange, a concoction which in some cases was more-or-less the same as a cappuccino and in others a cappuccino with unsweetened whipped cream on top. I tried a number of these, trying to get a taste for the local brew, so to speak, but they weren’t really to my taste – the coffee flavour I found too diluted by all the milk and cream. Australians, we are blessed with the very best in caffeinated beverages. Be thankful.
- Don’t fear the sugar
Finally, a quick mind-soothing survival tip: Viennese cakes aren’t all that sugary! You can relax and enjoy! While I’m not going to guess at the nutritional content of all the slices of cake I consumed in Vienna, I can vouch for the fact that, overall, Viennese-style cakes don’t seem to be overly sweet (which may seem like a strange assertion to make about cakes, but what I mean is that they lack the cloying sweetness and stickiness of some – think sponge style rather than mudcake). The avoidance of over-sweet cakes had one great benefit, to my mind – you could eat more before you got full!
Cover photograph – Just half of Café Central’s amazing cake display.