Vienna’s Coffeehouse Culture: Going Local vs Playing Tourist
There can be few activities more ‘local’ than spending time lingering over a book or leisurely drinking coffee in a café. Yet too few travellers seem to allow themselves that luxury – the luxury of spending time doing nothing or very little in a café. There are always too many ‘proper’ things to see and do, so time hanging out in a café becomes something of a guilty pleasure for many.
When we relieved ourselves of the pressure to tick off top ten sights when we embarked on this project almost a year ago, we also removed the possibility of feeling guilty for kicking back in local cafés, bars, pubs, parks, or any kind of public space with a seat essentially.
While slow travellers, especially long-term backpackers and round-the-world trippers, will allow themselves that sort of downtime, those on shorter holidays and city breaks often don’t, which is a shame. Because it’s spaces like cafés, squares, parks, pubs, beaches, bars, and even malls, that give foreigners unique insights into local cultures.
Fortunately for visitors to Vienna, where there is a strong coffeehouse culture, the city’s historic cafés have long been identified as must-do sights. All of the guidebooks feature top ten lists of traditional coffeehouses, while if you google ‘Vienna’s best coffeehouses’ or ‘Guide to Vienna Coffeehouses’ or ‘Vienna’s Coffeehouse Culture’, you’ll find plenty of lists of the so-called best cafés on nearly every travel site and publication around the world.
As much as I love to see people going-slow guilt-free, I have to admit that this also makes me a bit sad. Because kicking back in a café should be something you do in between sights.
What it has also meant is that cafés that once had loads of local atmosphere now have little more going for them than their history and their polished wooden floorboards, big picture windows, and mirror-covered walls. Oh, and their coffee and strudel of course. And because the places are crammed with guidebook-carrying tourists, the locals have moved on and with them, the atmosphere that made the cafés so appealing in the first place.
The grand Café Central (Herrengasse 14) and the atmospheric Café Hawelka (Dorotheergasse 6) are two examples of cafés destroyed by tourism. The Central, established in 1860, was a meeting place for intellectuals – it’s regular patrons once included Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Lenin, and Alfred Loos. Now, it’s crammed with so many camera-snapping tourists that flashes seem to be go off every second; I couldn’t bring myself to do more than look in the window.
We gave the charming Hawelka more of a chance, despite the fact that every table seemed to have a guidebook on it, because it was freezing outside and we were desperate to warm up. A combination of camera flashes continually going off and disinterested waiters who didn’t bring over any menus in our ten minutes there, saw us sipping glühwein at an outdoor stand moments later. A shame, because the fond memory I have of coffee there nine years ago when the elderly owner used to greet people at the door, has now been tarnished.
Two cafés that we do still like, that couldn’t be more different to eachother, are Café Schwarzenberg (Kärntner Ring 17) and Café Drechsler (Linke Wienzeile 22). Located on a posh stretch of the Kärntner Ring, in between the Musikverein and Konzerthaus means the elegant old Schwarnzenberg is packed before and after concerts on performance nights, while during the day, it gets a steady stream of local businessmen and ladies who lunch, all wearing smart suits and expensive jewellery.
The sparse, minimalist space that is Drechsler, on the other hand, just a few minutes from our apartment, attracts students from the nearby university, creative types, vintage dealers, local hipsters, and stallholders from the Naschmarkt across the road. It’s open 24 hours and is more ‘local’ in vibe the later (or earlier) it gets.
What I like about these two cafés is that despite their appealing atmosphere, locals still far outnumber visitors, staff are professional and friendly, and cafes are still what they should be – places to linger over coffee rather than take photos. And I hope that doesn’t change.
So while we love nothing more than giving you helpful guides to restaurants, shops, and live music venues that we find and love here on Grantourismo, in Vienna I want to encourage you to avoid the cafés on the top ten lists and instead kick around the backstreets of the Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Districts and discover your own similarly atmospheric local coffee shops (there are plenty) to drop into and spend some downtime.