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Jan 09

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’, 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.

10 comments

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  1. Susana

    I will certainly do that, if I have the chance to go to Vienna… I really love authentic cafés… My favorites are A Brasileira in Lisbon and Tazza d’Oro in Rome, although the last one is more a quick cafeteria than a café to spend the afternoon, it’s worth the visit too…

    Big hugs from Spain!

    1. Lara Dunston

      Love A Brasileira but not sure if I know the Rome one, but I’ll look it up. But Spain has some of the best cafes/bars (there’s a fine line/some are for both, right?) in the world too, especially Madrid, but also Barcelona, and then there’s Valencia… me gusta mucho Espana!

      Muchas gracias for dropping by! x

  2. lila fox

    We too are ‘slow travelers’, tending to spend a month at a time exploring a place. We’ll be in Vienna later this month, and I’m so glad you mentioned this post on Twitter – the 2 cafes you recommend above are no where to be found in the guide book sitting beside me. We’ll definitely check your recommendations for cafes. Also grateful for your vintage shopping recs as well!

    best,
    lila

    1. Lara Dunston

      Hi Lila – I just discovered this – I’m so sorry I missed it but we were travelling at the time. So glad to know you also love travelling slowly. We like to spend weeks and months in places too. I’d love to know if you went to those cafes and how you enjoyed Vienna. Thanks for dropping by!

  3. Barbara Cacao

    Wow, your favourite coffeehouses in Vienna pretty much overlap with mine! http://www.vienna-unwrapped.com/vienna-coffeehouses.html

    Sadly, Leopold Hawelka just passed away recently, at the age of 100 years! I was at his party in April last year to congratulate him. He was an icon of a Viennese cafetier!

    Minor comment: The correct spelling is Cafe Drechsler.

    1. Lara Dunston

      We must have the same taste then! We’ll go check out your list.

      Sad to hear about Leopold Hawelka, but the service was just appalling when we visited last time when we wrote this story. It was nothing like the cafe that we went to a decade ago. It was very sad to see such an atmospheric space has become little more than a tourist attraction – and we were there at low season too. Maybe it needs new management and young blood to shake things up.

      But Cafe Drechsler is spelt correctly – and I’ve clicked through to the link and it’s spelt the same on the site.

      Thanks for dropping by!

    2. Lara Dunston

      Ah, I see where the typo is, the para after the first mention of the Cafe. Thanks for pointing out. Our paid stories come first, I’m afraid – these posts often get written in a hurry and we don’t have the time to edit them as thoroughly as we would for a commission. Many thanks.

  4. Sherry Ott

    Excited to find this since I will be making my first trip to Vienna at the end of March. This is exactly the kind of stuff I want to do; enjoy the local life.

    I find as a travel writer this is the predicament we are in. Our ‘job’ is to share this type of information – but by doing so we contribute to the scenes like the ones you describe in the tourist laden coffee houses. Hopefully you are still keeping your best secrets a secret!

  5. Carmen Allan-Petale

    We love Vienna and I have to agree that there’s no better thing to do than people watch for a couple of hours from a comfy armchair in a cafe.
    It’s annoying when places are spoiled by tourism though!
    I found Paris is another place where some of the most famous cafes have been ruined by tourism, which is unfortunate.
    But the next trip we have to Vienna we’ll be sure to try out the places you recommended :-)

    1. Lara Dunston

      Agree. If a business can survive the onslaught of tourists after inclusion in every guidebook, it’s a sign of a good business and people behind it who care about food/service. We’ve seen a lot of businesses go to ruin over the years after being included in guides or excessive travel magazine coverage, because they couldn’t deal with their popularity and weren’t prepared to hire additional staff or they simply rest on their laurels. Though there’s little that can be done if there are so many tourists the place loses its flavour and local customers just decide to stay away.

      Do check those cafes out – there are so many in Vienna, I’m sure you’ll stumble across many more too; they’re just the ones we visited last trip – and do let us know how you find them and what you find after your trip :)

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