Vienna's coffee houses: cafés in a class of their own

The Vienna coffee house, like the English pub, is unique. You can try to replicate it in other cities (Café Bazar in Salzburg is a pretty good effort), but the coffee house and the city that gave it life are inseparable. There is a "Viennese café" at the Neue Galerie in Manhattan, where they serve coffee and pastries, but it is not an authentic experience. You remain rooted just as surely in New York as if you had wandered into an "olde worlde" inn on the Upper East Side which happened to have a dartboard and draught bitter on tap.


Coffee has played an important part in Vienna's social life since 1683, when the Turkish invaders, chased out of town by allied forces led by the Polish cavalry, reputedly left behind bags of the stuff by the city gates. An abundance of coffee brought the coffee house, an institution that continues to give the Imperial City a feature that can be found nowhere else. French and Italian cafés, interesting as they are, have a different appeal and different functions.


So what is the function of the Viennese coffee house, other than the drinking of coffee? Nothing less than the extension of civilisation. These are places designed for reflection, where people come to read (and write) books, trade gossip, think, dream and indulge in the glorious pastime of watching the world go by. Some are best seen in the morning, others by night. Many provide good food and a few transform themselves into cosy bars for night-owls. But if you just want to sit there for an hour or so, nobody will move you on. A single cup entitles the drinker to sit there all day if necessary.


The great thing about them is that they are open to all. You will find as many women as men and as many young people as senior folk, though, naturally, each coffee house builds up its own customs and regulars. Demel, the grand house in Kohlmarkt, is quite different from the Tirolerhof, a lived-in spot behind the State Opera.


Neither Demel nor the Tirolerhof is on this list. Nor are the Landtmann, Diglas, Frauenhuber, Ministerium or Raimund, which are all well known. Most people who know Vienna will have their own favourites. They may have come to regard them as "theirs" in a slightly proprietorial way, for these are places that inspire affection. No list of this sort can be "definitive", but this one is representative, because it captures the best of Vienna.


Alt Wien


Popular with students of all ages, this cavernous establishment on Backerstrasse is the closest the coffee house gets to an English local. At night there are plenty of topers at the bar, but it is never unruly. The walls, papered with posters, advertise every show and exhibition for the benefit of an arty crowd. The bar food is decent, and the ham and eggs are the best in town. Best time of day: 10pm, though you may feel old.




Thomas Bernhard, the gloomy novelist, used to perch here, but don't let that put you off. The Bräunerhof is not consciously a literary place but it attracts more than its fair share of writers and – a rather more numerous group – those who would like to be writers. Some coffee houses look better when they are busy. This one looks best when the lunchtime crowd has left, leaving the afternoon dreamers to flick through the impressive selection of international newspapers. Best time of day: 3pm.




The grandest of all coffee houses, frequented by Trotsky, the Central makes no apology for its hard-won reputation. Fashionable Vienna comes here less frequently than it did. Now there are tourists by the hundred, so you must be patient if you tip up expecting to be seated at once. This is a coffee house that demands admiration – and usually gets it. It is less easy to love. It is too lofty for that. But you must go there, if only to hear the echoes of another world. Best time of day: Noon.




Situated on the western side of the Ringstrasse, behind the Gothic Town Hall, the Eiles fits like an old boot. Popular with civil servants and actors from the local theatres, it is handy for visiting the interesting Josefstadt district, which offers perhaps the most authentic sense of old Vienna. At this time of year the Christmas markets off Burggasse bring out the child in us all. This is an excellent place for late breakfast. Best time of day: 11am.




Next to the Hofburg, opposite St Michael's Church and just over the road from Loos Haus, the Jugendstil design by Adolf Loos that shocked fin de siècle Vienna, the Griensteidl is slap bang in the middle of town. Handsome, without being snooty, it offers the footsore tourist a chance to unwind in some comfort. This is a particularly good place for reading, or simply watching the carriages trot by. Be sure to approach it from Kohlmarkt, to enjoy the blue-black colours of the evening sky set against the green and gold of the Hofburg cupola. It is one of Vienna's great sights. Best time of day: 5pm.




This venerable institution, just off Graben, is so Viennese you half-expect to see Stefan Zweig sharing a table with Karl Kraus. "I have devastating news for aesthetes," wrote Kraus, the world-weary essayist. "Old Vienna was once new." Not here. The curious from all parts of the globe cram inside this dark café and the incessant snapping of cameras can become tiresome. But, like the Velasquez room in the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Ferris wheel in the Prater, it is a rite of passage for visitors. Best time of day: as soon as the doors open at 10am.




The name doesn't lie. This is a tiny place, but its location, in cobbled Franziskanerplatz, close to some fine restaurants, is most evocative. If you want to show first-time visitors to the city something typically Viennese, bring them here. The "shallow" end, facing the church, seats no more than a dozen in comfort. The "deep" end has a small bar, which attracts a different crowd by night. Best time of day: 10am, if only to be sure of a seat.




This delightful café, opposite Mak, the Museum of Applied Arts, is just the place to stop after you have wandered through the Stadtpark, with its famous memorial to the "Waltz King", Johann Strauss the Younger, and to other Viennese composers. You can offer a prayer to the memory of Franz Schubert, the city's favourite son, and then cross the road to watch the evening take shape. There will be card games in progress and sometimes there is music. Best time of day: 7pm.




With the Musikverein a minute's walk one way and the Konzerthaus a minute's walk the other, it is little wonder that this is a popular place to dine before and after musical performances. But it is also busy in the morning, as well-dressed businessmen arrange working breakfasts, and in the afternoon, when tourists from hotels on this moneyed stretch of the Ringstrasse pop in for a Café Maria Theresia and a slice of Esterhazytorte. Supremely well run, with excellent food. At night a pianist and fiddler supply familiar tunes. An ideal place to wind down. Best time of day: 11pm.




Slightly off the beaten track, on Gumpendorferstrasse, between the Theater an der Wien and the Museum Quarter, the Sperl is worth the trip. At first sight it may appear to lack the cosiness of the Pruckel, the down-at-heel charm of Hawelka, or the grandeur of the Central. Yet, in the time it takes to drain a cup, or savour one of the superb pastries, you may feel you have made a friend for life. You can play billiards here, too. By day or night, in all seasons, this is the finest coffee house in Vienna, which means (begging Fluff Freeman's pardon) that it reigns supreme as the world's number one./telegraph