Vienna: The classic city break with a coffee scene reinvented for Gen Z

Delving into the history of Vienna’s 130-odd coffeehouses is an involved process. Up come decades’, if not centuries’, worth of tales about figures that changed the face of Europe forever: Mozart and Beethoven performed for clientele within the walls of Café Frauenhuber; Café Korb hosted Freud’s Vienna Psychoanalytic Society meetings; Café Central purportedly counted Tito, Stalin and Trotsky and among its patrons in January 1913.

These cafés, at their peak at the turn-of-the-20th-century, were ornate, hallmarked by lavish features such as chandeliers, marble tables and Thonet bentwood chairs. They attracted the powerful and the culturally influential. As Unesco, which bestowed Viennese Coffeehouse Culture with Intangible Cultural Heritage status in 2011, states, coffeehouses became places “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”

vienna city break
The interest in Vienna’s heyday as a centre of intellectual discussion can make parts of the city feel like a museum (Photo: Alexandr Spatari/Getty)

While these coffeehouses have continued to epitomise the city’s age-old elegance, their staunch upholding of tradition has meant many haven’t always moved with the times – and often actively resisted doing so.

Sullen service, sketchy Wi-Fi and coffee that really isn’t as good as it should be are not uncommon.

Customers at Vienna’s better-known coffeehouses today are largely tourists, not luminaries, and it can feel like the spaces themselves have become museums, with the original meaning lost. Yet there are a growing number of people working across the city to reverse this tendency and revitalise Viennese coffeehouses as the innovative establishments they were once known for being.

“It’s not that coffeehouses changed for the worse, but that cafés moved on in other places,” says Eugene Quinn, who runs Coffeehouse Conversations, a scheme aimed at reviving the spirit of lively discourse that once flowed through Vienna’s cafés.

“People usually visit Vienna now for the kitsch, the great old stuff, which is a shame, because there are interesting contemporary aspects to the city, too. And in the past, people came because Vienna was avant-garde.”

As a lover of coffee and history in equal measure, I was intrigued to experience Quinn’s project on a recent trip to Vienna. The venue was Café Ministerium, a typically timeless Ringstrasse coffeehouse: chandelier-lit, with lofty ceilings and pictures depicting the capital of years past in an elaborate Art Nouveau building.

I, like the other participants, was paired off with a stranger. We were sent to a booth to chat for a time and I left that coffeehouse with a memory of Vienna being a city where I talked about topics I would never have otherwise discussed. It took me out of my comfort zone. I had previously neither known my partner nor even operated within the same sphere of life as them.

“The idea for Coffeehouse Conversations comes from Oxford University scholar Theodore Zeldin, who pioneered the concept,” Quinn told me. “He held that modern life had become a little too easy. Perhaps this is about making it more challenging again.

Later, I headed across the city centre to Café Bellaria, across from the Natural History Museum. The city’s oldest continuously operating coffeehouse, it dates to 1870. In 2021, it was refurbished in a style that, by Vienna coffeehouse standards, was astonishingly contemporary.

Inside, it is more modern art gallery than antique-peppered, tradition-entrenched coffeehouse. Dishes such as shakshuka and teriyaki add colour the obligatory carb-loaded classic Austrian fare on the menu. And the coffee – roasted by highly-regarded Viennese roasters Naber – is excellent.

“Here we transferred the typical Vienna coffeehouse model to the 21st century,” co-owner David Figar told me.

“I love history, but we wanted Bellaria to appeal to the broadest customer base, which meant making changes with regards to the design, the food, the drink.

“So we have 80-year-olds continuing to come for goulash and schnitzel as they always did for decades or more, but also new groups: 18 year-olds discussing vegan food, artists, business people.’

Those at the helm of other traditional coffeehouses are similarly redefining how the places are perceived.

A few blocks from Café Bellaria, Café Elies employs mainly refugees on its staff, thus providing them with a vital foothold in the city. Café Ansari, north of the Danube canal, enlisted leading architect Gregor Eichinger to lend the inside space a sleek modern feel, and has given its cuisine a Georgian spin. These changes have ensured this formerly traditional café attracts a different kind of customer.

South of the centre in Sonnwendviertel neighbourhood, Feldhase has turned the idea of the grand Viennese coffeehouse with its extensive menu on its head by offering just one daily dish – albeit freshly concocted using produce from the roof garden – in understated surrounds. And, near the city’s most popular market Naschmarkt, is Vollpension: a café staffed by older people. This initiative encourages intergenerational dialogue between workers and diners.

In today’s Vienna, coffeehouses are not just ostentatious time capsules. They are environments where conversations are started, and where the planet’s pertinent issues are aired. Just like they were in the city’s last heyday.