You may or may not have heard (the following news is, after all, only as important as your involvement with Austria and its climate) that Vienna has received a little sprinkling of snow recently. Although not living in a place like Durham means that snowball fights, the creation and wanton destruction of snowmen, tobogganing to lectures etc. is a slightly less frequent occurrence and thereby snow’s fun-factor has been severely reduced, observing another country cope with the evil white stuff ranks highly on the culture shock scale. Trams are still running! It’s a post-Christmas miracle!
The other good thing about this city is that even when the weather is decidedly inhospitable, there are still lots of nice things to do that don’t require fantastic weather. Art galleries, outdoor ice rinks, karaoke bars… these are all wonderful places for Erasmus-style activities, but none of them rank quite as highly as the Viennese tradition of the Coffee House. I am thankful to this Austrian institution mainly because, in the desperate struggle for new friends (mostly of the German-speaking variety), “Do you want to meet up for a coffee?” sounds so much less creepy than “PLEASE be my friend!”; it is vague as to how much commitment is required of both parties, and gives you a nice little caffeine boost, something which is badly needed when engaging in a hectic Year Abroad lifestyle.
As a tribute to the places that have made my life that tiny bit more pleasant over the past few months, here is a selection of the best Kaffee Häuser (proof that German is being spoken) Vienna has to offer, just in case you manage to make it to the Austrian capital at some point in your life.
If you were only to visit one café in Vienna, it would have to be this one. This isn’t because it’s such a find that you’ll never be able to drink anywhere else, but rather that it is the most quintessential and ticks all the boxes with regards to Austrian coffee houses: unhelpful and hostile waiters, dry Sachertorte, bad lighting… it’s very, very old and if you want genuine relaxation and a lot of comfort, it isn’t exactly the right place to go. However, the atmosphere really is undeniably Viennese (and I don’t mean because of the bad service). It has almost become a tourist hotspot, yet retains its charm through the fact that it is frequented by many (older) Austrians. The higgledy-piggledy furniture and vintage decorations are worth a see, although it’s not the kind of place you want to hurry back to for a second ‘Melange’.
In spite of the name, Phil is incredibly artsy and more than slightly pretentious. However, it is still very pleasant. It’s a bookshop-cum-coffee-house-cum-bar, and you really get the feeling that everyone sitting around you is having highly intellectual, deep conversations about post-modernism and the advantages of horn-rimmed spectacles. Intellect and trendiness are fused, resulting in some very expensive books. However, the atmosphere is good and whilst it’s not to everyone’s taste and slightly overpriced, I always pictured a reasonable proportion of my Year Abroad spent in such an environment.
Much like Hawelka, Aida is an Austrian staple, although the two coffee houses couldn’t be more different: Hawelka is dark, dingy and atmospheric, whilst Aida has baby pink wicker chairs, more cakes than you can feast your eyes on and waitresses (and even some poor waiters) decked out in matching baby-pink uniforms. The selection of cakes and sweet drinks is second to none, so you inevitably end up waddling away, although having to show your receipt in order to use the loo somewhat ruins the quaintness of the place.
To be brutally honest, Merkur isn’t particularly famous or swanky. It’s the café right next door to my flat and therefore a good one based purely on geographical advantages that are irrelevant to anyone else. On the other hand, it is the one of the only places in Vienna that you can find a cooked England breakfast. For some bizarre reason it comes with an Arabic flatbread, but the sausage more than compensates. It’s also super cheap and they give you free ice by the bucket-load if you ask nicely.