There were many great experiences on my Viking river cruise on the Danube, but there was only one that I considered a personal mission: a visit to Café Landtmann in Vienna. And it was more than a yen for a good coffee or a great piece of strudel — there’s a little history behind it.
On my last visit to Vienna in 2014, I happened on one of Europe’s classic coffee houses: Café Central (seen below), an iconic place in the middle of the old town where students, tourists and the local intelligentsia sip coffee in an atmosphere that reeks of Europe’s past. It’s been part of the Vienna social scene for decades, frequented over the years by famous and infamous people, including Lenin and Trotsky.
I wrote a post about Café Central, which was read by my colleague Maarten Heilbron, author of the Heilbron website and host of a very popular youtube channel. So when he went to Vienna last year, he paid a visit. However, he returned to say that he preferred Café Landtmann, another famous coffee house located on the Ringstrasse, the ring road that surrounds the oldest part of the city.
Café Landtmann is famous mostly because it was the favourite haunt of Sigmund Freud. He used to come by regularly when he taught at the nearby university, have a coffee and finish his walk with a visit to Vienna’s fine art museum. Other famous guests have included Gustav Mahler, Marlene Dietrich and the Dutch Queen Juliane, plus dozens of movie stars and politicians.
So, when my cruise ship pulled into Vienna and I joined the morning city walk, I knew exactly where I wanted to end up. And as soon as the tour was over, I headed across the old town to Café Landtmann. I wanted to see it for myself. As well, it was an unseasonably cold day and I needed something warm in my stomach to ward off the chill.
I found Café Landtmann with no trouble, and it was much as I’d expected, occupying the ground floor of an old Art Deco building directly across from Vienna’s famous Rathaus, or city hall. In fact, the café has been there since before the Rathaus itself; it was just a construction site when Franz Landtmann opened his doors back in 1873.
The coffee house has undergone several ownership changes since then, and a number of renovations. The last one added a glassed-in patio, which gives the entrance a modern look I hadn’t expected. A number of business lunches seemed to be in progress, no doubt taking advantage of the good light to read documents.
Once I stepped through the door, however, my fears were quelled. This was a café in the classic style, the kind I love. Inside, past four ornate wooden pillars depicting scenes from the nearby Burgtheater, was a long dining room, filled with plush booths and lit by a series of elegant lamps and chandeliers. There was a quiet buzz in the room, the sound of people enjoying themselves.
A formally dressed waiter showed me to one of the little semi-circular booths that line the window side of the café. I perused the menu, which offered an upscale version of coffee house fare: soups, salads, typical Austrian dishes like boiled beef but also a bit of haute cuisine, like risotto with prawns. And of course, the famous desserts, with lots of sundaes and summer confections. I knew Café Landtmann was a popular late-night spot for theatre-goers, but apparently it’s also a big summer refreshment stop.
The waiter approached: what to order? I eyed the goulash soup and other hearty dishes. But I’d had those at Café Central, and had left without trying the renowned pastries. My mind was made up. I’d have the Original Wiener Apfelstrudel, the signature dessert of the city, with an espresso to cut the sweetness. (I’d have preferred an Americano, but I didn’t see it on the extensive list of coffees.)
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My food arrived quickly – thankfully, since I was hungry and still shaking off the cold. And it was a comforting sight. This was no flat, American-style slice of pie with a few apples inside and a lattice of pastry across the top. It was the full, fat European apple strudel, bursting with apples and raisins and covered in a flaky crust dusted with powdered sugar.
And it tasted as good as it looked, the apple filling warm and savoury and not too sweet. Around the third bite, I began to thaw out, and in a few minutes I was full and the cold morning was just a memory. I ordered a second espresso, to linger a while and enjoy the atmosphere. Later, I learned I could have had some extra hot water and made my own Americano – next time …
Still, I needed the second espresso to face the bill, which, with a tip, came to about 15 euros. That’s an expensive dessert. But then, if you want to eat in famous places with illustrious pasts, you have to pay – even if it’s only once. And as a consolation, the friendly waiter gave me good instructions on getting to Schonbrunn Palace, in perfect English.
On the way out, I paused to take in the sights of the café, starting with the racks of magazines and newspapers by the dining room door. Sitting in a coffee house reading the papers is an old tradition in Vienna, and it’s good to see it continuing in the era of the iPad. It may be disappearing elsewhere, but it lives on in places like Café Landtmann.
And of course, I couldn’t leave without a look at the amazing display of pastries by the front door – ranks and ranks of them, in different shapes and colours, a virtual army of sweets. This could be dangerous if you had a little money and a lot of time. If not, you can enjoy them vicariously through the photo at the top of this post …
But the final word: did I prefer Café Landtmann or Café Central? Café Landtmann was more comfortable, and undoubtedly more of a first-class experience — as the bill would attest. But for sheer atmosphere and entertainment, I’m still a fan of Café Central; it was my introduction to Vienna’s coffee houses, and to me, it’s still a classic. I don’t even mind lining up to get in…