Well, my mouth dropped open on entering. There’s a reason Café Central is so popular with tourists. Inside is like stepping into a period drama set.
- Stunning vaulted palatial interior
- Once the haunt of Freud, Trotsky, and others
- The cake display is a work of art
- But…go early or reserve a table if you don’t want to queue
- See also:
Cake, coffee and history
I’ve walked past Café Central a dozen times, and each time seen a queue outside. “Clearly a tourist trap,” I thought. And besides, Vienna has plenty of other coffee houses to feed my caffeine addiction.
But then curiosity got the better of me. Thank you, curiosity…I owe you one.
Walk through the door, and a majestic, vaulted, and columned room opens up before you.
And just as you thought your jaw could not drop any lower, the cake display hits you; they should move it to the Albertina, for it is a work of art in its own right.
So, yes, call me impressed.
Now, a place of such magnificence has to have a catch and it’s usually the staff. Ah, wrong again.
(Press photo © Café Central / Christian Husar)
We were welcomed warmly on entering and, watching from afar, I could see waiters chatting and smiling with each other. Smiling! I had to check I was still home in Vienna.
Our waiter was particularly friendly. And fast. And thoughtful.
For example, Café Central has an in-house patisserie to create those pieces of culinary art, and my wife’s slice of cake automatically arrived with two forks – just in case I might like a taste.
(Incidentally, those cakes felt more unique than in your average coffee house. The selection seemed to avoid standard cake varieties in favour of original creations.)
After presenting a bill, the waiter would always pull back a step or two to give fumbling people time and space to find their money. No pressure, not even with a queue outside.
Ah, yes, the queues.
We went at 8am, midweek, in early February and had no trouble getting a table immediately. But be warned – queues are likely later in the day and pretty much anytime outside late January and early February.
But let’s get back to those little touches that go beyond the usual coffee house experience, like organic breakfast butter scoring 10/10 on the spreadability index, the roll pre-sliced, the croissant the size of a cow, the jam in a sealed collectible jar you can take with you.
Oh, and the collection of morning newspapers included that day’s New York Times (international edition). I could go on.
Red patterned upholstery, burnished metal lamp fittings, brown marble tabletops on wood and brass pedestals, and those classic worn bentwood coffee chairs. Consider the traditional coffee house checklist duly ticked. And everything spotless. Not to mention those columns and vaulted ceilings that impress on entering.
The building itself (Palais Ferstel) dates back to the mid-19th century and once housed the Vienna Stock Exchange and the National Bank. You can tell.
(Wilhelm Gause (Artist), the Arkadenhof in the old Café Central premises, 1899, Sammlung Wien Museum, reproduced with permission under the terms of the CC0 licence)
At one end, you may even breakfast beneath portraits of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth. A little kitsch, perhaps, but then Café Central did open in 1876 during their reign.
In the years that followed, the coffee house grew into a meeting place for the intelligentsia of Vienna and beyond.
Freud drank here. As did Kokoschka, Loos and Schnitzler. But also Trotsky. Probably Tito, Stalin and Lenin. And perhaps even a young Hitler, though you won’t find that possibility mentioned much.
Palais Ferstel actually suffered significant damage in WWII and Café Central closed, only reopening in the 1980s. A place truly rich in tradition, given that guest list and history.
The extensive menu stretches through the day from breakfast into snacks, lunches, and evening meals, with a strong focus on traditional Viennese cuisine. They recently revamped the breakfast menu to incorporate more organic food and additional alternatives to that traditional fare.
Café Central is certainly not cheap, but I actually thought it would be more expensive given the location and popularity.
In the course of the morning, numerous tourists popped in, brandishing smartphones and posing beside the cakes (but who wouldn’t?).
Equally, various well-to-do locals joined us, and the atmosphere remained discreetly traditional despite the mix of guests. What happens at peak hours, though, I cannot say.
All-in-all, if you don’t mind the possible wait, Café Central qualifies as a must-do on your Vienna itinerary.
How to get to Café Central
The name is a bit of a giveaway when it comes to location. Café Central sits right in the centre and just a short walk from the Hofburg palace.
This area consists largely of one palais after the next. For example, the building opposite is Palais Niederösterreich, the neighbour on one side is Palais Hardegg, and the neighbour on the other side is Palais Orsini-Rosenberg (Palais Batthyány).
Subway: the Herrengasse station on the U3 line is very close
Tram/bus: the trams don’t go through the centre, but buses 1A and 2A both also stop at Herrengasse
Address: Herrengasse / Strauchgasse, 1010 Vienna | Website