If you visit Vienna, you’ll be faced with world-class tourist sights: grand palaces, vast parks, lovely museums covering impressive history. So what is the top thing, the single most important item any visitor to the Austrian capital just has to do? The answer is simple: eat cake.
Vienna is known for its cafe culture, and its cakes specifically. Even more specifically, Vienna is world-famous for its tortes, layered cakes that can be so complicated to make them not even worth attempting back at home. If you come to Vienna, you must try a piece. If you stay for a few days, maybe try a couple. Or, if you are an intrepid travel writer determined to do a story on cake in Vienna, and you have a week, have twelve. Yes, twelve. My stomach and I braved the Viennese cafe scene to try as many as possible, doing the hard research necessary to write this story. You’re welcome.
The story of the Viennese cafe begins in 1683, after the second siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Turks was broken. Sacks of a strange bean were discovered in the Turkish camps. Lo and behold, Europe met coffee. The officers there found the substance overly bitter, so added sugar and milk, and the rest of Viennese coffee culture is history. Today, you’ll find that, while coffee comes in the traditional latte or espresso, more local varieties are just as tempting. Try an einspinner, espresso with unsweetened whipped cream. Or even just marvel at a Viennese latte, with its distinct layers.
But what to serve with these marvelous drinks? The Viennese cafes that sprung up developed elaborate cakes, each more amazing than the last, to serve alongside. Visit a traditional coffee house – my personal recommendation is Gerstner just across the street from the Opera – and you’ll find a dizzying array of offerings both of cakes and of coffees (some with liqueurs to make them even more exciting).
Various cakes are named for places that invented them (like the Sacher Torte), people who they were originally invented for (like the Esterhazy Torte), or cities where they may have come from (like the Linzer Torte). Others take their names from their physical appearances, ingredients, or just because a new name was needed and all other appropriate names were taken. Cafes are likewise as diverse, from the aforementioned Gerstner, to the cafe at the Hotel Sacher, to the chain Aida. What all have in common: beautiful cakes, exquisite coffees, and an attitude that one can keep the table as long as one desires.
So, let’s get to the cakes. I’ll include photos of all twelve, but full descriptions only of a few that are especially wonderful or historically significant. Regardless of where I enjoyed my cake, a piece tended to run from €4-6, which isn’t bad. (A coffee was similar, ranging up to €9 or so for those that included alcohol.) If you insist on cake each day, it can add up, but if you do it at the expense of a real lunch, you’ll come out ahead. Besides, who needs real food anyway?
The most famous Viennese cake is probably Sacher Torte, which was invented at the Hotel Sacher in 1832. Layered chocolate cake, with apricot and chocolate icing, it is still available at its original namesake home, although with lines stretching down the block, you might be better off getting yours elsewhere.
If you like chocolate, you can try a traditional dobostorte. While Hungarian, it fits in with the general theme here, and pairs nicely with a sweet coffee. It is layers of chocolate creme and genoise cake, twelve in total. (Other variations with different chocolates exist as well.)
What if you enjoy nuts? Esterhazy Torte is named for Prince Esterhazy, for whom it was made in the 19th century. Layered almond meringue and buttercream make it lighter than the chocolate cakes above, but still plenty rich.
A take on this is the haus torte at Gerstner. Almond creme and genoise are layered together, along with slivered almonds. Of all the cakes I had in Vienna, this was both the first one and my ultimate favorite.
Cakes also come with various fruits. Gerstner’s Sisi Torte is named for Empress Elisabeth (Sisi). It is a similar base to the Sacher Torte, but with red currant jam and a sweet white icing over the top. Delicious!
Or you can try a kardinalschnitte. Meringue, jam, vanilla creme, and vanilla sponge line this delightful offering. Mine came from Aida, which has more fruity cakes than most places. The blueberry vanilla torte was also amazing – and light.
One more note here. While not a cake in the same form as the others, it is important when in Vienna to have a piece of apple strudel. Just add it to the list. All of the cafes have them.
Marie Antoinette is famous for saying, in response to a troubling report that the commoners in France didn’t have bread to eat, “Let them eat cake.” She was sorely out of touch, but the sentiment of cake being amazing is one that is easily verifiable on a journey to Vienna. Come. Eat cake. Eat more cake. Enjoy one of the things that makes this city so incredible.
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