Let’s get the obvious one out of the way first.
1. Sachertorte at Cafe Sacher
It’s one of the most well-known dishes in Vienna, and yes, you have to try it. I don’t care how many reviews you’ve read about the historic feud between Hotel Sacher and Cafe Demel, or how expensive you think cake should be, or how opposed to queues you are. Just go. Go for the over-the-top fanciness that will make you feel inadequate. Go for the people watching, from obvious tourists to oddly mismatched but wealthy couples staying in the hotel. Go just so you can say you’ve had the original. Go because you are on vacation and you deserve to treat yourself, dammit.
“You can’t say you’re going to Vienna without somebody getting up in your face about the sachertorte.”Anthony Bourdain
If you are diametrically opposed to queues (aka waiting in line, for my fellow Yanks), you can be like me, and get in line around 5 or 6 p.m. The line will be shorter and you’ll have cake for dinner. Not bad. Like I said, you’re on vacation.
Once seated, we each ordered a slice of sachertorte and a melange (Viennese coffee, basically espresso with steamed milk and milk foam). Do yourself a favor and order one each. Don’t share. Now, it is beyond me why anyone would order food other than dessert here, but you do you.
The story goes that in 1832, Prince Klemens von Metternich was visiting and asked for a fancy dessert . But the pastry chef was out sick that day, so it fell to the 16-year-old apprentice Franz Sacher. He invented sachertorte, it was delicious, and it became legendary. Sachertorte is a type of chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam, served with unsweetened whipped cream. Let me tell you, you need that whipped cream to cut it. It is so rich, so decadent, that you’ll need to take breaks between bites. Every bite is sensory overload. You’ll taste layers upon layers of chocolate in different textures, broken occasionally by the sweet-tart of the apricot jam. Save some coffee for that last sip—you’ll need it.
I really enjoyed the sachertorte. I didn’t enjoy it enough to order it a second time in Vienna. There are just too many good pastries and desserts to eat the same thing twice. And, if I’m honest, I prefer my chocolate cake to be a little airier and not so dense.
2. Wiener Schnitzel at Figlmüller
“Wiener” … does not mean that. Wiener means “of Vienna”—basically, that something is Viennese. Wiener schnitzel means Viennese schnitzel. Wiener coffee does not mean there is a hot dog in your coffee. Etc.
Wiener schnitzel at Figlmüller is another original and another must in Vienna. Do yourself a favor and make a reservation online. It’s simple, you’ll thank yourself later, and when you fill out the reservation form you have to select a title for yourself: Mr., Mrs., or Doctor. It’s fun. (I chose Doctor. It’s closest to the truth.) And when there’s a line out the door and down the street, and people are angry and complaining and shivering in the cold, glaring at anyone who walks into or out of the restaurant… you can smile politely at them as you breeze by and are seated right away.
We loved our whole experience at Figlmüller, from the service to the food. Our waiter was wonderful; every time he asked us a question and we chose an option, he said “Very good” and gave us a knowing look, like we we had all the right answers to his questions. The only time he didn’t was when we declined to order dessert. Apparently, we did not choose wisely then.
We ordered one original schnitzel, one potato salad, one side salad, lingonberry jam, and two glasses of Grüner Veltliner. Trust me, unless your dining party is composed of several football players, you can split a schnitzel with a friend. Look at it. It’s bigger than the plate it comes on. Don’t be like the couple sitting at the table next to us. They each ordered a schnitzel, she hated it, he ate his and then had to finish hers, and they looked angry the whole time.
Lesson being: order one and share.
My friend/dining partner made an observation that I can’t get out of my head. Schnitzel… is like a fancy chicken nugget. I mean no disrespect to Figlmüller or Austria. A really high-quality, tasty, delicious chicken nugget (that’s not made of chicken). It’s breaded and fried meat. It’s oh so satisfying. The meat is pounded thin, so the breading:meat ratio is ideal and not chicken nugget-like, it cuts well, and soon you’re stuffing your face with delicious schnitzel that tastes like the comfort food you’ve been depriving yourself of all these years.
The potato salad was another star of the meal for me. Their Austrian potato salad is nothing like its American counterpart. No mayo, and lots of zippy, Dijon mustard-y goodness. The potatoes just melt and fall apart in your mouth. It’s served with greens and a balsamic drizzle, a light salad that is just enough to cut through bites of potato.
We also ordered a side salad, which, although it was nothing to get excited about, was very welcome after many days of meat and potatoes and more meat.
We felt very satisfied with ourselves when ordering lingonberry jam instead of ketchup with our schnitzel—which was, as it turns out, the right choice. Why ruin a good schnitzel with Heinz? Then it really would be a chicken nugget.
Figlmüller is worth every bite, and maybe every moment spent waiting in line, although I wouldn’t know. You could stay for dessert and indulge in their apple strudel, but we opted to try as many cafes as possible and sought our apfelstrudel elsewhere.
3. Brunch at Ulrich
You’ll want a reservation, especially for weekend brunch in Vienna. I typically don’t do much for breakfast when I travel—a pastry or yogurt at my Airbnb, or I’ll start exploring late morning and have an early lunch—but I’m glad we made an exception for Ulrich.
The rave reviews about The Big Easy didn’t lie. I don’t know how something so simple was so delicious. A plain omelette? A barely dressed salad? Avocado toast with cottage cheese? These are not things I usually like, but all together, I did. Maybe I was just excited by the fresh taste of simple food well done, not accompanied by fried meat. I’d pass on the pomegranate croissant next time—the icing was like donut frosting. It was sticky and sweet and coated my fingers and was a little too much.
4. Breakfast at Phil
Phil is every hipster’s dream. A cafe/bar/coffee shop in a bookstore? Sign me up. If you need a break from heavy Eastern European food, but want more than a yogurt for breakfast, stop by Phil for a coffee or a cuppa. The atmosphere is cozy, filled with shelves upon shelves, with tables and sofas nestled in every nook and corner. You can sit anywhere and meet other book lovers, and they make some tasty and affordable breakfast sandwiches.
5. Grazing at Vienna’s Naschmarkt
If you’re like me, you’ll want to reserve a whole afternoon to nosh away at Naschmarkt. I walked the length of the entire market at least four or five times, grazing. Save room for the Turkish section—baklava everywhere you look, stuffed peppers and all different kinds of feta around every corner, stands with kebabs and falafel and borek. There are some nice wine bars and cheese boards to be sampled at the other end of the market, too.
Try a falafel at Dr. Falafel (you can buy them individually), as they claim to be the best in town, but if you want more than that you can go to stand 360 and get 20 pieces for €2. Eat a giant, tart, juicy pickle at the stand with the big barrel in front. Sample all the stuffed peppers and olives. Bring a friend so you can share and try everything. Maybe pick up some spiced roasted nuts for the flight home.
For tips, check out my guide to Naschmarkt.
Where Not to Eat in Vienna: Palmenhaus
Palmenhaus is a former emperor’s glasshouse that’s worth a visit, just not for the food. Stop by in the afternoon for a drink or coffee, maybe some cake. Sit on the outdoor patio and people watch if it’s a nice day. It does get pretty warm inside—it is a greenhouse, after all—and it can be uncomfortable to stay for an extended period of time. No reason to spend €30 on mediocre food while you do it, either. Stay for a drink and go elsewhere for dinner.