“Austria,” said Johann, the instructor of our strudel-making class in Salzburg. “Austria is the only country in the world whose cuisine is named for its capital city.” Food there isn’t Austrian cuisine, or national cuisine—nope. The food we ate over the course of our 7-day Vienna itinerary was all “Viennese”.
I’ll confess I was a bit worried about the food coming over the border. I knew I wanted to try as much as possible, but with temperatures pushing 90 degrees F (34 C), I wasn’t sure if I could handle the heaviness of stews and fried meat. But to my relief, though all the meals we ate in Vienna looked hearty, they were actually surprisingly light. So no matter when you visit Vienna, don’t hesitate to try some of these staples.
What to eat in Vienna
While there’s some confusion over where schnitzel comes from (some swear Italy, others, Austrian-Hungary), there’s no doubt it’s associated strongly now with Austria. Wiener schnitzel (which means Viennese schnitzel) is traditionally made with veal cutlet, although you’ll find plenty of variants with pork as well. Chefs pound the cutlet into a fine filet, and then deep-fry it in breadcrumbs and serve with potato salad. Vienna served up some of the largest schnitzels I’d ever seen—oftentimes overwhelming the plate!
Read where to get the best schnitzel in Vienna here!
I typically associate goulash with dark winter dinners. Something heavy and hearty for the cold weather. But we had goulash on a day that was nearly 90-degree F, and I was surprised how light it was. The paprika-based broth was spicy and delicious, and the veggies (potatoes, peas, carrots) and beef were finely chopped, giving the stew a more summery consistency for the warmer months.
Chances are, if you’re going to Vienna someone will demand you eat a slice of Sachertorte. This cake is one of the city’s signature desserts (in a country known for its sweet finishes). Imagine a chocolate sponge cake with apricot filling and dark chocolate ganache frosting…absolute perfection. You might think the cake is named for the Hotel Sacher, which is probably the most famous place to have a slice. In fact, Franz Sacher, a baker’s apprentice first concocted the cake in response to a challenge from the Prince Wenxel von Metternich. The Hotel Sacher has the most famous slice in town, although rumor has it that Café Oberlaa (currently under renovation) beats them at taste.
These can take many forms. I was expecting something more like pierogi, but the dumplings we saw in Austria were more like balls. Gigantic, deep fried balls of dough with sweet and savory fillings inside. In Slovakia, the dumplings were more like the German spatzle, or gnocchi—small, almost noodle-like dough shavings, tossed in cheese and gravy.
As we learned in our strudel-making class in Salzburg, Strudel is one of the national desserts in Austria. A thin dough wraps the filling of the baker’s choice: apricot, apples, and cinnamon are popular choices. Served with fresh cream or ice cream, it goes perfectly with a Viennese coffee.
Known as the “Emperor’s favorite”, Tafelspitz consists of boiled cuts of veal or beef. The meat comes served in a broth with apples and horseradish. Back in the high days of Austria-Hungarian Empire, Emperor Franz Joseph demanded this dish daily (hence the nickname). Nowadays you can see it on the patio tables of Vienna’s many cafés, accompanied by a glass of Grüner Veltliner, a light Austrian white wine.
You make this traditional Salzburg dessert with eggs, cornstarch, and a tart jam. The eggs are whipped into an airy confection, then ladled atop a spoonful of jam in simulation of the three Salzburg mountains. Once baked, the taste is light and almost mousse-y—an absolute treat.
Käsekrainer is to Vienna as Currywurst is to Berlin—your cheap but filling sausage streetfood. A Käsekrainer is, in essence, a gigantic sausage stuffed with cheese. The cheese melts as the sausage cooks, giving each bite of meat a bit of cheesy zest. Available at any of the street-side sausage stands, Käsekrainer comes either on a plate with potato salad or in a massive bread bun.
Coffee culture goes back hundred of years in Vienna, and your trip will definitely suffer if you don’t stop for a cup. Try a Mocca, otherwise known as a Scharzer, which is The Viennese equivalent of a black coffee. Those preferring. a cappuccino-like option should order a Wiener Melange, a Viennese classic, with combines strong coffee with a large dollop of whipped cream.
Read more about our tour of Vienna’s coffeehouses here!
It might seem surprising to recommend lentil soup as something you have to eat in Vienna. But I had one of the best lentil soups of my life on our Vienna trip. Lentils and sausage simmered together in a paprika broth. Chickpeas, potatoes, and other vegetables gave the soup a nice, complex flavor, and a spoonful of crème fraîche (a lighter version of sour cream) added a hint of creaminess. It’s a great lunch snack, especially paired with dumplings!
Popular across southern Germany, Austria, and Switzerland, Leber Käse is a type of meatloaf. Finely ground meat is shaped into a form and then baked. You can eat it sliced and served with mustard, either on its own (with potato salad) or as a sandwich. It has a hearty, salty taste (not unlike corned beef), and goes extremely well with beer.
Everyone gives America a hard time for being so young, but actually the Austria’s modern borders of Austria were established after the American ones. Because Austria was historically the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, what Austrians call “Viennese cuisine” can be found in the surrounding areas too. When we went to Slovakia for our Bratislava day trip, the menus all echoed the foods we’d had to eat in Vienna. But no matter where you’re eating them, these foods are certain to put a smile on your face and a strain on your belt. Mahlzeit!