Category Archives: travel

A Coffee Tour Around Vienna

Cafe Sperl

Confession: I, the self-confessed coffee-phile, nearly said ‘no’ to a trip to Vienna. After walking through Helsinki, Stockholm, Oslo and Bergen, then hopping on a 6 am flight to Brussels before a boat to Amsterdam, the thought of relaxing in London for a few days pre-graduation was tempting. But, the promise of marzipan, pastries and coffee convinced me to clear my calendar and empty my suitcases for a trip to Vienna.

Although Vienna is a famous for its cafés, the city’s reputation as a coffee powerhouse has flagged in recent years. As lighter roasts and an emphasis on origin dominate coffee culture, grand Viennese coffee houses and their unique drinks have become background noise for the coffee tourist. Tim Wendelboe defines destination coffee in the 21st century: you travel for the beans, not the space. The opposite is true in Vienna: you go for the space, not the beans. Accordingly, UNSECO added Viennese coffee culture to their ‘Intangible Heritage List’ in 2011. Rather than focus on a perfectly crafted drink, Vienna coffee houses combine space, beverage, activity, discussion and time to distinguish themselves.

A Frommer’s guidebook might describe the Viennese coffee house as a hybrid of Starbuck’s sit-there-forever model and Italy’s coffee, food and pastry spots. Yet, neither comparison touches upon how the city’s cafés feel special. For that we need a bit of history. Although there is some debate as to how coffee became popular in Austria, it is generally agreed that the capital’s first café opened in 1685. Coffee served with milk and sugar quickly became popular, causing more cafés serving the drink to pop up around the city. Until the 18th century, the coffee house functioned primarily as a way to get caffeinated. Then, writers, artists, politicians and political activists began to use cafes as their offices away from home and the coffee house flourished as a place for intellectual thought and discussion. Unfortunately, its popularity couldn’t last forever and in the 1950’s, due to the influx of zippy international espresso bars, traditional Viennese coffee houses started closing at a staggering rate. While many remain from the café’s hey-day, they no longer exist in the numbers they once did, which gives you a pretty good idea as to the coffee house’s complete saturation in Viennese culture.

Today, Vienna’s coffee houses are a mix between old, nineteenth-century spaces and cafés updated for the 21st century. While the intellectual vigour may not match its nineteenth-century counterpart, they continue to be hospitable to thought, especially when compared to the Starbucks drive-thru. People come to study, talk, work on the computers, read a book, borrow a newspaper, observe the world, refuel or grab a meal. There’s no foot tapping or frenzied line like at Stumptown on a Monday morning. No matter how grand the space may seem, the activities going on inside seem to temper the opulence. A chandelier may be overhead, but at the adjacent table someone taps furiously away on their Macbook Pro with a kleiner brauner and apfelstrudel.

During my time in Vienna I visited three different cafés. Each represented a distinct sector of Vienna’s contemporary coffee scene. My first stop was the famous Café Sperl on Gumpendorfer Straße, which opened in 1880. After landing at Vienna’s airport and slogging to the apartment we rented on the outskirts, my parents and I needed to remind ourselves why we thought a trip to Vienna sounded like a good idea. We needed a coffee and a pastry. We hopped on the U Bahn and walked into an opulent café with the kind of aplomb reserved for those who have no clue what they’re doing. With a little pointing and lot of truncated Italian — the German phrasebook was still in a suitcase, we didn’t know which one — we figured out that we should to take a seat and a waiter would bring us a menu. The German phrasebook wouldn’t have helped with the menu, which was studded with names of drinks that do little to illuminate what you will actually be sipping on. We ordered a melange, a kleiner brauner, a kleiner mocca and a slice of sachertorte. The quality of the coffee wasn’t exactly high — I’d have preferred an espresso from Taveggia — but the simple white cups and silver tray elevated the experience beyond a routine coffee break. Given my obsession with apricots and chocolate, I should have loved sachertorte, but I found the chocolate cake meek and the apricot jam cloying. Before leaving, we asked our waiter for the bill, who we paid directly.

It would be cruel of me to jump straight to my next, and favorite, café without describing Café Sperl’s interior, which manages to be simultaneously extravagant and shabby. The tables and walls are cloaked in a dark wood, but the walls quickly turn to a lighter colour as they climb to the high ceilings decked out with chandeliers. Large windows let ample light shine in, preventing the space from feeling claustrophobic on sunny days and giving it a pleasantly cave-like atmosphere on rainy ones. Yet all this seems to fade away as you sit down at your own cozy, nook-like table, which is most likely a booth. Invariably the seats are old, the wicker slightly fraying if it’s a pull out chair and the heavy cloth barely ripped if it’s a bench. That’s part of the charm. Despite the appearance, despite the fact that every bit of you feels like someone decked out in a suit and top hat should walk in at any moment, the café feels completely casual and welcoming.

Coffee Pirates

Although I like Sperl, I knew I needed to try a third wave café so the next day I headed to Coffee Pirates on Spitalgaße near the university. Despite being summer term, the large space was filled with young people sitting and chatting in lounge chairs, working on their computers, reading books and browsing magazines. There were plenty enough seats for us all to relax without worrying about someone coming in and giving us the evil eye over a conspicuous drained cappuccino cup. Unlike Sperl, ordering at Coffee Pirates was just like ordering at any other third wave café in Europe: you go to the till and, after glancing at the menu, order the drink you planned to. Then, you patiently sit down and wait for a barista to bring your coffee to you. To help ease long wait boredom, Coffee Pirates provides plenty of magazines scattered on tables and around the chairs. In the midst of reading an article about coffee and cheese pairing in Caffeine, my cold brew coffee arrived in a little decanter with a tall glass. I poured and took a dainty sip, with one eye finding out what kind of coffee paired best with Stilton. My cheese-free coffee was soft and sippable, with a pleasantly muted blueberry sweetness that fell into an almost velvety texture. Needless to say, by the time I left about an hour later, my mind had ceased to think about gouda with Guatemalan coffees and was focused on the uniquely delicious brews from Coffee Pirates.

Coffee at Phil

But had I stopped my coffee tour of Vienna at Coffee Pirates and Café Sperl, I would have missed out on a large sector of Vienna’s contemporary coffee scene. These are the cafes that cater to the in-between. They are the spaces where young people go to hang out, relax and drink a reliably good coffee without being asked to think about roast, unique names or origins of beans. To sample this café-style, I stopped by Phil, on Grumpendorfer Straße steps away from Café Sperl. Phil is a café-bookstore-music store hybrid with a full food menu. It was late morning and tables showed remnants of breakfasts well spent. More pointing and truncated Italian, this time with the help of a German phrasebook, helped us figure out that we should sit down and someone would be over shortly with a menu. It worked and we ordered two espressi macchiati, a melange and a couple of croissants. After a leisurely wait, our order arrived and we ripped into the croissants, a layer of non-buttery flakes falling onto the table. The coffees, like at Sperl, were fine, but not spectacular. Dark and toasty, they tasted like the dictionary definition of coffee. As we sipped our drinks and nibbled our pastries, we surveyed at the books that lined the walls and guessed how their German titles would translate into English.

Vienna’s coffee culture has long set it apart from other European capitals and continues to do so. Going to a café in the Austrian capital isn’t about getting the best cup of coffee or a transcendental pastry. It’s about changing the pace for a little while. Maybe you need to leave the library, get up from your desk, bask in a small slice of humanity collected together. And it’s refreshing. Even when the coffee doesn’t shine, even when you’d prefer something brighter and more acidic, the spaces satisfy. Of course, if you order an einspänner, long espresso topped with whipped cream, it’s pretty hard not to leave contented.

6 Cafés to try in Amsterdam

Two For Joy

All it took was one Google search to realise that finding stellar coffee in Amsterdam wasn’t going to be easy. Entering any combination of ‘Amsterdam’ and ‘coffee’ into the search bar brought up a side of the city that I preferred to leave unexplored. Thankfully Sprudge and Dear Coffee I Love You understood the kind of coffee shops that interested me and I managed to craft a list of what I hoped would be stellar Dutch coffee.

Upon arriving in Amsterdam on a rainy morning, my first stop was to find a good coffee and cosy cafe to prepare myself for a day of sightseeing. Unfamiliar with the city’s layout and confused by the distances (walking around in tiny Oslo has a tendency to skew your sense of space), I set out for Two For Joy on Frederiksplein, thinking it would only be a short walk from my Rijksmuseum-adjacent apartment. Fifteen minutes later, I found myself in the café, looking at a sign that clearly read in English and Dutch: ‘For our employee’s safety, we only accept payment via debit card with chip and pin.’ Once I finished wincing at the international fees I’d have to pay, I ordered a cortado and croissant. It’s becoming popular for Amsterdam shops to only allow card payment due to the risk of theft that comes with having a cash register stocked with money. Unfortunately, neither the coffee nor the ambiance was worth the hefty international transaction fee. The service was lackadaisical, the croissant limp and the coffee dark with toasty notes that teetered on the brink of over roasted. I left, caffeinated and fed, but not optimistic about my coffee drinking over the next four days.

Two For Joy

Undaunted, I set out to Espresso Fabriek on Gosschalklaan in Westerpark late the next morning. The café was suitably crowded, but had enough space to accommodate everyone and generate a pleasantly buzz-y atmosphere. Joining in their exuberance, I got on line to order a macchiato and croissant. Ordering a macchiato is always a gamble, and not just because it allows you to better taste the coffee and its possible imperfections. The macchiato can be one of two styles: Italian espresso macchiato or French noisette. This macchiato was Italian, with just a dollop of steamy milk on top of a double shot of espresso with a bracing, grapefruit-acidity. I enjoyed the initial burst of flavour, but after a couple syrupy sips, it became too intense and I craved a splash of milk to tone down the acidity. Meanwhile, the croissant lolled about on the side, helping to occasionally mop up a thick drop of coffee.

Screaming Beans

Remaining undeterred, later that day after a canal-side lunch at Broodje Bert, I walked over to Screaming Beans on Hartenstraat. This time I changed my approach and chose an iced filter coffee. I expected to receive something poured unceremoniously from a huge bottle, as happens at countless sub-par New York coffee shops. But it didn’t happen at Screaming Beans. Filter coffee meant pour over and pour over meant brewed to order at your table. The flavour was slightly floral with notes of smoke and tea and a touch of berry sweetness. If I hadn’t a long list of other cafes to try, I would have gone back the next day.

Coffee Bru

Instead, the next day I took the tram to Coffee Bru on Beukenplein in a residential area of the city. The light and calm space felt more like a well-decorated living room than a hip café. My cortado had enough milk to nullify more than a generic chocolate/toast coffee taste. With the buttery croissant, it was nearly dairy overload. Although Coffee Bruu doesn’t serve the kind of coffee that drags you away from central Amsterdam, the glimpse at the city’s calmer side makes the trip worthwhile. For a moment, I felt as if I had flown back to New York.

Headfirst Coffee

The next day I sampled a different side to Amsterdam at Headfirst Coffee on hip Westerstraat. Unlike other parts of Amsterdam that felt self-consciously styled, the street and surrounding area displayed more personality in their stores and houses. My macchiato had its own refreshing attitude as well. The drink was nicely balanced between lemon-y acidity and more muted flavours. The milk was evenly distributed throughout the coffee — French, noisette style — and was almost too easy to sip. Afterwards, I was content to face the rainy day brewing outside.

Koko Coffee & Design

Of course, when it rains and you’re a tourist, you need to find a way to get inside, which is how I ended up at Koko Coffee and Design in the red light district that afternoon. There are clothes in the front, but a sandwich board advertises coffee on the street, lest you should think that only style is inside. The space is light and, for a shop, the seating is surprisingly abundant, with a communal table near the till and some more, smaller tables in the back of the store. I ordered a macchiato, which came to my table a few minutes later in a delightful little earthenware cup. The macchiato had a dollop of milk on top, with just a tiny bit of steamed milk in the coffee. It was delicious and easily my favorite coffee of Amsterdam. The coffee was lemon-y and puckering, with just enough milk to take the edge off but not ruin the subtle nuances of the coffee. If only I had visited sooner.

Neither Amsterdam nor their coffee scene bowled me over, though I was happy to better understand this popular European capital. Sometimes difficult to navigate, whether for the bikes or the street layout, seeing Amsterdam puts popular European tourist spots into perspective. If your time in the city is limited, be sure to stop by Screaming Beans, Headfirst Coffee and Koko Café and Design, which would be among the tops coffee shops in any city with a good coffee scene.

A coffee lover’s tour of Helsinki

Johan & Nyström

The search for coffee in Helsinki starts with a fact: the average Finn drinks 5-6 cups of coffee per day. Unfortunately, you quickly realise that the majority of these cups aren’t crazy good as the number for speciality cafés in the capital barely reaches Copenhagen and Stockholm’s quality café overload. I went to Helsinki for a few days leading up to midsummer when the weather was ‘as cold as Christmas’, or so the greeter who showed my mother and I around the city said the Helsingin Sanomat’s headline read. Frequent coffee breaks, kahvitauko, were the perfect excuse to escape the highly changeable, and constantly chilly, weather.

Good Life Coffee

Our coffee tour began at Good Life Coffee in Kallio, Helsinki’s Greenpoint. Our greeter helped us find our way along two trams, winding paths and hills. The space isn’t huge, but has a minimal atmosphere that’s immediately welcoming. You can cuddle up on the long corner bench and place your coffee on a low white table while gazing out the huge window. If you prefer a tall table, there are two on the right side. The one in front seats about four people, the one behind, approximately three. When the sun is shining, you can enjoy one of the tables out front. We ordered a filter coffee, an espresso macchiato — be specific, they also serve latte macchiato — and a croissant. The filter coffee was what you want filter coffee to be like: bright and lemony but not astringent. After stomping around Helsinki, the macchiato’s creamy texture and sweet, milk chocolate flavours was more satisfying than it otherwise would have been. The croissant was buttery, though a touch bready and lacking layers, paired well with the coffee. Good Life Coffee might not be in the centre of Helsinki, but it’s only a short walk from the central train station and art museum — not to mention next door to Hakaniemen Kauappahalli, the modern market hall — making it the perfect excuse to see the city’s residential side.

Kaffa Roastery

Across Helsinki, in a different neighbourhood with a different ambiance, you’ll find Kaffa Roastery, located next a housewares shop. The space, which just-not a basement, is small, cosy. Order your coffee at the till and hop up on a white plastic folding chair situated in front of a bank of windows. Don’t worry, it’s not dark. The windows are just high enough to let light filter in. I chose the house coffee, which was brewed on aeropress. As the barista brought me my coffee a few minutes later, she told me about their current blend, made from a mix of Guatemalan and Indonesian beans. The first sip tasted like red berries with a balanced, sweet acidity like you find when eating cherries or currants. While the flavour was quite intense at first, it gently melted away, leaving a whisper of coffee and no heavy, syrupy aftertaste. I gleefully sipped away at the entire cup while reading My Struggle: Book One with no regard to the fact that it was quickly approaching six pm. That was fine because, around midsummer in Finland, the sky gives few hints that the evening is about to arrive.

Fratello Torrefazione

But arrive it did, as it always must. Not that my body realised that and so, when morning arrived, I was exhausted having barely slept. After dragging myself out of bed and shoving some rye bread topped with kermajuusto cheese into my mouth for what I felt amounted to a Finnish breakfast, I ran to Fratello Torrefazione on Yliopistonkatu 6. Unlike other cafes in the city that serve up light, Nordic-style brews, Fratello Torrefazione is heavily influenced by dark, Italian bars and that’s just describes the décor. The cappuccino I had there was notably darker roasted than the other coffees I had in the city. It was rich and chocolaty with that slightly dull, toasted flavour you can find at any number of Italian cafes across the world. Fortunately though, it did the trick and fuelled me for a stop around Seurasaari Ulkomuseo, Helsinki’s open-air museum that’s hidden in the woods just a short bus ride away from the center.

Johan & Nyström

As everyone knows who drinks coffee, caffeine’s energizing effects soon wear off, especially after climbing around old buildings. After returning from Seurasaari and having lunch at Vanha Kauppahalli, the recently refurbished old market, I walked through the harbour and crossed a bridge to Johan & Nyström. Although I’d previously visited the Swedish roaster’s flagship café in Stockholm, I wanted to visit their Helsinki café because it’s frequently cited in article discussing the capital’s best coffee spots. Located on a pier, the room is large with low lighting and cave-like in the best way possible. There’s a bookshelf dividing the bar from some seats, which displays different coffee-related merchandise such as aeropress, logo-ed mugs and bags Johan & Nyström beans. The seating is varied, with some proper chairs and tables on one side and sofas and chairs elsewhere. What the seating lacked in coherence, the coffee made up for. My macchiato was rich with a blackberry flavor that held the depth of a good, slightly bitter chocolate. It sustained me throughout the afternoon, but fortunately not into the evening. When my five am wake-up call came, early enough to make a nine am flight to Stockholm, I was relatively well-rested.

Although Helsinki might have a ways to go to catch up with the complete saturation of brilliant coffee spots that you find in Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen, the city has an interesting selection of cafes for the coffee-enthusiast. And those were just the ones I visited. Had I planned my trip exclusively around coffee, I would have visited Freese Coffee, which, until recently, was only open at the weekend. If I had more time, I would have visited Kahvila Sävy on Aleksis Kiven Katu, a good tram ride outside of center. Add in some pulla and you’ve got the makings for an unforgettable stay in Helsinki.



Drinking Coffee in Bergen

Apple cake and cappuccino

You’d be forgiven for thinking that the coffee lover’s Grand Norwegian Tour finishes at Oslo. The journey doesn’t have an obvious next leg. If you had to think of one, you wouldn’t choose Bergen, with its twisting lanes, large cruise ships and hilly landscape. But, should you find yourself in Bergen, you’ll discover there’s a surprising amount of charming cafes to sample in this small coastal city.

Det Lille Kaffekompaniet

Googling ‘best coffee in Bergen’ sends you down a one-way street to Det Lille Kaffekompaniet. One visit and you’ll understand why. Although the café is steps away from the crowded funicular up Mt. Fløibanen, the immediate surrounding area transforms from crowded tourist confusion into coffee oasis. White clapboard houses line the street, flowers bloom spontaneously between cobblestones and some are artfully arranged in window boxes. With the beautiful scenery, and neighboring chaos, it’s easy to walk distractedly past Det Lille Kaffekompaniet. But when you do spot it, you’ll find it impossible to turn away. Not because the interior is attractive; it isn’t. There’s a smattering of tables and chairs with a bar area that is suffocating-ly dark for summer, but acceptable for winter. If it’s a nice day, drink your coffee outside where there are some tables nicely arranged around the door. Fortunately, the two times I stopped by were lovely and I was able to enjoy my cortado and filter coffee outside. The coffee is deeply flavoured but not over powering with a nicely mellow finish that complements the laid back environment. But the stellar slice of apple cake, and cinnamon roll, could have influenced my opinion.

Cortado and cappucino

After getting a taste of less-touristy Bergen, you’ll likely want more. Make your way down a hill to Kaffemisjonen on Korskirkeallmenning. The café is big and surprisingly cosy given its high ceilings, concrete floors and metal tables. When I went on a sunny Wednesday morning in late June, the space was nearly empty except for a few people reading the newspaper and working on computers. My cortado was a touch milkier than I’d prefer and the taste verged on milk chocolate drowned in milk. The cappuccino was a similar milky disappointment. If I went back, I’d choose either a filter coffee or an espresso. They serve plenty of different roasters, enough to make you become a regular without ever having a go-to coffee. But if you’re pressed for time, Kaffemisjonen might the place to miss.


Because you won’t want to miss Bastant and nearby Bryggen, the UNESCO world heritage site and reconstruction of medieval Hanseatic trading village which draws cruise ships from all over the world to Bergen. You can wander through alleys, admire the restoration work and gawk at wooden beams all while dithering on whether or not to buy a commemorative reindeer sweater. When you grow weary, wind your way to the middle alley and look for Bastant. Bastant is a proper café, the kind you’d be happy to find in any neighbourhood in any city, not to mention a reconstructed medieval city in Norway. Inside is a dimly lit sanctuary. There’s a bar immediately to the left of the entrance with ample seating scattered through out the café. They serve meals and pastries as well as a hot drinks menu that includes things like hot chocolate and chai in addition to coffee. If you’re eager to immerse yourself in Bryggen’s unique atmosphere, nab one of the tables outside. Even if you want to avoid the crowds with cameras, Bastant’s coffee merits a stop. My cortado — a shot of espresso with regular milk poured in according to my preference— was my favorite of the coffees I had in Bergen. It was rich with hints of blueberry and blackberry that were reminiscent of wine. Had I more than a day in Bergen, I would have returned to try a pour over with a cookie, regardless of whether I could sit outside.


Drinking coffee and walking around Bergen reminded me of Bristol and not just because of the hills. The coffee scene is small, but has the kind of cafés at which you’d be happy to be a regular. I’d love to enjoy the streets around Det Lille Kaffekompaniet a few more times. If I went back to Kaffemisjonen, I’d know what to order. When I needed my dose of history, I’d eagerly sip a cortado and nibble on a cookie at Bastant. Bergen might not have Oslo’s reputation for high-profile coffee, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t great cups hiding behind a few select corners.

Beyond Tim Wendelboe: Drinking Coffee in Oslo

Tim Wendelboe

Why go to Oslo? The coffee. While Norwegians have historically consumed vast quantities of the brew (nowadays the country drinks approximately 1.13 cups daily per capita), Norwegian coffee culture has only recently received international attention. Much of this attention is thanks to Tim Wendelboe. After being crowned World Barista champion in 2004 and World Tasting Champion in 2005, Wendelboe became known as Oslo’s prime coffee guy. His café in trendy Grünerløkka opened in 2007 to educate people about coffee and serve ethically sourced, carefully crafted drinks. It’s done well. The roastery won the Nordic Roaster Championship for three years in a row, from 2008 to 2010.

Coffee at Time Wendelboe

Fortunately, Oslo’s coffee scene doesn’t stop at Wendelboe. Cafes serving lightly roasted and expertly brewed coffee dot the city. From the commercial centre to residential neighbourhoods, a good cup is never far away in Oslo. And it’s not just because of the city’s small size. There are plenty of good cafés any city would be lucky to have. That’s why I aimed to explore the city’s coffee culture as best I could during my day-and-a-half stay. The caffeine sped up the adventure.

Breakfast at Kaffebrenneriet

My first stop in Oslo was Tim Wendelboe. The café was celebrating their seventh anniversary and all the drinks were a celebratory 1 NOK. Customers streamed in, ordering drinks to go or finding a spot to sit and stay. Some chose coffees brewed on aeropress while others sipped on espresso-based drinks or a special shakerato. The menu, of which there is a single copy by the till, is written in both English and Norwegian. I ordered a cup of the Dumerso (from Ethiopia) and the Finca Tamana (the Colombian coffee which is arguably Wendelboe’s most well known). The flavour and presentation beg you to treat the experience with the ceremony of a tea service as opposed to the mindless gulp of a routine refuelling. The coffee is served in a metal pitcher on a wooden platter with some water on the side. Gently pour a little in the white cup, notice its translucent, reddish hue and drink the delicately pungent brew. I enjoyed the almost mouth-puckering lemon tang of Finca Tamana, but the aromatic fruit and floral notes of the Dumerso kept me going back for one more sip.

Coffee and croissant at Fuglen

The same could be said for Oslo’s coffee culture: after one sip, you crave another. Avoid Kaffebrenneriet, Norway’s answer to Starbucks, and you’ll find Oslo’s coffee culture lives up to its reputation for sophisticated spaces and exotic light roasts. Should Kaffebrenneriet tempt you, walk a few blocks away and you’ll discover another coffee shop. If you’re lucky, you’ll find Fuglen, which has been in business since 1963. This cosy café is a stone’s throw away from the Nasjonalgalleriet and a perfect stop if you’re wearied from fighting the crowds in front of The Scream. Fuglen sources their beans from the city’s well-known roasteries, including: Supreme Roastworks, Kaffa, Solberg & Hansen and Tim Wendelboe. I ordered a Hunkute brewed on aeropress, which was silky and light with delightful cherry tones. Then it was time for another.


To work the caffeine out of my system, I sped to Mocca in the lush Frogner district (its sister café, Java in St. Hanshaugen, is also supposed to be good, but unfortunately I didn’t have time to visit). Whereas Fuglen has a snug, winter atmosphere, Mocca radiates Scandinavian summer light. Large windows, tall ceilings and a simple bar combine for an effortless space. My cortado — a shot of espresso with a splash of un-steamed milk poured— was simple harmony with rich and thick espresso and cold, creamy milk. Unlike some espressos that coat your mouth in chocolate and tobacco, the shot at Mocca was velvety and surprising; on one sip it tasted like berries, the next teased you with almond notes.

Drinking coffee in Oslo is exciting because it’s a highly anticipated that consistently thwarts and surmounts your expectations. Anticipation and normalcy merge in a way you didn’t expect, but are glad to have discovered. One coffee is floral and the next hits you with citrus. You have a milky and dull cortado at Kaffebrenneriet that rivals what you find at Starbucks for boredom. Throughout all the taste and space experiences, you get the sense that Oslo dwellers care about their coffee. Differences emerge, surely everyone doesn’t worship at the altar of Wendelboe, but it’s welcoming cafés, thoughtful food and attention to customer service that make drinking coffee in Oslo a worthy reason to plan a trip.

Addresses mentioned:

Tim Wendelboe, Grünersgate 1, Weekdays from 8:00 am – 6:00 pm, Weekends from 11:00 am – 5:00 pm

Fuglen, Universitetsgaten 2, Weekdays from 7:30 am – 7:00 pm, Weekends from 10 am – 7/6:00 pm

Mocca, Niels Jules Gate 70, Weekdays from 7:30 am – 5:00 pm, Weekends from 9/10:00 am – 5:00 pm

Kaffebrenneriet, locations throughout the city, hours vary by location

Do you take the airplane meal?

Breakfast at Kaffebrenneriet The airplane meal service is an unexpected return to school days. Business class passengers are private school kids, receiving chef-approved meals with a heated dessert; eager economy travellers are lucky students from good public schools, getting first pick off a limited menu; back row passengers are students from poorly performing schools, left with other’s rejected dishes. We pretend to ignore this stratification. After all, we’re adults. We’ve bought out seats and chosen our fate in a way the schoolchild eating industrial mash for lunch can only dream about. Yet, whereas in school we were limited to an institutional tray, we forget a plastic airplane meal as it slips into the background of a trip. In the tight economy cabin the meal service occurs according to the deliberately vague mini-menu. If ‘tender chicken in a creamy mustard sauce’ isn’t available, nod politely as a flight attendant assures you that ‘beef chilli con carne’ makes an exceptional substitute. Don’t point out that the menu confusingly bills the former as ‘grilled chicken’ and that including ‘beef chilli’ in the name of the latter makes ‘con carne’ redundant. The juxtaposition of name and description parallels Alain de Botton’s description of airplane food in A Week at the Airport: ‘aeroplane food stands at a point of maximum tension between the man-made and the natural, the technological and the organic.’ This tension arises not only in how the food is processed, but also in how the cabin space and airline influence our interpretation of the meal. ‘Beef chilli con carne’ needs repetition to synthetically reinforce the meat’s taste, which is only a vague notion in the dish itself. We shouldn’t question the disparity between ‘grilled chicken’ with ‘creamy mustard sauce’ because the gap manifests our performance of an ordinary act, eating, in an extraordinary location, thirty seven thousand feet above sea level. Yet the plane, with its collapsible trays and electronic monitors, constructs an environment that ignores the remarkable as it attempts to reproduce the normal. This space, like the school cafeteria, isn’t for discovery but for refuelling as we move from one curiosity to another. Near Seurasaari During my last flight I ate ‘fusilli pasta,’ which was described as: ‘spiral shaped pasta in a tasty woodland mushroom sauce. With Italian shaved cheese.’ I decided this would be tastier than chicken with ‘mashed potatoes, leeks and grilled vegetables.’ Pleasingly ‘tasty woodland sauce’ was really ‘macaroni and cheese,’ which the menu could have described as: ‘pasta baked in a creamy Italian cheese emulsion. Studded with mushrooms and aromatic herbs.’ Just like the pasta meals served in school, the noodles melted on your tongue; the vegetables hinted at wholesomeness; and the cheese was dried out on one side. It wasn’t a ‘tasty’ meal, but rather the idea of one. The unexpected bonuses truly make me feel as if I’ve entered an airborne cafeteria. I’m embarrassed like a school kid by the footnote besides ‘pudding’ that informs me that the term means ‘British for dessert’ and not ‘pot of custard’ as my untrained mind erroneously assumes. After learning my cultural translations, I deserve a reward. Or rather, I deserve ‘pure indulgence’ and to ‘let [myself] go.’ Like earning a gold star, the bequeathing of this good thing follows strict rules: you’ll enjoy, you’ll take what’s give to you, refuse or ask for anything else and you’ll get a punishing stare. When in a building full of adolescents, or on a claustrophobic plane, it’s a wise idea to grin and bear it rather than stand out. Croissant from Papadeli Then there are times when receiving such stares feels like the only option. There are times when the thought of a banana pudding over the north Atlantic makes your stomach turn. The eyebrows of your seatmates raise and, for a moment, the plane has eyes just for you. Because even when we want to participate in the communal ‘yum, yum’ of afternoon tea (‘that great British tradition’) sometimes our personal sanity is more important. Other passengers open that cardboard box like a horde of teens foraging for their afternoon snack, but participating in their community becomes irrelevant as the plane descends slowly and the school day winds down. After your brief vacation from the real world, everything takes on new meaning. All you have to do is remember your industrial meal to realise how good you have it on the ground.

The Paradox of the Hostel Breakfast Buffet


In the structuralist’s world ‘Oslo’ is the fixed signifier of ‘expensive.’ Or rather, dining in Oslo makes the budget traveller picture a thick pile of kroner flying out the window. Guidebooks and travel blogs agree: Oslo is nice, but be prepared to eat fast food or starve. The city’s central youth hostel understands the money-conscious traveller’s predicament. To satisfy them the hostel offers a free breakfast buffet. That is, if your idea of a bountiful morning meal is a plate flooded with canned pickled herring, cucumber slices and processed cheese.

If hotel breakfasts are expanses of unbridled abundance, hostel breakfasts show corresponding restraint. Reviews of hotels and hostels can easily be divided into those which praise the breakfast buffet, ‘I need 3 pages to compliment the breakfast buffet .… Waffles, donuts, cereal, toast, bagels, fruit, sausage patties … ’ or those that lament it, ‘the offerings were the same everyday even though it states on the web site that the options change.’ In these reviews, abundance inspires good feelings and lack of variety causes disappointment. Since plenty breeds positivity, hostels provide a similar quantity as hotels at a lower quality. Hotel breakfasts don’t occupy space in our minds because they offer good food, but because they offer choice. Choice transposes marks the food, causing the guest to taste it as superior. As Julian Baggini points out, ‘all-you-can-eat plugs into the primitive hunter-gatherer urge to stock up on calories while we can for tomorrow we might starve’ (Baggini, 161). We’re not eating at the breakfast buffet to taste carefully crafted food, but rather to savor primal abundance. Thus, hostels can give you plenty of food that mirrors what you might normally eat at breakfast. After all, abundance in Oslo is priced beyond the hosteller’s reach.


The breakfast buffet is a choose-your-own-adventure game: savoury or sweet? Oslo central suggests savoury. Plates of sliced cucumber, tomato and peppers sit under a cooler next to thick pieces of processed meats and cheese. An overflowing bowl of pickled herring and an unidentified meaty terrine rest on the cooler’s side. For those who want a cooked breakfast, there’s a boiler for eggs and a toaster for an oversized loaf of crumbly bread. Two types of crisp breads mark the transition from savoury to sweet (the crisp bread display seems plentiful until you buy lunch at the supermarket and realise that even the smallest grocery store stocks at least five varieties). There are several jams and a jar of chocolate hazelnut spread filled to the brim as if some people thought to take jam, only to dump it back in jar. The same goes for the faux-nutella, though the few trails of chocolate-stickiness on the counter show that someone ate a sweet meal this morning. If none of this excites you, you could choose a bowl of imitation corn flakes, faux-cocoa pops or banana stuffed muesli topped with UHT milk. It may take a few moments to wrap your head around the foods on offer, but when you do, you’ll likely be left wondering: is this a bountiful breakfast buffet?

The sense of scarcity is the hangover after lavish offerings from previous hotels. Gone are the typical hotel indulgences of pastries and bacon causing Oslo’s version of plenty to appear as nothing. Your motivation at previous breakfasts was different from your motivation in overpriced Oslo. In Italy, hostellers and hotel dwellers opt for breakfast to avoid the perpetually sugar coated options at the local cafe. In English hotels, they have the luxury of a cooked breakfast. In America, the hotel breakfast helps them avoid the sausage-egg-pancake diner breakfast. The decision to capitalise upon Oslo’ expensive reputation presents the budget traveller as a figure destined for suffering.

Chicken sandwich

Rather than help them, Oslo’s youth hostel exploits budget travellers and their desire to save a few kroner. From the plate of pizza at reception that’s discreetly advertised for 5 euro to the ban on eating outside the kitchen the hostel insists that Oslo prohibits a frugal traveller from exploring the city through food. The fact that money-conscious tourists continue to arrive and spend indicates that Oslo’s signification oscillates between ‘expensive’ and ‘experience.’ A cheap hostel breakfast is acceptable both because it exploits the traveller’s lack of kroner and because it says: ‘let me give you an experience that you’ll keep talking about.’ It’s true. The bleak pickled herring, inedible muesli and depressing faux-tella made the worst meal I ate in Scandinavia, while Oslo was my favorite city. Yet maybe we ought to be thanking Oslo and their perplexing hostel breakfast. As Tom Haines comments while describing the rise of America’s one-size-fits-all hotel breakfasts, ‘… as individuals, we miss the discovery that can come with the unexpected.’ Looking at a breakfast buffet that challenges our expectations forces us to encounter and become comfortable with plurality and new meanings. Oslo doesn’t exist in a structuralist world, but rather one in which it can mean several things at once.