Category Archives: travel

A Trip to the Museum

Louvre Pyramid

You’re in a room, surrounded by pots. The walls are off-white grey, the floor a cool putty tile. These pots, or amphorae as they’re described, are old, but their meticulous preservation belies their years. You should look as good at 5,000 years old. Or is it 1,000? You amble over to the nearest display case and count five — no, wait! seven — specimens studiously exhibited. In between the matching jars sit various attractive artefacts whose utility remains obscure to the modern eye. A quick glance at a nearby placard — the same silvery-putty as the display’s base and the floor — reveals that the amphora in the upper left hand corner dates back to 420 B.C. from the Greek colony of Lucania in Southern Italy. And that small, colourful who-knows-what? It’s a carved gem from 350 B.C. Welcome to the museum, home to history, hidden wonder and society’s shifting cultural priorities.

We visit museums to absorb our material past, thereby engaging in a dialogue with humanity’s values. Stroll through the galleries at the Met, British Museum, Hermitage or Rijksmuseum and you see society’s prized possessions: we saved this, this matters to us. These ostensibly immortal relics allow us to believe that we, too, could live forever. Every pot and painting possesses a creator who, like us, once ate, drank and slept and continues to speaks their descendents. Once categorised in a display case, the trajectory toward eternity seems simple; exist, make something, die, exist through object. Yet, as the museum-goer circles in search of the galleries they want to see realises, the linear path from artefact to immortality is a tortuous maze.

Despite the museum’s unique ability to curate a vision of humanity across temporal, spatial and cultural boundaries, they’re battling to stay relevant in a spectacle-obsessed world. New York’s Museum of Modern Art highlights stunt installations to draw drama-ready crowds. The Met creates blockbuster costume exhibits to fashion an Instagram-friendly museum experience. As Jerry Saltz argued in his article on the new Whitney building for New York , modern museums must make sure their galleries and exhibitions are hospitable to social media-minded visitors in order to gain the free publicity necessary to ensure their financial viability. From advance ticketing to comically long queues, the modern museum boasts the crowds of a pre-Christmas shopping trip. On one hand, this could illustrate a broadened appreciation for connecting with history and culture. On the other hand, the hype may hide a superficial interest.

Art Museum, Berge

If we visit museums, in part, to increase our social capital and fulfil our duties as good citizens, then we can say that the museum’s space is as important — if not more so — than the works on display in crafting our artistic experience. As the recent debate on the introduction of a Guggenheim in Helsinki reveals, a museum has the potential to change the mental geography of a city’s inhabitant, rendering them variously more open and closed to money, politics, and power in addition to aesthetics. The same tension exists within the galleries, which dictates the flow of people through the space. Walk through the central rooms — well funded with prime real estate and culturally pertinent artefacts — and you battle for floor space. Stroll around the periphery and you commune privately with the lesser-known artists, whom the local economy and political and cultural beat has forgotten. This struggle between excitement and emptiness suffuses today’s discourse on museums; it’s the struggle between maintaining integrity and winning public attention.

Some museums may effortlessly woo crowds with their compelling and popular artefacts, but most — as Helsinki’s Guggenheim debate displays — must rely on something else to generate interest. There’s the thrill of corroborating Munch’s The Scream against the pervasive imitations. There’s the awe at seeing Michelangelo’s David in its towering, marble glory. But most museums can’t boast grand cultural touchstones and no museum packs every room full of stunning, recognizable works. In the absence of in-built awe, the museum attendee must unite their personal interests, the museum’s collection and what history has to present through whatever means are at their disposal.

Take a spectacular Bucchero drinking-cup on view at the British Museum. To a modern mind, this Etruscan bowl-like mug looks relatively ordinary, apart from its large handles and odd etchings scrawled on the smooth black surface. Nothing about the mug immediately belies its 2,600 years nor suggests the importance of its written engraving for Etruscan scholarship (the Etruscans are notoriously mysterious in part because they left behind no written record apart from what’s found on artefacts). Stop, read and contemplate: there are cultural marvels hidden in the mug’s form. The online description says the etching reads, ‘mi repesunas aviles’ or ‘I belong to Avile Repesuna’. Although it might be useful to know that Avile was a common name for the Etruscans and that Repesuna was a family name, these facts seem secondary to the object’s underlying truth: 2,600 years ago this cup was an important object for someone as alive as you and I are right now. It belonged to someone who felt it important enough to write out the name of their father/master/husband/other relation on their drinking cup. More than a purely aesthetic representation of past cultures, the British Museum’s Etruscan Bucchero drinking cup incites us to reflect on our humanity and our relationship with posterity.

Marithuis, The Hauge

Yet our sparse knowledge of the works on display prevents us from engaging in personal reflection in museum galleries. In The Art of Travel, Alain de Botton argues that the ability to ask questions about our surroundings enables us to bridge spatial, temporal and physical barriers. Unfortunately, short token descriptions of amazing objects detract from the visitor’s ability to ask questions and relate a foreign object’s historical context to their contemporary web of meaning. A black handled chalice might inspire perfunctory awe, but understanding how the Etruscan’s favourite mug developed into your extra-large Cath Kidston-flower bedecked drinking vessel requires complex consideration. Perhaps increasingly entertainment packed exhibitions and emphasis on social media prevent the individual from seeing the wondrous division between their current existence and the human history of the objects on display.

The tension between knowledge, interest and relevance characterises the pressures on today’s museums, which must find new ways to engage those accustomed to spectacle while celebrating the artefacts on display. Whether we’re asked to take selfies or analyse thought-provoking exhibitions, today’s museums ask the visitor to for a new sort of participation in forming their art experience. Given this interaction between individual, space and object, the museum teaches us not only about humanity’s history, but also about our current social climate. It is the museum’s ability to display a spectrum of history that demands they participate in current viewing trends. As art’s social role shifts, the museum must react to the shifting viewpoints of its patrons.

How to Enjoy Delicious Danish Øllebrød at Home

Homemade øllebrød

Soaked scraps of dried rye bread boiled to mush. Smooth, sour porridge topped with thick skyr or frothy æggesnaps (creamed egg yolks). Meet øllebrød: meaning ‘beer bread’ in Danish, a more accurate translation would be ‘weirdly delicious porridge’. This is oatmeal, lost to the dark Danish winter. This is food, not an art piece designed to garner social media likes. But don’t fault øllebrød for its humble appearance. After one spoonful, you’ll realise anyone can succumb to øllebrød’s spell of nostalgia, Scandinavian heritage not required.

Øllebrød, pronounced ooh-le-brooht, was a staple dish for Medieval Danes, though nowadays kids are more likely to eat it for breakfast on chilly winter mornings. The meal’s origins remain shrouded in mystery. Some believe monks invented the dish, dipping old rye bread into beer to soften the dried out scraps. The next morning, they’d heat up the crumb filled liquid and savour the resulting porridge for breakfast. Others trace øllebrød to the peasant home. Bread husks were dropped into a bubbling pot, warm beer added and the whole thing simmered. People would serve themselves periodically throughout the day when hunger stuck. Regardless of its origins, rye bread porridge has been mythologized in Danish culture and now serves as a routine reminder of the individual’s place in the nation’s history and culture.

Despite the dish’s unknown birthplace, the recipe has ostensibly withstood change. To prepare, you boil some stale rugbrød — dense Danish rye bread — and add beer — usually hvidtøl, a low alcohol brew (many modern versions omit this). Then, cook the mixture until it forms in a spoonable, mushy paste. Today’s palates might enjoy topping it with a dusting of sugar or a luxurious dollop of something cold and creamy. While øllebrød is unique to Denmark, other Northern countries serve up similar rye based dishes. Finns enjoy mämmi, a dessert sweetened with sorghum and flavoured with orange rind. Mämmi is most commonly served at Easter, while øllebrød is eaten for breakfast throughout the year. Given its cultural specificity, øllebrød serves as a way for Danes to assert their storied cultural identity on a daily basis.




As Korean parents induct toddlers into the world of kimchi, Danish adults usher children through the cultural rite of rye bread porridge. And, like marmite divides the British public, rye bread porridge cleaves Danish opinions: you love it or you hate it. Memories help Danes acquire a taste for øllebrød. Danish bloggers recall eating a steaming bowl as a special wintertime treat when visiting grandparents or as an indulgent breakfast to steel them against the cold. With the assertive tang of sourdough rye, liking øllebrød is easier for those reared with an appreciation for strong, sour flavours.[1]

The breakfast has endured rollercoaster fortunes: popular in the Middle Ages through to the early twentieth-century, forgotten for most of the twentieth century, and newly popular in the twenty-first. A focus on rye’s health benefits and Scandinavia’s rise as an epicentre of cool have pushed this stick-to-your-ribs breakfast into the spotlight in Denmark and beyond. Øllebrød is everywhere. It is on Pinterest. It is on Instagram. Craving øllebrød but don’t have any rye bread? Try instant porridge flakes, available at your local Irma supermarket! From Copenhagen to New York, the porridge graces restaurant menus, appearing as an ice cream-laden dessert at New York’s Acme and as a hip breakfast at Copenhagen’s Grød. Bloggers embrace the porridge, citing the foodie film Babette’s Feast in which some Danish girls teach French Babette to prepare øllebrød. What was once a Danish taste has now gone global: Nordic-philes around the world masquerade as Danish children as they revel in the rustic joy of eating mushy boiled bread.

Ready to eat? Good. Here’s a simplified version — sans beer — that cooks up quickly in the morning. This isn’t your super authentic recipe. This is your adapted, non-Danish kitchen recipe (want the real deal? Try this recipe and this one). My version was tested using both Finnish-style Ruis bread —softer than rugbrød and unseeded — and a Danish-style rye bread from Bread’s Bakery in New York. Enjoy!

Quick Øllebrød — serves 1

100 grams rye bread

200 ml water

Pinch of salt

Yogurt, almonds, raisins to top

Crumble rye bread in a pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, stirring occasionally. Once boiling, reduce to a steady simmer and cook for approximately ten to fifteen minutes. Stir intermittently. When the bread has completely broken down, it can be taken off the heat. Cook until it reaches the consistency you’d like (somewhere between runny and oatmeal-dense is a good start).

[1] Other strong, sour flavours popular in Denmark include: pickled herring, liquorice, currants.

How to Snowshoe for Beginners



Go snowshoeing! All you need is a pair of shoes and the ability to walk!! This appeal reverberates throughout snowshoe literature, but — in my experience — a successful expedition requires more. You’ll need warm clothes and, if you’re the whinging sort, waterproof pants. You’ll want insulated gloves, a backpack, some water and trail mix, not to mention a pack of disposable hand warmers. Although snowshoeing may have once been a question of strapping on flotation-friendly shoes and walking across deep drifts, modern sensibilities have complicated the sport, evidencing a shift in how contemporary society moves.

Neither heroic age explorers nor intrepid mountaineers sparked my snowshoeing mania. Nancy Drew launched my desire to crunch over the white stuff. I was twelve, playing White Wolf of Icicle Creek. I sent the game gratuitously crunch-crunching over simulated snow in my artificial shoes. Even though snowshoeing starred in my winter reveries for years before I strapped actual metal frames onto my real-life boots, those dreams opened me to the sport’s unique pace and beauty.

As ice skating began as a way to converse energy in frigid Northern Europe, snowshoeing sprung out of necessity. Snowshoes helped those living in cold regions reduce the effort needed to cross areas blanketed in snow. Unfortunately, since early snowshoes were composed of wood, clues to the shoes’ origins have dissolved along with the snow they traversed. We may be momentarily sated by British archaeologist, Jacqui Wood’s assertion that Ötzi, a remarkably preserved corpse found near Bolzano in Northern Italy, died wearing his snowshoes. In the absence of a distinct origin, the modern snowshoe-r may freely transpose their understanding of the sport onto its history.

Despite the uncertain provenance, researchers have charted the snowshoe’s development in relation to the terrain in which the shoes were found. Given the distinct appearances of snowshoes in North America and Europe, nomadic Central Asian tribes are thought to have invented the shoe, taking their gear with them as they dispersed. Thus, the unique snowshoes in Northern Europe, Canada and Eastern United States arose from a common ancestor. The variations we see were subsequent adaptations to suit each terrain’s unique challenges. In the North Eastern United States, Native Americans favoured Bear Paw shoes. These shoes were wide and circular, perfect for manoeuvring in densely wooded areas. Maine Native Americans preferred a longer style, aptly called the Maine snowshoe, that allowed the user to move quickly across large expanses. Within each region, various shoes would be interchanged throughout the season, depending on the specific snow conditions. Although the snowshoe’s origins are up for debate, the relationship between the snowshoe’s local use and environment marked, and continues to mark, the shoe’s development.

Trees on the trail

Modern snowshoes seem the natural progression in snowshoe’s evolution, responding to today’s multi-purpose manner of sport as previous models responded to topographic particularities. Gone are the regionally specific, artfully woven foot beds. Today we enjoy zippy aluminium frames with waterproof neoprene foot beds and tough steel crampons. A standard pair of snowshoes can transition from backcountry terrain to rolling hills, reflecting the varied approach the modern sportsperson craves. We aren’t static in our practice; we move between regions, shifting landscapes and lengthening our hikes. Although certain subcultures cry the superiority of the traditional snowshoe, these old models are better at generating romantic fantasy than navigating trails. The contemporary snowshoe’s ability to shift between various terrains and purposes reflects spontaneous modern movement as the North Eastern Bear Paw or Maine-style shoe once mirrored local culture.

None of this was on my mind as I set out on that first nerve-fuelled snowshoe hike. After driving the six-hours from Brooklyn’s cement-grey to the Adirondacks’ snow dusted peaks, my legs itched to escape into the enticingly unblemished powder. But what was once routine for the region’s Iroquois population was, for me, an endeavour.[1] Shivering in the mountain chill, I hurried into my sweater, zipped up my vest, yanked on my socks and laced up my boots. With ceremonial pomp, I threw my backpack over my down-coated shoulders. Now came the rite of the first snowshoe fastening. Although these preparations might seem hopelessly modern — as distant from the Iroquois’ daily snowshoe jaunt as my subway commute — the process helped my speedy twenty-first century mind relate to the simple pastime.

If elaborate skis exemplify complicated contemporary winter sports, snowshoes are the no-frills throwback. Forget the instructor strapping on your skis, your own trembling hands can put on snowshoes. And forget skis punishing your curiosity as you stand up; snowshoes won’t slide in separate directions like wooden sticks will. I stood up, took a tentative first step, and felt the tight grip I had against the snow. One step became two and five the snowshoe’s steel crampons continued to support me. The shoe’s back remained loose like a flip-flop.[2] When I reached a slightly slick surface, the metal grips protected me from plummeting down. No matter your hiking style, there’s a snowshoe to support you. There are light shoes for running; mid-sized shoes for hiking on groomed trails; and large shoes for venturing into the backcountry. But I didn’t worry about the best shoe. I just fastened my rental shoes, handed to me without mention of a size, and began to stomp atop the snow.

Forget wobbling around on ice skates for years, snowshoeing is an instant gratification sport. But even instant gratification necessitates a revised outlook. For the flat hike, snowshoeing requires adapting your gait for a wider-than-normal base and adjusting your expectation from a brisk walk to a contented clomp. You walk and you wander and, if you arrive at a hill — steep or shallow — you pause momentarily taken aback by the incline. Look down at your feet and appreciate the ample base grounding you. Approach the incline at a slight angle then walk. Aha! The metal grabs earth and you enjoy a solidity no normal shoe could possess. Adjust your posture, maybe move forward a bit to prevent yourself from tumbling back. Poles might be helpful, but they aren’t necessary. Because, with a little focus, you’ll realise you’ve conquered your mini summit and are ambling to the pleasant rhythm of snowshoes thwacking against icy trails.

Like anything that excites people, snowshoe literature presents manifold techniques and competitions for zealous athletes. Magazines articles describe the fervid sub cultures that only snowshoe using traditional wooden shoes, the kind that decorate every serious lodge’s fireplace. Blogs profile the athletes petitioning to earn Olympic recognition for the sport. But you can abandon your competitive streak at the lodge, along with the ornamental snowshoeing gear. Meandering through the pristine terrain means wandering away from the present. Spotless trails offer a glimpse into what snow would look like if cars and foot traffic didn’t blacken it immediately. Routine concerns dissolve; just navigate from point A to point B without becoming a galumphing wet mess. Only now, if you do slip into soppy misery, there’s a warm room and a cup of hot cocoa waiting for you.

Light through trees

Whereas the production of superlative snowshoes was once an art, the modern preoccupation seems to concern techniques for a first-class expedition. This discussion displaced the location of art in snowshoeing. Before the industrialisation of snowshoe production, snowshoe making was a prized craft and way to interact with spiritual forces, in addition to being an essential survival skill. Although some traditional snowshoe craftspeople still exist, large companies manufacture the majority of footwear traversing the trails. We can personalise our hike by selecting from among a rainbow of colours and different frames. This consumerism bears no resemblance to art. But a peaceful walk through the wood does. When the discussion of gait and proper shoe disappear, we’re left with the same terrain the snowshoe-ers of yesteryear crossed. We may experience the journey differently — following packed trails bears little resemblance to marking freshly fallen powder — but the basic elements remain. As Native Americans remained mobile through harsh winters, so can our identities shift on a snowshoe expedition.

The trail’s peaceful atmosphere and clean landscape immediately enveloped me, but it was the calming rhythm of walking through snow that seduced me. Is this how Native Americans felt as they traipsed to their destination? What was it like when populations required snowshoes? These thoughts danced into my mind, then fluttered out as I admired a small, snow cloaked tree or listened to the sound of water running under a frozen over lake. Sometimes a song would pop into my head, disappearing when I arrived at the more absorbing rhythm of water flowing under a frozen stream. The sun filtered down through the trees, illuminating the snow with a gentle glimmer. A frigid winter breeze occasionally whipped through, but the consistent movement promptly warmed you. I imagine Native Americans felt similarly.

Snowshoeing shouldn’t be considered a niche sport: it is everywhere. It allows you to encounter the past and engage with your present. It can be a serious, Olympic-minded endeavour or a fun afternoon activity. It helped shape continents and cultures. Snowshoeing is modern and antiquated, and all the more exciting because it exists within this tension.

[1] It should be noted that neither the Iroquois nor the Algonquin, the Native American tries settled in New York, settled in the region. Instead, the used the mountains for warfare.

[2] This is not true of all snowshoes. Some strap to the rear of your foot as well, reducing the snow spray with each step, making it less likely you’ll need gaiters to keep snow out of your boots.

The Other Side of French Chocolate (or Nestlé’s almond, hazelnut, raisin chocolate)

Nestle raisin almond hazelnut chocolate

Swirling, melting, luscious: advertisements may hawk superlatively smooth chocolate, but in my experience, the best bars are crammed full of bits and bobs. Pass me the milk chocolate nobbly with toasted hazelnuts or the dark chocolate dusted with cacao nibs. The best bars aren’t half-heartedly studded with cardboard almonds, waxy raisins and overpowering peanuts. No, these nostalgic candies deserve a place in every supermarket from America and England to Sweden and Norway. And, yes, you can even find them in France.

Hidden amongst thin Cote D’Or bars and pale purple Milka, Nestlé’s almond, hazelnut and raisin dark chocolate bar typifies satisfyingly sweet, crunchy candy. Called grand chocolat noir raisins amandes noisettes — sing the name in French, it’s classier than the English equivalent —the ingredients smack of a Cadbury fruit and nut dairy milk rather than a sophisticated confection from La Maison du Chocolat. There’s sugar, cocoa and emulsifier!! These components remain hazy notions until you bite into the chocolate; it’s velvety soft, marvellously chewy. This is not the sophisticated indulgence Fodor’s promised abound in gay Pah-ree (!). If this Nestlé bar was on your desk at home, you would eat it haphazardly, occasionally chipping off pieces until — lo and behold! — it disappeared along with the day.

But, for the tourist accustomed to snubbing almond-studded Hershey bars, a veil of boring familiarity obscures Nestlé’s Grand Chocolat. This is the bar for the traveller who wants a nutella crepe for lunch, they don’t relish the idea of throwing back snails at le bistro. And, on one hand, their attention to the familiar does them wrong; Monoprix offers more interesting indulgences than dried fruit-studded sweets. There’s chocolate with sesame seeds, chocolate filled with almond praline or chocolate with crunchy biscuit bits. The outline of these chocolate may feature childhood memories, but the shelves at Monoprix amplify their strangeness, painting them in a delightful French glow. Those exotic bars are the French equivalent of Mr. Goodbar, Butterfinger and Crackle. But, on the other hand, even the tourist playing itself gets a lesson in France. As soon as you open the paper packaging and rip the foil on your Nestlé grand chocolat bar you realise it: this isn’t a chocolate you’ve experienced before.

High/low chocolate

Oh, those tastes we savour abroad! I ate the slick, sugary, crunchy chocolate learning more about French-ness than a walking around the Louvre could teach me. I imagined French kids savouring a square for le goûter — though they probably prefer the milk chocolate with crunchy biscuit bits that I passed by. I pretended to be a sophisticated French woman, the kind who wears navy and black and who, so I am told, can whip up a luscious chocolate cake sans a recipe. With each bite, toasted hazelnuts left the domain of healthy muesli and connected me to my fantasy Frenchie. And each subsequent piece, each subsequent bar stuffed into my suitcase, ushers me into the fanciful world of perfect French person. Sometimes, I’m not sure which delights me more: the fantasy or the chocolate.

We’ve been taught that French chocolate is balanced and sophisticated; it’s not the sugary-toothsome candy lining grocery store checkouts in America. In a society that associates America with immoderate excess and France with controlled indulgence, this constructed dichotomy drives cultural relations. If we believe it is true, then we can believe a healthier way of eating exists, available to those who integrate into an established set of cultural habits. Unfortunately, the divide between American and French habits isn’t as stringent as we might like to imagine. In a modernizing and globalizing world, our tastes slide and shift to include both the healthy and processed of foreign cuisines. Whether this means Americans producing artisanal chocolates or the French adopting industrial candy is irrelevant: we can’t choose between the positive and negatives, though we may want to. So rip open the fancy chocolate, indulge in the not-great-but-totally-delicious bars: you decide what quality means.

On my best bite of 2014

Blueberry pie

I would tell you that the best thing I ate in 2014 was a piece of blueberry pie, but then you would picture a buttery, flaky crust and juicy, sweet filling packed with tender blueberries and that would be incorrect. In fact, I don’t even know if my best bite was blueberry pie. It may have been bilberry pie. I didn’t ask.

During my trip through Scandinavia in June, I made it a point to sample all sorts of delicious foods that I’d never seen before and doubted I’d ever see again. I tried reindeer, salt cod and Norwegian waffles. I tried rye nachos, viili and nøkkleost. But my favorite was a thick slab yeasted dough topped with delightfully gummy fruit from Vanha Kauppahalli in Helsinki. Sold in rectangular slices large enough to feed a small army, it more closely resembled Italian pizza al taglio than all-American blueberry pie. The pale dough was yeasted, yet remained dense and pleasantly chewy with the faintest whiff of sweet cardamom. There was little textural difference between the crust and the topping, which was spread on thick with a jelly-like chew. Unlike blueberry pie, which can quickly become cloying, the filling was nearly sour. You could eat it with a fork and knife, but it tasted better when you surrendered, cut off a small piece and ate it with your hands, revelling in the messiness and blue tongue that followed.

I’ve tried to search for this pie and recreate it with no luck. I’ve thought about it obsessively, figuring out what the x-factor was that made it my most memorable bite of 2014. Was it the not-pastry pastry that was chewy more than crispy? Was the distinct lack of sweetness, which favoured more nuanced spices and sourness? Or could it have been the addictively chewy-wet filling that was like nothing I had ever had before, yet completely familiar? I’m not sure. Perhaps next year, after pondering these questions for a few more hours and consuming a few more kilos homemade pie in attempt to find a substitute, I’ll have my answer. Until then, I’ll remember my Finnish blueberry pie as the best thing I ate in 2014.

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.