SHARE
COPY LINK
For members

AUSTRIA EXPLAINED

The story of how half of Austria drove on the left and half on the right – for 20 years

For 20 years, half of Austria drove on the right-hand side, while the other half drove on the left. The story of Austria's shift from left to right is one of politics, the death and birth of empires, Napoleon and Hitler. Here's what you need to know. 

The story of how half of Austria drove on the left and half on the right - for 20 years
A tram which drove through Vienna in 1938 after the German invasion which reminded people to drive on the right. Image: Wikicommons.

Fortunately for tourists and Austrians alike, the entire country of Austria – including each and every one of its nine states – drives on the right-hand side.

Besides being somewhat beneficial for travelling within Austria, it also helps cross borders as each of Austria’s neighbours drives on the right hand side. 

The following map shows which parts of the world drive on which side of the road, with continental Europe obviously favouring the right-hand side. 

The world according to side of traffic. Image: Statista.

It might surprise you to learn however that this was not the case as recently as 100 years ago.

In fact, for around 20 years, some parts of Austria drove on the left – and some on the right. 

Why did Austria take so long to shift? 

The story of Austria’s shift from left to right is one of politics, the death and birth of empires, Napoleon and Hitler. 

Originally, left-side traffic was all the rage in Austria. 

The Austro-Hungarian Empire drove on the left-hand side via a mandate, largely in historical resistance to Napoleon and his army, notes the British Motor Museum.

When Napoleon moved through Europe, the countries he conquered became right-hand drive. Those countries which were proudly unconquered, drove on the left to thumb their nose at Bonaparte and his forces. 

The Empire put in place a left-hand side drive rule across all of its territories in 1915, but it received stiff opposition from states where right-hand drive had been the norm, primarily the western state of Vorarlberg. 

As a consequence, half of Austria – the half which had been invaded by Napoleon – drove on the right, while the other half drove on the left.

The dividing line was precisely the border until which Napoleon had conquered in 1805. 

After the Austro-Hungarian empire dissolved, gradually different successor nations converted to right-hand drive, although this took place over a relatively long period.

When Austria swapped from left-hand drive to the right. Image: Tubs/Austrian Maps/Wikicommons

In Austria, this was the same internally, although of course regular commuting from one state to the other was comparatively rare at the time.

As can be seen in the above map, Vorarlberg made the switch to right-hand drive in 1921, but it was not until 1938 – when Austria was invaded by Germany – when Vienna finally made the switch.

Adolf Hitler, when invading his homeland, ordered the remaining parts of Austria to switch from left to right overnight. 

As could probably be expected, this was incredibly chaotic, with motorists unable to see street signs and trams being unable to make the shift. 

The following picture shows left-hand traffic along Kärntnerstraße in the centre of Vienna in 1930. 

Kärntnerstraße in Vienna, 1930. Image: Wikicommons.

After several months, the shift had been made – and it became permanent. When Germany invaded Czechoslovakia and Hungary, they made the shift in 1939 and 1944 respectively. 

These were among the last European countries to make the shift, although Sweden remarkably held out until 1967. 

While millions of schillings were spent on the transition, the legacy of left-hand driving can still be seen in Austria. 

The Wiener Schnellbahn still has guidance systems, entrances and tracks on the left. 

Member comments

Log in here to leave a comment.
Become a Member to leave a comment.
For members

AUSTRIA EXPLAINED

How to drink coffee like an Austrian

If there's one image that comes to mind when you think of Austria, it's probably the grand interior and delicious aroma of a traditional coffeehouse.

Waitress carrying coffees in a Vienna cafe
There's an etiquette and special language to drinking coffee in Austria, but even as a non-native you can pick it up. Photo: WienTourismus/Peter Rigaud

The Austrians love their coffee. While they might not rank among the top five coffee consuming nations in terms of quantity drunk (the Scandinavians have that honour), that may well be because here, it’s all about quality.

The story goes that coffeehouse culture first came to Vienna after the Siege of Vienna in the late 17th century, when a local named Georg Franz Kolschitzky used coffee left behind by the Turkish invaders to set up the first coffeehouse. Kolschitzy is honoured by a street and statue that you can see today in Vienna’s fourth district (Kolschitzkygasse; the statue is at the intersection with Favoritenstraße).

But like many great stories, it’s not actually true. Vienna owes its coffeehouse tradition to the Armenian Johannes Diodato, who was granted the honour of being the city’s only trader allowed to sell coffee for some years. Once this was relaxed, the coffeehouses soon spread. 

That’s actually later than coffeehouses arrived in countries like neighbouring Germany and Italy, but something about it took off in Austria. Over the following decades, new trends were adopted here which have become synonymous with the Austrian coffeehouse, including providing newspapers to encourage patrons to linger over their drinks, and serving hot food.

Until 1856, women were not allowed in coffeehouses unless they worked there, but today they are a meeting point for people from all parts of society, tourists and locals alike. Here are the keys to unlocking this aspect of Austrian culture.

Take your time

As mentioned above, coffeehouses started offering newspapers as early as the 1720s, and the tradition is still going strong today, with newspaper tables for you to browse from.

A common grumble from foreign residents and visitors is that Austrian customer service can be slow, but try to look at it from another perspective: waiting staff want to allow you to take your time.

In contrast to countries like the UK, where there’s a clear distinction between cafes serving hot drinks which usually close around 5pm, and bars and pubs that stay open later serving alcohol and warm food, a coffeehouse is somewhere you can stay well into the evening, and there’s often musical entertainment at the grandest venues. It’s not about getting caffeinated and rushing on with your day; you go here to feel gemütlich (cosy).

Although tap water is not always free at Austrian restaurants, in a coffee house you can expect a small glass of water with your coffee, with a spoon placed over the top to indicate that it’s fresh. Waiters will often top this up during your stay. 

We’ll add a caveat though. This applies to the traditional coffeehouses, while Austria also has plenty of smaller, modern cafes, where you may indeed be asked to leave if you have been sitting for a while and haven’t ordered food. 

The newspapers are generally laid out on a table with convenient wooden holders. Photo: WienTourismus/Peter Rigaud

Soak up the history

One reason Austria’s coffeehouses are so much more than your average cafe is their artistic associations.

Mozart and Beethoven performed at coffeehouses in their day, and in the 19th and 20th centuries, writers worked and socialized in these institutions as well as intellectuals like Sigmund Freud and politicians like Trotsky and Lenin.  There’s even a specific term, Kaffeehausliteratur, to refer to the works of literature penned in the hallowed halls of the coffeehouse.

Austrian modernist poet Peter Altenberg supposedly considered Cafe Central his home to the point of having his laundry sent there, and the cafe considers that it and Altenberg were pioneers of cashless payments, since he would pay his tab with the work he’d written on a napkin during his stay rather than cash.

But it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for coffee culture. Post-war, new kinds of eateries and meeting venues sprung up and many coffeehouses closed as locals found them outdated. Ever prone to dramatics, the Austrians call this time Kaffeehaussterben (the death of the coffeehouses) but luckily many of the institutions survived and underwent a revival a few decades later.

Today, even Unesco recognizes Viennese Coffee Culture as Intangible Cultural Heritage, calling them “places where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill’.

In Vienna, you’ve got no shortage of historic coffeehouses: Café Central, Café Sperl, Café Hawelka, Café Landtmann and Café Ritter are just five of a long list of venues steeped in history. Because of that, there are often queues to enter during tourist season, but there are spots just as stunning that tend to escape the worst of the crowds, such as Café Jelinek and Café Westend. 

Austria’s other cities have plenty to offer too, from Salzburg’s Café Tomaselli which has a claim to being Austria’s oldest, to Café Traxlmayr in Linz, to charming Café König or the local branch of Café Sacher in Graz, to Café Munding in Innsbruck and many more in between.

Café Landtmann in Vienna. Photo: WienTourismus/Christian Stemper

Note that the older coffeehouses are more formal than your typical cafe; expect to see waiting staff wearing black tie, but know that there is no dress code for guests.

Alternatively, in the bigger cities you are never too far from a branch of Aida, a chain that aims to recreate the experience of the traditional coffee house on a lower budget with less formality and is recognizable from the large amounts of pink (the logo, the decor, the staff uniforms).

The other main Austrian chain is Oberlaa, more of a Konditorei (patisserie) than a coffeehouse but still sharing many of the same traditions — our tip is to try the one near Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna, also called Café Dommayer, for a coffeehouse experience.

Know the lingo

In traditional coffeehouses, (male) waiters should be addressed as Herr Ober as a mark of respect; unfortunately there’s no clear equivalent for female staff. Tourists aren’t expected to follow this etiquette, but here’s the vocab to understand the menu and make your order in German if you wish. 

When making your order, know that you need to be more specific than “ein Kaffee, bitte” (a coffee, please). 

A kleiner Schwarzer is an espresso and a großer Schwarzer is a double. If you want milk with your coffee, it’s a kleiner or großer Brauner.

A Verlängerter is an espresso with hot water, so a bit less strong.

An Einspänner is a real Austrian classic, an espresso topped with whipped cream.

A Wiener Melange or just Melange is very similar to a cappuccino, made of coffee and steamed milk (sometimes whipped cream too, such as the Aida Melange), and slightly less strong than a cappuccino.

Feeling like something a little more fancy? Austria has you covered. 

An Überstürzter Neumann means you’ll get a cup of whipped cream, served with a double espresso to be added at the table. 

A Wiener Eiskaffee is more than an iced coffee; it’s a delicious mix of vanilla ice cream, espresso and milk. 

A Mozart Coffee is a double espresso topped with whipped cream and served with brandy.

A Maria Teresa is a double espresso with whipped cream, orange liqueur and orange zest.

Outside the older coffeehouses, these days of course you’ll find more modern cafes in Vienna too, where you can find your flat whites, caramel macchiatos and alternative milks. 

Eating sachertorte at Café Sacher is on many an Austria bucket list. Photo: WienTourismus/Paul Bauer

Don’t forget the cake

Kaffee und Kuchen (coffee and cake) is the Austrian way to relax, akin to the Italian pausa caffe, English tea break or Swedish fika. Each coffeehouse has its own specialties, but there are some classics you will usually find on the menu.

Some of the most traditional cakes include the Sachertorte (a chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam), the adorable Punschkrapfen (like a French petit four with a tasty rum flavour) and Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) or Topfenstrudel (a strudel made with Topfen, a type of cream cheese that is extremely Austrian).

The Dobostorte (caramel) and Esterházy (almond) layered sponge cakes are technically Hungarian rather than Austrian, but they’re still a common and delicious feature on most menus.

SHOW COMMENTS