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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.

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Why is Austria so anti nuclear power? 

A few miles outside Vienna, close to the Danube River, lies a strange relic of Austria’s plans to introduce nuclear power in the 1970s. It is the Zwentendorf nuclear power plant, which was completed but never put into use after a campaign stopped it in its tracks in 1978.

East view of the never commissioned nuclear power plant in the Lower Austrian market town of Zwentendorf an der Donau
The nuclear power plant in the Lower Austrian market town of Zwentendorf an der Donau has never been used to generate nuclear energy. Photo: Bwag/Wikimedia Commons

Today the plant is used for a variety of purposes. It generates solar power through photovoltaic plates, and is used as a film set and for fashion shows and events. In August it was the location of the Shutdown Festival, with about 13,000 guests dancing to electronic music within its concrete walls.

The site was also used to train German nuclear plant technicians, until Germany decided to phase out nuclear power following the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan. Now the plant is used to train people how to close down and decommission reactors safely.

Museum, theme park or cemetery?

Stefan Zach, the press spokesman for the electricity supplier EVN, told The Local that many uses had been proposed for the defunct nuclear site.

The eccentric Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, best known for his design of a brightly coloured apartment block in Vienna, hoped to make it into a museum for “misleading technologies”, but this plan was quickly rebuffed by the plant owners.

Architect Robert Rogner wanted it to become a theme park, similar to the Wunderland Kalkar, which is situated in a disused nuclear power plant in Germany. And Austrian aristocrat and convicted murderer Udo Proksch thought the plant should be turned into a vertical graveyard, in which people would be buried upright in glass tubes. Ultimately, none of these ideas were successful. 

The Wunderland Kalkar amusement park in Germany. Photo: Kungfuman/Wikimedia Creative Commons

Zach told The Local: “Most recently there was the idea to create escape rooms in the plant, but it was too dangerous. There are 1,050 rooms and the walls are too thick for mobile phone signals. It is too easy to get lost.”

History of anti-nuclear protest in Austria

According to anti-nuclear activist and academic Dr Peter Weish, when the plant was first built in 1977, Austria’s government assumed that the majority of Austrians would be in favour of nuclear power.

However, they had not reckoned with the campaign groups opposed to the Austrian Nuclear Power Plant. Campaigners came from different political and ideological backgrounds, but were on average younger and more educated than the general population in Austria. 

In a paper first presented in Japan in the 1980s, titled Austria’s no to nuclear power, Weish writes that the group’s concerns ranged from fears about the release of radioactive materials hazardous to human health to possible connections between what he calls “the so called peaceful nuclear energy and the military nuclear industry”.

A vote in a referendum in Austria in 1978 eventually saw nuclear power rejected by a slim margin – with 49.5 percent voting for the nuclear power plant to be used, and 50.5 percent against. The difference was just 29,469 votes.

However, in December 1978 the National Council (the lower house of Austria’s parliament) decided to ban the operation and construction of nuclear power plants in Austria. Later international events, such as the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster, further hardened opposition to nuclear technology. 

‘Lasting paranoia’ from the Cold War

Natalie Marchant, a journalist who covers topics such as climate change for the World Economic Forum, says one reason Austria is unsure about nuclear power could relate to the Chernobyl disaster, which led to clouds floating over Europe releasing radioactive material, or to the secretive nature of the communist eastern bloc, which bordered Austria until the breakdown of the Soviet Empire and the Iron Curtain in the 1990s. 

She said: “When Chernobyl happened, there was very little control on what happened beyond the Iron Curtain, and I think that’s left a lasting paranoia.”

People attend a rally in Vienna to remember the world’s worst nuclear disaster at Chernobyl, Fukushima and to protest against the use of nuclear power worldwide in 2011. Photo: Dieter Nagl/AFP

In September 2021, environmental organisation Global 2000 found by carrying out tests that mushrooms in Styria and Upper Austria still show traces of radioactivity from contaminated rain as a result of Chernobyl, while the Ministry of Health has also reported on radioactivity in Austrian soil, mushrooms and wild game.

Although Austria does not have any working nuclear reactors within its borders, there are 13 nuclear reactors in countries surrounding the border with Austria within 200 kilometers. Austria was the first country in Europe to set up automatic radiation measuring systems and has kept its warning system of 300 stations in place which measure radiation continuously, its Ministry for the Environment notes.

Early warning system from Cold War still in place

In addition, unlike neighbouring Germany, Austria has kept in place its early warning system from the cold war and has a nationwide, operational network of 8,212 sirens which are tested twice a year. These have most recently been used to warn of flooding, but are also in place to warn of nuclear incidents. 

Parents may be asked to sign a consent form for their children to be given iodine in the event of a nuclear incident in state kindergartens in Vienna. File photo: Johannes Eisele/AFP

An interesting feature of life in Vienna is that parents are routinely asked to sign consent forms that their children can be given iodine in the event of a nuclear incident when sending their kids to Austrian state kindergartens. Iodine is given to prevent thyroid cancer in the event of a nuclear incident.

Austria’s recently departed Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has repeatedly said he would never allow nuclear power to be generated in Austria, stating in a June 2021 press release that “Austria regards nuclear power as neither sustainable nor safe”. Kurz also tried (unsuccessfully) last year to persuade the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia to phase out their own reactors

So without nuclear, what’s the path forward for Austria?

Some argue that Austria can fulfil all its energy needs from renewable sources, such as wind, solar and hydro energy. However, at present, just 75 percent of Austria’s energy needs are generated in this way.

The government has set itself the goal of switching to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030, and earlier this year passed the Renewable Expansion Law in an attempt to facilitate this.

But the Austrian Wind Energy Association has said that in order to achieve that goal, some states will need to generate more than 100 percent of their own power supply, and that becoming 100 percent renewable will require “significantly more speed in the expansion of renewable energies”.

Supporters of nuclear however argue that nuclear should play a part in the move away from fossil fuels. 

An article in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Don’t let nuclear accidents scare you away from nuclear power”, claims that “in order to reach the goals set out by the 2015 Paris Agreement, nuclear power will need to double its contribution to the global energy mix.”

But in Austria, that would require overcoming its long-standing scepticism.