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.
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.
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.
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.