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Caffeine, war and Freud: A history of Vienna’s iconic coffee houses

Coffee culture is synonymous with Austria’s capital city, but where did it come from and why is it so important? Here’s what you need to know.

Austria's coffee houses are city institutions. Photo: Joe Klamar
Austria's coffee houses are city institutions. Photo: Joe Klamar/AFP

The city of Vienna is renowned for its coffee culture and historic cafes, but has it always been that way?

The Local took a look at where coffee culture in Austria’s capital comes from and what it means today.

The history of coffee in Vienna

Coffee wasn’t always such a big deal in Vienna. In fact, coffee houses didn’t even really exist in the city until the late 1600s following the Battle of Vienna.

In 1683, Austria’s capital was besieged for the second time by forces from the Ottoman Empire. The siege lasted for two months but eventually the Turkish invaders retreated, leaving behind bags of coffee.

It is believed this is when Viennese people began making coffee and local legend has it that Georg Franz Kolschitzky was the first person to obtain a licence to serve coffee in honour of his heroic actions during the siege. 

READ MORE: Cash and Schnapps: A guide to visiting pubs and cafes in Austria

But despite Kolschitzky going down in Viennese coffee history (there is a street in the 4th district named after him), it was actually Johannes Diodato who opened the city’s first coffee shop. 

Diodato served at the Viennese Imperial Court and was known as a man “full of secrets” (he was apparently an Armenian spy). His coffee house had such an influence on the city that Johannes-Diodato-Park was named after him, and many other cafes opened to create the coffee culture that is still present in Vienna today.

Cafe Sperl is one of Vienna's oldest, and most famous, coffee houses. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN

Cafe Sperl is one of Vienna’s oldest, and most famous, coffee houses. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN

The meaning of coffee culture in Vienna

There are coffee houses in Vienna that are over 300 years old – a sign of just how deeply embedded the culture is in the capital.

But coffee culture in Vienna is more than just getting a daily dose of caffeine in the morning. It’s more of a way of life, something that UNESCO identified as an intangible cultural heritage for Austria.

For example, in other countries it’s common for coffee shop staff to be conscious of quickly turning over tables to maximise profit – not in Vienna though.

Viennese coffee houses are known as places to relax and spend some time over a cup or coffee (or two). There is often no rush to drink up and staff typically leave customers to their own devices until they ask for another drink.

READ ALSO: IN PICTURES: The Vienna coffee shop where phone-less visitors get a discount

Then there are newspapers to read and other regular customers to chat with and catch up on the local gossip.

As a result, coffee houses have long been meeting places for artists, intellectuals and politicians in the city. Sigmund Freud, Ludwig van Beethoven, Gustav Klimt and Leon Trotsky are just a few famous names to have graced coffee houses in Vienna.

There is even the term Kaffeehausliteratur (coffee house literature) to describe the many pieces of writing that have been written in Viennese coffee houses. 

Today, that artistic influence lives on with author readings or musical performances, as well as a steady stream of coffee-drinking Viennese residents indulging in the atmosphere.

Prince Charles tours a coffee house in the Austrian city of Vienna. Austria's coffee houses are city institutions. Photo: HERBERT PFARRHOFER / APA / AFP

Prince Charles tours a coffee house in the Austrian city of Vienna. Austria’s coffee houses are city institutions. Photo: HERBERT PFARRHOFER / APA / AFP

What to expect from a Viennese coffee house

Every coffee house has its own style, but there are several defining features of a classic Viennese coffee shop.

Most traditional cafes can be found in Vienna’s historic buildings, which means they have high ceilings, wooden floorboards, large windows and walls adorned with artwork.

Table tops are usually made from marble and sofas tend to be upholstered in classic Viennese designs.

Staff are elegantly dressed with waiters in a tuxedo and waitresses in a white shirt, although there is no set dress code for customers. 

FOR MEMBERS: Seven common myths about Austrian food you need to stop believing

A word of advice though – don’t always expect courteous service. 

Viennese waiting staff are famous for their grumpiness, although this is changing as modern times demand a more open and friendly style of service.

However, do expect to find a few Vienna-specific items on the menu, such as a Wiener Melange (similar to a cappuccino but with milder coffee) or a Verlängerter (espresso with hot water).

For a full breakdown of the different types of coffee served in a Viennese coffee house, read our guide to drinking coffee like an Austrian.

Famous Viennese coffee houses (and why you should visit)

There is no shortage of historic coffee houses in Vienna, but here are five to get started.

Café Central: known as the real centre of Vienna, Café Central has a 140-year history and famously welcomed Freud and Trotsky in the past. It’s popular with both locals and tourists so expect high demand for tables. You can find Café Central at Herrengasse 14, 1010 Wien.

Café Sperl: a traditional Viennese cafe serving coffee, homemade cakes and pastries. Keep an eye out for live music performances or enjoy the outdoor dining area in the summertime. Located on Gumpendorfer Strasse 11, 1060 Wien.

Café Hawelka: described as having an “old time style”, Café Hawelka has been open since 1954 and run by three generations of the same family. Famous Austrian guests include actor Oskar Werner, architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser and artist Ernst Fuchs. Café Hawelka is on Dorotheergasse 6, 1010 Wien.

Café Landtmann: customers love the shaded terrace in the summer and the history of famous guests, from Freud to Hillary Clinton and Paul McCartney. Café Landtmann is also known for its pastries and elegant decor. Located at Universitätsring 4, 1010 Wien.

Café Ritter: this cafe opened in the late 1800s and is one of Austria’s oldest coffee houses. It has the style of an Edwardian dining room complete with chandeliers and polished wood. Find it at Mariahilfer Strasse 73, 1060 Wien.

Pro tip: if you want to visit one of these famous coffee houses during peak tourist season, be prepared to arrive early or queue up outside.

Alternatively, there are other spots that are just as stunning but tend to escape the worst of the crowds, such as Café Jelinek on Otto-Bauer-Gasse 5, and Café Westend on Mariahilfer Strasse 128. 

Do you have a favourite coffee house in Vienna? Get in touch with the editorial team at [email protected] to let us know.

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VIENNA

Everything that’s new in Vienna in December

From new energy bonuses being sent out to important trials and major events, here are the important changes, dates and events happening in Vienna in December.

Everything that's new in Vienna in December

Vienna will send €200 bonuses to help cushion rising energy costs

The City of Vienna announced more government assistance to cushion rising costs for residents.

Viennese households will receive €200 in a new “energy bonus’, as The Local reported. The administration said the bonus would benefit about two-thirds of all city homes.

Single households with a gross annual income of a maximum €40,000 or multi-person households with an income of up to €100,000 gross per year are entitled to receive the payment. 

In December, every household in the capital should receive an information letter with a password they will need to use for an online application for the bonus. Once applied for, the money should arrive within a few days”.

READ MORE: Vienna Energy Bonus: How to get a €200 payout

Influenza vaccination appointments

The City of Vienna has made available 64,000 influenza vaccination appointments for December in the city’s vaccination centres and those of the ÖGK. 

The City is investing a total of €9.9 million to be able to offer the flu vaccination campaign in Vienna free of charge again this year.  The campaign will run until the end of the year unless an extension becomes necessary due to high demand.

The influenza vaccination campaign focuses on people aged over 65. This avoids multiple exposures to Covid-19 and the “real flu”. Chronically ill people, children and health or care workers are also among the priority target groups. However, influenza vaccination is also recommended to all other people.

READ ALSO: Reader question: How to get a flu vaccination in Austria?

Vienna starts inquiry committee over Wien Energie

Starting on December 2nd at the Vienna City Hall, the City Council’s investigative commission on the Wien Energie case will meet every two weeks.

On the initiative of the centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) and the far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ), it will investigate the events surrounding the dramatic financial needs of Wien Energie that became known in the summer. The commission can summon people to testify and request documents.

They will focus on two issues.

The first concerns the extent to which Mayor Michael Ludwig and City Finance Councillor Peter Hanke have exercised their ownership rights regarding Wien Energie, which is wholly owned by the city via Wiener Stadtwerke. Specifically, the commission wants to know whether the two SPÖ politicians reacted in time and appropriately to the price increases in the electricity markets in the summer.

The second matter revolves around Ludwig’s emergency powers as head of the city, with which he granted Wien Energie loans totalling €1.4 billion. It is to be clarified whether this procedure was legally compliant and whether Ludwig should have informed committees such as the City Senate earlier.

READ ALSO: Why did Wien Energie ask for €6 billion from the Austrian government?

Terror trial continues

On November 2nd, 2020, a jihadist terrorist shot dead four people and injured more than 20 in the centre of Vienna before police forces killed him.

Now, the country is going through a complex trial involving six men who allegedly helped the shooter prepare for the attack started. The process first started in October, as The Local reported, but a final verdict is not expected until at least February.

In December, tricky trial stages are scheduled, including questioning people suspected of having sold weapons to the terrorist.

READ ALSO: Austria starts trial over Vienna jihadist shooting

Armed police officers stand guard by the area where the terrorist attack took place in Vienna, Austria on November, 2020. (Photo by JOE KLAMAR / AFP)

This Human World Festival

The This Human World Festival is celebrating its 15th anniversary and it focuses on the theme of human rights. In four Viennese cinemas (Schikaneder, Topkino, Gartenbaukino, Stadtkino) and two other venues (Brunnenpassage, Brotfabrik) you can watch films that deal with human rights, current conflicts and crises from December 1st to 11th. 

About 90 feature films, documentaries and short films await you – some of them will celebrate their Austrian premiere at the festival. 

The aim of the film festival is to draw attention to political and social grievances in a sensitive, stirring and occasionally humorous way.

You can read more about the event HERE.

Harry Potter: The Exhibition

“Harry Potter: The Exhibition” is touring worldwide and the major exhibition about the wizard’s universe will get its first European location in Vienna on December 16th, 2022. The show will be housed in the METAStadt in the 22nd district (Dr.-Otto-Neurath-Gasse 3).

The ticket sale has already started on the official site of the exhibition and via oeticket. Tickets are available from € 24.90 for children (up to 12 years) and € 29.90 for adults (from 13 years).

Weihnachtsmärkte

Last year, many markets around the country were cancelled after a snap lockdown in November, although some events still went ahead with strict rules in place.

But this year, the Christmas markets are back in full swing without restrictions, so make sure you visit one (or two) to really get into the Christmas spirit. Austria’s most famous markets are in Vienna, like the Christkindmarkt in front of the Town Hall that runs from November 19th to December 26th.

The Viennese markets are drawing in thousands of tourists to the Austrian capital. Don’t miss out on all the Glüwein (even if it is more expensive this year), geröstete Kastanien and Weihnachtskugeln you can get. 

FOR MEMBERS: IN PICTURES: A guide to the main Christmas markets in Austria

Public holidays

Besides Christmas (December 25th) and Stephan’s Day (December 26th), December 8th, when Catholics celebrate the Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Mariä Empfängnis), is also a public holiday in Austria.

Of course, there are also several celebratory dates in December. For example, every Sunday until Christmas is an Advent Sunday, and Austrian families commemorate it in many ways, including lighting up candles.

On December 4th, there is Barbaratag, while on December 5th, Krampus pays his visit to Austrian villages and cities. On the next day, December 6th, it’s time for St Nikolaus to bring chocolate and tangerines to children who were nice during the year.

Christmas Eve, Day, and St Stephen’s Day (December 24th, 25th and 26th) are important dates for Austrian traditions.

It’s also worth noting that Austrians celebrate Christmas on the evening of December 24th, usually with a family meal.

READ ALSO: Austrian Christmas traditions: The festive dates you need to know

New Year celebrations

Expect lots of fireworks on New Year’s Eve (Silvester) in Austria – and especially in Vienna.

In the capital, the bells ring out at St. Stephan’s Cathedral to welcome in the New Year, which is also broadcast on national television. This is followed by fireworks and some even take part in a communal waltz on Rathausplatz in front of the Town Hall.

But if you really want to celebrate New Year like an Austrian, then give a marzipan pig to your nearest and dearest. The little pigs represent a good luck charm and are handed out every year on New Year’s Eve.

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