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. 

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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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Donauinselfest: What you need to know about Austria’s biggest open air festival

Austria has the largest free open-air festival in Europe, and the Donauinselfest is taking place this weekend. Here is what you need to know.

Donauinselfest: What you need to know about Austria's biggest open air festival

The Austrian Donauinselfest is known as the largest free open-air music festival in Europe, and it happens yearly on Vienna’s Danube island. The festival attracts around three million visitors over its three days of events and is starting on Friday in the Austrian capital.

The festival has been taking place yearly since 1983 on the 21.1-kilometre river island. This year, it has 14 different areas and 11 stages, according to the official website. Visitors can expect more than 600 hours of program.

READ ALSO: The best festivals and events to enjoy in Austria this summer

Here is what you need to know to enjoy the programme fully.

When and where is the festival?

The festival has an extensive range of events starting on Friday, June 24th, and lasting until Sunday, June 26th. It takes place on the island between the new Danube and the Danube rivers, known as the Donauinsel.

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It is easily accessible via the U1 (Donauinsel station) and U6 (Handelskai station) metro and there are no parking spaces available near the festival site.

Admission to the event is free.

The festival is back after the pandemic

After two years of reduced capacity and many Covid-19 restrictions, the Donauinselfest is back to (almost) normal. There is no limit to the number of visitors, no requirement to show proof of vaccination or recovery from the disease, and no mask mandate.

However, the authorities have asked that people take “personal responsibility” as coronavirus infection numbers have been rising.

READ ALSO: Five of the best things to do in Vienna this summer

The organisers have requested people to get tested before visiting the vast festival, reported.

People gather on the shores of the Danube river, in Vienna during a hot sunny day and Danube Day on June 29, 2012. AFP PHOTO / ALEXANDER KLEIN

“We ask everyone who would like to visit the Donauinselfest this year to take a PCR or rapid test in advance and thus protect themselves and others. People with symptoms are not allowed to enter the festival grounds.”, said organiser Matthias Friedrich.

Though masks are not mandatory, they are recommended on-site if it is too full of people and no social distancing is possible. Besides, there is a masks requirement to all Donauinselfest workers in indoor areas.

Watch out for what you cannot bring

There is an extensive list of things that are not allowed on the festival site. For example, visitors are not allowed to take large bags and backpacks (“A3 format”, according to the website). However, a gym bag is not considered a backpack.

Animals, including dogs, are prohibited – except for guide dogs and service dogs.

You are also not allowed to bring umbrellas, alcoholic beverages, cans, glass bottles, or drones. The list of prohibited items includes “propaganda material”, spray bottles, whistles, large or bulky objects, bicycles and skateboards, stools and chairs, food and more.

Check out the complete list here.

Danube festival

Vienna’s “Danube-island” Festival will return this weekend. (Photo by DIETER NAGL / AFP)

READ ALSO: Forecast: Austria set for high temperatures and storms throughout weekend and beyond

You can – and should – bring plenty of water and sunscreen, as temperatures are expected to be around the 30Cs over the next few days.

What kind of music is there?

The festival has several stages and a broad programme selection. The bands are usually more regional, with a significant presence of Austrian, German, and Italian bands.

You can find all sorts of music, from pop to rock, rap, and techno. There are even tribute bands like Break Free, which will play Queen’s best signs on the rock stage.

The program includes other activities as well, such as poetry slam, art stages, sport areas, and even events for families and children.

You can check the official program here.