While not the original pioneer of the cultural phenomenon of the coffeehouse, Vienna has turned consumption of this familiar beverage into an art form. Coffee in Vienna is world famous, and experiencing the city’s coffeehouse culture is an absolutely integral part of visiting the Austrian city. Impressively, this unique cultural aspect is listed as “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by a division of UNESCO, with the description, “Where time and space are consumed, but only coffee is found on the bill.”
Vienna’s coffee shops are about much more than just coffee. They are community meeting places, as well as places to singularly study and reflect for hours on end. With the purchase of just one cup of coffee, patrons are able to comfortably linger for an entire day. Many of the coffeehouses boast grand interior design, with vaulted ceilings and marble countertops. The ambiance is sophisticated, and the customers are as diverse as the coffee menu. Typical cafes serve up a wide variety of coffee drinks, pastries, small dishes, and ample reading material. In the evenings, many play piano music or hold various types of social events. In short, coffee cafes are places to gather, reflect, and learn. They are a way of life, and the coffee is just icing on the cake.
The History of Vienna’s Coffee House Culture
The emergence of coffeehouses in Vienna is said to be closely associated with the end of the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Legend has it that several bags with unfamiliar beans were left behind by the fleeing Turks. The king granted these strange parcels to Officer Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki (Georg Franz Kolschitzky). Kulczycki experimented with the hard pellets, added some milk and sugar, and voila!, Vienna’s coffeehouse tradition was born. Today, many modern coffee shops honor the legendary owner of the first coffeehouse by prominently displaying his portrait. Kulczycki even has a street named after him and a statue erected to celebrate his supposed achievement.
While legend is entertaining, more recent research disputes the previous account. In reality, the first coffeehouse was opened by an Armenian businessman and possible spy in 1685. Fifteen years later, there were four more coffeehouses operating in Vienna. In those early years, customers selected their preferred concoction from a color-coded chart.
Coffeehouse culture really proliferated during the 1800s. Well-known authors wrote their masterpieces in coffeehouses, and famous artists visited the popular establishments for inspiration. In fact, writer Peter Altenberg even had his personal mail delivered to his preferred coffeehouse. Other nearby European cities also began to copy Vienna’s coffeehouse model during this time period. While the 1950s saw a decline in traditional Viennese coffee shops, renewed interest spurred a successful comeback. Modern Viennese coffeehouses have now even spread to parts of the United States. Still, these places aren’t comparable to the vast history of coffeehouse culture in Vienna itself.
Guide to Ordering Coffee in Vienna
Just like you don’t merely order “pasta” in Italy, you don’t order “coffee” in Vienna. The beverage lists at Viennese coffeehouses are extensive, but the following guide is a compact overview of some of the more popular offerings.
- Kleiner Schwarzer / Großer Schwarzer. This literally translates to “small black/large black” and means single espresso or double espresso. Oftentimes, the word “Mokka” is used in place of “Schwarzer”.
- Kleiner Brauner / Großer Brauner. This is the same as the previous offerings, but it is served with a side of milk. It translates to “small brown/large brown”.
- Melange. Espresso topped with steamed milk and some foam. It is similar to cappuccino.
- Verlängerter. An espresso with hot water. It translates to “extended one”.
- Einspänner. A “Großer Schwarzer“, served in a tall glass, and topped with whipped cream. The whipped cream is often sprinkled with cocoa.
- Eiskaffee. Cold, black coffee, with vanilla ice cream, topped with whipped cream. A summer favorite!
- Milchkaffee. Half black coffee and half milk.
These are just the tip of the iceberg. Whatever you order, your drink will arrive on a small platter, with a glass of water and a small spoon. Remember, Viennese coffee culture all but requires you to drink slowly and linger long after the last sip is savored.
Where to Drink Coffee in Vienna
Herrengasse 14, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Originally established in 1876, Cafe Central is a traditional and iconic coffeehouse. In the late 1800s, this cultural institution became a beloved meeting place for intellectuals. Peter Altenberg, Leon Trotsky, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Stalin, and numerous others all sipped coffee on the ground floor of the then Bank and Stockmarket Building. Central Cafe closed during World War II, but it was fully renovated and reopened in 1986. The building it is located in is now known at Palais Ferstel.
Cafe Central is a popular cafe and tourist destination, due to its impressive literary history. If you are aiming to sip a melange around locals, this might be one to skip. If history fascinates you, it is worth a visit.
Dorotheergasse 6, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Cafe Hawelka was opened by Leopold Hawelka in 1939. Like many other coffeehouses, the cafe had to close during World War II. Luckily, the building was largely unscathed, and business was able to resume in 1945. By the mid-1950s, Cafe Hawelka was a favorite meeting point for authors. Until his death in 2011, founder Leopold Hawelka could still be found greeting patrons in his namesake cafe.
When visiting Cafe Hawelka, make sure to order Buchteln. These house-specialty sweet rolls are still made with the original recipe by a member of the Hawelka family. Forewarning, this cafe does get busy, but the crowds are more than manageable in off hours.
Universitätsring 4, 1010 Vienna, Austria
Cafe Landtmann is located on the ground floor of the Palais Lieben-Auspitz building, near the University of Vienna. This traditional cafe was first opened in 1873 and has served as a gathering place for politicians, intellectuals, writers, and artists throughout its extensive history. It also holds the distinction of being Sigmund Freud’s favorite coffeehouse.
Again, due to its vast history, Cafe Landtmann does attract tourists.
Otto Bauer-Gasse 5, Vienna, Austria
While world’s away from the grandeur of the aforementioned coffeehouses, Cafe Jelinek still offers everything connoisseurs of coffee in Vienna could possibly desire, including traditional interior design, ample newspapers, pastries, and warm dishes. It hasn’t been renovated in awhile, but that only seems to add to the charm. Plus, Cafe Jelinek is largely overlooked by tourists, so it will give you a chance to converse with the locals.
Rasumofskygasse 7, 1030 Vienna, Austria
This off-the-beaten-path charmer was first opened in 1883. It provides all the allure of grand Viennese coffee houses, including history, chandeliers, plush surroundings, and a cozy atmosphere. On top of this, Cafe Zartl rarely sees tourists, which makes it the perfect spot to sip coffee and relax for hours.
Coffeehouse culture is part of what makes Vienna so unique. These grand cafes are a way of life in Austria’s capital city, and experiencing this cultural aspect of Vienna is both relaxing and enlightening. On your next visit to Austria, plan to spend an afternoon sipping coffee in Vienna.