Travel to Vienna, Austria
Vienna’s Venerable Coffeehouse Tradition
Discover the elegant world of the Viennese Coffeehouse, a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage that is synonymous with the history of the Austrian empire and its dynamic capital city.
Vienna’s Coffee Houses are an Integral Part of the City’s History
What the pub is to London and the sidewalk café to Paris, the coffeehouse is to Vienna:
A central meeting place to exchange ideas, digest news, and Austrian pastries, and meet one’s peers and linger over a libation of one kind or another. Since the seventeenth century, Vienna’s coffeehouses have been an integral part of the sophisticated, polyglot cultural, intellectual and political capital of the Habsburg empire.
Mysterious Beans in a Burlap Sack
Locals know the legend by heart: coffee first came to Vienna in 1683, when the Ottoman army laid siege to Vienna. They were overcome by the imperial forces, and beat a hasty retreat, leaving much of their supplies behind, including several burlap sacks of mysterious beans. The legend goes on to tell of Koischitzky, a Polish army courier who had spent much time in the Ottoman Empire and knew that the mysterious beans were not camel food, but something much more valuable. He asked if he could keep the sacks in place of his pay and proceeded to open a small café or coffeehouse near St. Stephen’s Cathedral in the heart of Vienna.
Learn more about the Habsburg Austria and Fin de Siecle Vienna:
Cultural, Social, and Political Affinities and Associations
The rest is history. Caffeine suited the energetic, eclectic Viennese, and soon much of daily intercourse, commerce, and politics was centered around the growing number of elegant coffeehouses in the capital. In the nineteenth century, coffeehouses served the same role for Viennese men as London clubs did for their English peers: one’s coffeehouse affiliation was a key hallmark of slotting a Viennese into a cultural, economic, or political caste. Where he took his coffee and read his newspaper reflected a man’s politics and interests. Many of the critical movements that shaped the twentieth century were hotly debated in Viennese cafes, and many of these storied institutions are still open today.
Historic Vienna Coffeehouses
Sigmund Freud pondered the mysteries of the human psyche in Café Landtmann, while Austrian politician Peter Altenberg made speeches at the Café Central, where a statue has been erected in his honor. Leon Trotsky and other liberal thinkers and writers plotted world revolution at Café Griensteidl.
Coffeehouse tradition dies hard, and modern-day Vienna carefully preserves the rituals and traditions of its coffeehouse culture, so much so that UNESCO included Viennese coffeehouse culture in its list of Intangible Cultural Heritages in 2011.
The elegant presentation of coffee in a Vienna Coffee Shop. Photo Credit: Shutterstock
How to be Viennese in a Coffeehouse
Visitors to Vienna quickly learn that a Viennese coffeehouse is no place to grab a no fat triple shot latte on the fly. Coffee is still served on an elegant silver tray with a glass of water by professional waiters in formal attire, and newspapers are still laid out on their iconic wooden poles to be lingered over. The privilege to sit in one of the old coffeehouses doesn’t come cheap, so do as the Viennese do and linger for a few hours, discuss the state of the world, read, or just ponder the mysteries of something.
And feel Viennese.
The kitchen of Demel’s in Vienna
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Jennifer Recommends: 5 Great Historic Vienna Coffeehouses
Café Demel (Demel K. & K. Hofzuckerbäckerei)
Dating back to 1786, Demel takes pride in its storied history of Imperial patronage, outstanding confectionary, and a fine tradition of the family’s women at the helm. For almost 150 years, Demel’s has been an integral part of the history and culture of Vienna. Try the famous “Anna Cake” and, if time permits, visit the Demel Museum.
Founded in 1939, the Hawelka has always been the haunt of artists and bohemians, particularly in the post World War II era. Still managed by a descendant of the founder, the cafe is famous for its “Buchtein” or sweet rolls, and the area around the café is often redolent with their delicious smell!
If you are on Sissi’s Trail in Vienna or visiting the Hofburg Imperial Palace, this elegant cafe located just one floor below the apartments of Emporer Franz Joseph and his enchanting Empress Elisabeth is a great place to stop and rest between visits to the Imperial Apartments, the Treasuries, and the Spanish Riding School. Try the decadent apple strudel or Kaiserschmarrn flakey pancakes.
The Café Imperial has been keeping Vienna’s creatives fed and watered since 1873, the year of the Universal Exhibition on the Ring Boulevard. Frequented by Gustav Mahler and other great musicians, artists, and writers, today the café offers a full menu including their signature Wiener Schnitzel. Chef Patissière Katharina Kurz refuses to be pinned down to just one recommendation. She lists her favorites by season: rhubarb tart in the spring, apricot-lemon balm cake in the summer, Berry Cupola in the fall, and chestnut cranberry Christmas Tree Ball in the winter. Clearly, the Café Imperial warrants more than one visit!
For over 140 years, the Landtmann management has striven to maintain its lofty moniker of “Vienna’s most elegant café.” This has meant changing and adapting with the times and the history of the Landtmann reflects Vienna’s own. The Landtmann’s cakes and pastries are so many and so legendary that it is hard to choose between them. The classic Wiener Apfelstrudel is a popular favorite, as is the Esterhazytorte.
Further Reading and Viewing
Learn more about Vienna’s history and the role of the coffeehouse.
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Notes from the Author
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If you would like to immerse yourself more Vienna coffeehouse history and culture, I invite you to visit my Pinterest Board dedicated to the subject. Many of the images in this post come from that collection.
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