Legend has it that the tradition of the Vienna coffee house sprang from the abandoned beans left in the aftermath of the failed Ottoman siege in 1683. The word coffee comes from the Arabic and refers to the landscape Kaffa in Ethiopia, where the coffee tree has been growing since earliest times. The first coffee houses were in Mecca already in the 12th century, followed by Venice.

In Vienna during the siege, a certain Georg Franz Kolschitzky, dressed as a Turk, apparently sneaked through the enemy camps to convey an important message to Karl von Lothringen. In gratitude for his heroic deed, he was handsomely rewarded with a building site, a business licence and spoils of war, which included sacks of some mysterious dark beans.

The Viennese initially thought the beans were camel food. However, after they tried roasting them, the first Viennese coffee house was created, by Kolschitzky in 1683 not far from St. Stephen's Cathedral. Accounts may vary somewhat but this is the legend that has lasted for centuries, anyway.

In another telling, it is said that, in reality, the first Viennese cafetier was an Armenian merchant named Johannes Diodato, who on January 17, 1685 received from Emperor Leopold I the first licence to sell coffee, in return for his espionage activities. His coffee house opened on January 17, 1685 in his house on Haarmarkt, today's Rotenturmstrasse 14.

Others followed and by the early 1700s they were already exhibiting many of the qualities that characterise them today. At the beginning of the 18th century, it was customary in the first Viennese coffee houses to serve a glass of water with each coffee, and one amused oneself there with billiards and card games, although the latter were officially prohibited until the end of the 18th century. Coffee house owners who allowed card games risked a fine of 1000 kreutzers, the keutzer being a silver coin unit of currency.

The Kramersche Kaffeehaus on Am Graben street was the first to provide newspapers for patrons to read, in 1720. This is said to have attracted writers, artists, thinkers and other creative types, and the places quickly became a hotbed for the discussion of politics, culture and current events. The newspapers often contained government- and monarchy-critical articles from around the world, resulting in newspaper cafés being rather frowned upon by political leaders and the high and mighty, especially when satirical pamphlets were distributed as well.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the first Viennese concert café followed, opened by Martin Diegand in 1788. This was enthusiastically received, for now patrons could enjoy the live music of Mozart, Beethoven and later Strauss and company for coffee. Mozart liked to test the effect of his music in these places, and Beethoven likewise enjoyed playing in them.

In the mid-19th century, the concerts sometimes started as early as 6am and there were no empty seats left. In those days, Johann Strauss senior and composer and conductor Joseph Lanner provided for full coffee houses with their string quartet. Such performances helped provide a springboard to fame.

Napoleon's Continental Blockade of trade with England from 1808 to 1813 put the Viennese coffee houses to the test. No coffee house owner could afford the exorbitant tariffs on coffee beans, and many were on the brink of ruin. In their plight, they tried to simulate the flavour of coffee with ingredients such as damson stones, figs, rye, barley or chicory – with modest success. So in this difficult time, the coffee houses were granted the right to serve wine and warm dishes.

From about 1815 onwards, in the time of Vormärz, the period preceding the revolutionary year of 1848, and Biedermeier, also in the first half of the 19th century, the Viennese coffee house blossomed anew and became a synonym for quality of life throughout Europe. Similar establishments were opened in many European cities such as Prague, Venice and Trieste based on the Viennese model. Sophisticated coffee houses were resplendent with large rooms, red upholstery and giant crystal chandeliers.

In 1856 women were finally allowed access to the Viennese coffee houses, with the Café Français leading the way. Previously, apart from the "invisible" kitchen personnel, the female cashier was the only woman who was allowed to be present. Early on, coffee house owners recognised the attraction of these reserved, calm and friendly lady cashiers, who not only settled accounts but also monitored the dispensing of sugar. Other women had been kept out, the general opinion being that they needed to be protected from the wickedness of men with their gambling, alcohol and cigarette smoke.

The typical Thonet coffee house chair no. 24 was made around 1850 and stood next to a small marble table. Even today, traditional Viennese coffee houses of any note prefer this style.

The World's Fair in 1873 brought many thousands of visitors from all over the world to Vienna, further promoting the sumptuous elegance and excellent reputation of its coffee houses.

Starting in 1890, Café Griensteidl was the meeting place for the literary group "Jung Wien" (Young Vienna). The spokesman of the group, Hermann Bahr, surrounded himself with an illustrious crowd of young writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal (1874-1929), Karl Kraus (1874-1936), Arthur Schnitzler (1862-1931), Peter Altenberg (1859-1919) and many others. But the writers did not limit themselves to a single coffee house. Over time they also elected Café Central and Café Herrenhof as meeting places.

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Café Griensteidl in 1897

The elegantly furnished "extended living rooms" were heavily used, in which Viennese could spend time with guests and friends. When the Ring Boulevard era started at the beginning of the 20th century, the era of pompous elegance began likewise. Along the Ringstrasse, about 30 coffee houses emerged with outdoor seating and bombastic interiors, which invited the aristocratic ladies and gentlemen strolling past to stop and linger.

The Ring and its coffee establishments were termed and celebrated as a "miracle of elegance" around the world, a place for society to promenade and relax.

Another special feature is that the Viennese coffee house culture was nominated as an intangible cultural heritage by UNESCO, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, in 2011. As proudly described by Austria’s National Agency for the Intangible Cultural Heritage, the Viennese coffee house is truly a place "where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill".

Today, despite the rise of globalisation and the prevalence – even in Vienna – of modern coffee chains, the tradition of the coffee house continues, although many have updated their services with non-smoking sections, WiFi connections and other modern amenities.

When you visit your coffee shop, remember that this is considered an act of culture to enjoy yourself in peace and quiet.


What is Viennese coffee?

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As noted, the coffee house was always the meeting place for artists, writers, intellectuals and "originals". Individualists, not satisfied by the variety of coffees on offer, developed their own. The most well-known are the "Obermayer", named after a member of the Viennese Philharmonic Orchestra, as well as the "Überstürzte", invented by a patron of the legendary café Herrenhof. What are the classic specialities? All in all, you can distinguish between 40 different types. Some are:

  • Kleiner Brauner: Mocha in a small cup served with cream. (The Mocha name is derived from the city of Mocha, Yemen, one of the centers of early coffee trade.)
  • Verlängerter Schwarzer: Mocha in a large cup infused with hot water.
  • Verlängerter Brauner: Mocha in a large cup infused with hot water and a shot of cream.
  • Kaffee Verkehrt: Mocha with lots of milk; a pale milk-coffee.
  • Uberstürzter Newmann: Whipped cream is put in the empty coffee cup and a double mocha is poured over it, hence "upside-down".
  • Maria Theresia: A double portion of mocha with a shot of orange liqueur and cream, served in a glass.
  • Fiaker: Mocha served with a small portion of rum.
  • Obermayer: A double mocha, in which very cold liquid cream is infused by pouring it into the coffee over the back of a coffee spoon.
  • Kleiner Schwarzer: Mocha in a small cup, served "short" (less water added) on request.
  • Grosser Schwarzer: A double portion of mocha served in a large cup with cream.
  • Kleiner Brauner: Mocha in a small cup served with cream.
  • Grosser Brauner: A double portion of mocha served in a large cup with cream.
  • Kapuziner: A double portion of mocha with whipped cream. (Cappuccino was probably derived from the word "Kapuziner". The cappuccino was created in 1850 in Milan, as Austrian officers ordered a "Kapuziner"...)
  • Cappuccino: A lengthened mocha with hot milk and milk foam, sprinkled with cocoa powder.
  • Caffé Latte: Mocha with lots of milk and milk foam served in a tall glass with a long spoon.
  • Irish Coffee: A double mocha with Irish whiskey, sugar and whipped cream served in a glass.
  • Einspanner: Mocha topped with whipped cream in an "Einspanner" glass, with icing sugar served separately.
  • Melange: Mocha, slightly lengthened (more water added), offset with milk and foamed milk toppings, served in a large cup.
  • Franziskaner: A "Melange" with cream topping – instead of foamed milk.
  • Kleine Schale Gold: Mocha infused with hot milk and foamed milk topping, served in a small cup.


Where to drink them?

Café Central has marble columns and a vaulted ceiling but also quite possibly a 20-strong queue outside waiting to get a table. Former customers include Leon Trotsky and Vladimir Lenin who, in between their mélanges (the Viennese coffee similar to a cappuccino), plotted overthrowing the Russian tsar. Eighty percent of the clientele are international tourists anxious to throw away a bit more money than necessary for the privilege.

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Café Museum was built in 1899 to designs by Adolf Loos but was remodelled in the 1930s. It has now been restored in accordance with Loos’ original design.

Eiles is near various government offices, making it a favourite haunt of officials and lawyers.

Sperl is just outside the city centre and has a clientele of many youthful people who like the billiard tables and hot strudels.

Café Hawelka is famous after long cultivating a bohemian image. The atmosphere is warm and theatrical, perfect for a late-night cup of coffee or a drink. Centrally located yet seemingly worlds away, Café Hawelka is a Viennese institution. It has been owned and operated by the same family for three generations, yet still maintains its original charm and character.

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Landtmann is comfortable and formal and used to be frequented by Freud. Today it is visited by theatregoers and actors from the nearby Burgtheater and by journalists and politicians.

Kleines is one of the city’s smallest and quaintest, with a loyal clientele of actors.

Frauenhuber is the oldest coffee house in Vienna and once held performances by both Mozart and Beethoven. Its location off Kartner Strasse makes it handy for shoppers and tourists visiting the nearby Stephansdom.

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Café Sacher lacks the charm and character of a true Viennese coffee house but may be worth a visit for a side of Sacher Torte. This dense chocolate cake pairs nicely with Viennese coffee. Although this history is heavily debated, this Viennese specialty is said to hail from Café Sacher. Again, expect a queue on the pavement, with prices to match.

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Café Diglas is a classic Viennese coffee house complete with red velvet booths and live piano music. It also features an extensive lunch menu and outside tables to enjoy the afternoon sun.


Typically, a true coffee house should have the following:

  • Marble tabletops
  • Piano music
  • Pastries and cakes such as Linzer Torte and strudel
  • Thonet chairs
  • Plenty of international newspapers
  • A good selection of coffee


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