Austria’s capital perfected the tradition of preparing, drinking and serving coffee. A confessed coffee junkie, I made it my mission to find the best Vienna coffee house in town.
I can’t say I am a coffee expert, but I am certainly a coffee junky, routinely drinking as much as two pots a day. I first got hooked on coffee in Seattle, Washington in the late 80s, when Starbucks was just a little shop in Pike Place Market. Now that I live in Germany, I’ve had to give up my love of dark roast, as they are not popular here. But I have not abandoned my love of coffee or coffee houses, and the best of both are found in Vienna.
What the Vienna coffee house culture has to do with the Turks and an Armenian spy
Vienna discovered coffee in 1683 when Turkish soldiers left some beans behind after the Battle of Vienna between the Ottoman Empire and combined forces of the Habsburg Monarchy, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth and the Holy Roman Empire.
During this time, Polish noble and diplomat Jerzy Franciszek Kulczycki (in German: Georg Franz Kolschitzky) volunteered to leave the besieged and starving city and contact Duke Charles of Lorraine for help. Kulczycki left the city in Turkish attire and after contacting the Duke, he returned with a promise of imminent relief. Thanks to that information, the city council decided not to surrender and eventually won the battle and saved Vienna. As a thank you Kulczycki was given a considerable amount of money and large amounts of coffee left behind by the Turks.
While Kolschitzky may have owned the first coffee beans, Armenian trader, courier and international spy Johannes Diodato (in German: Johannes Theodat) had the expertise to prepare it. In 1685, he was awarded a 20-year license to be the sole coffee seller as a reward for his services. He knew about the art of preparing coffee from his home country and opened the first Vienna coffee house in his residence at Rotenturmstraße 14 on the Haarmarkt.
Both Kulczycki and Diodato, as well as first Vienna coffee house, are long gone; however, the Viennese still remember them. They dedicated a park after Diodato near the site of his original coffee house in Vienna’s 4th district, and they named a street after Kulczycki, Kolschitzkygasse, and erected a statue where the street intersects Favoritenstraße. Vienna clearly takes coffee very seriously.
How the Vienna coffee house became en vogue
Towards the end of the 19th century, intellectuals, politicians, writers, painters and musicians started to gravitate towards coffee houses as a place to meet and exchange ideas.
They became especially popular with poor artists, who enjoyed these elegant “hangouts”, as they were a more appealing and convenient place to hang out than their small, crowded apartments.
Interestingly, at the end of the 19th century, when patrons of Café Griensteidl were arguing over a point of fact, instead of consulting their non-existent smartphones the waiter would bring them the German Brockhaus encyclopedia.
The Vienna coffee house culture over the course of time
Early Vienna coffee houses were equipped with card games and pool tables. In 1720, the Kramersches Kaffeehaus in Vienna’s city center started providing newspapers for its guests, and soon warm meals and alcohol were also added.
However, in spite of this early appreciation of coffee, Viennese coffee culture didn’t really explode until the 19th century when Viennese-style coffee houses opened in Prague, Zagreb, Verona, Trieste and Venice. Large rooms, red-velvet seats and magnificent chandeliers were the typical features for any prestigious coffee house.
After WWI, jazz music came to the coffee houses, and during the world economic crisis of the 1930s, coffee houses were hot spots for black market goods that were exchanged secretly under the tables.
Vienna coffee houses were in full swing until 1950 when Italian-style espresso bars became the new, hip place to hang out, and the Viennese-styled cafés became old-fashioned.
The “Italian” trend lasted until the 1982, during which many long-established coffee houses, like Café Herrenhof, unfortunately closed forever. Luckily, in 1983 Viennese coffee houses celebrated their 300-year anniversary, which sparked a kind of renaissance of the Vienna coffee house culture.
Today, the Vienna coffee house culture is alive and well and even recognized by UNESCO as an “intangible cultural heritage”.
Where to find a real Vienna coffee house
Luckily some of the old classic places still exist; here’s a list of where to enjoy your coffee in grand historic style:
Universitätsring 4, 1010 Vienna
This café was founded in 1873 and has seen many celebrities in its glorious past, including neurologist Sigmund Freud; actors Marlene Dietrich, Romy Schneider and Burt Lancaster; artist Oskar Kokoschka; writers Peter Altenberg and Thomas Mann; the Dutch Queen Juliane; singer and songwriter Sir Paul McCartney and most recently, politician Hillary Clinton. It’s also a favorite for local journalists and has become a popular location for press conferences. Having last been renovated in 1929, its interior is officially “protected” as an historic landmark, and today, Café Landtmann is regarded as one of Vienna’s most elegant coffee houses.
Funny little anecdote: In 2003, many celebrities said goodbye to the headwaiter Mr. Robert on his last day of work. One of them, Vienna’s mayor Michael Häupl, served Robert his coffee as a thank you for his many years of service and gave him an award for being the most popular, most discreet and most courteous waiter in all of Vienna.
Herrengasse 14, 1010 Vienna
This café was established in 1876 in the building of the former bank and stock exchange and showcases a beautiful Tuscan neo-renaissance style. It became one of the most important meeting places for intellectuals after Café Griensteidl was demolished in 1897, and its patrons included neurologist Sigmund Freud; writers Franz Kafka, Stefan Zweig and Peter Altenberg (who listed Café Central as his official residency) and actor Hugo von Hofmannsthal. Guests could choose from 250 newspapers in 22 languages, and until 1938 it was nicknamed the “chess university”. This intellectual heaven came to a halt in 1943, when the columned hall got partly destroyed. The café has been under monument protection since 1975, when it reopened. After extensive renovations in 1986, it’s now a popular hangout for tourists as well as locals.
Operngasse 7, 1010 Vienna
Established in 1899, the Café Museum was a favorite meeting point for painters Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka; writers Peter Altenberg, Elias Canetti and Georg Trakl; composer Franz Lehar and architect Adolf Loos, who designed its first interior. Until the 1990s, it also attracted national and international chess players. It was shut down for one year in 2009, but was reopened in 2010.
Gumpendorferstraße 11, 1060 Vienna
Housed in an 1880 building that is “monument protected”, the wooden floor, Thonet chairs, marble tables and crystal chandeliers take you back to the Belle Époque. Regular guests before the First World War included an odd mix of artists and members of the nearby Austrian-Hungarian Empire army college, including Archduke Josef Ferdinand. Some of the artists included the founders of the Vienna Secession, a movement of painters, sculptors and architects that explored the possibilities of art outside the confines of academic tradition. After a break during the Second World War, the café was carefully renovated and has now become a favorite hangout of modern writers again.
All the places named above are located within a convenient 600 m / 2,000 ft. radius from the Hofburg – the former imperial residence, so you can easily check them all out.
The different types of coffee found at a Vienna coffee house
Viennese coffee comes in a lot of shapes and sizes, so here’s a general guide of what you can choose from:
Kleiner Schwarzer: Espresso, served in a small cup
Kleiner Brauner: Espresso, served in a small cup with cream
Großer Schwarzer: Double Espresso, served in a large cup
Großer Brauner: Double Espresso, with cream, served in a large cup
Wiener Melange: Espresso, with milk, topped with foamed milk, served in a large cup
Franziskaner: Wiener Melange, with a whipped cream topping, served in a large cup
Kleine Schale Gold: Espresso, infused with hot milk, topped with foamed milk, served in a small cup
Kaffee Verkehrt: Espresso, with lots of milk, served in a tall glass
Verlängerter Schwarzer: Espresso, infused with hot water, served in a large cup
Verlängerter Brauner: Espresso, infused with hot water, with a shot of cream, served in a large cup
Überstürzter Neumann: Double espresso, poured over whipped cream, served in a large cup
Obermayer: Very cold liquid cream, infused into a double espresso by pouring it over the back of a spoon, served in a large cup
If all of this is too confusing, I suggest the most classic Viennese coffee: the Wiener Melange (German for “Viennese Blend”). Technically, it’s similar to a cappuccino, except that it’s made with milder coffee.
Of course, it’s always safe to ask how they make it, as different Viennese coffee houses define it differently. At Julius Meinl, for example, a Wiener Melange is an espresso shot, topped with steamed milk and milk foam, served in a large cup. At Cafe Sperl the Melange is half black coffee and half creamy milk, topped with milk foam, served in a large cup. Just to add some confusion…
Do you have a favorite Vienna coffee house? Let us know about it in the comments below!
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