History of Viennese coffee house culture

Cafe Sperl - a traditional coffee house

Even though the Viennese coffee house culture is renowned the world over, Vienna was not the first city in history with a coffee house. There were several coffee houses in Mecca as early as the 12th century. The first coffee house in Europe opened in Venice in 1647. The first coffee houses in England were opened in 1650 and 1652. And in Vienna the first coffee house opened only in 1683.

Even if Vienna was not the pioneer in coffee house culture, it has - over the centuries - established a coffee house tradition like no other city in the world. Coffee and coffee houses are at their best in Vienna!

1683 - the beginning of Viennese coffee house culture

The history of Viennese coffee house culture is closely linked to the end of the Siege of Vienna in 1683. Legend has it that the Viennese citizen Georg Franz Kolschitzky (1640 - 1694) was the first to obtain a licence to serve coffee in the city following his heroic actions during the Siege of Vienna. The coffee beans left behind by the Turks were the basis of his success. A street in Vienna’s 4th district was named after him and a statue was put up at the corner of Favoritenstraße/Kolschitzkygasse.

However, the first coffee house in Vienna was actually opened by the Armenian spy Diodato. He served at the Viennese Imperial court and was a man full of secrets. He knew about the dark beans and the art of preparing coffee from his home country. The Johannes-Diodato-Park in Wieden, Vienna’s 4th district, is dedicated to him.

Traditions evolve

Newspaper and magazine rack and billiard tables at the Cafe Sperl

The first coffee houses already had several of the characteristics that are still typical of a Viennese-style coffee house today. Waiters served a glass of water with every cup of coffee and they were equipped with card games and pool tables.

In 1720, the Kramersches Kaffeehaus coffee house in Vienna’s city centre was the first to put out newspapers for its guests to read. It was another big step in Vienna’s coffee house history when warm meals and alcohol were first allowed to be served. However, in 1808, Napoleon's Continental Blockade of England also had an effect on Austria, where the price for coffee beans increased sharply. Coffee house owners had to look for alternatives not to go bankrupt which led to the development of café restaurants.

After the Congress of Vienna in 1814/15, the coffee house culture in the city flourished again. During the Biedermeier period, the Viennese coffee house became the epitome of a good quality of life in all of Europe. Viennese-style coffee houses opened in Prague, Zagreb, Verona, Trieste, and Venice. Large rooms, red-velvet seats, and magnificent chandeliers were the typical features that were essential for any prestigious coffee house.

In 1856, women were finally no longer banned from coffee houses. Before that the cashiers were the only women there.

Literature cafés and coffee house literature

Around 1890 Café Griensteidl became the regular meeting venue of a group of literary figures called "Jung Wien" (Young Vienna). An illustrious group of young writers such as Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Karl Kraus and Arthur Schnitzler met at the café and gave birth to coffee house literature.

However, the writers did not limit their attention to just one coffee house. They regularly chose different coffee houses as their favourites: Café Griensteidl was followed by Café Central, which was followed by Café Herrenhof as the most popular meeting point of young writers. Other artists also had their favourite coffee houses: Café Museum, for example, became a popular meeting venue for painters.

In general, the Viennese, who mostly lived in tiny, crowded flats, regarded the elegant coffee houses as their "extended living rooms" or second homes where they could meet friends and other people. After World War One, the first dance cafés opened and played popular American jazz music. During the world economic crisis in the 1930s, coffee houses were increasingly used as trading places where much sought-after goods were exchanged under the tables.

Destruction of Jewish coffee house culture

In 1938, the Nazis seized coffee houses owned by Jews, mainly in Vienna’s 2nd district. They had been a lively counterpart to the more ostentatious coffee houses of the first district and a second home for many Jewish intellectuals and artists.

Post-war crisis

In the 1950s, Viennese coffee houses plunged into a crisis. Italian-style espresso bars became more and more popular, and traditional coffee houses were increasingly considered old-fashioned. Up to the 1980s, many long-established Viennese-style coffee houses had to close down.

Positive outlook

In 1983, the tradition was revived when Viennese coffee houses celebrated their 300th anniversary and many Viennese started to remember the unique qualities of their coffee houses.

In 2011, Viennese coffee house culture was included by the UNESCO in the national inventory of intangible cultural heritage.

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