In caffeine-crazy Vienna, there’s a coffee shop on pretty much every corner of the city. Which is hardly surprising when you consider the fact that the Austrians were among the first to spread coffee culture to the rest of Europe. If local stories are to be believed, the tradition began when Hapsburg troops discovered sacks of coffee beans left behind by the withdrawing Turkish army during the Ottoman Siege of 1683. Up until then, coffee was a specialty drink enjoyed exclusively within the boundaries of the Ottoman Empire. Once the Viennese figured out what to do with the beans, coffee drinking and café culture spread quickly across the Hapsburg domains in Europe.
The first coffee house in Vienna was established in 1685. Coffee drinks did not carry the names or the styles in which they’re served today, but the concept of the café where customers could enjoy the company of others over cups of the beverage, pastries and other refreshments traces its origins to the first coffee houses of the city. Coffee shops have since evolved into countless varieties with the Italians, French, and the American versions dominating retail spaces all across the world today. But only in the cities of the former Hapsburg Empire, and in Vienna especially, is the original coffee house tradition still practiced. So much so that UNESCO listed Vienna’s Coffee House Culture as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in 2011.
Breakfast at Café Tirolerhof in the historic district of Vienna provides an authentic taste of the specific rituals that define this 300-year-old tradition. The Austrian writer—and coffee house patron—Stefan Zweig described the Viennese institution as a “democratic club, open to everyone for the price of a cheap cup of coffee, where every guest can sit for hours with this little offering, to talk, write, play cards, receive post, and above all consume an unlimited number of newspapers and journals.”
The price of a cup is no longer cheap, but everything else is faithful to the writer’s description. Especially the part about the newspapers and journals. While seated at a quiet corner of the café with a cup of Julius Meinl coffee in hand, I didn’t see anyone asking for Wi-Fi, or checking the news on their mobile. Instead, periodicals are still read and a traditional establishment will have dozens of newspapers available—and in as many languages as possible. Anyone can read the headlines at home or while in transit, but the distinct environment of a Viennese style café provides customers the social space ideal for discussion and debate. Many attribute the cosmopolitan air and intellectual heritage of the city to its unique café culture. Surely, the likes of Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt, Albert Einstein, and Leon Trotsky, all known Vienna coffee house habitués, must have picked up an idea or two over coffee here.
The rise of social media and online news is threatening the historical appeal of the coffee house, and a new wave of Italian espresso bars and Starbucks-style stores in the city present a convenient and informal alternative that’s attractive to younger customers. Regardless of these trends, the coffee houses of Vienna will always have an irreplaceable appeal—that of deliciously brewed coffee drinks and freshly baked viennoiserie served in an elegant, Old World atmosphere.
Photography by David Celdran
First appeared on Vault Issue 24, 2018