Enjoy your day in a Viennese coffeehouse

Many people told me about the cultural life and standard of living of this city so that I didn’t have to think for long. I wanted to spend my semester abroad in the most liveable city in the world: Vienna. The fact that I am studying German language and literature is of course a perfect fit, because it gives me an insight into the linguistic world of Austria. Like Switzerland, the dialects here are very pronounced and there is an interesting relationship between these and the standard German. But that’s not the point of this article, I want to talk about something from the cultural practice.

The tradition of Viennese coffeehouse culture is well known to many people, as it has been part of UNESCO’s immaterial cultural heritage since 2011. The history of Viennese coffeehouses goes back to about the 17th century, but they flourished at the end of the 19th to the beginning of the 20th century. At that time, the so-called coffeehouse literati, among them Arthur Schnitzler and Stefan Zweig, gathered in their respective café by working and exchanging ideas. Artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt were also frequently to be found in the coffeehouses.

Even today, many Viennese coffeehouses and even the “simpler” cafés adhere to the traditions of cultural heritage. Some of these traditions are unusual for outsiders and can surprise someone even at first glance. Already in former times it was usual to stay for hours in a café, to work and to read the newspaper, even if one only ordered a single coffee. In most cafés, this is common even today. It is unthinkable that the waiters assign a table to the guests when they enter. No, you come into the café, look around, search for an empty seat and sit down. If you are not a regular guest, you must usually wait a while until the waiters either bring the drinks menus (if they are not on the tables) or until they take the order. It quickly becomes clear in these cafés that nobody is in a hurry and if you want to drink something, you should bring some time with you. A lot of time. Once your order has been taken care of, you are left alone. If you want to (re)order something later, you have to fight for the attention of the waiters. And even if they have seen you waving, it takes time for them to take up the order again. Normally the waiters don’t ask you if they can bring you something more. In the typical Viennese coffeehouses such a question is unthinkable.

Before I left for Vienna, I read some reports about the city.  Several times I came across the hint that one is first ignored if one asks in a coffee house to be able to pay. The waiters want to “punish” the guests for wanting to leave the relaxed atmosphere. I couldn’t really imagine that and thought that was a little exaggerated. After a good month in Vienna I clearly don’t think that anymore. In fact, I had the feeling several times that the waiters did everything they could to avoid looking in my direction when I wanted to pay. And once I have managed to catch their eye and make them aware with a sign that I would like to have the bill, it takes a few minutes until I really receive it. And that even if the café is as good as empty.

Another aspect in which the Viennese cafés stand out are the special coffee creations that can be found on the drink menus. If one is in a restaurant that is not aimed at tourists, but at “real Viennese”, one does not find any explanations under the drink names. In order to find out what a “Wiener Melange” or a “Verlängerter” is, one has to order and try. But don’t worry, you can never do anything wrong with Viennese coffee. I can only recommend that you also order a “Kaiserschmarrn” or an “Apfelstrudel”.  These always sweeten your day.

Despite all traditions, I quickly got used to this serenity and peace in the Viennese cafés and now enjoy them to the full. It was also interesting that one of my lecturers arranged the presentation meetings in her regular coffeehouse and then sat down there to discuss with us the preparation for our presentation. She also said that all students should have the opportunity to sit in the coffee houses for hours, to learn, to discuss and to exchange ideas. In fact, I try to use my semester abroad to do just that.

Leonora Schulthess




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