Viennese Culture

Sándor Márai perhaps said it best when he described his time as a student in Vienna in his novel Embers,

“Vienna wasn’t just a city, it was a tone that either one carries forever in one’s soul or one does not. It was the most beautiful thing in my life. I was poor, but I was not alone, because I had a friend. And Vienna was like another friend. When it rained in the tropics, I always heard the voice of Vienna. And at other times too. Sometimes deep in the virgin forests I smelled the musty smell of the entrance hall in Hietzing. Music and everything I loved was in the stones of Vienna, and in people’s glances and their behavior, the way pure feelings are part of one’s very heart. You know when the feelings stop hurting. Vienna in winter and spring. The allés in Schönbrunn. The blue light in the dormitory at the academy, the great white stairwell with the baroque statue. Morning ridings in the Prater. The mildew in the riding school. I remember all of it exactly, and I wanted to see it again…”  

As Márai beautifully captures here, culture in Vienna is full of very old traditions that are still held near and dear to the hearts of its citizens.  Remnants of the mentality of the empire are everywhere, with manners, respect for elders, and proper etiquette being held in the highest regard.  This penchant for the proper can be easily seen in the cultural traditions still practiced today.  Three of the most influential cultural factors are the city’s musical tradition, the annual balls, and the culture and attitude surrounding Vienna’s famous coffeehouses.  All of these traditions are rooted in the royal and intellectual history of the city, yet manage to stay accessible to citizens and tourists alike, giving Vienna a truly distinct and special culture and heritage.


Opera, Operetta, and Music


Beginning in the 17th century, Vienna became a global hub for music, and has maintained a center for music ever since, classical and otherwise.  The list of composers who were born in, or studied and worked in Vienna and other parts of Austria is extensive and spans many centuries; Ludwig van Beethoven, Alban Berg, Johannes Brahms, Wolfgang Mozart, Anton Bruckner, Joseph Haydn, and Johann Strauss, just to name a few.  

It is easy to see the rich musical history of the city, when you examine the sheer number of longstanding musical venues and ensembles still performing today.  The Vienna Boys Choir is a staggering 517 years old, and still gives a full schedule of performances a year, all over the world.  The Vienna State Opera opened in 1869, and quickly gained a reputation of being one of the best opera houses in the world.  Even after being demolished during the Second World War, the company simply moved houses while their facility was rebuilt, and is still as popular as ever.  The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra was founded in 1842, and still performs a full season to sold out crowds.  

According to the city’s website, 2.57 million people saw one of the 3,792 theatre performances shown in Vienna in 2013.  Music and the performing arts are simply ingrained in the Viennese culture, so much so that the many organizations are funded by the government and taxpayers, which is a vastly different system from patron funded arts here in the United States.  This longstanding tradition of music in Vienna has certainly shaped the culture and daily life of modern Viennese citizens.  The Viennese Balls, which will go into more detail about later, are a huge part of Viennese life, and even today balls consist of classical music, and the most popular dance is still the Viennese waltz, all of which dates back to the late 18th century.  Even things as simple as street names are often named after important composers, mostly Austrian, such as Mozart and Mahler.  Classical music is just a normal part of daily live in Vienna, as they have a rich tradition of musical excellence which is a large source of pride and patriotism for all of Austria.

One composer that really shaped the Viennese musical and operatic culture is Johann Strauss.  Strauss became known as the quintessential waltz composer, (and was even nicknamed the Waltz King) after the premier of his waltz The Blue Danube, an obvious homage to both the beauty of Vienna and the preferred dance style of its people.

Another style J. Strauss mastered was the Operetta, a style perhaps even more Viennese than the waltz.  An operetta is, technically speaking, an opera with spoken dialogue instead of sung through recitatives.  However even more important to the popularity of the operetta is its penchant for witty dialogue and biting social and political commentary.  Die Fledermaus, his most famous operetta, tells the story of philandering and silly Viennese aristocrats attending a ball.  While it is a funny and playful show, the criticism is undeniable.  The wealthy criminal (who is sleeping with the maid) manages to elude jail one more night to attend the event, his cheating wife fools everyone into thinking she is a Hungarian princess so she can attend the ball and spy on her husband without him noticing.  The maid disguises herself to attend the ball as well, and nobody notices she is not nobility.  The whole show revolves around flowing champagne and the obliviousness and frivolity of the wealthy.  This piercing sarcasm and wittiness is essential to the Viennese humor and culture, and therefore why the operetta is so dear as a genre and cultural tradition.


The Vienna State Opera House

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Scene from Die Fledermaus

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Photo of Vienna Boys Choir

Photo courtesy of the Vienna Boys Choir website



Vienna hosts about 150 public balls a year during their Carnival season (called Fasching, in German), which takes place between November and February.  These events, hosted by a variety of different organizations, such as the city, various occupations, and other groups, are almost always black tie events, lasting well into the early hours of the morning; typically until around 5 am.  

Balls were always an aristocratic affair, until Emperor Joseph II, (1741-1790) decided, in 1773 that every one of his subjects should be able to attend the balls at his Hofburg  Palace.  Joseph II was a rather unusual leader, and this unprecedented public invitation introduced changed Viennese balls forever by making them public, as well as introducing the general public to the Viennese Waltz, which was a dance previously reserved for only the upper class.  

As public balls became more and more popular, the Hofburg Palace could no longer accommodate all of the dancers.  In 1808, the Apollosaal was built just for this purpose.  With its several large ballrooms, and many other rooms for people to enjoy food and drink and relax, the Apollosaal was perfect for hosting these large public events.  

Today, the most popular (and expensive) ball is the Opernball, or the ball hosted by the Vienna State Opera.  This event got its start in 1877, when the Kaiser of Austria gave permission for a special event to be held at the opera house; dancing was not allowed at this time however.  Finally, in 1935, the Vienna Opera Ball was celebrated for the first time, due in no small part to the popularity of Johann Strauss and his famous and quintessential Viennese Waltzes.  

Modern-day balls begin with an opening ceremony of sorts, in which officers of the host organization march in and take their places on stage, perhaps giving a welcome speech.  That is followed by a dance show; this show often showcases professional dancers dressed as debutantes.  After the opening ceremony and show, the night is given up to social dancing.  The music will typically alternate between string orchestra and brass band, and many types of traditional ballroom dances are danced; these dances include Viennese waltz, slow waltz, slow foxtrot, tango, quickstep and polka schnell.  


The most important ball of the season: The Vienna Opera Ball

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Debutantes being presented at the Vienna Opera Ball

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Coffee Shops


Mark Twain said, “The best coffee in Europe is in Vienna, compared to which all other coffee is fluid poverty.”  Still today, Vienna is known for their oppulent and popular coffee houses.  Despite their history and reputation, coffee houses were not invented in Vienna, in fact the coffee shop actually arrived in the city quite late: 1683.  Despite this “late” start however, Vienna has established a coffee shop tradition completely unique to them, and it is a large contributing factor to their modern-day culture.  Legend has it, that following the end of the Siege of Vienna in 1683, Georg Franz Kolschitzky (1640 – 1694) was the first person to obtain a license to sell coffee in the city, and he used coffee beans left by the Turks during the Siege.  Despite having a street and a statue dedicated to Kolschitzky, this legend is actually not true.  The first real coffee house was opened by an Armenian spy named Diodato, who first began brewing and serving coffee with secrets from his home country at the Viennese Imperial Court.  

Today, coffee houses still hold many of the same characteristics that made coffee houses so popular in the 17th century.  They have always been places for people to convene to relax and enjoy each others’ company.  From the beginning houses were stocked with card and board games to provide entertainment to guests while they enjoyed their coffee.  As the 18th century carried on, more innovations were made. “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.”  After the Congress of Vienna in 1814/1815, the Viennese coffee house culture flourished around the world, with Viennese-style cafes opening in cities all over Europe, including  Prague, Zagreb, Verona, Trieste, and Venice.

By 1900, there was a coffee house for everyone in Vienna; “artists, intellectuals, the respectable bourgeoisie and the not-so-respectable … gathered in cafés to chat, eat, read, work, play, gamble and discuss.”  Today not much has changed, as Vienna’s coffee houses are considered “Vienna’s public living room.” However they have not enjoyed uninterrupted success since their conception in 1683.  “In the 1950s, Vienna suffered a period darkly known as kaffeehaussterben, or coffeehouse death.”  After World War II, the Viennese began to see their own coffee house culture as old fashioned and outdated, and they began to prefer Italian-style espresso bars.  This period of disinterest lasted well into the 1980s, causing many coffee shops to close their doors for good.  Luckily in 1983, the celebrations for the 300th anniversary of the Viennese cafe created an renewed interest in the traditions and culture surrounding coffee shops in Vienna.  “In 2011, Viennese coffeehouse culture was included by the UNESCO in the national inventory of intangible cultural heritage.”  As it says on UNESCO’s website, the Viennese coffeehouse is “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill”  Today, despite the mid-century rough patch, the popularity of Viennese coffee houses is an undeniable part of the city’s rich culture.  


A traditionally dressed waiter at Cafe Central in Vienna

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All of these great traditions make Vienna the city it is today.  Without the reverence and respect for the past, none of these wonderful experiences would be as popular as they are.  That mindset truly makes Vienna special.  While the United States and many other parts of the world are trying to move forward and “forget” the old-fashioned trends of the past, both the citizens and the government are doing everything they can to keep the charm and magic of this historic city alive.  



Sources Consulted:

Opera, Operetta, and Music:




Coffee Shops