Vienna is divided into 23 districts (Bezirke), each distinct in reputation and purpose. The old town, officially the Innere Stadt (1st district, with St Stephen’s cathedral at its heart), is surrounded by the Ringstrasse, a splendid boulevard begun in the 1850s and not quite finished by the time the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918. Beyond the Ring lie districts two to nine, which are in turn surrounded by a much larger ring road, the Gürtel (belt). The Viennese often prefer to shop, drink and eat in their own district or a neighbouring one than venture into the centre. In winter, I advise huddling in the cosy bars and cafes of the 4th district (especially around Schleifmühlgasse), or the streets either side of the Mariahilferstrasse, the city’s unremarkable shopping drag. In recent years, Leopoldstadt (2nd district and traditionally the Jewish part of town) has happily re-emerged, and is also replete with warm and atmospheric cafes, bars, restaurants and clubs.
Vienna has a vast array of museums, including institutions dedicated to shoes, condoms, Esperanto and sanitation. Personal favourites include the Leopold Museum (€14/€10), which houses the largest collection of Egon Schiele art in the world, plus many others. The Jewish Museum (€12/€8) showcases the fascinating history of Jewish life, and continues to acquire artefacts to enrich its archives and innovate – its temporary exhibitions are often remarkable. My favourite piece is Theodor Herzl’s bicycle. Also well worth visiting is the imperial furniture collection, Hofmobiliendepot (€10.50/€9.50), with many former possessions of Habsburg monarchs.
Music and ballet
Vienna pretty much sets the standard for the rest of the world when it comes to classical music, and 2020 marks the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. I advise against pointing out to the Viennese that Beethoven was German and not Austrian (he established his career here), instead just revel in the devotion and adulation he stirs among locals. Incidentally, the building in which he completed his Ninth Symphony still stands and is now an excellent pub, Bierteufl, with typical Austrian fare. For an alternative to the prestigious venues, try the Volksoper – where the Vienna State Ballet sometimes perform (in addition to the state opera of course) – which has almost daily performances of operettas, operas, musicals or ballets at reasonable prices; standing places can cost as little as €3.
Relaxed licensing times mean there is rarely any hurry when out for a drink in Vienna. Café Europa is a good example of this laidback attitude: it is open seven days a week, from 9am to 5am. Tachles, which bills itself as a Kulturcafé and takes its name from the Yiddish for “straight-talking”, is the full package. A lovely old-fashioned, wood-panelled boozer in its own right, it serves delicious Polish pierogi (filled savoury dumplings) and often has live music.
Death in Vienna
If Vienna has the best quality of life in the world, it also has the best quality of death. Few cities have such beautiful, well-tended and pleasant cemeteries. The Viennese take strolls in cemeteries as others would go for a walk in the park. Of the nearly 50 cemeteries, the Zentralfriedhof is the biggest and most famous. Many of the world’s greatest composers are here, including Beethoven and Schubert, but not Mozart; his remains are in the St Marx cemetery in the 3rd district (Landstraße). For a more morbid – but dynastic – experience, head to the Kapuzinergruft (€7.50/€6.50), the burial place of the Habsburgs on the Neuer Markt in the Inner City. There, you’ll find the sarcophagi of over 100 members of the imperial family in all imaginable styles. History buffs like me will be thrilled to see Empress Maria Theresa and her son the enlightened despot Joseph II (brother to Marie Antoinette), Franz Joseph I and Empress Sisi (assassinated in Geneva by an Italian anarchist in 1898), the tragic Crown Prince Rudolf (who committed suicide with his 17-year-old mistress) and the equally tragic Emperor Maximilian of Mexico (executed by firing squad in 1867).
For a real, no-nonsense taste of Vienna, head for Schnitzelwirt, which serves family-size portions of schnitzel at an unbeatable €6.90. The Viennese traditionally eat it with a cold potato salad. Diverging may cause frowns. Viennese menus usually comprise the same group of dishes, sometimes Austrian in origin but often inherited from the various nationalities of the empire: Hungarian goulash (thicker and less spicy than its Magyar counterpart), wiener schnitzel (strictly made from veal but often from pork), south Slav ćevapčići (grilled minced meat), crêpe-like Palatschinken (claimed by the Romanians), and Powidltascherl (sweet dumplings filled with stewed plum or plum jam) from the Czechs, to name but a few. Emperor Franz Joseph’s favourite was Tafelspitz, beef boiled in a vegetable broth, served with gratin potatoes, apple horseradish and sour cream with chives. The most famous Tafelspitz restaurant is Plachutta, which has three locations in the city, but I would head for the equally excellent Gasthaus Pfudl. Also worth a mention is the resurrected Viennese institution Meissl & Schadn: an imperial staple that survived the first world war (even though future Social Democratic grandee Friedrich Adler assassinated the Austrian prime minister there during his lunch in 1916), but not the second. Reopened at Schubertring 10-12 in 2017, it now offers traditional Viennese cuisine in a charming setting.
Leave your map in your pocket and wander through the old town, raising your eyes and poking your nose into every courtyard and hidden church. This eclectic cocktail of medieval, baroque, historicist and modernist buildings will quench most architectural thirsts. Look out for the Looshaus (Michaelerplatz 3), which offended upper-class Viennese people with its “obscene nakedness” (lack of window-roofing) upon completion in 1912, and the gothic Maria am Gestade (Salvatorgasse 12), finished in 1414, which Joseph Cotten memorably runs past in Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man – still shown at least three times a week at the city’s oldest cinema, Burg Kino. The university, the oldest in the German-speaking world, offers guided tours in English (€5, every Saturday, 11.30am) through its neo-Renaissance premises, and the Prunksaal (state hall) of the old imperial library (1723-26), surely one of the most beautiful in the world (€8, Josephsplatz 1). Often missed by visitors are Vienna’s Gemeindebauten (municipality buildings), social housing projects built between 1919 and 1934. Still the property of the council and serving their original purpose, these beautiful icons of the Red Vienna era are worth exploring. The most remarkable example is the one-kilometre-long Karl-Marx-Hof in the 19th district. Also try the Rabenhof in the 3rd district and the exotic-looking Reumannhof in the 5th.
The Viennese institution par excellence, the coffee house is far more than a place to drink coffee (from a bewildering array of recipes) and to enjoy guilt-inducing slices of cake. The waiters are haughty, buttoned-up and stuffy: that is in the job description. Do not let it put you off! In Vienna, you can order a single espresso for €3 and stay put for hours; with hot food served from late morning to late evening, there often appears to be no reason ever to leave. Many Kaffeehäuser have retained their old-world glory and charm, such as Café Schwarzenberg, which even has friendly service. Café Diglas and Café Frauenhuber almost manage the same feat, despite being right in the centre of the old town. Kaffee Alt Wien, founded in 1936, is a relative newcomer, but offers a more informal, youthful atmosphere. Further afield, in the 4th district, a splendid example of a local coffee house is Café Anzengruber, run by a delightful mother-and-son team (I recommend the goulash). Café Hummel in the 8th is equally reliable and authentic.
During the summer it is a pleasure to go out to Heurige wineries in Nußdorf and Grinzing or to their less well-known counterparts in Sievering, Neustift am Walde or Ottakring (at the end of public transport lines in the west of the city). These traditional taverns simply serve wine produced from their own vineyards (ie their back gardens). They are open during the clement half of the year or longer. Some, such as 10er Marie (16th district), the oldest Heuriger in Vienna (1740), are open all year. Walk in, sit at a large wooden table, order a jug (or several), pick from the buffet, and enjoy the views of vine-covered hillsides.
The Viennese are keen beer drinkers and the standard is invariably good (I favour Stiegl, Murauer and Wieselburger above all, though the local Viennese lager is Ottakringer). Avoid the drunken touristic area around Schwedenplatz and Rotenturmstraße in the 1st district, and head for a traditional inn – a Gastwirtschaft or Gasthaus. Good examples are Rohrböck in the 4th, Wratschko, in the 7th or Zur Eisernen Zeit, on the Naschmarkt in the 6th at the popular market.
When to go
Winters are usually very cold, but the Christmas markets, ice-skating (head to Rathausplatz) and snow make the city look idyllically festive. In the hot summers, enjoy riverside beaches on the Danube, open-air public baths and ice-cream parlours. To avoid extremes, both of temperature and tourism, try May or September.
I travel by rail every time; if you set off early from London, you can reach Vienna the same day. From St Pancras, take the 6.47 or 7.16 Eurostar to Brussels; change to the 10.25 high-speed ICE train to Frankfurt; then take the 14.21 ICE to Vienna, arriving at 20.45 (tickets from £110 each way if booked in advance, more advice at seat61.com). Austrian rail operator ÖBB is introducing new sleeper services direct from Brussels to Vienna in January, initially on Mondays and Thursdays (return journey Sunday and Wednesday) leaving the Belgian capital at 18.30. ÖBB aims to run this service on other nights, too, by the end of 2020.
Where to stay
The Beethoven (doubles from €150 room only) is well situated on Naschmarkt, opposite the old entrance (the Papagenotor) of the Theater an der Wien, a few minutes walk from the Vienna State Opera. Each floor has its own carefully researched locally based theme and each room dedicated to a prominent artist or cultural icon with Vienna links. More affordable is the Senator (doubles from €60 room-only) on Hernalser Hauptstrasse in the 17th district, a 20-minute or so tram ride from the centre. Centrally located hostels include Prime Rooms 2.0, with dorm beds from €18.
This article was modified on 19 December 2019 to make clear that Joseph II was an “enlightened despot”, not “despotic”
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