As I write this bittersweet love letter to Vienna I’m listening on the radio to the New Year’s Concert in the Golden Hall of the Musik Verein. I’m all in favour of waltzing through the various Strauss family members, but for me there’s an overdose of Josef on the playlist this year. Like the city’s sticky Sachertorte, a little goes a long way.
The Austrian capital has much occupied me at the ebbing of 2022. I finally got round to reading The Radetzky March, masterpiece of the great journalist/novelist Joseph Roth. Named sardonically after a Johann Strauss staple, this jaundiced family saga traces the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. In Vienna the last throes coincided with the golden era of Sigmund Freud and the Gustavs, Klimt and Mahler, whose ghosts still populate today’s city as much as Emperor Franz Joseph, he of the unmatchable mutton chops and epic longevity.
I also signed off 2022 hooked on a BBC whodunnit series that milks the decadence of those times. Even Max, the psychoanalyst hero of Vienna Blood, is a disciple of Freud and, yes, sexual motivation is part of its rich investigative stew. Equally titillating are the interiors – all ravishing Jugendstil and Secession heritage.
In contrast, sacrilege it may be, but the monumental trappings of the Habsburg Dynasty – the Hofburg Palace, the Spanish Riding School, Schönbrunn, the Ringstrasse – are not really my cup of Viennese Coffee. Here’s an alternative waltz around a city you can’t ignore. Outwardly stern, not immediately radiating Gutmütigkeit (bonhomie/joie de vivre etc), you have to persevere…
The big wheel around here…
A heady past then, but where to start on a weekend break to today’s Vienna? I’d say kick off, as we do, up in the air on a giant ferris wheel made iconic by a movie set in a city still shattered by war. The Riesenrad had just been rebuilt after bomb damage when The Third Man filmed a key scene there in 1948.
Remember Orson Welles, as the sardonic Harry Lime, ad libbing about cuckoo clocks and suckers to a wary Joseph Cotton? Chilling stuff. So too the winds wobbling our stalled carriage as we pay airborne homage to the city of Lime and Freud… and, let’s not forget, Adolf Hitler for five obscure years before the Great War swept away the hapless Habsburgs and the turbulent 20th century really began.
We are turning again now and, as we descend to the Prater Park with its tawdry amusements and smell of cheap cooking fat, we soon lose sight of the distant spire of St Stephan’s Cathedral in the elegant Old Town and the rather less elegant Sixties spike of the Donauturm across the Danube. You can bungee jump off this 827ft observation tower, if you so wish. Probably not on an icy day like this.
We had taken in that modern quarter the previous day. It was the furthest flung stretch of our Big Bus Tour, a slick hop on-hop off, all-day shuttle service with a recorded, and surprisingly enlightening, commentary on the city’s history, culture and characters. Only caveat: get stuck in traffic and a Strauss loop tape kicks in (and the jaunty Radetzky March lodges in you brain insufferably). We paid 16 euros a head for the standard Red Route, but there’s also a Blue Route, which focuses on the Palaces of Schönbrunn and Belvedere. Our more central tour really gave us our bearings. After that it was trams and shoe leather.
Save the last waltz?
It was hard to resist dipping in to the schmaltzy world of Johann Strauss waltzes and Mozart’s Greatest Hits. Why, there’s even a Herren und Damen in the underground precinct between the Opera and Karlsplatz that belts out the Blue Danube (note: that river is invariably muddy grey). We chose the more alluring setting of the Auersperg Palace, conveniently across the road from our hotel, the 25 Hours, to attend a concert by the Wiener Residenz Orchester. It’s very much on the Danube cruise and coach party circuit, encompassing 18th century costume, ballet, opera arias and orchestral lollipops featuring an authentic Stradivarius. Mozart before the interlude fizz was a mite routine but the Strauss afterwards was clap-along jolly.
An afternoon at The Vienna Opera
Now for something more serious. Call us cheapskates but with remaining seats for the evening performance topping 200 euros and our reluctance to queue for bargain on-the-night ‘standing only’ tickets, we settled for a guided tour of the Wiener Staatsoper. Highly recommended at 13 euros a head. You get a fascinating peek behind the scenes, while the ornate public rooms are thronged with the busts and musical ghosts of Mahler, Wagner and Herbert Von Karajan.
Aim for Amadeus
Staying with Vienna’s musical greats, there is a Beethoven museum out in Heiligenstadt, though it’s more fun to toast the great composer in the Mayer am Pfarrplatz wine tavern – he once lived in the historic building. Since it is more central, tucked just behind the Stephansdom (Cathedral), we instead opted for the cannily arranged Mozarthaus, where The Marriage of Figaro was written when the composer was prospering for a while. After his fall from grace he was buried in the Saint Marx Cemetery, but no grave is marked.
In the Realm of The Unconscious
The other famous house/museum I’d recommend is Sigmund Freud’s. Berggasse 19 was the home of founder of psychoanalysis from 1891 until 1938, when he fled from the Nazis to London, taking his famous couch with him. His library and many personal artefacts remain in an atmospheric place of pilgrimage (also an important study centre). Admission is 14 euros. The quirky Cafe Freud next door, with portraits of Viennese notables made out of buttons, is a good place to recovery your sense of self!
The skull beneath the skin in the Fools’ Tower
Follow up Herr Freud’s cerebral obsessions with an encounter with all the malformed horrors of the human body in the seriously morbid Pathologisch-Anatomisches Museum, dating back to 1796. Its vast jumble of exhibits is housed in the round Narrenturm (Fools’ Tower), the former century psychiatric ward of the General Hospital (today it’s a lively university campus). We were shown around by a curator attempting to rearrange all the bones and specimens in formaldehyde into some kind of order. Not for the faint-hearted. Freud once had rooms here as a student.
Perils of the Overlapping Schnitzel
It’s like going to Naples and not eating a pizza. When in Wien you have to tackle a Wiener Schnitzel, we were told. Hence we waited patiently to get into welcoming old Figlmüller, famous for over a century for serving Schnitzels so huge they spill off the plate. In truth it was a challenge to nibble my way through the entire thin discus of fried, breadcrumbed pork (veal is less common these days).
Let Loos on Old Vienna’s best bar
It was a boon that we had half an hour free before Figlmüller could spare us a table. Otherwise we might never have squeezed into the tiny, tinyLoos American Bar just off Kärtnerstrasse, the pedestrianised main shopping drag. Architect Adolf Loos is famous for cocking a snook the ornate old Hapsburg capital by inserting an outwardly frill-free building opposite the Palace. The Loos Haus is today a bank; the utterly gorgeous bar he built in 1908, is much more fun. Cocktails are outrageously good – or is it just thanks to the setting, mirrors amplifying the tiny, warm space with its coffered ceiling and green and white floor tiles.
We need a coffee after all that
Once you’ve lost your Schnitzel virginity it’s time to get off with Kaffee mit Kuchen (coffee and cake, inevitably with a swirl of whipped cream). The choice of historic coffee houses is wide, including the Cafe Demel, opened in 1786 and famous for serving Emperor Franz Joseph’s wife Sisi her favourite sweet violet sorbet. Impressive, but I can’t resist the Cafe Central in the Palais Ferstel. Nor can the throngs of locals and visitors alike (it serves a thousand cups of coffee a day in its elegant domed dining room). Once it was the preserve of intellectuals – one, the 19th century writer Peter Altenberg, remains unnervingly in statue form by the counter – and politicos such as the exiled Lenin and Trotsky and, from the other corner, Hitler. The Viennese have their own names for coffee specialities – to get a play-it-safe white Americano order a Verlängerter (a lengthened one).
If you really don’t want Schnitzel or Strudel
Motto am Fuss is an organic all-day eaterie/bar in a boat-shaped mooring station on the Danube Canal near where the hipsters frequent pretend beach bars. Motto’s food is light and regional, the ambience 50s Venice. Affordable and recommended. By general consent the best restaurant in Vienna is the Steireck, which regularly features in Restaurant Magazine’s World’s Top 50. Its little sister establishment is also in the Stadtpark (turn left at the gold-painted Johann Strauss statue someone’s bound to be photographing. Not so the nearby bust of a greater composer, Anton Bruckner – no one has bothered to swill the bird shit off) The more casual Meierei majors in cheeses –120 to choose from – and an array of cakes and pastries plus a few simple mains. Grab a table overlooking the placid waters of the Wienfluss and imagine you are in the Vienna Woods.
Or you could just grab some grub for a picnic
You can’t go wrong at the fabulous food hall called Meinl am Graben at the end of Kärtnerstrasse. Otherwise check out the food stalls of the Naschmarkt. I was lovingly trying to capture a barrel of pickled cucumbers for posterity when the stallholder screamed “No pictures of my gherkins, Mein Herr!”. The Viennese can be a mite volatile.
And so to the Art capital with a Capital A
The Naschmarkt is just across the road from the Secession Building – the white exhibition hall that was the originally the architectural manifesto for Vienna’s fin de siecle art movement – the base camp for Gustav Klimt and his crew to dismantle the city’s cobwebbed shibboleths. But the best place to get a real perspective on the city’s legendary, if febrile, golden age in arts, music and society is the Leopold Museum in the Museum Quarter, home to a cluster of Egon Schiele’s rawly sexual canvasses. If they’re not your bag check out the Breughel collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
And Architecture with an even more monumental Capital A
From the palaces that line the Ringstrasse (grab a circular tram round this landmark boulevard dating back to imperial times), via the fascinating legacy of art nouveau urban planner Otto Wagner to the surreal apartment block that is the Hundertwasserhaus, opened in 1986, the city offers an immense amount to gawp up at.
And then there is the smoochy allure of Gustav Klimt…
‘A kiss is just a kiss’ says the lyric of As Time Goes By. Not so Gustav Klimt’s most famous painting, its beauty replicated on millions of tourist souvenirs from mugs and fridge magnets to polyester leggings in Vienna alone. The real thing is in the unashamedly Baroque Upper Belvedere Palace and well worth the uphill walk from the city through formal gardens. Face to face, all the familiarity doesn’t matter – the sumptuously ornate embrace envelops you in the moment. As does Vienna, if you give it time.
A place to stay in Vienna?
The city has its share of stuffy hotels and some that because of their heritage status are quite intimidating. Take the Sacher, gilded home of the Sachertorte. It fought a seven year war with the aforementioned Cafe Demel over which could use the word ‘Original’ when flogging that overrated chocolate and apricot jam cake. The hotel boasts flagpoles and flunkies in abundance.
Our Vienna billet was a haven from Cake Wars with all the trimmings. The 25 Hours is just a 15 minute walk away beyond the Museum Quarter. Not one to hide its red lights under a bushel, this seven storey hipster haven screams in neon as you approach: “We’re all made here”. We’d enjoyed its nautically themed sister hotel in Hamburg’s Hafen City; the Vienna version revels in circus motifs.
Our corner Panorama Suite on the sixth floor boasted terrific views but we couldn’t take our eyes off the fire eater, sword swallower, juggler and snake-draped strongman emblazoned on the wall behind out king-size bed.
With a casual Italian restaurant featuring a wood burning pizza oven and seriously good charcuterie on the ground floor, kooky public areas and free bike hire, the Mermaid’s Cave sauna and an uber-cool rooftop terrace bar, it ticks all the boxes for a generation of residents and visitors for whom cakes, waltzes and the Hapsburg legacy aren’t a prime attraction. That was my Vienna.