How to spend a weekend in Europe’s most enlightened capital. By Dan Synge
Of all the 48 European capitals, Vienna can rightly claim to be one of the most cultured. Its cobbled streets and wide tree-lined boulevards will lead you to over a hundred museums and art galleries as well as scores of concert halls befitting the hometown of Mozart and Schubert. Meanwhile, the city’s landmark buildings offer a taste of the neo-classical, the Modernist and the contemporary. Dazzling urban vistas can be spied from both fin de siècle Ferris wheels and craggy cathedral towers.
And as you stroll through one the many parks spread over this city that nestles by the river Danube, fringed by forested hills to the west, it may strike you that the locals are decidedly averse to the loutish and the anti-social. Park benches were dotted with people reading proper books, not smart phones. Children, meanwhile, played imaginative screen-free games alongside Baroque fountains in the warm spring sunshine; a scene so refreshingly charming I felt like Dirk Bogarde in Death In Venice.
The streets themselves are spotless, no-one seems to eat on the move – far better to find a café table or typical Viennese bistro (beisl) – while noise pollution is practically non-existent allowing you to experience more reassuring city sounds like church bells, the ding-dinging of a tram or snatches of a cello coming from an upstairs window.
Of course, if like me you are on a lightning weekend visit, you will be moving way too fast to behave as impeccably as the Viennese do. So, with such little time to play with, why not gorge on as much cake, culture and classical music as you can possibly get away with?
Most visitors head straight for the Innere Stadt, the old medieval town which spreads out from Stephansdom, a 12th century cathedral which has a bell tower up which you can climb 343 winding steps for a four-way bird’s eye view of the city. The cathedral’s roof tiles are the standout feature looking down; all of them beautifully arranged in lines of green, yellow and grey with the city’s coat of arms depicted on the north side of the building.
"Thick black coffee and delicious chocolate tartes –
now how Vienna is that?"
Shopping is the main activity around this old town centrepiece, where high-end brands mix amicably with specialist chocolate shops, jewellers, milliners and wine merchants. Instead, I had a sneaking desire to see at close quarters the famous Ferris wheel from The Third Man starring Orson Welles. The 1949 film noir classic shows weekly at the city’s long-established Burg Kino (Opernring 19) and, with its hummable opening theme played on a zither by Anton Karas, remains the perfect entree to post-war Vienna.
So, catching my breath back from the cathedral climb, I set off by bicycle through the nearby Stadtpark and over and along a series of bridges and near deserted canal paths to reach the Prater, an amusement park created at the end of the nineteenth century for the jubilee of Hapsburg Emperor Franz Joseph. Back then, the area was known as ‘Venice in Vienna’ for its many canals and carefree night-time entertainments.
Some of the original rides are still intact today, notably the Riesenrad, the largest Ferris wheel of its day at almost 65 metres high, plus the 117-metre-high Prater Tower, a terrifying-looking swing mechanism for those with a clearer head for heights than mine.
Travelling by bicycle – in my case on a German-made Schindelhauer fixie rented from the hotel – you see a lot in a short space of time. Parks, shopping centres, apartment blocks, a football stadium and even a road sign to Budapest eventually gave way to a path along the Danube, the trans-European river immortalised by Johan Strauss’s waltz.
With its hulking hotel barges and a view of the city’s modern business district, this is clearly not the Vienna that Midge Ure was imagining when he penned the eponymous 1980 Ultravox hit. Perhaps the song’s ‘haunting notes’ and ‘pizzicato strings’ belong more to that dizzy historical period when the Austro-Hungarian Empire was in its final throes and the capital was in thrall to the art nouveau Jugendstil (Youthful Style), an artistic and creative outpouring that encompassed architecture and design, painting, literature and music. Simultaneously, Sigmund Freud’s ground-breaking research into the subconscious mind also took root in Vienna, notably at his private surgery and family home in Berggasse, which today is a popular museum and exhibition space.
The Leopold Museum’s ongoing Vienna 1900 exhibition in the heart of the new MuseumsQuartier perfectly encapsulates this influential, but often overlooked, movement with paintings from the Viennese expressionists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt as well as artefacts by designers Josef Hoffman and Otto Wagner, the man behind the iconic art nouveau Karlsplatz station and the decorative green cast iron railway railings seen around the city.
Klimt, famous for his erotically charged portraits of women in intricate gold leaf, gets top billing at The Belvedere, a former palace with epic formal gardens modelled on those at Versailles. Highlights include the 1908 masterpiece The Kiss as well as artworks by Van Gogh, Rodin and Monet.
Of course, you don’t need to spend time in a crowded museum to catch Vienna’s aesthetic charms. Apart from the Hapsburg-era domes, wrought iron heraldry and the neo-classical colonnades, there is plenty to divert the eye, be it mid-century typography spied on public buildings, or the eccentric Kunst Haus built in 1991 as “a bastion against the grid system and the chaos of nonsense”.
No visit to Vienna is complete without a trip to the famous State Opera (Staatsoper), housed in an imposing classical style building on the inner ring road (Ringstrasse). We managed to scoop last-minute tickets for a Sunday morning performance in one of their low-ceilinged, heavily chandeliered salons which was crammed full of well-dressed tourists there to hear members of the Vienna Philharmonic play pieces by Antonin Dvorak and Astor Piazzolla. Czech folk-inspired allegros from the 1800’s twinned with Buenos Aires harmonium-driven tango served up in the interval with thick black coffee and delicious chocolate tartes – now how Vienna is that?
GALLERIES AND MUSEUMS
Contains the largest collection of Austrian art spread over five floors.
Museumsplatz 1, www.leopoldmuseum.org
Former Baroque palace and gardens with three separate exhibition spaces.
Prinz Eugen-Strasse 27,
Iconic golden-domed centre of Vienna’s Secession movement.
Friedrichstrasse 12, www.secession.at
Sigmund Freud Museum
Restored home of the Freud family. Sigmund lived and worked here until 1938.
Berggasse 19, www.freud-museum.at
Kunst Haus Museum
Features works by the ‘Gaudi of Vienna’ Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
Untere Weissgerberstrasse 13, www.kunsthauswien.com
Leschanz Wiener Schokolade König
Traditional chocolate shop specialising in gift boxes and sweet souvenirs.
Freisingergasse 1, www.leschanz.at
All the latest Leica cameras and gadgets.
Seilergasse 14, www.leica-camera.com
Hat specialists selling Tyrolean head gear and stylish Panamas.
Schottengasse 3/3a, www.nagy-hut.at
Classic Viennese cuisine with garden located near the MuseumsQuartier.
Breite Gasse 4, www.glacisbeisl.at
Skopic & Lohn
Fashionable brasserie with schnitzel and other local dishes on the menu.
Leoplodsgasse 17, www.skopicundlohn.at
Good central spot for morning coffee, pastry or a gourmet ice cream.
Freyung 3, www.vanillas.com
Unpretentious brunch or lunch spot in the trendy Burggasse neighbourhood.
Sankt-Ulrichs-Platz 1, www.ulrichwien.at
WHERE TO STAY
25hours Hotel Museums Quarter
Buzzy, modern hotel at the edge of the Innere Stadt with roof top bar and bicycle hire.
Lerchenfelder Strasse 1-3, www.25hours-hotels.com