Fascinating museums, mouth-watering desserts and beautiful green spaces beguile Andrew Eames in Austria’s elegant capital.
For centuries, Vienna was the capital of the giant Austro-Hungarian Empire, which stretched over much of central Europe and at times even extended to the Netherlands and Spain. As befits this imperial history, the city is stuffed with massive, imposing architecture, particularly from the late 19th century. Many of the most impressive buildings – the parliament, the town hall, the opera house, the university and several museums – are ranged along the Ringstrasse, a broad boulevard which encircles the inner town. Jump on and off the Ringstrasse’s historic clanging trams (lines one and two), and inspect them for yourself.
2. Walk the Inner Town
Mercifully, downtown is largely pedestrianised, with St Stephen’s Cathedral at its heart. The cathedral square is usually a lively place, with break-dancers, living statues and musicians. Turn past the bulging absurdity of the modernist Haas Haus (how on earth did they get planning permission for that?) into Graben, a broad avenue with highly decorative fountains and extremely exclusive boutiques. A left turn at the end down Kohlmarkt brings you to Demel at number 14 (demel.at), an extraordinary chocolatier and patissier which usually has sugar tableaux and statues in the window. Inside, the kitchens are glass-walled to allow spectators to look in. You can eat here, although another suggestion would be to turn right into Herrengasse and head to Café Central, also at number 14 (palaisevents.at), one of the finest Viennese cafés (this one has oriental décor) in which to settle with the newspapers and a slice of sachertorte. Demel is open daily 10am-7pm. Café Central is open Mon-Sat 7.30am-10pm, Sundays and public holidays 10am-10pm.
3. Museum Quarter
Most Viennese museums are so massive that traipsing around even one can be an exhausting task. However, the city has cleverly amalgamated around 20 old and new institutions – such as the Leopold Museum and the Museum of Modern Art – in the innovative Museum Quarter, just outside the Ringstrasse. There’s all sorts of stuff going on here, and you don’t have to step into any of the main galleries to pick up on the area’s creative energy. The inner courtyard of the Quarter is a venue for ice-rink games in winter and café-lounging in summer, there’s a schedule of daily events, and the shop is a better source of imaginative gifts for the family than anywhere else in town.
4. Witwe Bolte in Spittelberg
Most visitors to Vienna could be forgiven for thinking it was a city of palaces and parliaments, sumptuous coffee shops and exclusive boutiques, and for much of the Inner Ring, it is. But beyond the Ringstrasse things change, and have changed particularly quickly in recent years, with the arrival of new residents from post-communist states. At the back of the Museum Quarter is a former artisan district called Spittelberg, which still has the feeling of a country town, with narrow cobbled streets and lanes. This is a place of little arty boutiques and a small craft market on the weekend, but it also hosts a dense concentration of bars, cafés and restaurants. Among them, the Witwe Bolte restaurant, at Gutenberggasse 13, serves grandmother’s cooking, with dishes like roast pork and dumplings, and pike-perch fillets with parsley potatoes. Be sure to wash it down with a glass or two of Grüner Veltliner from the Wachau. Tel +43 1523 1450, witwebolte.at.
5. The Prater and its park
An iconic symbol of Vienna, the Prater’s giant ferris wheel still staggers slowly around, as it has done since 1897, its gondolas looking rather like small garden sheds. Made particularly famous among tourists for its role in Orson Welles’ The Third Man, the wheel is actually just one of the attractions of a year-round fairground on the edge of a massive ornamental parkland. This is where the Viennese come on sunny weekends to jog, rollerblade, ride a small steam train or lie on picnic blankets in the sun. Part of the Prater Park is used for trade fairs, and if you walk right the way across it you’ll finally reach the Danube (rather than the Danube Canal – see below). You might be disappointed, though, as the river has been heavily canalised and looks just like any other industrial waterway.
6. Not the blue Danube
The waterway which flows through the centre of town is disappointingly not the Danube, but the Danube Canal. Nevertheless, the city has started to make more of it of late, and during the summer time there are temporary bars, some of them with imported sandy beaches and live music, set up along the banks by Schwedenplatz. On a sunny weekend or a balmy midweek evening this is definitely the place to be, and you could even take advantage of a floating swimming pool right on the canal itself, where all the beautiful people hang out.
7. Schloss Schonbrunn
If you do have time to tackle one imperial palace in Vienna, I suggest it is this one, even though it is a bit out of the centre (U-Bahn line four). It’s the biggest and the most beautiful of the city’s palaces and it sits amid extensive landscaped parkland with a spectacular palmhouse. Originally built in the 18th century to rival Versailles, its interiors are partly due to the creativity of Empress Maria Theresa, who managed to be a vigorous reforming ruler while having 16 children. Besides the kids, she filled the palace with Japanese, Italian, Persian and Indian works of art. There’s a remarkable puppet theatre in the outbuildings, and a big Christmas market fills the palace forecourt from late November. Entry is €9.50. Open daily 8.30am-5pm (spring and autumn), until 6pm summer, and 4.30pm winter. Visit schoenbrunn.at.