Once the hub of an empire which stretched across Europe, modern Vienna is a modest city of less than two million people. Despite an unerring ability to be on the wrong side in major conflicts, the city built by emperors has survived more or less intact with grand architecture and vast art collections, beautifully laid out parks and a café culture which puts Starbucks to shame. Throw in an efficient public transport system, high levels of safety and vineyards within the city limits and you have the perfect short-break destination.
Vienna was home to some of the big names of nineteenth and twentieth century history. The patronage of the Hapsburg emperors encouraged Mozart, Beethoven, Vivaldi, Schubert, Strauss and Brahms. Gustav Klimt co-founded Vienna’s own art movement and its Succession Building is open to the public.
Freud lived here for half a century and shared the city for a time with Trotsky, Stalin and Hitler. The Führer was born in Austria and, after failing the entrance exam to the Vienna Academy of the Arts, barely scraped a living in the city for five years. A Jewish Vienna Tour pauses outside an architect’s office where the owner claimed he sacked him for incompetence.
The city abounds with tourists, particularly in summer, so a spring visit or a winter break makes life a little easier. What to fit in to three or four days is a conundrum and choices will have to be made. You could focus on the world-class galleries museums and dedicated culture vultures will love the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The world’s largest collection of paintings by Bruegel are here as well as works by Caravaggio, Rubens and Rembrandt. For modern art, including the masterpiece of Viennese Art Nouveau, Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, there is The Belvedere.
An introductory walking tour is a good way to kick off your time and take in the city’s historic grandeur and grim history, from the palaces of the Hapsburgs to the balcony where Hitler was greeted by hundreds of thousands of cheering Viennese in 1938. The same tour company, Insight Cities, also run specialist art and architecture tours by knowledgable guides.
A walk in the Vienna woods beckons, as does shopping in the grand pedestrianized Mariahilfer Strasse. A visit to Prater Park with its ferris wheel might recall scenes from The Third Man, easily the best of a number of films using Vienna locations (and there are Third Man tours as well).
Time should be found for relaxing in some of the city’s grand old hotels and famous coffee houses. Many of these cafés have survived two world wars and insouciantly rebuffed the onset of takeout coffee; Vienna is not a place where you see people hurrying to work clutching their paper cups as if they were fetishes.
The more famous cafés have queues of tourists outside waiting to get a table but the trick is to phone well in advance and make a reservation. Café Imperial Wien, oozing the faded elegance of a bygone age, attracts more Viennese than international visitors and has a menu of food and drinks that go well beyond mere coffee. This is common to most of the cafés and, also like some of the others, has its own cake – the Imperial Torte, made for the visit of an emperor in 1873 and still the café’s pride and joy.
Over the road, Café Schwarzenberg is the oldest café in Vienna, opened when the city walls were removed in the mid-nineteenth century and the great building spree of the Ringstrasse began. Its menu is a great read, with lots of history and explanations added to the lists of coffees, wine, liqueurs and food. No special cake here but the strudel is lovely, and you can while away the evening listening to violin and piano music and admiring the wood panels, grumpy waiters (it’s pure role play) and begging stories from them of the war days when Russian officers, stationed in the Imperial, came over and shot at the mirrors in vodka-fuelled fun.
Café Sperl, once the haunt of Viennese Secessionist artists, serves Sperl torte, a delicious soft chocolate cake. The café’s interior has been renovated but manages to encapsulate the idea of the nineteenth-century coffee house, complete with marble top tables, wood panelling, chandeliers and weird billiard tables with no pockets. One more to mention here is Café Sacher, home of the famous sacher torte.
Vienna’s restaurants are surprisingly affordable: Wiener Rathauskeller is in a glorious neo gothic chamber where traditional food like wiener schnitzel coexists with more innovative outings. Veranda is much more modern in style and cuisine with, inexplicably, photographs of Marilyn Monroe on the walls. Grüne Bar is in a luxurious, old-fashioned and green-themed room filled with oil paintings (one by Peter Lily and the others by Anton Faistauer) ; one of its three menus is a surprise dinner. Deserving its Michelin star, Edvard serves food that looks too beautiful to eat, little culinary artworks befitting Vienna’s cultural richness.
One word of warning. Vienna virtually closes down on Sundays – every shop and supermarket, even museums – but a day-return down the Danube to Bratislava remains an option, as does a lazy brunch at Grand Brasserie in a hotel, with its grand façade faithfully restored, that first opened its doors in 1870.
Vienna, just over two hours flying time from London, is a most attractive and amenable destination when work feels like a treadmill and a short break is needed to keep body and soul in one piece. For more information, see Vienna Tourist Board.