While Paris often takes the plaudits amongst the European capitals, a true aesthete will tell you that there’s a city where the river is bluer, the coffee better, the musical, architectural, philosophical and artistic heritage richer, the streets infinitely cleaner, waiters ruder, and one that also has its own wine region. It’s even the original source of the croissant. That city is Vienna.
Vienna’s imperial, turbulent, frequently paradoxical past has resulted in a city that is both cosmopolitan and urbane. This is the home of Mozart and Haydn, Strauss and Schubert, Freud and Wittgenstein, Klimt and Schiele. Where the pace of life is unhurried, languid as the rise and fall of the Riesenrad (the Ferris wheel) turning in the large public park called the Prater.
The gourmand and the cultured dilettante will fill their minds and bellies on a succession of cultural delights and architectural splendour: a steady stream of cakes and bratwurst, dainty sandwiches and shots of Marillenbrand (fruit brandy); of evenings at the opera or the funfair; languid afternoons in the vineyards of the Nußberg and hearty suppers in a heuriger (wine tavern) or weinstube (wine bar) washed down with Gemischter Satz (a local white wine made from field blends).
Things to see and do in Vienna
The Kunsthistorisches Museum houses the art and treasure collections of the Habsburg emperors when they were at the height of their powers, ruling both the Spanish and Holy Roman Empires. The museum’s masterpieces range from Breugel to Canaletto, alongside clockwork golden battleships that roamed the imperial dining tables and drinking goblets crafted from exotic shells found in the newly explored Americas. It is glorious.
The story of the Viennese Secession movement is best experienced at the private collection in the Leopold Museum, which houses one of the largest collections of 20th century Austrian art. This is the place to get your fix of Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka et al. There are also excellent city views from the bar on the roof.
The Hofburg Palace and its connected – but somewhat unhelpfully separated – series of museums is absolutely worth your time. The tour of the Imperial apartments tells the tale of the remarkable yet tragic Empress Elisabeth.
Speaking of which, opera is an institution in Vienna and tickets are freely and cheaply available for performances at the Staatsoper.
Where to eat and drink in Vienna
The mishmash of German, Hungarian, Italian, Czech, Polish, Slovenian, Croatian and even Turkish influences on Vienna makes for a wondrously diverse gastronomic feast.
A traditional Austrian breakfast starts with a kipferl, a crescent-shaped roll. One story suggests the city’s bakers created the kipferl to mimic the crescent moons on the flags of the Ottoman Turks defeated before the city walls in 1683. In the 19th century, the fabulously named August Zang opened a bakery in Paris selling Viennese baked treats. They were a hit and sparked France’s love for Viennoiserie pastries; the kipferl became the croissant.
Viennese coffee is universally excellent and cafés are ubiquitous. A frothy cup or shot of brauner hits just as good with your breakfast Bauernomelet (omelette) as with the afternoon’s Sachertorte or Apfelstrudel. Café Central is a good spot and Café Hawelka is also deserving of a visit.
Depending on the day you are having (or intend to have), Hawelka also offers its coffees accompanied with a selection of Austrian eau-de-vie – those made from apricot (Marille) or plum (Pflaume) are particularly good.
Only adding to Vienna’s appeal is the ease with which you can sate your appetite for beer and sausages in the street. The city’s würstelstands are almost a landmark in themselves, with an array of veal, beef and pork-based bangers served in bread, with onions or sauerkraut and mustard. Buy yourself a bottle of Ottakringer beer – from the brewery in the 16th district – to accompany the street food.
Of all Austria’s excellent dishes, Wiener Schnitzel is the most famous dish. The venerable Figlmüller restaurant serves up some of the best, golden crumbed and bigger than your plate (or maybe the plate is just small). However, if you can’t get a seat then the Figlmüller Brioche und Brösel street stand serves up a frankly divine schnitzel burger, and the nearby Lugeck (part of the same group) provides a fresh take on a Viennese bistro with plenty of other traditional Austrian dishes, good wines and local beers.
In the same district, bask in the Secession atmosphere with modern dining and natural wines at Café Kandl.
Where to stay in Vienna
Vienna caters convincingly for those looking for a luxury hotel in its centre but the districts just outside of the old town have given rise to some excellent places to stay too. Max Brown 7th District is in what was the former centre of the Austrian film industry, handily surrounded by all manner of pubs, bars and cafes – though with a well-stocked bar of its own too. It’s within walking distance of the old town – or the public transport to take you there.
The equally hip 25Hours hotel, meanwhile, is located a little closer to both the old town and museum district and has a rooftop bar with views of the city.
The ultimate drinking destination in Vienna
Vienna is unique among European capitals in still having a vineyard region in its city limits and the hills that ring the city suburbs are covered in 575 hectares of vines. The city’s speciality is Wiener Gemischter Satz, a white wine made from at least three permitted varieties that have been grown and vinified together.
The outer suburbs are where you’ll find the famous heurigen. These only serve Viennese wines – usually from whichever vineyards are closest – and an array of hot and cold dishes. There’s usually live music, a cosy, convivial atmosphere and plenty of enthusiastic locals.
Finally, between spring and autumn many vineyards open buschenschank in the vineyards themselves, outdoor takes on the heuriger that vary in size and offering. One of the best is Wieninger am Nußberg, which is run by an excellent producer. Get off the tram at Grinzig and it’s a steep but leisurely walk through the vines to the top, where Gemischter Satz and heavenly views of Vienna and the Danube await.