Kevin Rushby, The Guardian, December 1, 2014
For a perfect winter break, you need more than just a schmaltzy Christmas market. With its atmospheric coffee shops, opulent museums and galleries, food markets and a revitalised underground music scene, Vienna is a city that comes into its own in the colder months.
Until 1918 it was capital of that oddball confection, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, ruled over by the Habsburgs who spent centuries collecting palaces, horses and paintings. The modern visitor gets one of the world’s greatest concentrations of artefacts and art, spread across several museums, but there’s a lot more besides. Vienna was always a city on the edge – Metternich quipped: “The East begins at the Landstrasse,” the city’s south-east side. Perhaps that edgy vibe helped Freud develop his theories of human psychology, it was also where spies like Philby learned their trade in the 1930s. The cold war cemented the city’s reputation as a shadowy outpost, but local youth and an influx of people from overseas has added vitality to the old city.
What to do and see
The cafe in Vienna’s epic Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photograph: Sylvain Sonnet/Getty Images
The gigantic, sprawling crown jewel of Viennese art galleries and the fruit of Habsburg kleptomania, this building is a fabulous attraction in itself, right on the Ringstrasse, Emperor Franz Josef’s grandiose piece of town planning. The collection is a list of triumphs: Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velazquez, Vermeer, Rubens and, most memorably, Brueghel. On top of that you get idiosyncratic delights such as Arcimboldo’s portraits of faces made from vegetables, flowers and fish. A morning is enough to catch the highlights, but a full day is best.
• khm.at, adults €14, under-19s free
Viennese State Opera
Opera in Vienna can be extremely grand, and while the music is always fabulous, not everyone’s in jewels and furs, and you can get a standing ticket for €3 or €4. A special box office on Operngasse opens 80 minutes before performances, though for popular productions you’ll need to be in the queue much earlier. Once inside, make a beeline for the best position (right at the front, of course).
Spanish Riding School
Lipizzaner Stallions at the Spanish Riding School. Photograph: Gary Calton
Whatever you think about horses being made to behave like Strictly Come Dancing participants, the Habsburg riding school is special. Unless you are a total fanatic, go to watch the 10am “training” session: you get fine views of the elegant 18th-century indoor riding school in the palace complex, and the Lipizzaner horses do many of their tricks. You can’t be sure what will be practised, but you might witness the courbette, a scarcely credible leap from a begging posture. Even Craig Revel Horwood would be impressed.
• srs.at, €14
Franz Ferdinand’s car in Vienna’s Military Museum. Photograph: Kevin Rushby
One exhibit draws the crowds here: Franz Ferdinand’s 1911 Gräf & Stift phaeton, the very vehicle in which he was shot dead. You also get various other bits of realia: Duchess Sophie von Hohenberg’s blood-stained hanky and Gavrilo Princip’s pistol. Best of all is a tremendous walk-through Great War exhibition that, for the British visitor, reorients the conflict away from the trenches of Flanders to the horrors of central and eastern Europe.
• hgm.at, adults €6, under-19s free
Late in the year almost every square seems packed with stalls, each with its own character and specialities. The most famous, and most expensive, is in front of the Rathaus; Karlsplatz is more about handicrafts – hats, bags, jewellery – and really good for presents; the Spittelberg market is devoted to artisanal foodstuffs. As you might expect, many of the markets are child-oriented: Riesenradplatz, for example, has fairground rides and musical shows, and carries on until 6 January. A slightly older audience head for the university area, where there is a lively market with games like Eisstockschiessen, a type of curling.
Hidden gem: the world’s first purpose-built madhouse
The Narrenturm, houses a Pathology and Anatomy Museum, a morbidly fascinating collection of mostly 19th century exhibits offering a glimpse of life without antibiotics
• Wednesdays and Saturdays, €10, nhm-wien.act.at
Don’t miss …
Soak up the atmosphere of post-war Vienna on a tour of locations used in the 1948 film The Third Man (€18), and the Third Man Museum (€7.50).
Where to eat
Justice Ministry canteen looking towards Parliament and the Rathaus, Vienna. Photograph: Kevin Rushby
Justice Ministry Canteen
Every Viennese bureaucrat, student and government employee knows about the delights of the works canteen – many of which are open to the public. Don’t think sticky Formica tables; these places can be rather grand. The Justice Ministry’s canteen, for example, is on the fifth floor overlooking parliament, where bronze chariots charge across the rooftops. It’s very handy for the Kunsthistorisches, and the food is good and reasonably priced. You might also try the arty and cheap canteen (Mensa) at the Applied Arts College (Oscar Kokoschka Platz, 2), or the Fine Art College (Schillerplatz 3).
• justizcafe.at, open 7am-4.30pm
At this popular mile-long market, a straggle of food stalls sell everything from Viennese cakes to Vietnamese dishes. You can eat in some excellent restaurants – fish is good at Umar – or just collect bread, olives, cheese and cakes for a picnic. On Sundays the area turns into an entertaining flea market.
• Near Karlsplatz Ubahn station, open Mon-Sat from 6am
Traditional Wiener schnitzel. Photograph: Alamy
Traditional Viennese cuisine really requires you to burn 10,000 calories a day or face the consequences, and there is no dish more Viennese than wiener schnitzel, a boneless cut of veal, doused in egg and rolled in breadcrumbs before being fried. If you are going to go for it, go for the best: Schnitzelwirt on Neubaugasse (from €6.80). There are plenty of other meaty delights: roasted pig’s lung with gorgonzola (€12.40), anyone? Or try the €13 Bauernschmaus, or farmer’s feast, a barnstorming collection of pork, sauerkraut and other things. Delicious.
• +43 1 52 33771, schnitzelwirt.co.at
This bar/restaurant on Schönbrunner Strasse is full of sofas, armchairs and students. There’s a pleasant outside seating area and the music is never too loud for conversation. The food is nothing fancy – chilli con carne (€6.50), pasta, salads and so on – but well-priced with some local specialities. Best of all, food’s free on Friday nights: grab a bowl and join the queue.
• +43 1 9138728, werkzeugh.at
Where to drink
Cafe Hawelka. Photograph: Alamy
Hawelka’s dark atmospheric interior made it one of Vienna’s most famous cafes in the late 1930s, when it was a regular artists’ haunt. On narrow, historic Dorotheergasse, in the Innere Stadt district, it still offers a cosy retreat from winter’s chill, where you can watch locals enjoying a melange, (half coffee, half milk) and a cake and perusing the newspapers. The city does do a lot of high-art patisserie that looks impressive, but these cakes taste good, too.
Large student and immigrant populations have restored vibrancy to Vienna’s cafe culture. Café Benno, just inside the ring road on Alser Strasse, is a convivial games cafe where you can eat, drink and play board games – an incredible variety are stacked up on the walls. Noisy and lots of fun, it opens at 4.30pm and goes on till 2am.
Cafe Central. Photograph: Ali Kabas/Corbis
You do get a bit of the block-booked tourist nonsense here on Herrengrasse, but it’s so expansive and grand that Central – once frequented by painters such as Klimt, Egon Schiele and Adolf Loos – manages to cope, under its gorgeous arched ceiling. Try a Viennese breakfast, which is a soft-boiled egg, rolls and coffee.
Café Brot und Spiele
Another lively place popular with students, the Brot und Spiele (bread and games) on Laudongasse has great buzz, food, drink at affordable prices, and games – Cluedo is always popular. It can get smoky – many Viennese cafe-bars have registered as theatres so as to be able to allow smoking so – smoker or not – you are on stage.
Techno and electronic are huge in Vienna. Premier venues are probably Fluc and Flex, but the cutting edge is down in the Danube Canal area. Follow the red fish symbols to find Grelle Forelle (Friday and Satiurdays only).
Where to stay
Do & Co hotel
Do & Co
Some might call it pretentious; for others it’s perfectly chic. No one argues that the location is brilliant: right in the heart of the city, all glass and chrome, opposite the magnificent St Stephen’s Cathedral, which is all brass and carved stone. You get amazing views and friendly, efficient service.
• Doubles from about €200, +43 1 24188, docohotel.com
This small stylish hostel in Spittelberg has bunk beds, friendly staff and a fully equipped kitchen. It offers a chance to meet like-minded travellers and to stay in one of Spittelberg’s old apartments at a reasonable rate.
• Dorm beds from €26 (two-night minumum, +43 676 55 000 55, believe-it-or-not-vienna.at
Altstadt Hotel, Vienna
Spittelberg is a great area to be based: close to the centre with good bars, cafes and restaurants. In one of the classic old houses is this boutique hotel, which captures the area’s feel: bold colour schemes, polished parquet and floor-to-ceiling curtains.
• Doubles from €110 B&B, +43 1 522 66 66, altstadt.at
The old apartments of Vienna are great to stay in, and AirBnB has quite a few. Spittelberg Design Apartment has a nice mix of old- and new-style decor, and is very roomy (for two or three people) and located next to a tram stop. Vintage Apartment Vienna has a fun 1960s feel and Central Apartment, Hip District, is also in a great location.
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Kevin Rushby from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.