June 11, 2019
Frequently topping lists of the world’s most liveable cities, Vienna is packed with treasures for the visitor too. Capital of the Holy Roman Empire and seat of the Habsburgs for centuries, the luxury-loving royals had tons of everything and weren’t afraid to flaunt it.
While the empire came tumbling down after World War I, thankfully the city’s riches have not only survived, but thrived. Stunning architecture, superb wining and dining, terrific retail, more culture than you can shake a stick at, and wonderful Austrian efficiency, it’s no wonder so many early influencers called it home: Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Haydn, and that’s just the composers.
If you think the bellhop at the Hotel Imperial looks like he’s straight out of a Wes Anderson movie, you’re not wrong; the Imperial provided Anderson, a regular guest, with inspiration for The Grand Budapest Hotel. This venerable inn has also been home to aristocrats and other assorted bigwigs since 1863 – Queen Elizabeth II, Sarah Bernhardt, Luciano Pavarotti and Madonna, to name a few.
Think lashings of marble, grand staircases, glittering chandeliers and majestic suites (the best of which are on the first floor). Rooms feature antique furniture, richly upholstered chairs and sofas, heavy drapes, brocade walls plus modern essentials such as Bluetooth speakers and coffee machines.
There is Michelin-starred fine dining at Opus, delectable Imperial Torte and schnitzel at Café Imperial and perfect martinis at 1873-HalleNsalon bar. It’s old-world luxury without being stuffy, service is exceptional, and the location, on Vienna’s famed Ringstrasse, is just far enough from the tourist hordes while being in the centre of town.
It seems the whole world wants to have its cake in Vienna, and eat it too. The capital of cafe culture brims with mouth-watering sweet spots, but the queues at Café Central and the Sacher are anything but appetising. Instead, book a table in the gorgeous Gerstner café or if the weather is fine, indulge alfresco on the terrace of Café Landtmann.
The city’s finest diner, however, is Steirereck (above) housed in razor-sharp glass and steel cubes among parkland. Like the architecture, the contemporary Austrian food is on-point, a delectable balance of theatre and substance. Don’t miss the arctic char cooked tableside in beeswax, though the bread and cheese trolleys could be a meal in themselves.
At Labstelle, one of the city’s farm-to-table pioneers, the food is simpler, more affordable yet still innovative and delicious, an ideal spot to discover the joys of Austrian cuisine. And debate rages about who makes the best schnitzel, but the coolest spot to eat it is at Skopik & Lohn, (pictured above) a Euro-meets-New York bistro in the city’s east.
Summertime sees the Viennese head to the hills, which are alive with vineyards, many of which operate heurigen. These seasonal wine taverns serve young, locally produced wine, such as gruner veltliner, gemischter satz and zweigelt. The ones in Grinzing are pretty but the most touristy. Heuriger Wieninger serves some of Austria’s best whites, and Weingut Edlmoser is the place for reds. Back in town, the cocktails at Onyx Bar are decent enough, but it’s the knockout views of St Stephen’s cathedral that you’re here for, or nearby, sultry Kleinod has a rather happening rooftop terrace.
Among the dreaded international chain stores that line pedestrianised Kärntnerstrasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, there is much treasure to be found. One such gem is J & L Lobmeyr, creators of delicate mouth-blown and hand-cut glass and gorgeous chandeliers for nearly 200 years. With its rich artisan and craft tradition, sartorial delights also abound, especially for gents. Get measured for a bespoke suit at Knize (and pick up a bottle of cult fragrance Knize 10 while there), then head to Gino Venturini for Vienna’s answer to Charvet, Wilhelm Jungmann & Neffe for stacks of fabrics, Muhlbauer shelves tip-top hats and Scheer, Ludwig Reiter or Maftei craft bespoke shoes. When suitably suited and booted, follow your nose to Le Parfum or Duft und Kultur, heaven-scent purveyors of niche and hard-to-find fragrances.
When it comes to world-class cultural institutions, you’ve hit the jackpot. The jewel in the art crown, Kunsthistorisches Museum, houses a magnificent collection of European old masters, including Vermeer’s The Allegory of Painting and the world’s largest Bruegel collection. The astonishing, obscenely exotic Kunstkammer, or ‘cabinet of curiosities’, is not to be missed.
Across the road is the MuseumsQuartier, where you will find the lovely Leopold, with a superb showing of Egon Schiele, the gifted Austrian artist who painted hard and died young. More Schieles can be seen at the palatial Belvedere (above), though the biggest draw is the priceless Klimts, including the iconic The Kiss.
At the Albertina, you can wander through the opulent staterooms of this former Habsburg residence and marvel at masterpieces of modern art, including works from Monet, Degas, Picasso and Chagall, all in one visit. You could also check out the rest of the Imperial Palace complex while here, or visit the marvellous gardens of the Schonbrunn Palace.
Then there is the brilliant Vienna State Opera, and the legendary Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, though in the likely event that you can’t score tickets to their performance, the Vienna Symphony Orchestra is a delightful backup. Should you want to immerse yourself more deeply into Vienna, sign up for one of several Context tours on offer.
Jetting off on a European break this summer?
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