Vienna: A modern city with history at its heart

The Austrian capital is a stunning place to visit – and without the crowds of Europe’s major cities

Every time I return to Vienna, I head straight for Café Sperl, order a Schwarze Verlängerter (a kind of Teutonic Americano), nab a quiet corner table, sit back and let my worries drift away. For me, this sleepy kaffeehaus sums up the peculiar charm of Austria’s antique capital. It’s supremely elegant, yet slightly frayed around the edges. At first glance it seems imposing, but it’s actually surprisingly laid back. It’s the sort of place you’d go to read a good book, or maybe even write one. It’s a world away from the frantic bustle of Starbucks. Mobile phones are verboten. The waiters wear evening dress.

Coffee is a serious business in Vienna, and your choice of kaffeehaus says a lot about who you are. Arty types meet in Café Prückel, politicians meet in Café Landtmann. Every clique has its own rendezvous, but these places are open to all-comers. For the price of a cup of coffee, you become a member of a club. A similar sort of etiquette applies to Vienna as a whole. Despite the grandeur of its architecture, it’s always been a remarkably classless place.

The reason for this pleasant disparity is Vienna’s eccentric history. A hundred years ago it was the capital of an empire that stretched from Trieste to Transylvania. After defeat in the First World War and the abdication of its last emperor, Austria lost most of its territory and Vienna became the outsized capital of a stunted Germanic rump. Today its population is still smaller than it was in 1918. The result is an imperial metropolis that’s full of splendid buildings, but without the crowds that plague London or Paris. The sightseers stick to the historic landmarks, leaving the rest of the city to the locals. Even in the smartest districts, the mood is refreshingly relaxed.

Not that you’d guess any of this if you only read the tourist brochures. Most Brits who’ve never been assume it’s all cream cakes and waltzes. Maybe once upon a time, but nowadays Vienna is pretty grungy. Artists, writers, students and assorted layabouts can afford to live in the city centre. Summers here are hot and the parks are full of sunbathers. People young enough to know about this sort of thing tell me it’s even got a decent club scene.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum (iStock)

Not that you’d guess any of this if you only read the tourist brochures. Most Brits who’ve never been assume it’s all cream cakes and waltzes. Maybe once upon a time, but nowadays Vienna is pretty grungy. Artists, writers, students and assorted layabouts can afford to live in the city centre. Summers here are hot and the parks are full of sunbathers. People young enough to know about this sort of thing tell me it’s even got a decent club scene.

I first came to Vienna in the 1980s, and I couldn’t wait to leave. In those days it felt funereal, a sombre city full of war widows, surrounded on three sides by the Iron Curtain, stuck in a Cold War cul-de-sac. The fall of the Berlin Wall transformed Vienna, almost as much as it transformed Berlin. The city still looks much the same, but the ambience is entirely different. The Naschmarkt, Vienna’s lively outdoor market, is buzzing with Balkan voices. Reunited with its eastern hinterland, Vienna is a crossroads once again.

The place that epitomises this renaissance is Vienna’s Museumsquartier. It used to be the imperial stables. For half a century it stood empty. Now it’s a cluster of funky galleries, a great place to meet up and hang out, and the pick of the bunch is the light and airy Leopold Museum

Rudolf Leopold was an Austrian ophthalmologist with a passion for Egon Schiele, the enfant terrible of Austrian art who died in 1918, aged just 28. After Schiele’s death his haunting paintings fell out of favour, on account of their explicit sexuality. Consequently, Leopold was able to buy them up relatively cheaply (nowadays, they cost a bomb). Over the course of his long life Leopold amassed the world’s biggest Schiele collection, now housed in this sleek museum. A hundred years since he died, Schiele’s art seems incredibly contemporary, and this is the best place to drink it in.

You could spend a fortnight in Vienna and visit nothing but galleries (the Kunsthistorisches Museum is a must, if only to see its magnificent array of Bruegels) but if you focused on art alone you’d miss the rich variety of the place. Vienna has been spruced up quite a bit since Carol Reed filmed The Third Man here, but much of that film noir atmosphere remains, and there’s a delightful private museum (a true labour of love) dedicated to one of the finest British movies ever made. If you want to see Reed’s masterpiece in the cinema (the only place to really appreciate its gloomy majesty), it’s always on at the Burg Kino, with screenings several times a week.

Café Landtmann (iStock)

But there’s no need to stay indoors. The entire city is a Gesamtkunstwerk, a complete work of art. From Otto Wagner’s ornate metro stations to Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s mad apartment blocks, the architecture of this city is a tribute to the rich variety of the human imagination. What makes it such a creative place? Your guess is as good as mine, but I reckon it has something to with all the foreigners who’ve flocked here over the years. Vienna has always been a German speaking city but it’s never been purely German. Hungarians, Romanians, Croatians, Czechs and Poles were all subjects of the old Habsburg Empire, and over the centuries the best and brightest of them were drawn here, like moths to a flame. Talk to virtually anyone in Vienna about their ancestry, and you’ll soon unearth a Slavic or Balkan relative.

Metternich said the Balkans began in the suburbs of Vienna, and the city’s hybrid heritage has become a renewed source of tension now that Austria’s eastern borders are open once again. Is today’s foreign influx any different? Well, suffice to say the Slav and Balkan immigrants of the 19th Century were eventually entirely integrated into Viennese society, but it often took several generations. Immigration will change Vienna, as it’s always changed it. How will today’s influx change it? I guess it’s still too soon to say.

Yet in the baroque kaffeehauser along the Ringstrasse, that Belle Époque boulevard which encircles the city centre like a gaudy belt, those 21st Century headaches feel a world away. Order another Verlängerter. You’re in no hurry. The waiter brings it to you on a silver salver with a silver spoon precariously balanced on a glass of water, a coded symbol here in Vienna. It means you can linger here for as long as you like – forever, if you want to.

What a fine life it would be to begin every day like this, in a Fin de Siècle café like this one, leafing through the European newspapers and watching the workaday world float by. This was the way Stefan Zweig used to live, and Arthur Schnitzler and Sigmund Freud. Is that lost age gone forever? Was it always just an illusion? Even grand old Vienna is becoming more modern by the day. But in the sidestreets and the backstreets, you can still catch a fleeting whiff of the way Vienna used to be, like the perfume of an old girlfriend, a youthful memory blown away on the summer breeze.

British Airways fly from London Heathrow to Vienna five times daily (four times on Saturdays) from £79 return, including taxes. The Grand Hotel Ferdinand is a stylish hotel in a fantastic location on the Ringstrasse, easy walking distance from most of the main sites. For further information about visiting Austria, go to www.austria.info or www.wien.info


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