A fascinating history, fine food, legendary music, superb art galleries and fine architecture – Vienna has it all, says Anwer Bati.
As the capital of the once mighty Habsburg empire, which fell in 1918 after 400 years, Vienna flourished as the cultural heart of central Europe, and does so to this day. Most of the main attractions are clustered near the famous Ringstrasse, the grand 19thCentury boulevard surrounding the old town. Sights outside the centre can be easily reached by the excellent public transport system, relatively cheap taxis or Uber.
The Weekender: 48 Hours in Vienna
Vienna has many fine hotels, both grand and boutique, but the grand Imperial, just moments from Vienna’s famous Musikverein concert hall, is the choice of stars and heads of state. Right on the Ring and within easy walk of many sights, it’s also very well placed for public transport.
Once a princely palace – becoming a hotel in 1873 – the Imperial is to Vienna what Claridge’s is to London, steeped in history and character, with impeccable service and splendid, elegantly decorated rooms. Guests have included the Queen, Bill Clinton and Lady Gaga.
It is also known for its two excellent restaurants. The Café Imperial, where breakfast is served, is a local institution famous for its Wiener Schnitzel, while OPUS is more modern and gastronomic. marriott.co.uk
Vienna’s cafes are places where you can linger for hours over a coffee, and legendary for their cakes and pastries. Try Café Museum which, as the name suggests, is near the main museums; have the traditional goulash. Café Sperl, going from 1880 is even more atmospheric and charming. Behind the Opera House, Café Mozart is a handy place for a break. Nearby is the hotel Sacher, famous for its chocolate cake, but unfortunately the café is usually crammed. Many consider the torte at the Imperial superior, and you can also buy it, beautifully packaged, to bring back. The main museums and palaces all have good cafes where you can get a full meal as well as a drink.
Glacis Beisl is a very popular place for local specialities, including schnitzel and Tafelspitz (boiled veal or beef), with a garden for good weather. The classy Zum Schwarzen Kameel is a cheerful place with excellent Viennese food and service, and a popular shop selling snacks, sandwiches and gift items to take away.
For a completely different vibe, go to the lively Motto am Fluss, by the Danube Canal, in a recently trendy district. Upstairs is a café with a terrace, downstairs a more formal restaurant. Much of Vienna’s cuisine is firmly meat-based, but Wrenkh is a modern, youthful, largely vegetarian option. Sausages, or wurst, are a local favourite; one of the best places to find them is at the Bitzinger kiosk, by the Albertina museum.
You can easily spend half a day at the huge Hofburg palace, home of the Habsburgs since the 13th Century. Nearby in the Museums Quartier is the Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of the world’s finest art galleries, with regular special exhibitions.
Carol Reed’s great film, The Third Man, was set and mostly filmed in Vienna, and the private Third Man Museum celebrates it in depth The owner, Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, is also a guide and conducts tours of the city based on the movie.
At the Albertina, in a lovely former palace with impressive state rooms, the huge stock of drawings and prints has been augmented by recently acquired collections of modern and contemporary art. The Leopold museum has a fine, formerly private, collection of early 20thcentury Viennese art, including many works by Schiele, Klimt and Kokoschka.
Just walking along the Ring, around the Hofburg and the Museum Quarter will give you a great idea of the splendour of Imperial Vienna. In the old town lies the grand St Stephen’s cathedral, or Stephansdom, one of the centres of Vienna life since the 12thCentury. It’s near the famous Vienna Opera, where, even if you don’t see a performance, you can book a backstage tour. Close to the museums is the beautifully decorated Art Nouveau Secession building, which also hosts occasional exhibitions. You can also book to see performances or queue to see training sessions at the famous Spanish Riding School, with magnificent white Lipizaner horses. It also has a good souvenir shop.
Further afield is the magnificent Rococo Schönbrunn palace, the dynasty’s summer palace – built in the 17thCentury, where you can visit the rooms, and the equally impressive gardens. At the Belvedere (belvedere.at), the Baroque palace is in two parts, Upper and Lower, both set in formal gardens. In the upper part is a major collection of art including works by Monet, Schiele and Klimt’s The Kiss. The lower Belvedere is used for special exhibitions.
Gerstner, going since 1847, is the place for sweet treats and other tempting eats. Go to the so called ‘Golden Quarter’, in and around the Kohlmarkt, for luxury and designer shopping. At the Hofburg is the Imperial Shop, find a selection of high quality souvenirs and items made by traditional suppliers to the Habsburg court.
Double rooms with breakfast at the Hotel Imperial start at £480 a night.
BA has daily flights to Vienna; when you’re there it‘s well worth getting the Vienna City Card, providing free bus, tram and underground travel, discounts in museums, shops and restaurants, and several other benefits.