City life: Vienna

Beyond the famous Ringstrasse lies a Vienna that thinks little of regal Austria or the gilded beat of Lipizzaner horse hooves. The city's 22 other districts have their minds set on the here and now.

By Chris Leadbeater
Published 22 May 2016, 09:00 BST, Updated 7 Jul 2021, 13:24 BST
Leopold Museum in District 7.

Leopold Museum in District 7.

Photograph by Jael Marschner

My coffee arrives without a smile. This is too serious a matter for jollity. The waiter merely nods as he places the silver tray on the table, where it gleams in the light of the heavy metallic chandelier above me. As does the spoon placed across the top of the complimentary glass of water. In this formal situation, my drink — a wiener melange: half espresso, half frothy milk — is almost an afterthought, although it proves to be warm and aromatic. "Will there be anything else," the waiter asks? No, I think we have it covered.

Café Prückel is probably what UNESCO had in mind when it allotted World Heritage status to Vienna's cafe culture in 2011. Utterly traditional — it opened in 1903, but, in terms of décor, seems to have jammed the clock hands at around 1955 — it belongs to that version of Austria's capital which serenades tourists from postcards: sugary pastries and elegant caffeine; church steeples; horse-drawn carriages. Outside, Stubenring, an easterly curve of the Ringstrasse, flashes past the window, and I begin to feel that I'm being strangled.

Maybe 'strangled' is too firm a word. Some would say the Ringstrasse, that eternal circle of a road which frames Vienna's core, is one of the world's grandest avenues. And they'd be right. Emperor Franz Joseph I was definitely aiming for urban nobility when, in 1857, he ordered Vienna's medieval walls to be torn down to make way for this unending boulevard.

But you might also describe it as a noose. Or at least, a taut binding that keeps visitors' heads turned towards the Innere Stadt — Vienna's District 1 — which lies cocooned within it.

True, many of the city's best-loved attractions are located here — the Wiener Staatsoper opera house, St Stephen's Cathedral, the Hofburg Palace and its friend the Spanish Riding School, twin echoes of imperial magnificence which still mourn the fallen Hapsburgs. All of them are shards of architectural prestige; all of them are worthy of hours of your time.

But they've all been done to death, too. So, putting down my cup in Café Prückel, I've decided to look beyond them to the Vienna that exists outside the Ringstrasse, to some of the 22 other districts comprising the metropolis, fragments which live in the uncertainty of now rather than the nostalgia of then. It won't take me long to find them.

District 2 — Leopoldstadt

The Wiener Riesenrad is poking up through the treeline when I emerge from Praterstern U-bahn station. I've seen this enormous, graceful ferris wheel before, but only as a backdrop to the nocturnal wanderings of Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke in 1995's woozy brief-encounter movie Before Sunrise, about two young travellers slipping through Prater, Vienna's main green lung, and the amusement park it contains. Espying it in person feels like bumping into a minor celebrity. It brings a vague air of familiarity to Leopoldstadt.

Vienna's District 2, arranged along the north-east flank of the Innere Stadt, is a curious soul. Defined by the calm of its leafy space and the timelessness of the River Danube at its top edge, it has also long dealt in noise and motion. It was the city's Jewish area before the Second World War and the Nazi horror of Kristallnacht. It was, and is, a people place.

Nowadays, many of those who populate it are young; the sharp minds of the Leopoldstadt campus of the Wirtschafts Universitat, the city's higher-ed hotspot for business students. Here's an enclave representing the new Vienna. Opened in 2010, the campus is an unlikely but striking site for tourists, abuzz with its slices of modernity. The project was overseen by Vienna-based Argentinian architect Laura Spinadel and includes the D4 complex, a black-and-white joy suggesting interlocking computer chips, crafted by Barcelona visionary Carme Pinós. Then there's the library, a space-age wonder concocted by the late British-Iraqi genius Zaha Hadid, where floors of books spiral up in pale concentric loops. It's an enclave whose splendour is appreciated in a wider context. When I pause for lunch at on-site eatery Das Campus, the benches are occupied as much by Viennese day-trippers devouring the beef-laden Campus Burger as ravenous students.

The main drag, Praterstrasse, forges south-west towards the Innere Stadt, but keeps its distance from it. "What can I get you?" asks the man at the till in Supersense. I'm not sure. Behind him, the cafe is a hub of idiosyncrasies:
a tiny recording studio where a band is tuning up; antique cameras that capture your image as if Victoria is still on the British throne; a pinball machine that takes your photo if you win. I try another wiener melange and a slice of apple strudel, which, for all its cliché value, tastes daring in such a setting.

Praterstrasse dashes on: clever Georgian cuisine at Cafe Ansari, where the interior has been finessed by another innovative Austrian, Gregor Eichinger; stylish furniture and terrifying prices at Song, a boutique selling chic chairs and tables by Korean designer Myung Il Song. This international blur concludes at the Sofitel, a statement hotel hewn by flamboyant Frenchman Jean Nouvel in 2010, where the heart of the building is awash with slick décor shops, and the 18th-floor bar Das Loft gazes through broad windows. The sun is descending, so before I move on to Karmelitermarkt, Leopoldstadt's meat market, where small eateries increasingly hold court, I sip a Penicillin cocktail (bourbon, ginger and lime) and watch the day depart above Vienna's first-rate, numerically second quarter.

District 7 — Neubau

Museumstrasse doesn't state its importance openly. But somewhere in its tarmac, a line is drawn; one which separates the Innere Stadt — where the Kunsthistorisches Museum rears proudly on Maria-Theresien-Platz, bursting with Renaissance paintings by Rafael, Canaletto and Veronese — from Neubau, and the more recent art of the Museumsquartier.

The distinction is significant. If the Kunsthistorisches Museum is classical Vienna, a last resting place for the Hapsburgs' canvas collection, the hive of galleries sitting directly west is rather more contemporary. The Museumsquartier may be built around the shell of the royal stables, but, opened in 2001, it drags the site up to date — or, at least, to the near past. The Leopold Museum revolves around the iconoclasts who redrew Vienna's creative rules at the turn of the 20th century: Gustav Klimt still shocking via 1911's iconic Death And Life, its skeletal figure leering greedily at a sleeping family; or tragic Richard Gerstl, gaunt and emaciated in a full-frontal self-portrait finished two months before his suicide in 1908. Across the courtyard, MUMOK (the Museum Moderner Kunst) pulls the artistic thread a little closer to the present: Viennese paintsmith Inge Dick's 1977/7 is a panel of gently fading blue, lovely in its simplicity, from within a windowless cube of basalt which looks as architecturally divorced from the whimsical Hofburg as it's feasible to be.

The rest of Neubau, Vienna's seventh district, swells out behind the Museumsquartier. I slip out of MUMOK and into its grip, meandering amid the independent fashion stores, which, festooned along Lindengasse, give the area its identity — Mode Regime, with its bright bags and expensive denim; Wabisabi, a minimalist swirl of femininity; Kingpin, announcing its ethos as 'modern retro rock n roll driven apparel', a gaudily daubed Elvis peering out of the front door next to a rainbow of Hawaiian shirts.

On Siebensterngasse, I have a dilemma. 'I just read an article on the dangers of drinking. Scared the s**t out of me. After today, no more reading,' wisecracks a chalkboard scrawl in front of Bukowski. Should I applaud this ready burst of wit and tumble inside for a tipple? In the end, I opt for lunch at the neighbouring Sneak In, where the T-shirt racks and fresh trainers offsetting the pale wood tables are just as much part of Neubau's appeal. But only because the 'until 6am' sign over its doorway tells me the bar will keep for later.

District 6 — Mariahilf

It isn't difficult to find Vienna's sixth district. Mariahilferstrasse, slashed deeply across the map, announces Mariahilf's presence in an unpretentious strip of retail-chain ubiquity. Midway along, the Stiftskirche pleads the case for stereotypical Vienna, throwing itself — all 18th-century baroque refinement — at the reflective facade of the Humanic department store opposite.

It's a photogenic moment, but Mariahilf calls to visitors more persuasively further south, where Gumpendorfer Strasse boils down the essence of the city, not unexpectedly, to caffeine. On one side of the thoroughfare, Phil deals in hipster cool, as much bookshop and DJ booth as cafe. "Should I kill myself or have another cup of coffee?" smirks the felt-tip sign on the counter, quoting Albert Camus in his 1942 novel The Stranger. I pick a perky latte, then hop over the road, abandoning 2016 for 1880, and the hallowed confines of Café Sperl. Here, the day's papers are spread out on a stately billiards table, and a man is tinkling the ivories of an upright piano set against a giant mirror. The obermayer (double mocha with whipped cream) I select from the detailed menu is undoubtedly fancier than Phil's fine brew, but no less enjoyable.

How to referee this clash of the centuries? Perhaps by reserving judgement and grabbing a more potent drink in the adjacent If Dogs Run Free. By the time I've consumed two of its Old Fashioneds, and realised that the watering hole's name is a hat-tip to a song from Bob Dylan's underrated 1970 LP New Morning — I've ceased to care about coffee.

District 4 — Wieden

A city must also go to work. And when I arrive in Wieden — Vienna's fourth district, south of the Innere Stadt — the Austrian capital's hard at it. The Naschmarkt has been one of the city's major organs since the 16th century, a mile-long mesh of vegetable boxes and fruit stalls. Amid the crush of a spring morning, it's as if little has changed in half a millennium; the market a haze of shouting traders and milling customers, even if the basic items of yore have given way to stalls selling olive oil and local cheeses.

This is Vienna in gloriously grubby form, graffiti on the walls, a tremor as the U2 U-bahn line rumbles underneath, trains seeking Kettenbrückengasse station at the plaza's centre. The restaurants slotted into the footfall make few concessions to gentility. Fischviertel, where I stop for lunch, is a functioning fishmonger's which happens to serve food — at four tables pushed into a corner behind marble cutting slabs and torsos of cod and hake reclining on cushions of crushed ice. My tuna steak is a medium-rare marvel nonetheless.

Will Wieden retain this earthiness? Probably not. Splashes of reinvention are there on Schleifmühlgasse: the 1920s dresses of Flo Vintage; the 'rare furniture' and defiantly red plastic chairs of high-end outlet Rauminhalt. I pass both on the walk back to my hotel — and my confession. The Grand Ferdinand, a fabulous hideaway, new last October, which greets its guests with bare, flickering candles in its lobby, lies in the Innere Stadt, and on the Ringstrasse (specifically on Schubertring). But its eighth-floor bar stares over the rooftops towards Wieden and the Vienna that thinks little of regal Austria or the gilded beat of Lipizzaner horse hooves. Inquisitive visitors to the city should do the same.


Getting there
Flights from the UK are plentiful: Austrian (Heathrow), British Airways (Heathrow, Gatwick), EasyJet (Bristol, Edinburgh, Gatwick, Luton, Manchester), Eurowings (Stansted) and Jet2 (Edinburgh) all fly there.
Average flight time: 2h.

Getting around
The city is easily explored on foot, but its transport network is extensive, and easy to use, comprising five U-bahn lines, plus an army of trams and buses. Single fares across the system are €2.20 (£1.70), one-day cards €7.60 (£6) and 48-hour passes €13.30 (£10.50).

When to go
Vienna enjoys a standard central European climate. Summer is most crowded, but the pre-Christmas ice rinks linger into the New Year. January and February mark the peak of the iconic (but accessible) ball season.

Need to know
Currency: Euro. £1 = €1.27.
International dial code: 00 43 1.
Time difference: GMT +1.

How to do it
Kirker Holidays is offering three nights at the four-star K&K Maria Theresia, from £668 per person (two sharing), including flights, breakfast and private transfers.

British Airways Holidays is offering three nights in June at five-star Das Triest hotel in Wieden, from £315 per person, with flights from Gatwick and breakfast.

Published in the June 2016 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)


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