The inside guide to Vienna's eclectic music scene

The Austrian capital is alive with music, from raucous jazz clubs and three-day festivals to masterful violin makers.

Published 2 Dec 2020, 10:04 GMT, Updated 2 Dec 2020, 11:06 GMT
Flex, Vienna

Flex, the city’s go-to for some of the biggest names in house and electro, situated on the Danube.

Photograph by Alamy

From the outside looking in, Vienna seems wrapped up in a bygone age. After all, this is a city famous for its three-month ballroom dancing season, and one where suited men and coiffed women regularly fill the city’s three internationally renowned opera houses. Beyond the Austrian capital’s ritzy reputation, though, is a city celebrating the rising stars of the contemporary live arts scene as much as the classical heavyweights. This is a city that's as in love with the present as it is the past.

Jazz is a big deal in Vienna: a passion sparked by homegrown artists like Hans Koller and Fatty George, who rose to fame in post-war Europe and the US. At Porgy & Bess — a low-lit, crimson velvet-clad club — a stellar lineup of Austrian and international artists regularly heads the bill. At the lesser-known Zwe meanwhile, gig-goers practically stand elbow-to-elbow with musicians. The atmosphere is electric — to the degree that the no-frills venue has been hailed by local musicians as a rival to New York City’s Blue Note.

Night owls head to the banks of the Danube when it’s time to let off steam. Here, a string of clubs, bars and pop-ups attracts a diverse crowd, from hip-hop heads to breakbeat buffs. Grelle Forelle is a two-floored nightclub that hosts some of the most exciting acts in techno, house and hip-hop, complete with hypnotic neon light installations and a showstopping sound system. Head south to find Flex: it’s the city’s go-to for some of the biggest names in house and electro. People of all ages and tastes join the party at Donauninselfest, a three-day, open air festival on Donauinsel — the long, narrow island sandwiched between the Danube and the New Danube. It’s free to attend and is held on the last weekend of June every year.

For something a little more high-brow, you’re naturally spoilt for choice. Passion for the opera flows through Viennese veins, with the cheering at curtain call like the roaring at a football match. The city’s most hotly anticipated shows take place at the world-famous Wiener Staatsoper. If you can’t get a ticket (seats tend to sell out in advance, but you can try for a standing spot on the day), it’s worth stopping by just to admire its neo-renaissance exterior. Take note of the five bronze statues positioned over the main entrance: from left to right, they represent heroism, tragedy, fantasy, comedy and love.

Vienna has no shortage of concert halls, but for sound quality lauded as ‘perfect’ by classical musicians, head to the Musikverein, just off the Ringstrasse. Designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, the venue sounds as good as it looks — beneath the floor of the main concert hall is a level that’s completely hollow; it’s this that’s behind the venue’s unparalleled acoustics.

Even if you can't make a performance, it’s worth stopping by the Wiener Staatsoper just to admire its resplendent architecture and interior.

Photograph by Alamy

And the unsung heroes of the stage? The instruments themselves. Austrian artisans have sculpted and whittled violins and pianos for centuries, producing some of the finest in the world. Bärbel Bellinghausen is one of the city’s most accomplished violin makers — and her intricate creations are made entirely by hand. Visit her inner-city workshop (by appointment only) to learn more about the background and process of her time-honoured profession. Alternatively, dive deeper into Vienna’s orchestral history at the Collection of Historic Musical Instruments, where you can admire such treasures as the pianos once played by Franz Lizst and Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart.

When it comes to composers, one name looms large across Viennese history: Beethoven. Some two centuries after the young pianist arrived in Vienna and made it his base, tributes to his life and legacy can be found all over the city. A mosaicked treble clef is set into the ground as you arrive at the Beethoven Museum, the virtuoso’s former residence in Heiligenstadt, where exhibits trace his life. From there, head towards Karlsplatz, in the city centre, and spot the glinting ‘golden cabbage’ dome atop the Secession, a contemporary exhibition hall that displays the Beethoven Frieze. The 34-metre-long, 2-metre-high masterpiece was painted by none other than Austrian artist Gustav Klimt as an homage to the composer.

Like a local: Kyson's top five Vienna hangouts

Jian Kellett Liew, known professionally as Kyson, is an Adelaide-born, Vienna-based producer, singer and songwriter, whose eclectic sound is inspired by his travels. Here, he recommends five of his favourite hangouts.

1. Phil

Phil is a cute little place with a fresh Viennese vibe. It combines a book/record store and a cafe, and sometimes plays host to live music and book readings. Arrive hungry and order the Phil Good Breakfast — a hearty vegetarian spread.

2. Jonas Reindl Coffee Roasters

The coffee is roasted on site at this cafe, and it’s the best in Vienna. I go for the verlängerter, which is long and dark, like an americano. 

3. Metcha Matcha

Metcha Matcha is one of my favourite restaurants in the city. It’s a Japanese restaurant with a little courtyard inside. When I go, I always order the teishoku: a set meal including a main dish of the day and lots of pickled vegetables and miso soup.

4. Ungargrill

In Vienna's seventh district, Ungargrill is run by a woman who’s really prominent in the Austrian club and music scene. I’ve gone to a lot of great, and totally weird, gigs there; I like sitting in one of the booths and just listening to the crazy music. You always hear something you weren’t expecting.

5. Parks and gardens

The Burggarten is very Vienna; it has a butterfly house and a tearoom with that real Viennese vibe to it. Otherwise, there’s the Lainzer Tiergarten, which is a huge animal reserve that’s a beautiful place to visit, and the Vienna woods — a beautiful forest just outside the city, where I go walking a lot. 

Published in the Nov/Dec 2020 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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