Offbeat cabaret and secret techno: is Vienna Europe's most exciting capital after dark?

Against a backdrop of Habsburg palaces, the Austrian capital hosts a uniquely bohemian party scene.

Clubbers at Kramladen, a live music venue in the west of Vienna.

Photograph by Stefan Fuertbauer
By Ellen Himelfarb
Published 29 Jun 2022, 06:03 BST

I can’t remember the last time I saw live music, but I can guarantee it wasn’t half as much fun as watching Inéz Schaefer, the German technopop star who’s on stage right now, currently shooting green lasers from her fingers. One half of the Dresden duo Ätna, Schaefer radiates the writhing artistry of Lady Gaga, the haunting vocals of Sinéad O’Connor and the persona — with her gravity-defying plait and gloved catsuit — of Blond Ambition-era Madonna.

I’ve found myself this evening at Fluc Wanne, a strobe-lit club in a disused subway that draws many fine specimens of Vienna’s music-loving population. There are women with lush tresses and zodiac tattoos, and men with ironic moustaches and body-skimming singlets who audibly hail from a broad mix of nations east. “Vienna’s still a bit ‘Habsburg Empire’,” says my Viennese friend, Stefan. 

All eyes are fixed on Schaefer and Demian Kappenstein, taking turns at the keyboards with virtuoso ease while the other vamps for the crowd. As Schaefer’s melodic whisper erupts into operatic wails, it seems apt that the duo’s name sounds like the world’s most active volcano. She has the crowd in the palm of her spandex-covered hands.

I, a middle-aged mum, am in love with them. I want to be them. Or maybe it’s Vienna itself that has me under its spell. A mere week after lifting its mandate on wearing masks, Vienna is partying like it’s 2019. Top restaurants are booked for weeks, shows sold out well in advance (we blagged our way into Fluc Wanne after the performance began). Before arriving for my long, lost weekend, I imagined the city as a cleaner, tamer, more refined Berlin. And it is remarkably clean. The architecture here — baroque domes, mansions designed in Jugendstil style (the local take on art nouveau), even the glassy terminal outside the club — positively gleams. But it’s no less anything than Berlin. 

The bars and restaurants along the Danube Canal attract locals and tourists alike. In summer, the Viennese head to Sunken City, a cluster of beach bars on Danube Island.

Photograph by Stefan Fuertbauer

I haven’t even been in the city an hour before I’m engaging in the bloodsport of snagging a seat outside Palmenhaus, a brasserie set in a sweeping glasshouse bookended by two Habsburg palaces. Claiming victory, I order a beer, pivot towards the late-afternoon sun and cast a pitying glance at the entrance, where eagle-eyed hopefuls huddle to watch for an opening while tipsy patrons order yet another Aperol spritz. By the time Stefan arrives, some of them have given up and joined the toned bodies lounging on the vast lawns of Burggarten, just beyond us. By evening, the park will ramp up into its own party. “The government tried to ban outdoor drinks,” says Stefan. “There was a huge protest.”

Of course, there’s no shortage of licensed establishments, if nipping from a paper-bagged Stiegl beer isn’t your thing. Stefan and I drain our drinks, give up our table and cross over the Ringstrasse, the monumental boulevard commissioned by Emperor Franz Joseph in the mid 19th century atop ancient fortifications. Just beyond is MuseumsQuartier, where more people have amassed on boat-shaped orange benches in the piazza. Most of the nine stately museums circling the quarter have cafes with majestic views, where couples discuss Schiele’s paintings over glasses of Pinot Gris. 

But Stefan balks at the hard-edged contemporary decor. We embark instead on a walkathon around the 6th, 7th and 8th districts: arty, independent neighbourhoods outside the Ringstrasse. Out here the roads are narrower and quainter, if no less pretty. Quiet Gumpendorferstrasse, heart of the 6th, is lined with protruding terraces furnished with midcentury cast-offs. 

Beyond here is Naschtmarkt, where striped awnings herald fish, cheese and menus from the city’s Turkish, Israeli and Chinese communities, though tonight the hordes seem to prefer wine. Vienna’s outskirts, I learn, are rife with vineyards specialising in Grüner Veltliner and Gemischter Satz. According to the posted menus, it’s rarely priced at more than a few euros a glass. Naturally, we partake. 

You're spoiled for choice when it comes to delicious drinks in Vinna, from al fresco Aperol to this redcurrant aperitif at Spelunke.

Photograph by Stefan Fuertbauer

By midnight we’ve covered enough ground and, interestingly, I’m starting to recognise people. In typical Viennese fashion, we wind up outside Wiener Würstelstand, Stefan’s favourite sausage kiosk, set under a blossoming cherry tree on the threshold of the 8th. Ordering a pair of organic, hay-fed bratwursts, we spot a couple from the previous bar sticking toothpicks into a dish of Käsekrainer (cheese-stuffed sausage). Turns out they’ve come from London on their honeymoon and, frankly, I couldn’t think of a better way to celebrate. Licking mustard off his fingers at our picnic table, Stefan looks over at them, lit from above by the 1970s-era neon sign. 

“It looks like a Dennis Hopper,” he says.

We agree he means Edward Hopper’s Nighthawks. And he’s got a point. Just like the American diner, the würstelstand is a ubiquitous beacon luring the butterflies of this modern city. It satisfies a craving for nostalgia and ritual, along with some tremendous diced-onion sauce.

We may have gone about this the wrong way, though, because the night isn’t over. Stefan is urging me on to one last stop: his beloved DonauTechno, behind an unmarked door near MuseumsQuartier. But as we navigate the magnificent, pillared room, shouting over the beats, our onion-breath comes back to haunt us. We’ve caught our second wind now, and bop from the bar to dump our jackets on a pair of flip-up cinema seats. Pastel projections swirl around the walls where a group of students punch the air. The DJ flicks on an old favourite by The Shapeshifters and starts gyrating like nobody’s watching. 

From the vaulted ceiling, hundreds of pendants dangle over us like icicles. Except they’re not icicles, they’re... elongated, penis-shaped stockings? Weighed down with two bulbous walnuts? Stefan points up, giggling. “Are those condoms? Stuffed with garlic?” Who knows for sure.

Vienna comes alive at night, with spots such as DonauTechno popular with those looking for an understated yet energetic evening. 

Photograph by Stefan Fuertbauer

Good, clean fun

Walking back to my hotel past a symphony of street cleaners, I think about the easy flow of evenings here. Vienna’s nightlife isn’t a competitive sport. Stefan has discouraged me from wearing my sequin trousers, for example, as being too ostentatious. Vienna’s nightlife is about a mutual love of music and camaraderie. There’s nary a queue. No try-hard spandex or nipple clamps (though I’m told at SMart you can watch men perform naughty acts in a back “playroom”).

And decent nightlife is not something you have to seek out. On my third evening in town, Stefan and I meet for a hangover cure at Spelunke, which in German translates as ‘dive-bar’, though it’s nothing of the sort, offering Wagyu beefburgers and sweet potato fries to guests on pristine leather banquettes. Spelunke sits front-and-centre on the Danube Canal, where an entertainment renaissance began years ago. Towpaths flank the waterway all the way north to the Danube River, so we scuttle down for a stroll. Our steps echo as we pass beneath bridges that connect the luxury hotels to our left with the old Jewish quarter on our right. Every now and then, dance beats pump out from a venue splashed with graffiti, or some riverside bar where famed electro producers Kruder & Dorfmeister used to spin. 

Climbing back up to street level, we head through a tiny door marked ‘Zwe’, entering a cave-like space. Young jazz nuts are rocking their heads like ravers while a band in the corner bashes out frenzied Chick Corea-style fusion. I hone in on the piano, which is missing its front casing to expose the hammers, and we push on through to the bar. In many other serious jazz clubs, we’d have been shushed out by now, but the owner himself waves us in and takes our wine order.

“Cash only,” he says. I offer to go out to find an ATM, and before I know it the owner is walking alongside me, showing me the way. How’s that for service? 

Musicians Alan Bartus (right) and his father, Stefan ‘Pista’ Bartus, at Zwe jazz club.

Photograph by Stefan Fuertbauer

When we return, my wine is waiting and the Slovakian bassist, also called Stefan, is perched at our tiny table. I compliment him on the show, and he beams. It turns out that the pianist is his son, Alan, a graduate of Vienna’s music university. I watch them when they start back up and the audience resumes its head-banging. They appear to be checking in lovingly with each other, mid-jam. It’s beautiful to watch, and so we do, long past my bedtime.

Yet we’re not ready for the night to end. Back along the canal, the skyline is taking on a modern, faintly industrial look. Stefan points to a beautiful, cylindrical blue tower topped with a golden globe. It’s actually an incinerator. Surely a gorgeous industrial-waste facility is only possible in Vienna. Behind it, the Gürtel highway snakes out to a cluster of live venues. Should we hail a cab?

Not necessary. In the incinerator’s foreground sits one of Vienna’s most fabled dance clubs, Das Werk. “Biggest DJs in Europe,” Stefan rhapsodises. “Most kick-ass sound system in Vienna.” And before I know it, we’re there, sailing past the bouncers to peer over the mezzanine at the heads, arms and feet jutting through the dry ice. 

“We can sleep tomorrow!” I shout in his ear, skipping down to dive into the throng. 

The next night, though, is another musical vortex; another parade of cool trainers; another ear-ringing walk back to my hotel. After it all, I’m about to collapse into bed when I hear throbbing pop music from the bistro on the hotel’s top floor. I can’t resist tiptoeing up the marble staircase to investigate. The revellers appear to be in costume: platinum wigs, cowboy hats and… trench coats? I flag down one of the guests. 

“It’s a flasher party!” he shouts, leading a parade of revellers dressed in Burberry knock-offs — with not much underneath, I can attest — up to the roof terrace. 

There’s no way I’m not going to follow. Sleep can wait.

Published in the Jul/Aug 2022 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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