Home to the court of the Habsburg dynasty from the end of the Middle Ages to the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the end of the First World War, Vienna developed over half a millennium into one of the fabled capitals of Europe.
My first encounter with the city dates back to the early 1980’s. The once brilliant city, dulled by the aftermath of two world wars, was showing signs of renaissance. Palaces were being restored to their imperial grandeur, and in the center of town, new constructions were thoughtfully integrated into their historic surroundings. Through it all, Vienna had managed to retain enough of its past luster and courtly traditions to charm me at first sight.
Every few years, I find an opportunity to return and I enjoy seeing Vienna continue its gracious evolution. Today, with a population of 1.75 million (20 percent of the country’s total population) it remains Austria’s political, cultural and economic center. And it is once again a sparkling jewel in the center of Europe, the twenty-first century version of the sumptuous romantic capital of its imperial days.
The main reason for my recent winter weekend visit is a temporary exhibit at my favorite among Vienna’s many notable museums, the Belvedere. Built in the early eighteenth century as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, it consists of two Baroque palaces separated by gently graded grounds with tiered fountains and cascades, reminiscent of France’s Palais de Versailles. Now a museum complex, it is home to a collection of Austrian art from the Middle Ages to the present.
Its main attraction is an extensive collection of works by Gustav Klimt (including two of his illustrious golden masterpieces, The Kiss and Judith I) in the Upper Belvedere. But today, I give the Upper palace a miss to enjoy a walk down the snowy terraced gardens all the way to the Lower Belvedere where temporary exhibits are staged.
This latest one, a landmark exhibition of “The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka,” on view until February 28, 2016, comprises close to 150 portraits of women, including some rarely seen loans from collections from all over the world. It explores how these three giants of Viennese Modernism and frequent portraitists of women viewed evolving gender norms at the onset of the twentieth century. After this exceptional afternoon in the company of these most revered of Austrian artists and their women, it is time to repair to another of Vienna’s cultural mainstay, the Kaffeehaus.
Coffee House Culture
Although the Viennese Coffee House tradition dates back over three centuries, it is in the 1800’s that it became an institution of the city’s artistic and intellectual life. People gathered in their favorite “public living room” where, for the price of a cup of coffee and an occasional pastry, they could spend hours reading, writing, catching up on the latest news in local and international newspapers or socializing. And they still do, although smart phones and laptops are now discretely encroaching on newspapers fastened to wooden holders. While their number have declined in the post World War II era, many notable establishments remain, and have retained the atmosphere, social practices and rituals associated with the Coffee House Culture.
The array of coffee drinks on offer is baffling, from Schwartzer (strong black coffee) to elaborate concoctions involving milk and whipped cream, always served on an individual silver tray with a small glass of water on the side. I usually play it safe and order a Mélange (the Viennese version of the Italian Cappuccino). In spite of a general uniformity of décor, padded banquettes lined along the walls and wooden chairs around small marble top tables, bentwood coat racks and newspaper tables, each of these venerable local institutions has retained its individual character.
My favorite is Café Griensteidl, on Michaelerplatz in the center of the town. Founded in 1847, it was by the early 1900’s a gathering spot for a number of artists, musicians and writers including Arnold Schoenberg and Stephan Zweig. I enjoy its warm, intimate atmosphere and its superb view of the Hofburg Palace St. Michael’s Gate right across the street. And the proximity to the palace is an invitation to wander through the interior courtyards and around the grounds.
The principal imperial winter residence, the Hofburg Palace grew over the centuries to the size of a city neighborhood. Today, in addition to being the residence of Austria’s president, it houses a number of museums, among them the Imperial Apartments, including the Sisi Museum dedicated to the legendary Empress Elizabeth and the Kaiserliche Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury) with its priceless collection of secular and ecclesiastical treasures and jewels going back a millennium. At the edge of the grounds, in the Baroque arena of the Winter Riding School, the Spanish Riding School offers frequent gala performances of the world-famous white Lipizzaner horses.
Directly across from the Hofburg are the sprawling Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art Museum) filled with old masters paintings and ancient and classical artifacts, and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History). Then, just across the Ringstrasse (or simply the Ring), the wide boulevard that circles the city center, the former imperial stables were converted in the 1990’s into a museum complex that house among others the Museum Moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art) and the Leopold Museum. The latter is a treasure trove of Austrian Modernist masterpieces, including the world’s largest collection of the works of early twentieth century Expressionist Egon Schiele. In addition to his works on permanent display, a number of paintings by Gustav Klimt, Oskar Kokoschka and others are found there, as well as an extensive collection of Art Nouveau jewelry and crafts.
It is impossible not to mention music when speaking of Vienna, arguably the classical music capital of the world. Not only did many of the great European composers live here, but also it is to this day home to several opera houses and a number of famed concert halls. Programs for these celebrated venues are advertized throughout the music world. They are immensely popular with Viennese as well as tourists, so that it is imperative to plan well ahead in order to secure tickets. However, in Vienna, quality music is not limited to prestigious institutions. From small neighborhood venues to local churches and even some coffee houses, in Vienna music is in the air.
Good to Know
- Getting around – The best way to get around Vienna is on foot and via pubic transportation. With five metro lines (U-Bahn), numerous trams (Strassenbahn), buses and local trains (S-Bahn) the transportation network is frequent, reliable and inexpensive . Tickets can be purchased at machines located at most metro stations and tobacconists around the city. They work on the honor system. You validate your ticket and hop on and off. There are occasional random controls.
- Where to stay – The historic center of Vienna (innere Stadt) is surrounded by the Ringstrasse, a broad boulevard built in the nineteenth century on the place where the city walls once stood. The entire city center is a UNESCO World Heritage Site dense with ancient buildings, picturesque cobblestone streets and stately palaces. It is known at the First District and an ideal location for visitors who prefer to stay “in the center of everything.” There is a vast choice of housing options ranging from renowned multi-starred hotels to cozy bed-and-breakfasts to accommodate all tastes and budgets. My favorite is The Ring Hotel, a casual luxury property with a welcoming modern interior behind its classic nineteenth-century facade, attentive personalized service and an ideal location on the south side of the Ring. It is just a five-minute walk from the Vienna State Opera, and 10 minutes from the Hofburg Palace as well as the Belvedere.
- The Ring Hotel is at Kärtner Ring 8, A-1010.Vienna, Austria. theringhotel.com/en/ . email: firstname.lastname@example.org, or call +43 (0)1 51580-761.
- Spanish Riding School Exercise Sessions – In addition to its frequent gala performances, the Spanish Riding School holds daily morning exercise sessions open to the public (entrance fee €15). The horses are brought in five at a lime and put through mainly relaxing and muscle building exercises. Sessions do not include the spectacular jumps and dressage exercises, such as courbette, cabriole and levade, for which the school is renowned.
- Not worth the lines – Just a few steps away from St. Michael’s Gate, the iconic Café Demel established in 1786 and “Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court” is decidedly off my list. Granted, their rich multi-layered tortes are still unarguably delicious but, to my eyes at least, not worth having to elbow my way through the retail area, then enduring endless lines before being granted admittance to the tiny neo-Baroque coffee shop at the rear. Or most likely being shoed upstairs to a large space with all the appeal of a train-station cafeteria by one of the white-apronned waitresses who seem to have developed making patrons feel unwelcomed into an art form.