This city is rightfully famous for its polished palaces and prancing Lipizzaner stallions, not to mention the rich, pure voices of the Vienna Boys’ Choir. There are historic churches from the Middle Ages and homes lived in by the likes of Ludwig van Beethoven and Johann Strauss.
But there’s also a rich, vibrant modern side to this city, with rooftop bars that blast pulsating dance tunes, funky shops based on Monty Python sketches, and wildly inventive architecture.
Guide Alexa Brauner, an engaging and enthusiastic art lover, recently took me on a three-hour walking tour that included both the old and new Vienna. I also had a bike tour of the city that was put on by Avalon Waterways, which launched its new Avalon View in Vienna in early April and sailed to Budapest.
Brauner and I began our visit at the edge of Stadt Park and made our way to the Danube Canal. On the way, she pointed out the aluminum exterior of the 1906 Postal Savings Bank, designed by architect Otto Wagner in a functionalist style I find beautiful but somehow foreboding. The towering figures and metallic angles look like something out of a Gotham City mock-up for a deeply disturbed Batman movie.
She also noted the former War Ministry building on the Ringstrasse, an imposing edifice with ornate carvings and a huge, powerful eagle hovering overhead.
“Of course, Austria is now neutral so there’s no more war ministry,” Brauner explains. “It’s a little complicated.”
It’s a short walk through the city’s first district (Vienna is made up of 23 separate districts, not unlike the arrondissements of Paris) to the Danube Canal, where there are large party boats, including one with an outdoor swimming pool. The water flows swiftly through the canal here, but some swimmers brave the currents.
There’s also a bike path along the canal, which Brauner says allows cyclists to ride all the way to Bratislava, Slovakia, some 155 miles (250 kilometres) away.
Brauner points out wildly colourful graffiti on the walls above the canal.
“Street art is not only allowed, but encouraged in Vienna,” she tells me. I suspect one wouldn’t try to spray paint the side of the Opera House, or a Lipizzaner stallion for that matter, but the cement walls of the canal are fair game.
We cross the river and take a short walk on Praterstrasse, a street that leads to the city’s giant Prater park.
“This was once a very heavily Jewish orthodox area,” Brauner explains. “Now it’ s a very trendy area for young families.”
I admire the patio seating at a pretty café called Ramasuri. A couple doors down is Café Ansari, a gleaming place that Brauner says was opened by a refugee from Georgia.
Next door to Ansari is Mochi, a Japanese izakaya, and just down from there is Song, a fashionable women’s clothing spot. I also spot a modern gallery and an old-style hardware/kitchen store called Eisen Dorn, which has a window filled with dozens of snapshots of customers from over the years.
Just around the corner is SO/Vienna, a sparkling hotel that has brightly colored glass and wild, overhead murals that wouldn’t be out of place in a New York City art gallery. The hotel has a rooftop bar, DAS LOFT, which has fine views looking over the Danube Canal and the historic first district. The thumping beats go on well into the wee hours in a bar that attracts the prettiest of Vienna’s pretty people. Next door we spot a big, midday lineup for another bar/restaurant called Spelunke, which boasts welcoming graffiti-style paintings on the exterior walls and an interior that’s high on glam and glitz.
I gaze off in the distance and spot a series of small hills. Brauner says there are several vineyards in the city, which makes Vienna one of the only big cities in the world with wineries inside the municipal boundaries.
Brauner and I hop on one of the city’s efficient trams and head south to a public housing project called Hundertwasser House, which might be the most Instagrammable building erected before Instragram existed. The project was designed by eclectic architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an inveterate traveler and artist who came up with a wavy, organic, inventive building that features trees growing out of balconies and groovy colours that the Crayola Crayon people never dreamed of.
The building, completed in 1986, features all sorts of odd touches; random splashes of deep blue tile, parts of a chess or checkerboard. I look up and see a patio drainage hole fashioned to look like a grinning face. His style reminds many visitors of Antoni Gaudi, but I think Hundertwasser takes things to a level the Spanish/Catalan architect never considered.
Outside, at ground level, the tiles are rough and uneven, which makes for a good story but probably wouldn’t be so welcome if you’re a visitor of a certain age or suffer from wonky ankles.
“Hundertwasser often said that nature abhors a straight line,” Brauner tells me.
You can view the courtyard, but visitors aren’t allowed inside the building unless they’re invited. Luckily for tourists, however, the Hundertwasser House is just a few steps away; a small museum with a pretty courtyard and a café. If you’re a really big Hundertwasser fan, wander down to the Danube Canal, just a block away, and check out the Weissgerber Lande docking station he designed. It’s now abandoned, but it’s a cool area and a nice walk.
Across the street from Hundertwasser House is a fun footwear shop called Ministry of Silly Socks, a play on words from Monty Python’s Minister of Silly Walks sketch.
Brauner and I head back to the historic city center and hop off in front of Café Landtmann, which dates to 1873 and is one of three historic cafes on the Ringstrasse or Vienna Ring Road. We’ve done a great deal of walking, so it’s nice to sit and enjoy a bite to eat and a hit of caffeine. I thumb through the enormous menu and try to contemplate what to order.
“There are 27 types of coffee here,” Brauner explains. Some have whipped cream, some have sweet liqueurs added. One specialty is a Viennese coffee called a melange, which I’m told is stronger than a latte but not quite as powerful as a cappuccino.
Tuxedoed waiters glide effortlessly around the café, taking pastry orders from five-year-old kids out with their parents and helping elderly people with their coats on a breezy Saturday in April. I decide to order the classic Viennese apple strudel, but can’t decide whether to have it topped with whipped cream or vanilla sauce.
“I’d say the vanilla is better,” our waiter tells me. “But if you don’t like it, I’ll take it back and get you the other one.”
Of course, I don’t send it back.
The restaurant has beautiful mirrors and lovely inlaid tiles. I also notice, bestill my beating heart, an old-fashioned rack of newspapers.
“This was Sigmund Freud’s favourite café,” Brauner tells me. “The café doesn’t say which table he preferred. I like that.”
As our tour nears its end, Brauner leads me past the city’s astonishing Easter market, where there are thousands upon thousands of painted eggs on display. She tells me that a small hole is drilled in a normal chicken egg, then emptied out. After the egg is dried, artists carefully paint the exteriors in bright or pastel colors, with designs such as a cute bunny or a baby duck. I’ve never seen them before, and I’m mesmerized. We don’t have time, but I notice there’s a sparkling wine bar in the middle of the market, and that’s a clever idea if I ever saw one.
Across the road is a more traditional market, with the smell of fresh-baked bread wafting through the air. I notice families lined up to watch a butcher slice off hunks of fresh ham, while couples hold hands and sip from glasses of wine as they stroll about, probably deciding what to buy for lunch.
Brauner takes a right turn and walks me into something called Ferstel Passage, a covered arcade that’s lined with beautiful shops and restaurants, including French brasseries and a rich-smelling chocolate shop. There’s a tiny courtyard at one end of the passage, and a musician is playing sweet notes on a harp.
We stroll past the People’s Garden or Volksgarten, where thousands of rose bushes will be in bloom by May. The garden is part of the Hofburg Palace and was designed in 1821. It was built over a large section of Vienna city fortifications that Napoleon destroyed in 1809.
We pass two imposing museums on our way to the Museums Quartier, the Natural History Museum, and the Kunsthistorisches or Fine Arts Museum. The Museums Quartier is home to several other public galleries, including a contemporary arts museum (Kunsthalle), an architecture museum and the Leopold Museum, which highlights modern Austrian art.
There’s a massive courtyard in the middle of the quarter, with cafés and a series of large, orange plastic benches. Brauner tells me the colors of the furnishings change every year.
The top of the Leopold Museum has a lovely rooftop that’s free to explore, with wonderful views of the city. There’s also a nice café for a coffee or a glass of wine.
My Vienna exposure also included a great bike tour that was part of my Avalon Waterways cruise. It took me through the heart of the city and along the Danube Canal.
Our guide also shows us the city’s famous Opera House, which dates to 1869. Most visitors seem to find it very pleasing today, but it was considered a dastardly piece of work at the time. In fact, one of the architects committed suicide after hearing nothing but bad reviews, including a two-thumbs-down vote from the Emperor.
“There are usually last-minute tickets on sale,” the bike tour guide says. “If it’s Mozart, it’s very popular. It’s a five- or six-hour production from Wagner, not so much.”
Another stop is to see the Johann Strauss II statue in Stadt Park. Apparently, Strauss was a hit with the ladies, as well as with music enthusiasts. We’re told he used to send locks of his hair to adoring fans, not unlike The Beatles allegedly did. After a while it grew tiresome, and the story goes that he started sending hair he clipped off of his pet poodle instead.
One of our last stops is to explore the amusement park at the Prater, a massive city green space, and have a ride on the city’s famous Ferris wheel, which dates to the 1890s and is one of the oldest in the world. (See a video here.)
Avalon Waterways also treated guests to a private night at Belvedere Palace, a gleaming, Baroque ornate-and-then-some affair on the outskirts of town that was built in 1724. It was formerly a country estate for Austrian royalty and is now an outstanding museum that’s home to wonderful works of art, including Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.”
MORE ABOUT VISITING VIENNA
READ MORE ABOUT ‘THE KISS’: It is perhaps the only painting in the world that could rival “The Mona Lisa” in terms of value and adoration.
WHERE TO STAY: The Hilton Vienna Park is a great property with a terrific location. It’s on the ring road, right next to the lovely Stadt Park, where you’ll find pretty gardens, a pond and the city’s famous Strauss statue.
WHERE TO EAT: Glacis Beisl is a lovely restaurant with a nice garden. I had the schnitzel special; breaded veal schnitzel (a bit plain, but a very large helping) served with a side of potato salad mixed with beets and arugula. If you’re on a budget, or even if you’re not, try a grilled sausage from one of the street vendors. I like Weiner Wurstl, which is just off Stephensplatz. They place your sausage in long, hollowed out roll and then squeeze the toppings inside. Go for the classic: Bratwurst with mustard.
WHAT ELSE TO DO: St. Stephens Cathedral is in the heart of the old city and is a truly magnificent church. Schonbrunn Palace is famous for its gardens and Rococo design and features a mere 1,441 rooms. It was the summer palace of royalty during the Habsburg Empire.