The historic old town of Vienna - the Innere Stadt - is full of elegant imperial residences, a magnificent cathedral, picturesque medieval lanes and pedestrian shopping streets.
Unfortunately, the tourists far outnumber the locals and the effect is more theme park than living city.
In contrast, beyond Ringstrasse - the grand multilane avenue encircling the Innere Stadt - is a city of character-filled districts, neighbourhoods that were fashioned from what were once small villages. One of them is Freihausviertel (literally "free house quarter" where in the 17th century the city's poor were housed), and it's rapidly emerging as one of Vienna's liveliest areas.
While there are a few striking art nouveau apartment houses, most notably those by Viennese Jugendstil designer Otto Wagner that overlook Vienna's famed Naschmarkt, architecturally Freihausviertel can claim little to boast of.
It has long been a popular, yet quiet - to the point of anonymity - residential neighbourhood, and its obvious charms have been, to say the least, limited. But over the past decade or so, retro-design stores, fashion boutiques, coffee shops and restaurants and bars have been steadily opening. Increasingly, locals excitedly talk of Freihausviertel being a Viennese Notting Hill or Marais, claims that are somewhat exaggerated.
But it's certainly true that Freihausviertel has a gritty energy, a spirit long since absent from these arriviste neighbourhoods in far-off London and Paris - let alone just across the Ringstrasse in Vienna's Innere Stadt.
SURPRISES AMONG THE NASCHMARKT STALLS
After a series of devastating floods at the end of the 19th century, the Wienfluss, Vienna's second river, was filled with concrete, effectively forming a large public area. Soon, locals built market stalls there and by the beginning of the new century a formal Naschmarkt had emerged. Long one of Vienna's most important open-air markets (open every day but Sunday), it continues to offer a phenomenal selection of regional and exotic fruits, vegetables and dairy produce. Over recent years, deli-style Lebanese, Turkish, Greek and Italian food stalls have been added to the mix. Early on Saturdays, the car park is transformed into Vienna's major flea market, with stalls selling anything from junk to antiques, often of questionable provenance. Between Linke and Rechte Wienzeile; www.wienernaschmarkt.eu
OPEN TO THE CURIOUS, AND THOSE WITH DEEP POCKETS
It's generally accepted that if one person can be credited with launching Freihausviertal's revival, it has to be Georg Kargl, who opened the contemporary art gallery that bears his name. Housed in a former printing workshop, the cavernous exhibition spaces promote the work of both up-and-coming and established local and international artists. While the gallery attracts serious (and well-heeled) collectors from across Europe, the doors are also open to curious passersby. Schleifmuhlgasse 5; 43-1-585-41-99; www.georgkargl.com
DEDICATED TO THE COFFEE, NOT THE PAST
Vienna is famous for its atmospheric coffee houses, where the ghosts of artists and literati linger. If it's actual coffee, rather than coffee culture, that is being sought, connoisseurs may be disappointed by what is generally on offer. Alt Wien Kaffee, however, is unique as it is utterly utilitarian in its dedication to the bean rather than to the maintenance of the atmosphere of bygone years. Beans are selected from Europe's traditional coffee-importing ports of Hamburg and Trieste before being carefully sorted and roasted on-site. Schleifmuhlgasse 23; 43-1-50-50-800; www.altwien.at
READ IT AND EAT
Foodies will delight in Babette's varied offerings. The front of the shop offers Vienna's largest selection of cookbooks, and while they are almost all in German, a dedicated disciple of the culinary arts will surely want to make an effort to decipher the recipes of local chefs. Babette's also offers a reasonably priced lunchtime menu, with meals produced in the kitchen at the heart of the shop, which also regularly plays host to cooking demonstrations conducted by local and visiting chefs/authors. Schleifmuhlgasse 17; 43-1-533-66-85; www.babettes.at
Gentle scents of lotions, balms, soaps, perfumes and herbal teas pervade Botanicus, a wonderful cosmetics shop located directly across from the Naschmarkt. Most of the shop's organically certified products are made on the Viennese owners' Hapsburg-era estate located near the village of Ostra, now part of the Czech Republic. Lavender, rose, marigold and many other key ingredients of the essential oils are estate-grown, and the product range successfully fuses tradition with a youthful edge. Rechte Wienzeile 19; 43-664-43-25-255; www.botanicusbeimnaschmarkt.at
GO WITH THE FLO
With its carefully selected, beautifully displayed collection of exquisite women's garments, Vintage Flo - Nostalgische Mode looks and feels more like a 20th-century fashion museum than a mere second-hand clothes store. Contemporary designers are among Flo's regular customers, seeking inspiration from the work of previous generations of exponents of Viennese - and wider European - style. While cheaper, more ordinary, vintage clothes stores are found in the neighbourhood, what you're purchasing here is more of an investment in taste. Schleifmuhlgasse 15a; 43-1-586-07-73; www.vintageflo.com
ANYTHING BUT TRASH
"Upcycled" is how Gabarage describes its designer-led recycled products. Strikingly attractive and often witty, the range includes waste-paper bins made from old soccer balls, coat stands constructed from skis, satchels produced from old vinyl and remarkably comfortable armchairs fashioned from old wheelie trash-bins. There's an additional worthy, transformative, edge to the goods that are displayed: Items are designed and made (in the attached workshop) by recovering drug addicts. Schleifmuhlgasse 6; 43-1-585-76-32; www.gabarage.at
There can't be many champagne bars where guests are encouraged to bring their own food. The Sekt Comptoir serves a varied selection of sparking wines (sekt) from Burgenland, just outside Vienna toward the Hungarian border. Its quality stands up well against French champagnes. Gather some nibbles from one of the Naschmarkt's delis and join the bohemian-chic local clientele, perhaps opting for a flute (or bottle) of dry gruner veltliner, a quintessentially Austrian grape variety. Schleifmuhlgasse 19; 43-664-432-53-88; www.sektcomptoir.at
SCHNITZEL THAT'S NEVER SERVED WITH NOODLES
Several excellent restaurants form the Schloss Quadrat, an imposing building at the southern edge of the Freihausviertel. The Silberwirt stands out for its tasty Viennese dishes, drawn from the territories of the once vast Hapsburg Empire. Though schnitzel, goulash, dumplings, polenta and creamy pastas are hearty meals, also on the menu are salads - be sure to drizzle some intensely nutty pumpkin-seed oil (kernoel) that also works well on vanilla ice cream. This is a neighbourhood haunt, the relaxed setting includes a leafy patio and draws a mix of young professionals and creative types who live or work locally. Schlossgasse 21; 43-1-544-49-07; www.schlossquadr.at
WHERE TO STAY
Falkensteiner Hotel Palace On the southern fringes of Freihausviertel, this efficient, yet friendly hotel offers a level of comfort at a small fraction of the price that one would pay for something of a similar standard in the Innere Stadt. Guest rooms are all well appointed, their decor providing slight echoes of early 20th-century Vienna modernist design. From $121. Margaretenstrasse 92; 43-1-546-860; www.palace.falkensteiner.com.
Hotel Sacher On the southern edge of the Innere Stadt, this is the nearest of Vienna's Hapsburg-era grand hotels to Freihausviertel, a short stroll away. The service is as impeccable and the guest rooms as sumptuous, as one would expect of such an establishment. For pure indulgence, opt for a top-floor suite with a terrace for sweeping rooftop views across the city and the hills beyond. From $450. Philharmonikerstrasse 4; 43-1-51-456-0; www.sacher.com.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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