I can’t count the number of times in Vienna I just had to stop and absorb the beauty around me – the grandeur of the architecture, the emotion of an aria, even the delicate balance of bitter and sweet in a coffee house as I lingered over sachertorte, coffee and conversation.
I only had three days to explore this grand city – once the seat of the enormous Hapsburg Empire. But instead of rushing about ticking off a list of must-sees, I learned to slow down and enjoy what I discovered – which is exactly what the Viennese have already figured out. The city is the best place in the world to live, according to a quality of living survey compiled by Mercer, an international human resources consulting firm. It’s won that honour for 10 years in a row. (In case you were wondering: Vancouver placed third in the 2019 survey, with Toronto at 16, Ottawa at 19, Montreal 21st and Calgary at 32.)
What makes it so great? Vienna is a feast for the senses and a fantastically easy city to get around in, or even better, to get lost in for a few days. While a visitor can’t appreciate what it’s truly like to live here, it is possible to get a taste.
Part of my living-like-a-local plan was to take public transit, including to a night at the Vienna State Opera. I didn’t mind what was on stage – I knew it would be top notch – it was the atmosphere and the people watching I craved. The magic began as we followed others onto the escalator at the U-bahn Oper stop. The Opera’s dramatically lit stone façade rose before me as I climbed to street level. Arriving early gave my girlfriend and me time to explore the grand marble staircase and Renaissance columned entry hall before mixing amongst the smartly dressed Viennese, some in traditional trachten coats and others sporting their best jewels, at the lobby bar. At my seat, a subtitle screen meant I could easily follow the passion and heartbreak of Strauss’s Salome, and we rehashed the gory story afterward over a kasekrainer, cheese sausage, with other opera-goers at one of the stands outside the building.
You don’t just hear the music, you can feel it in Vienna. Home to such famous names as Mozart, Strauss, Hayden, Beethoven and Brahms, classical music isn’t high culture, it’s their culture. During our exploring, we would wander into the baroque glory of St. Peter’s and discover an organ concert, sit and listen a while. When we found out an orchestra and choir performed mass at the Augustinian church inside the Hofburg Palace – where generations of Hapsburg royalty were matched and dispatched – we decided to go to church. Hearing Hayden’s St. Nicholas mass in the acoustics of a gothic cathedral was unforgettable. During the German homily (which I didn’t understand) I sat back and admired the soaring arches and statuary, while trying to pick out the Hapsburg descendants in the pews up front. (Attendance is free at most churches, but an offering is expected.) We also discovered an unexpected bonus at the Augustine church – the crypt opens up after Sunday service, which lets you get a look at urns holding generations of Hapsburg family hearts and skull topped tombstones celebrating the dead.
It was snowing when we stepped out onto the Josefsplatz after mass. Since we weren’t exactly dressed for the weather, we scooted inside the National Library just across the palace courtyard. Here we found one of the many Beethoven tributes Vienna has planned to celebrate the 250th anniversary of his birth this year. Maybe it was seeing all those skulls next door but my imagination was on fire and I wandered into the library’s State Hall without handing over my ticket – I’d just spotted the 80-metre-long hall, two storeys high, lined with 200,000 old books. I didn’t notice the angry official calling after me. I was apologetic (and barely forgiven) but I didn’t care – the baroque architecture and frescoed ceilings were enchanting. That was before I even turned my attention to the Beethoven exhibit. Original scores – including the Ninth Symphony manuscript (declared a UNESCO Memory of the World document) – are on display until April 19. Headphones are available to hear the music, too. As I listened, a student picked up the set beside me and began conducting an imaginary orchestra; it felt like a private concert.
Visiting Vienna in the winter means you’ll find fewer crowds on those cobblestone streets, but the wet and drizzle gets into your bones. Which makes it that much easier to warm up in as many of the city’s historic coffee houses as you can cram in. Ruled by tradition and waiters who don’t suffer fools (or clueless tourists), they are warrens of atmosphere, conversation and the rib-sticking dumplings, goulashes and strudels of Austrian cuisine. Coffee – prepared in myriad ways – has been popular in Vienna since the 17th century; espresso and the culture of sitting and sipping is so ingrained in the city that even Austrian Airlines whips up 10 different coffee types at 30,000 feet.
I soon discovered my favourite: einspanner, espresso topped with thick whipped cream, which you don’t stir but let melt as you sip. It’s named for the one-horse carriages you see around the old town: Carriage drivers liked how the cream kept the coffee hot. Paired with one of the many delicate and decadent cakes always on offer, it’s as good excuse as any to eat dessert before dinner. Ensconced in the untouristy Café Frauenhuber, we get to talking about Vienna’s past and present with our guide and don’t even notice how dark it’s become outside. A walking tour of the city at night? Why not? Even in the darkest medieval alley we feel safe, and looking into the lit windows of homes and hotels brings a little voyeuristic fun.
Church bells start pealing long and loud, not time-telling gongs but a clamouring of bells that reverberate through the stone streets. What’s the occasion? “Oh, it’s just 5 o’clock on a Sunday.” It’s such an ordinary moment, of no special significance to our guide, that no other explanation is offered. But I’m enchanted, and next impressed by a strange, steamy yellow vapour we see rising from the sidewalk in Am Hof square. Turns out it’s a modern art installation by Dane Olafur Eliasson and only seen for an hour at dusk. Oddly, it doesn’t feel out of place in this historic square that not only dates to Roman times but saw Napoleon declare the end of the Holy Roman Empire from a nearby balcony. I’d say that modern mist adds to its mystique, which is another thing I’ve noticed here: Vienna embraces both its past and the future.
The blend of old and new was made clear every day we returned to our hotel, the new Andaz am Belvedere in the 10th district. After hours of admiring the decorated 18th- and 19th-century architecture, even the stripped down modernism of Adolf Loos’s building, we’d leave the historic first district and take the tram or descend into the U-bahn for a short ride to the main rail and subway terminal, right near our hotel. This is where Vienna is expanding and building up – easily seen from the hotel’s large rooftop bar (one of the few in Vienna). The Andaz is a short walk from the Upper and Lower Palaces of the Belvedere Museum – once the home of Hapsburg royalty Prince Eugene and now famous for housing Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss among other great works.
The decor of the newly built property (it opened last spring) is a lively reimagining of what Prince Eugene’s 21st-century palace might look like. He loved to travel, collect art and books, (we’d seen his legendary collection at the national library and here coffee-table books are found on every open surface). Local galleries use the lobby to showcase works and guests get into Belvedere 21, the contemporary gallery right across the street, for free. The hotel is a colourful, lively and fun spot (though I could do without the elevator music of German eighties pop) that you’d never mistake for one of Vienna’s heritage properties. But that’s the point. The best places to live both revere their culture, and don’t stop looking to the future.
How to get there
Austrian Airlines flies direct to Vienna from Montreal (worth trying business class for the coffee menu alone); Air Canada flies direct from Toronto.
What to do
The city is well connected with public transit and a Vienna City card gets you on board, plus discounts at museums and shops. The cards can be purchased for 24, 48 or 72 hours. Transport from the airport is an extra fee.
Avoid the tourist-trap, costumed-musician concerts and the costumed touts selling tickets. It’s not hard to find the real thing in churches, theatres and concert halls every day throughout the city. Standing-room only tickets to the legendary Vienna State Opera can be had for less than €10 ($14.60). The Vienna Tourism board website is a great resource for all types of performances: wien.info/en/music-stage-shows.
Where to eat
Weiner schnitzel and wurst (sausages) are easy to find in Vienna, which is why Wrenkh restaurant was such a delight. It puts just as strong a focus on seasonal vegan and vegetarian dishes as it does locally sourced pork and veal. The staff is young and friendly, and it’s full of locals celebrating birthdays and first dates. Located in the First district, Bauernmarket 10
Where to stay
Fun and modern, the Andaz Vienna Am Belvedere is a new hotel in an up and coming neighbourhood that’s close to the Belvedere Museum and gardens but about a 20 minute transit ride from the historic first district. Rooms from €200 ($291), includes free mini bar and snacks. Arsenalstrasse 10, Vienna. hyatt.com
The writer was a guest of Vienna Tourism Board and Austrian Airlines. Neither reviewed or approved the story.
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