There tends to be a certain mindset among people visiting Vienna. It’s the same mentality that sees people serve up Brussels sprouts for Christmas dinner, even when it has been established for years that no one around the table likes to eat them.
Vienna is seen as the city of buttoned-up fustiness between lashings of heady fun in Berlin, Prague, Krakow and Budapest — a place to take your dose of classical music, largely tedious Habsburg history and prissily elegant wedding cake architecture.
My first brush with Vienna was along these lines — feigning fascination in things that didn’t really interest me because I felt it was the done thing. And then I ended up in a nightclub where the self-styled ‘only Austrian Elvis impersonator to play Vegas’ was whipping up a crowd of punks into a frenzy. One of them informed me that the previous week, people had been throwing raw meat at each other in there. Vienna may be dressed in a ballgown, but she has a G-string and tattoos underneath.
The city’s charms are revealed when it ditches the stiff-backed formality and starts to slouch in its seat. As a general rule, this means going beyond the Ringstrasse’s jewel-encrusted belt of stately buildings. This showy loop separates the historic, tour-group-engorged Innere Stadt (or 1st district) from a much more laid-back Vienna.
The districts fan out from the Ringstrasse, with each having its own distinct identity. The 3rd is the most conservative, the 8th contains a mixture of professionals and students, the 7th is where the creative types and the Green Party voters have taken over, and the 6th and the 2nd are rapidly changing as the artists and architects who can no longer afford the 7th move in.
Strolling through them, it’s no wonder Vienna continually comes near the top when living standards in cities across the world are ranked. Public transport is excellent, public spaces are plentiful, safety is high and the cost of living is still relatively low. But it’s these outer fringes of the city that really capture Viennese affections.
Rolling hills, sprawling vineyards and woodland trails are generally only a bus ride away, whichever direction you head in, and you’ll find pleasant walks along the Danube or through pretty suburban parks and squares are as close to the heart of Vienna as its famous cafes or palaces.
The overriding vibe of the city is one of contentment. It’s that air you have as you say, “Oh, go on then,” to one more glass of wine after a really good meal.
Food glorious food
The most enjoyable places to eat in Vienna tend to be the less formal restaurants, such as the heurigen — taverns on the city’s fringes where the owners sell their own wines and food is canteen-style self-service. Two of the smarter heurigen can be found in the 21st district. Göbel slots the tables among the vines and deviates from the usual cuts of meat and cheese with octopus salad. Wieninger serves classic stodge in its sun-trap of a garden.
Closer to the centre, the ivy of Glacis Beisl’s courtyard adds a ramshackle touch. Dishes here are generally high quality versions of long-standing favourites, from goulash to schnitzel.
The slicker side of Viennese dining is on the Donaukanal. In Le Loft at the top of the striking new Sofitel hotel, you pay for the location more than the French cuisine but the city views mean the extra euros are worth it. Opposite is the Badeschiff, a moored restaurant, where dishes such as curried fish soup are pleasingly affordable for the prime location.
Finding a cafe that’s open for breakfast is surprisingly difficult. Cafe der Provinz is a good bet for superb ham and eggs if you can find room among the pushchairs. The sausages at the Bitzinger stand in Albertinaplatz are worth queueing for, as are the organic and often unusually-flavoured ice creams (goat’s cheese, anyone?) at Eis Greissler.
The up-and-coming area, however, is Yppenplatz. An-Do monopolises the centre of square with its sprawling terrace and excellent fish dishes, while Kent serves the best Turkish food in the city.
Göbel: Stammersdorfer Kellergasse 151. T: 00 431 294 8420. www.weinbaugoebel.at
Weininger: Stammersdorferstrasse 78. T: 00 431 292 4106. www.heuriger-wieninger.at
Glacis Beisl: Breite Gasse 4, Museumsquartier. T: 00 431 526 5660. www.glacisbeisl.at
Le Loft: Praterstrasse 1. T: 00 431 906 160. www.sofitel-vienna-stephansdom.com
Badeschiff: Donaukanal between Schwedenplatz and Urania. T: 00 43 699 151 307 50. www.badeschiff.at
Café der Provinz: Maria-Treu-Gasse 3. T: 00 431 944 2272. www.cafederprovinz.at
Bitzinger: Augustinerstrasse 1. www.bitzinger.at
Eis Greissler: Rotenturmstrasse 14. www.eis-greissler.at
An-Do Fisch: Brunnenmarkt Stand 161. T: 00 431 308 7576. www.andofisch.at
Kent: Brunnengasse 67. T: 00 431 405 9173. www.kent-restaurant.at
What the heurigen do for wine, beisln do for beer. They’re the wood-panelled Viennese equivalents of an old man’s pub. Wratschko is a typical example — endearingly shabby, but somewhere friends will sit and talk for hours. For quality, the nearby 7Sternbräu microbrews its own delicious beers on the premises.
The best beer garden belongs to the Schutzhaus Zukunft, filled with families, old men who are near-permanent residents and green-fingered types from the surrounding allotment-esque gardens.
For summer evenings, the Donaukanal again proves to be a winner. Numerous temporary bars with deckchairs pop up along the paths, with Strandbar Herrmann the daddy of them all. Motto Am Fluss, on top of the Vienna-to-Bratislava ferry terminal, is perfect for drinking a glass of wine while looking out over the water.
Flex — the city’s best club and live music spot — is also on the Donaukanal. An excellent sound system and a canny booking policy have seen it pull in plenty of big-name acts. Live music can also be found downstairs at the likeably scruffy Tunnel, before heading on to the rowdy bars of the Gürtel. This stretch of elevated train line running between Nussdorfer Strasse and Westbahnhof stations has scores of nightspots in its archways. The Chelsea is an everyman party favourite, while Loop next door attempts a veneer of sophistication with slicker furnishings and an emphasis on cocktails.
The top cocktail spot in town is the mildly absurd Planter’s Club. The colonial outpost decor — complete with pith helmets — is soon forgiven once you see the giant list of rums and whiskies available. And, yes, the fabled club of Elvis impersonators, punks and meat-throwing is still open. U4’s wildly eclectic schedule, veering from disco to heavy metal, makes it an unimpeachable institution.
Wratschko: 51 Neustiftgasse. T: 00 431 523 7161
7Sternbräu: Siebensterngasse. www.7stern.at
Schutzhaus Zukunft: Verl Guntherstrasse. T: 00 431 982 0127. www.schutzhaus-zukunft.at
Strandbar Herrmann: Hermannpark T: 00 43 688 866 6036. www.strandbarherrmann.at
Motto Am Fluss: Schwedenplatz 2, Franz Josefs Kai / Vorkai. T: 00 431 252 5510. www.motto.at
Flex: Augartenbrücke 1. T: 00 431 533 7525. www.flex.at
Tunnel: Florianigasse 39. T: 00 431 947 5720. www.tunnel-vienna-live.at
Chelsea: Lerchenfelder Gürtel, Stadtbahnbogen 29-31. T: 00 431 407 9309. www.chelsea.co.at
Loop: Lerchenfelder Gürtel, U-Bahn Bogen 26/27. T: 00 431 402 4195. www.loop.co.at
Planters Club: Zelinkagasse 4. T: 00 431 533 339 315. www.plantersclub.com
U4: Schönbrunner Straße. T: 00 431 817 1192. www.u-4.at
Piles of style
The Viennese will dodge the 1st district’s souvenir stores and luxury names in favour of carefully selected boutiques. The most enticing option among the cluster of shops on Bauernmarkt is Artup, with its clever printed photo tops and distinctive jewellery.
The Naschmarkt is generally seen as a place to eat and drink — the non-food stalls all tend to sell replica football shirts of dubious provenance. Some spectacular meats, cheeses and pastas are available though, while the balsamic vinegars and oils on the Gegenbauer stall are truly exceptional.
The side streets around the Naschmarkt offer richer pickings for fashion lovers. Gabarage makes its products from recycled materials — including stools created from books and some highly distinctive bags.
The best area for browsing is the 7th district, where Spittelberg, behind the MuseumsQuartier, is crammed with interesting finds. Lena Hoschek’s feminine designs are championed by the likes of Katy Perry, while Schokov sources top quality chocolates from across Europe.
Affordable-but-inventive streetwear outlets such as Common People and Disaster Clothing dominate the Kirchengasse, while Neubaugasse is lined with indie shops selling some killer T-shirts. Sax & Co specialises in the sort of stationery you want to frame rather than write on and Kindergalerie Sonnenschein is a winner with the kids — the hand puppets and wooden toys are delightful.
The 6th district is also worth a shopping trip, particularly along Gumpendorferstrasse and its side streets. Tongues is a bizarre organic deli/record shop hybrid, while Anukoo sells the rare sort of fair trade fashion you actually want to wear.
Artup: Bauernmarkt 8. www.artup.at
Gegenbauer: Naschmarkt stands 111 to 114. www.gegenbauer.at
Gabarage: Schleifmühlgasse 6. www.gabarage.at
Lena Hoschek: Gutenberggasse 17. www.lenahoschek.com
Schokov: Siebensterngasse 20. www.schokov.at
Disaster Clothing: Kirchengasse 19. www.disasterclothing.at
Common People: Kirchengasse 18. www.commonpeople.at
Gloom: Neubaugasse 75. www.gloom.at
Sax and co: Neubaugasse 34. www.sax-co.at
Kindergalerie Sonnenschein: Neubaugasse 53. www.kindergalerie-sonnenschein.com
Tongues: Theobaldgasse 16. www.tongues.at
Anukoo: Gumpendorferstrasse 28. www.eza.cc/anukoo
Top 10 local tips
01 Skip the famous Prater fairground — and its iconic Ferris wheel — and head south to gorgeous open parkland.
02 Weekly transport tickets cost just €15 (£12) — but only on a Monday. It’s €14.50 (£11) for 72 hours otherwise.
03 The MuseumsQuartier concept has been superbly executed. The museums, cafes, bars and odd outdoor seating have turned once disparate cultural centres into a sinuous, thriving public space.
04 Vienna’s small, offbeat museums are its most enchanting. Two of the best — and most bizarre — are the Globe Museum and Esperanto Museum inside the Palais Mollard-Clary.
05 Alternatively, learn how you really feel about your father at the Sigmund Freud Museum…
06 Top unexpected attraction? Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s cartoonish redesign of the Spittelau waste incineration plant makes it look like something out of Yellow Submarine.
07 To stay in the 7th district, the Altstadt is a great choice. It’s arty and personality-packed yet homely, with excellent service. Doubles from €145 (£116). www.hotel-altstadt-vienna.com
08 The Donauinsel is a long, thin, artificial island in the middle of the Danube stretching for miles, great for a carefree stroll in the sun.
09 Gänsehäufel is a much smaller island but has beaches (some nude) and rowing boats for hire.
10 The woods surrounding the city are popular with locals, especially the Leopoldsberg and Kahlenberg ‘mountains’ in the north.
Time Out Vienna. RRP: £12.99.
Berlitz Vienna Pocket Guide. RRP: £4.99.
Published in the October 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)