To the uninitiated, Vienna can seem like a haughty old dame, stuffily harking back to Habsburg imperial grandeur and classical music’s heyday; its fussily grand buildings looking like they should come with a hefty layer of marzipan. That Vienna, however, is pretty much confined within the Ringstrasse, the showy boulevard encircling the historic centre. And once you go beyond it, an almost entirely different city emerges. It’s this side of the Austrian capital that regularly ranks highly on ‘most liveable city’ lists — an unflustered, contented place of bike paths, greenery, and cafes that ditch the grand old bow-tied waiter stereotype for homely conviviality.
It’s difficult to miss Somogyi, on Burggasse — it’s absolutely covered in intricate, black-and-white murals; said to be the work of street artist Skirl, whose work crops up all over the city. That in itself isn’t indicative of how creative an area Neubau (District VII) is, but the fact Somogyi is a shop exclusively selling spray paints and materials for street artists might well be.
Other buildings further down the road are decorated with murals too, including Wirr, a place that morphs from softly buzzy cafe with astroturf seating on outdoor benches to good-time bar, and then to club with a music policy that varies wildly from one night to the next.
With the MuseumsQuartier at its edge, Neubau is a creatively industrious district — a place where people with ideas get the chance to test them out. One reason for this is its history — in the 18th century, the city’s silk mills were found here. And another is its mentality — for example, the district was voting Green well before the movement gained significant traction elsewhere.
Wandering around, it’s unusual to see any chain stores or major brands that you’d find on a street in, say, Manchester or Munich. Neubaugasse, in particular, is packed with stylish independent stores: Copenhagen Hus offers Scandinavian homewares and grooming kits; Wolle und Mode sells mountains of wool, and cute soft toys made from it; Kindergalerie Sonnenschein sells the most brightly coloured children’s puppets, oven mitts and blankets you’re ever likely to see; Mamabulè imports boldly patterned fairtrade bags from South Africa.
Crucially, they’re all specialists. This is something replicated time and time again throughout the district. Go down Kirchengasse, and there are dozens of niche artisans beavering away, such as goldsmith Ilga Zemann at Schmuckladen. She creates elegant gold-leaf earrings and pendants with wonderful quirks (one has the tiniest of clocks built into it).
There are plenty of chocolatiers too, with Schokov, on Siebensterngasse, standing out, largely because it’s seemingly on a mission to source weird and wonderful bars from small, high-quality chocolate-makers all over Europe — as well as making its own organic bars. It also makes its own truffles too, with flavours such as blackberry or lavender and mandarin. All niche products, but Neubau is the sort of place where uniqueness thrives — and should be celebrated.
It’s no surprise to see a restaurant in Leopoldstadt (the city’s Second District) with a window display promoting kosher food. Sandwiched between the Innere Stadt (the Old Town) and the Danube, Leopoldstadt has long been a Jewish area. Although its synagogues were torn down by the Nazis in November 1938, since the fall of the Iron Curtain the Jewish community has re-established itself and grown. What is perhaps surprising at ‘modern kosher’ restaurant Mea Shearim is that Jewish classics are fused with experimental sushi, maki rolls and bento boxes. It’s Asian fusion meets Israeli, but in an understated venue that fits right into the streetscape. Flashy just wouldn’t work here.
Most visitors only come to District II for the Prater, the park that’s home to the Riesenrad, the Ferris wheel they’ve seen on screen in The Third Man or Before Sunrise, plus dozens of rides that are too good for fairgrounds but not quite good enough for theme parks. Heading south, the vibe becomes more arcadian, with benches atop hillocks, sunbathers lying on shaggy grass and dirt paths meandering in and out of trees.
In the past couple of years, however, the rest of Leopoldstadt has also become something of a magnet for visitors. There have been several attempts to bill it as Vienna’s hip new neighbourhood, but even the showier cafe-restaurant-bar hybrids at the bottom end of Praterstrasse aren’t places you’d necessarily dress up for. The sunny, sprawling terraces of Café Ansari and Mochi are the sort of joints where people meet to catch up on the week’s gossip, one having a beer, another having a coffee.
Something similar has happened to the shops. There are a now a fair few indie fashion stores to be found here, with the likes of Boccalupo, on Praterstrasse, quietly cutting-edge with none of the pretence.
Karmelitermarkt dates back to the 19th century, and while it was once a merely functional marketplace, today it’s a spot for all-day grazing. A few stalls remain alongside shops selling fish, meat, cheese and the odd knick-knack. The bars and cafes here seem to operate a shift system: one will be buzzing at breakfast time, others develop queues at lunch, with a later wave producing dozens of chairs from nowhere on which their guests will slurp beers long after the sun has set.
In Freihausviertel, the line between cafe, restaurant and bar is left deliberately ambiguous, scooters seem to be the preferred mode of transport, and small but distinctive remains the order of the day. There’s a subdued whiff of the hipster about it. Craftmühle ‘pub and kitchen’ typifies the vibe — beers from small breweries, intricate, hand-drawn murals on the walls and elaborate hairstyles on patrons.
Yet there’s a global magpie tendency in this district that shines through stronger. Restaurant menus are dotted with dishes from France, Portugal, the Balkans. Alt Wein Kaffee coffee house makes magic out of big metal tubs of coffee beans from Bolivia, Nicaragua, Cuba and Ethiopia while Babette’s sells niche cookbooks — recipes for Russian and Swedish cuisines, salads, ice creams — at the front, and spice mixes, ranging from Afghan saffron to Fijian curry, at the back.
All of this is a spillover, though. The neighbouring Naschmarkt — almost a mile long — is what’s been bringing people to Freihausviertel since the 16th century. The woman behind the counter at the market’s Käseland, one of the oldest cheese shops in Vienna, looks flustered. “It’s a little crowded,” she says, apologetically, as she shifts her wares around, “because I have a new cheese.”
The new arrival is found a slot among the Spanish blue cheeses, a herb-flecked, buttery Alpine cheese and a left-field option with a rind studded with cranberries. It takes a great deal of willpower not to offer to buy everything in the shop.
Visiting the Naschmarkt feels a little like opening a fine bottle of wine when it’s not even a special occasion — the gleeful ‘oh, go on then’ factor is huge. Wandering around is a recipe for feeling gluttonous. Freshly caught langoustines are spread out on ice, windows are filled with jars of caviar, cabinets are piled high with dried meats, and apricot liqueurs are laid out on tables. One minute it’s nuts, dried fruits and spices poured diligently into small bags, the next it’s olives and ouzos, chocolates and cakelets.
To call the Naschmarkt a market is to significantly undersell it; it stretches between two carriageways of the main road that slices Vienna in half, and the line between stall and restaurant is regularly blurred. You can sit in and dine on dim sum or teppanyaki, before perusing shelves stacked with bottles of Grüner Veltliner and Zweigelt at spots that are more like wine bars than places to stock up the cellar. And they don’t close until late: the Naschmarkt is very much somewhere to stay and hang out, well after the sun sets.
The Third Man, written by Graham Greene (1949), is a classic film set in postwar Vienna
EasyJet flies direct to Vienna from Bristol, Luton, Gatwick, Manchester and Edinburgh. The Grätzlhotel is actually a series of quirky apartments set in former shops and businesses across the city. From €84 (£76) a night, self-catering. easyjet.com
Published in the March 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)