You could spill rivers of blue Danube ink trying to capture the magnificence of Vienna. It’s the city that vaulted Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Strauss and his waltz into the world’s consciousness. It’s the city that gave rise to the brilliance of Freud, was annexed by Hitler, published the world’s first newspaper, produced the delicious Torte, and was home to the mighty Hapsburgs. Vienna remains a city of culture, class and beauty; of churches, castles and concert halls. A city that has elevated the coffee house and the horse & carriage onto the highest altar.
On my recent visit to the city, it was Vienna’s coffee houses, such a revered institution, that loomed large on my agenda. It’s ironic that the rampaging Ottoman Turks, who desperately tried to seize strategically-important Vienna, inadvertently sowed the seeds for one of its great legacies. Defeated Turkish forces left behind many bags of coffee beans, giving rise to the great cafe society. Although as I discovered in Vienna, the locals who discovered the bags weren’t exactly sure what to do with them. At first, they thought the beans should be added to soup. It was only after they pumped some imprisoned Turkish soldiers for knowledge, that Vienna’s long love affair with coffee was first unleashed.
Four centuries later, the coffee houses, resplendent with red velvet seats and lavish wall mirrors, remain central to the city’s soul and social pulse. Located a stone’s throw from Hofburg Palace, at 14 Kohlmarkt, Café Demel is widely considered by Vienna’s café cats as the city’s most famous coffee shop. The old-school pastry shop and chocolaterie was established in 1786 and still bears the title of a Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court. Lavishly decorated in neo-baroque style and staffed by typically efficient white-aproned waitresses, it’s a dreamy spot for a coffee and slice of strudel, which also happens to be Ottoman in origin – inspired by baklava.
Shopping, noshing and lingering is a most alluring pursuit in the heart of Vienna, particularly on the luxury row of Kohlmarkt and on the golden retail mile of Karnterstrasse. Heavily-pedestrianised, the only notable rivals to the frenetic foot traffic are the army of cyclists and the clop-clop-clop of the horse and carriage brigade.
Vienna’s abiding affection with this romantic form of transport stretches back many centuries, and the fiaker( as the locals call a carriage-rider ) is a very prestigious job. The central terminus for the horse and carriage trade is situated outside Vienna’s august Gothic cathedral, Stephandsdom. Dating back to the 13th century, the cathedral’s soaring spires dominate the skyline. “The Steffl” as it’s informally called, was severely damaged by bombing raids during World War II, and its rebuilding was a potent symbol of hope as Austria emerged from the ashes of conflict.
The Staatsoper , the Vienna State Opera House, is unquestionably one of the world’s most acclaimed concert halls. The masterworks of Mozart, Beethoven and company continue to be performed every week at the opera house, which also offers daily tours. The Renaissance-style Staatsoper has a grand entrance hall and majestic staircase, setting the perfect tone for a magical evening of stirring classical music.
However, for a mix of art exhibitions, palatial interiors, striking sculpture and manicured lawns, the Belvedere Palace remains my favourite regal spot in Vienna. Constructed by Prince Eugen to celebrate the defeat of the invading Ottoman Turks in 1683, it is now one of Vienna’s most popular weekend haunts for locals and visitors. The French-style formal gardens are replete with fountains and topiary, however it’s the classic statuary, complete with Greek mythological figures, that are particularly eye-catching. The Belvedere also houses the world’s largest collection of oil paintings by the renowned Austrian painter, Gustav Klimt, culminating with his most famous work, The Kiss, which is a major crowd-puller.
The former Imperial Palace of the Hapsburgs, the Hofburg, is one of Europe’s most lavish royal complexes. The showpiece attractions include the Imperial Apartments, a live performance of the Vienna Boys’ Choir in the Royal Chapel, and the Spanish Riding School. Probably most famous boys’ choir in the world, which now also includes girls, the choir has been going strong for over 500 years. On Sundays, the choir performs as part of traditional mass at the Hofburg Chapel, which is the easiest way of experiencing them in Vienna. Although you’ll only hear them during the mass, following the service, they appear in front of the altar to perform a small number of works for the public.
First brought to Austria from Spain in 1562, the elegant white Lipizzaner stallions of the Spanish Riding School were regularly used by the Hapsburgs for military equestrian pursuits, imperial celebrations and entertainment. Soak up the scenery in the Heroes’ Square, formerly the Hapsburgs’ extravagant parade ground. Lavishly endowed with imperial equestrian statues, it was also the site of Hitler’s feverish address to the Viennese, after Nazi Germany annexed Austria in 1938.
The mighty Hapsburg monarchy was never short of real estate. For an enduring taste of imperial living, splash out on a night of majesty at the Hotel Imperial. Built in 1863 as a palace for the Prince of Wurttemberg, and adapted as a hotel ten years later, the property is a triumph of 19th century romance, with pristine marble, hand carved statues and spectacular crystal chandeliers. The Rolling Stones recently stayed at the hotel – trashed their rooms – and have been banned for life from ever stepping inside the property again!
On my latest visit to Vienna, I also discovered the gilded glory of Palais Liechtenstein. As the name suggests, this architectural jewel is owned by the princely family of Liechtenstein. This magnificent aristocratic residence is situated by the Burgtheater, and boasts Baroque stucco ceilings fused with opulent Rococo Revival interiors, original furnishings and exquisite parquet flooring. A plane crashed into it during WWII, and a top to toe renovation has been recently completed. Limited tours are operated, but the essential sight is the intimate concert hall, a gilded tour de force which the locals aptly have nicknamed “the golden cage.”
For some cheap thrills to top off your waltz through Vienna, make a date with Prater, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world. Ever since 1766 when Prater first opened to the public, it has been a nursery for many of the world’s formative carnival rides, including the world’s first ghost train. Its enduring landmark attraction is the Riesenrad (Giant Ferris wheel), which was built in 1897 to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I. Severely damaged in WWII, destroying half of the cabins, you can take a ride in one of the 15 meticulously restored cabins and enjoy sublime city views.