There’s a side to Vienna we all expect to see: the magnificent baroque buildings, the classical Strauss soundtrack, stiff waiters in starched shirts serving cups of coffee in grand cafes, Gustav Klimt’s glittering paintings, and more antiquities than you can shake a Sachertorte at.
But Vienna has something else – another side – filled with weekly new pop-ups of fashion, art, concept stores, food hotspots, and the next generation of café serving third wave coffee. This is the side of Vienna which boasts more hot spots, cool vibes, indoor arts spaces and outdoor dining places than many of its European contemporaries.
Few guidebooks are able to keep up to date with this side of the city – focusing mostly, instead, on its impressive buildings, and equally impressive history. But (seemingly in common with most city centre maps and street plans) there’s a general tendency to simply miss-out the 7th District, and the rapidly up-and-coming 8th District, altogether.
The first port of call in that general direction is the buzzing Museum Quarter, which is best seen on a warm Friday evening from the comfort of one of the iconic Enzis (the colourful cult loungers liberally distributed throughout the MQ) – from which it’s possible to sit back and watch the world go by.
The MQ is “home” to the Leopold Museum, and Museum of Modern Art (mumok), as well as a host of other galleries, shops, cafes, restaurants, and temporary installations. It’s also just one short hop from the cobbled streets of the Spittelberg, and Vienna’s über-cool 7th District.
As bohemian as it gets, this is where contemporary furniture stores rub shoulders with small galleries, and where the choice of dining ranges from “modern Viennese” (Glacis Beisl) to “casual Vietnamese” (SAPA), and from “relaxed local” (Wiener) to “international creative” (Gaumenspiel).
And if you really want a mix of modern-day Vienna with good old-fashioned hospitality, in a traditional Viennese building that’s been given a 21st century design makeover, then take a look at Hotel Altstadt.
Back in the heart of the city, the highlights just keep on coming: the Hofburg Imperial Palace, the Stephansdom, the Kunsthistorische Museum, The Belvedere, the Secession Building, the Hundertwasserhaus and Museum, and – in the Praterpark – the Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel made famous by the movie The Third Man.
The Danube Canal is a tree-lined city centre artery brought to life by sensational street art, summer-in-the-city “beaches” and a floating heated swimming pool; while the Danube itself is another place to sit and chill, with views across the blue waters to modern skyscrapers and the UN City.
It’s a city best walked – look out especially for the little green men (and women) at every pedestrian crossing – but if you want to head a little bit further afield take your pick from the trams, underground and local trains which are all included on value-for-money travel passes.
Take the underground to Schloss Schoenbrunn, for example, for a glimpse of how the other half used to live, and for one of the best house-and-garden experiences in Europe. And then head back to the 1st District for a chilled glass of Grüner Veltliner in the air-conditioned cellars of Julius Meinl am Graben’s winebar.
The two sides, and many faces, of Vienna make it arguably one of Europe’s most surprising cities.
If you’re looking for yet more faces, you’ll find them in the shape of Franz Xaver Messerschmidt’s “character heads” at The Belvedere. This is where where Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss” takes pride of place, although you may need to be prepared to view it from the back of a crowded room, behind coach-loads of tourists.
But if you really want a Klimt or two all to yourself, the best tip is to head to a quiet side room on the second floor of the Vienna Museum…where you’ll also be able to get up-close-and-personal with yet another face, this time in the shape of another Messerschmidt masterpiece.