Vienna offers a melange of everything you’d want from a city escape – melange coffee of course, but also culture, fantastic food, palatial suites. Though the City has a timeless beauty, a more modern undercurrent also seems to be flourishing. Beyond the high culture and Habsburg-era attractions are hip restaurants, bars and boutiques. Those in the trendy 7th District feel very Scandi chic. Even the central Ringstrasse – the boulevard encircling the Old Town in the 1st District – is lined with an array of design studios, from Boconcept, Ligne Roset and bulthaup, to independent agencies. Vienna’s imperial past is forming the backdrop to a fast developing and very stylish City.
Where to stay
For a quirky and tastefully designed hotel, Grand Ferdinand ticks all the boxes. Open since 2015, this hotel exudes the contemporary classicism that I love about Vienna. Whilst the hotel has 186 rooms, it feels boutiquey and you’re very well looked after. A welcome sachertorte and personalised note in my room greeted me.
Located slap bang in the heart of the City on the central Ringstrasse, its location just steps from the main museums, the Music Hall and the Vienna State Opera, is unbeatable and makes it an ideal base for exploration.
Also central to the hotel’s success are its interiors. With a décor punctuated by dark wood, round-leather rimmed mirrors, marble basins and parquet flooring, the look feels very city chic. Though steeped in history (originally a 19th-century palace, bombed in the last days of the Second World War and renovated as an office building in the 1950s before being transformed into a hotel by the Weitzer Hotel Group), the hotel feels contemporary. Creating a new kind of modern Viennese elegance, the surroundings draw on in its history in an effective way. Though the lighting is a little confusing (knobs must be turned to switch the lights on in the bedrooms), the subway tiles in the bathroom, the dark grey navy colour combo and the collapsible window shutters all feel very Manhattan.
The highlight of the hotel for me is probably the Grand Étage on the eighth floor where the breakfast buffet (and a decadent weekend brunch) is served underneath an opulent chandelier. Located on the rooftop, the space offers fantastic views of the Vienna’s domes and palaces.
On a sunny day, the outside terrace – with its dipping pool and magnificent vistas – feels like urban luxury.
The breakfast spread put out is worth taking your time over! Highlights include chia puddings, rye bread, freshly juiced “power shots” and fresh figs. A la carte options, such as blueberry pancakes and eggs made to order, are also available.
The Grand Étage would also be a lovely spot for a late drink too.
What to do
Though Vienna is sprawling with museums, galleries and palaces, if you’re here for just a couple of days, I wouldn’t try to cram everything in. Instead, pick three or four and take your time. Of that handful, I wouldn’t miss the Upper Gallery of the Belvedere. Home to Klimt’s The Kiss, its gold, silver and platinum colours are mesmerising. Though there’s a queue to see the work, it’s stunning and emblematic of Viennese modernism, the Secession movement and Klimt’s Golden Period. The Upper Gallery also houses other proudly Austrian works of art, including those by Schiele and Moser. The impeccably sculpted gardens of the Palace (free entry) feel very Versailles and are also worth a leisurely stroll.
Also impressive is the Leopold. As my first stop during my stay, its display of Vienna’s fervent modernism at the turn of the century was a helpful induction into the cultural melting pot of the City. Drawing everything from art and urbanism, to political thinking, architecture and music together, Vienna has been effervescent in cultural interplay, with artists like Gustav Klimt mingling alongside Koloman Moser and Egon Schiele, as well as the architect Otto Wagner and the composer Arnold Schoenberg.
Vienna’s cultural interchange has extended to the Far East and nowhere is this clearer than at the MAK (combined tickets available with entry to the Leopold). Home to an impressive porcelain collection, Asian applied arts and a (temporary) contemporary Chinese art exhibition (“Chinese Whisperer”), the museum provides an excellent insight into the history of production, spanning from the Baroque period to the present day. Whilst you’re there, Mak’s restaurant Salon Plafond looks like a great dining spot, with a menu of Austrian contemporary and international cuisine.
Beyond the museums, galleries and of course music houses, probably the greatest exhibit is the City itself. Walk the inner districts and you’ll see the stark art nouveau architecture, white and gilded domes and facades of the underground stations at Karlsplatz and Kettenbrückengasse, all monuments to Wagner’s skill. Wander through its parks and cobbled streets, past churches and historic squares.
Not to miss is Stephenplatz, home to St Stephen’s Cathedral.
At the other end of the City, the Hundertwasserhaus apartment block, at the corner of Lowengasse and Kegelgasse is also intriguing. When you get there, you’ll see what the fuss is about. With its erratic contours and psychedelic colour scheme, it is, without doubt, one of the most quirky blocks you’ll see. Though certainly not to everyone’s taste, it offers a glimpse of the cultural melange of Vienna, sitting alongside a typically Viennese Palais de Beaux Arts.
The magnificent Hofburg Palace, the former winter residence to the Habsburg monarchs, is hard to miss.
And en route, stop off at Palmenhaus in the gardens of the Hofburg Palace, one of the nicest spots I came across for a drink. Built in 1901 by the Austrian architect Friedrich Ohmann, the interior is an opulent palm house. This art nouveau creation, made up of arched glass and jade-green iron, is arguably the most beautiful in the world. It’s also a restaurant, but if you’re just after a place to linger post-Albertina, come here for a drink underneath the soaring glass ceilings and tangles of greenery, against a backdrop of jazz.
Caffeine stops should definitely feature on your City strolls. Vienna’s cafes have long been an institution for creatives and intellectuals. A site for debate, art, culture and current affairs, a coffee here feels like an entrance ticket to the City – think mahogany wood, dim lighting, cane newspaper holders, waiters in waistcoats, broken wall clocks. Of those typically Viennese coffee house, try Café Sperl, where live piano music is played on Sunday afternoon, or Café Demel for a slice of sachertorte. Both offer everything you’d expect from Vienna: marbled tables, parquet floor and embroidered banquettes, they’re quintessential kaffehauses.
Whilst those cafés typify the Viennese stereotype, the third wave café movement has also hit Vienna. Of those haunts, I love Kaffemik. Adorned in picturesque blue and white tiles, this tiny spot exudes the kind of quaintness that has customers queuing outside the door. Simple and elegant – the same can be said for its coffee – the shop prides itself on its choice of brews, sourced from independent coffee roasters across Europe.
Also impressive is Joseph Brot, probably one of the City’s best and hippest bakeries located a stone’s throw away from the Albertina. With an impressive all-day brunch menu, their bread is unmissable. Also take home one of their homemade bio-muselis or bio-granolas.
Another favourite is Jonas Reindl, both because of its excellent selection of beans and very tasty vegan rugelachs. As the space is small, it can become crammed with a mix crowd of young students, tourists and locals. However, it’s worth nabbing a stool or two along the table opposite the counter for an excellent view of the artful preparation of iced cappuccinos and the fast-moving trade.
Where to eat
Vienna’s dining scene equally exudes a young, hip edge. For a long, relaxed evening against a fun playlist, head to trendy Pizza Randale. Located in the 7th District alongside fashion-forward boutiques and concept stores, this pizzeria fits into that vibe very well. Flavour combinations are inventive (think figs, honey, buffalo mozzarella and walnuts, and mushrooms, walnuts, truffle oil and lemon zest). Though their prosecco isn’t first-rate, it’s a fun spot.
If you’re after something Asian, Vienna is replete which good choices, testament to this multicultural metropolis. Torn between the much-talked about sushi spot Mochi and the dim sum eatery Mama Liu & Sons, as the former is tiny and doesn’t take reservations, we went for the latter. With an easy-going vibe and a good selection of cocktails, though the dim sum aren’t first-rate (the filing was slightly underwhelming and the veggie selection limited to a fried selection), the small sharing plates are varied and well-seasoned.
Not to miss is Ulrich (or is sister bar Erich), either for one of it’s tempting looking brunches or bar snacks/sharing plates in the evening. The place reminds me of Caravan, not just because of the near identical monochrome logo, but also because of their very good menu, coffee and modern aesthetic.
Next time I’ll definitely test out Neni in the Naschmarkt market. As one of Vienna’s oldest and most popular markets (9am – 6.30pm daily), it runs for almost a mile between Linke and Rechte Wienzeile streets, selling eat-as-you-go dishes, spices and fruit and vegetables. There are also a good selection of tapas places, wine bars and as well as Neni, serving up Israeli food inspired by the cafés of Jerusalem and the market bars of Tel Aviv.
Vienna in a snapshot
Beyond the bucket-list historical sites, Vienna is a vibrantly contemporary capital, with pockets of authentic, homegrown cool. As well as the historic sites, there’s a thoroughly modern city to be discovered, which continues to be a crossroads of culture.
Vienna in two words: contemporary elegance.