In 1865 the last significant Hapsburg monarch got cracking on his architectural tour de force: the Ringstrasse. More than 150 years later, the ‘Ring’ is still its showpiece.
Population: 1,7 million
Foreign visitors per year: 5.8 million
Language: German, with a relaxed Viennese accent
Unit of currency: euro (€)
Cost index: coffee and cake at a Kaffeehaus €6-9 (US$8-12.50), wurst at sidewalk stand €3.50 (US$5), tram/U-Bahn ticket €2.10 (US$3), high profile museum €12-14 (US$16-19)
Why go ASAP?
If you like it then you should put a ring on it. Emperor Franz Josef didn’t need Beyonce to tell him that. In 1865 the last significant Hapsburg monarch got cracking on his architectural tour de force: the Ringstrasse. The boulevard to outpomp them all, the ‘Ring’ made a lavish embrace of Vienna’s historic centre, stitching together trophy sights from the Gothic-revival Rathaus to the neo-Renaissance wedding cake that is the Staatsoper. It was bold. It was grand. It was wincingly expensive. And it changed the face of Vienna to such an extent that, more than 150 years later, the ‘Ring’ is still its showpiece.
You want more gravitas? The University of Vienna turned 650 in 2015. Sigmund Freud, Anton Bruckner and 15 Nobel prize winners will be forever associated with this, the oldest university in the German-speaking world. A guided tour of its arcades, chambers and library affords more insight.
Vienna didn’t grab the number-one slot in Mercer’s 2014 Quality of Living survey by merely resting on its historic laurels, however. The city of strudel and Strauss can also innovate and steal the limelight – be it with contemporary art in born-again bread factories or Kim Kardashian dangling off the arm of billionaire Richard Lugner at the Opernball. Forget compromises and social boundaries – this is a city where you can go clubbing in your dirndl, talk opera at the sausage stand and live out your very own 21st-century fairy-tale. And as the shiny new Hauptbahnhof reaches completion in 2015, arriving in the Austrian capital has never been easier. Go to Vienna. Go now. You’ll have a ball.
Festivals & Events:
Waltz, foxtrot and polonaise with the best of Vienna’s carefully coiffed, nimble-footed socialites at one of the city’s 450 balls in January and February, which swing from queer to kitsch. The Opera Ball is the jewel in the crown.
Click into the groove of summertime Vienna at the Donauinselfest in late June. Bands rock the Danube Island with free gigs attracting a crowd of three million.
Vienna goes snow-globe for December’s fairy-tale Christmas markets (head to those at Rathausplatz, Schonbrunn and Altes AKH), then rings in the New Year with its world-famous concert at the Golden Hall.
Oh, Vienna! Whether you cram in the culture or do sweet nothing in a coffee house, this city will win you over in its inimitable fashion. After all. where else can you dip into the murky world of psychoanalysis (Sigmund Freud Museum), drift through parks where Mozart once dallied (Burggarten), and watch white Lipizzaners perform equine ballet (Hofburg)? The Austrian Empire encrusted its capital with palaces to swoon over like Unesco-listed Schonbrunn, and squirreled away a never-ending supply of art masterpieces, not least the ultimate embrace – Klimt’s The Kiss at the Upper Belvedere. Ride high in the Riesenrad (Giant Ferris Wheel) of Third Man fame to see Vienna flutter like a pocket handkerchief below you.
Something old becomes something new. Buoyed by the success of ventures like Haus des Meeres (an aquarium in a defunct WWII flak tower) and the Pratersauna (poolside electro and techno in a former sauna), Vienna is still gleefully waving its reinvention wand. Favourites? Puff, a brothel turned retro-cool cocktail bar on Gumpendorferstrasse, and the Ankerbrotfabrik in the 10th district, Europe’s biggest industrial bread factory reborn as a contemporary art and design gallery space.
Classic restaurant experience:
Embedded in the greenery of the Stadtpark and lodged in a former dairy, the Meierei (sister of two-Michelin-starred Steirereck) is the real deal for Viennese classics. The kitchen elevates breakfast and brunch to the extraordinary, with dishes like scrambled ostrich eggs and Alpine beef tartare. Or pop in for the best goulash in town, coffee and cake or the 120-variety cheese board.
Fledgling designers spread their wings in the 7th district’s backstreets, where boutiques sell everything from streetwear with indie edge to vintage silk numbers and handmade jewellery. Ina Kent’s versatile bags and the folksy-Fraulein-meets-21st-century-sex-kitten styles of catwalk queens Lena Hoschek and Susanne Biovsky are all the rage. For deli delights, foraged herbs and home-spun fashion, go off-piste in the Freihausviertel, which spreads south of Vienna’s famous food-market mile, Naschmarkt.
Most unusual place to stay:
The decentralised, hotel-as-home approach of Urbanauts Street Lofts is like a breath of fresh air. With the aim of revitalising local businesses, the Viennese architect trio Kohlmayr, Lutter and Knapp have transformed a sprinkling of empty shops and tailors’ workshops into sleek, super-stylish studios. There’s everything you need to tap into the neighbourhood – from insider tips on coffee houses, hammams and cool nearby bars to movies and free bicycle rental.