Weekend in . . . Vienna
Waltz through the city’s best attractions, stopping occasionally to refuel on schnitzel and chocolate cake
Le Loft, atop the Sofitel in Vienna, has a projection ceiling designed by Pipilotti Rist, which appears to extend into the skyline by virtue of its reflection
Demel, one of the oldest cafes in Vienna
Not quite a century ago, Vienna was downgraded from being the glorious capital of a sprawling empire to the capital of just one country, Austria. What remains undiminished is the city’s reputation as a capital of high living.
Virtually any activity you might undertake in the city – strolling through a museum, sipping coffee or shopping for shoes – will leave you feeling pampered and a little envious of the indulgent style to which the Viennese seem so accustomed. This is, after all, the city where chocolate cake and sparkling wine are an appropriate snack at any hour, where the Wiener schnitzel is typically bigger than the plate on which it’s served, and where the residents all know how to waltz.
But the place once famous as the crossroads of central Europe is now getting traffic from further afield, with influences pouring in from Turkey, the Middle East and the rest of Asia.
This year marks the 150th anniversary of the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard that encircles the monument-dense First District, where visitors traditionally find most diversions. It’s also a great year to venture into less luxurious but perhaps more lively quarters. Vienna sparkles in any season but has a special appeal in winter when lingering in a cosy cafe or in front of a Klimt portrait of a radiant beauty can feel as luxurious as lying on a Caribbean beach.
4pm Meet the Hapsburgs
You can’t see everything in this city full of spectacular museums, but this is not the season to skip the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Having loaned Rembrandts and Vermeers and Bruegels to other museums over the years, the Kunsthistorisches has called in favours to mount its first exhibition of works by the 17th-century master Velázquez, court painter to the Spanish king, Philip IV. On view until February 15th, the exhibition unites signature works by the artist and highlights the links (some might call it inbreeding) between the Hapsburg rulers in Spain and their Austrian cousins. Tickets, €14.
Now that you’ve checked in with the old masters, it’s time to see what 21st-century artists are up to in galleries that are clustered along a few streets in the Sixth and Seventh Districts. Get your bearings at Georg Kargl Fine Arts, one of three galleries run by this pioneering dealer on Schleifmühlgasse. The groovy, gridlike facade of Kargl’s Box gallery was created by the artist Richard Artschwager. There are nearly a dozen other galleries within 500 yards of Box, and zig zagging among them is a cultured way to burn calories before dinner.
8pm The Viennese table
Sample hearty, traditional central European fare at Gastwirtschaft Steman, a charming and sometimes boisterous wood-panelled dining room where the schnitzel comes out nearly sizzling, and the goulash is available in two enormous sizes. Dinner for two with a bottle of wine, €70.
10pm Off the leash
Constantly evolving Gumpendorferstrasse now combines galleries, restaurants, cafes and fashionable bars such as If Dogs Run Free, where artists and hipsters mix and drink for hours at a time. Things get rolling around 10pm and stay rolling till 2am. Specialty cocktails, such as the Boulevardier (rye, vermouth and Campari) cost €9.
10am The new informality
In a city where coffee and a glass of tap water can be ceremoniously served by a maître d’ in black tie, it can be refreshing to interact with a cute waiter in a black T-shirt. No one will address you as Herr Doktor at Ulrich, the year-old cafe-bar-restaurant facing the Baroque parish church of St Ulrich in the Seventh District. Breakfast can include fresh orange or beetroot juice and a wholegrain and herbed-egg breakfast sandwich topped with spinach, melted Gouda, bacon and tomato relish. Top it off with an apple brownie or pear crumble. Breakfast for two, €30. After your meal, drift past the church to Burggasse 24, a chic vintage clothing store where a faux-fur bomber jacket costs €69 and a real-deal 1960s astrakhan coat is €99.
11.30am Sweet style
Steps away is Neubaugasse, a bustling commercial thoroughfare with a great high-low mix of retailers and restaurants. Bootik 54 at number 54 is a huge vintage clothing store of the packed-rack and slightly aromatic variety, with an entire section devoted to lederhosen (from €40), and dirndls (€50) for your next biergarten outing. Jugendstilgalerie Neubau at number 40 also celebrates Austrian tradition, with a two-floor display of Art Nouveau furniture, porcelain and silver, including a straight-backed Hoffmann settee (€4,500). At number 26 is Wald & Wiese, a honey emporium where everything, including wine, cosmetics and gummy bears (70 grams for €2.50), is made with honey.
12.30pm Imperial luxury
A visit to the imperial furniture storerooms, known as Hofmobiliendepot Möbel Museum Wien provides a fascinating glimpse of both imperial Hapsburg luxury and the Archdukes’ overarching sense of frugality in palace decoration on a need-to-use basis. For centuries, furniture was shuttled between the royal “seats of pleasure,” so most palaces sat empty when not in use. Before the imperial family’s arrival at the Schönbrunn palace for a few weeks each summer, as many as 1,000 rooms would be furnished and decorated with the inventory in these storerooms. A video in the galleries highlights the furnishings’ star turn when many of the pieces were used on the set of the 1950s Sissi film starring Romy Schneider about 19th-century Empress Elisabeth, wife of Franz Josef I.
2pm Hot buns, holistic beauty
For a cosseting Asian lunch at Mama Liu & Sons, start with steamed crab and shrimp shu mai and a hot sake or Musashino premium beer. Daily specials include a soup bowl, dense with meat and veggies, as well as an even heartier shabu-shabu. Lunch for two with drinks is about €50. Just opposite are two outposts of the Saint Charles beauty and wellness chain. Apotheke sells beauty and bath products, and the new Complementary offers massages and private fitness sessions.
4pm Back to school
In an impressive display of municipal dispatch, Vienna’s University of Economics and Business has just built a campus next to the Prater in the Second District. The campus is a veritable museum of cutting-edge architecture, with buildings by Zaha Hadid, Atelier Hitoshi Abe, London’s CRAB studio, and Madrid’s NO.MAD Arquitectos. Two-hour tours are offered by the Architecture Center Vienna or you can stroll through the campus on your own.
5.30pm When you feel down
Head to Song for fashion. Song is a serenely stylish boutique stocked by the South Korean émigré Song Myung-il, who has created a tranquil universe in Vienna purveying fashion for body and home. Among the cult Austrian, Belgian, Dutch and French brands, one finds fetching accessories by Bradaric Ohmae that mix buttery leathers with woven-cane details created in collaboration with the historic Viennese furniture maker Thonet.
8pm Cathedral view
Vienna has lots of luxury hotels that draw well-heeled tourists, business titans and heads of state. But guests and residents alike have always tended to shun hotel restaurants en masse. That changed in 2012 with the arrival of the Sofitel Stephansdom, a Second District property designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel and located nowhere near the city’s beloved St Stephen’s cathedral, from which it takes its name. But the hotel’s spectacular restaurant and lounge on its top floor – known as Le Loft and featuring a vibrant video projection on the ceiling by the artist Pipilotti Rist – offers inspiring views of St Stephen’s spire. Add a seasonal menu by the globe-trotting French chef Hervé Pronzato and Le Loft has quickly become a favoured destination of the city’s stylish set. Tasting menus begin at €78 per person.
9am Push and glide
Be the first out on the ice at Vienna Ice World, the giant municipal skating rink (actually a series of rinks and serpentine paths totalling more than 1.7 acres of ice) set up each year on the Rathausplatz in front of Vienna’s glorious City Hall on the Ringstrasse. Stalls along the rinks’ periphery sell hot chocolate and mulled punch. But remember, reservations are required; tickets (€6.50) can be booked at wienereistraum.com.
11am Chocolate revenge
Refuel at Demel, among the city’s most storied cafes and pastry shops, which sells edible souvenirs on Sunday when most of the city’s other such shops are closed. For €22.50, the Big Demel Breakfast includes eggs, ham and other cured meats, croissants and breads, along with coffee, tea or hot chocolate, orange juice and sparkling wine.
©2015 The New York Times. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate