Time Out Vienna writer Geraint Williams explains how his home city is facing the future from a retro interior
The post-1989 euphoria bestowed considerable excitement on Prague, Budapest and the other capitals of Vienna’s newly liberated eastern neighbours, so why did it take so long for Vienna itself to be recognised? The city was the last stop on the eastern branch line of Western capitalism and for a thousand years was the cosmopolitan centre of European history, its residents hailing from all the Habsburg outposts. However, the events of the 20th century, culminating in Austria’s fateful pact with the Nazis in 1938, put paid to this tapestry of nationalities and Vienna became the capital of a stunted Alpine republic of eight million souls. After the war, Vienna was sold to the world as a litany of chocolate-cake clichés of bewhiskered emperors, irascible composers and liveried lackeys. It was natural, then, that outsiders thought it too boring, too authoritarian, too schmaltzy, too expensive even.
To make matters worse, Austria’s more recent flirtations with extreme-right parties have done little to dispel the common perception of Vienna as a city with a gloomy, navel-gazing disposition. While few residents would dispute the Viennese reputation for melancholy, short tempers and a pathological culture of complaint, there are signs this magnificently appointed city is becoming more open, communicative and happier.
After all, it is commended year after year in surveys by Mercer Consulting and the Economist Intelligence Unit as one of the world’s top-three most liveable cities. Like neighbours Zürich and Geneva, it has enviably high standards in education, healthcare, public transport and safety; unlike them, it has a vibrant cultural scene, hands-on political activism, and great eating and drinking. The Viennese are also intensely attached to their leisure – don’t try calling an office after 2pm on Friday.
Although Vienna has done very nicely out of flogging Mozart, the Habsburgs, Klimt and sailor-suited choirboys to tourists, outside its historic centre the city has moved on. The dynamism of the Naschmarkt, MuseumsQuartier, Gürtel bars and streets of the 7th district is largely powered by the city’s more recent arrivals. About 30 per cent of Vienna’s inhabitants are first- to third-generation immigrants; 18.8 per cent of them are not Austrian citizens; an increasing number come from bordering EU states such as mighty Germany, and Austrians can barely disguise their glee when served by a waiter from what used to be their all-powerful neighbour. Immigrants make their way in the city via the trades and the restaurant business, and the sight of the first headscarf-wearing tram driver in 2008 was enough to make the more retrograde locals choke on their schnitzel.
Whether they like it or not, Polish grocers, Russian restaurants and Balkan turbo-folk clubs are all firmly part of Vienna today. You can exit a deliriously decorated Baroque church and enter an avant-garde gallery; drink locally made wine at a traditional tavern before settling in at one of many DJ bars; switch from Mozart to Goth-metal as the mood takes you. The air of retrospection that still pervades the city – particularly in its coffee houses, art nouveau shop façades, statuary and stiff handshakes – creates a unique feel that gives Vienna its special character, but now that the city’s inhabitants hail from so many more diverse backgrounds, these trappings of Old Vienna form a backdrop that inspires rather than stifles.
City view Copenhagen’s ambition is to become, ‘In many ways, Vienna is a little-known capital with many, many secrets that would take lifetimes to appreciate. Sitting at the right table in the right café is as important as a good accessory – something immaterial that makes all the difference!’ Francesca von Habsburg, gallery owner
Getting there Emirates flies to Vienna from Dhs3,115 return (including tax).
Insiders’ tips Classic Polish sandwich bar Trzesniewski, Karl-Marx-Hof Socialist housing complex, classic Viennese eating at Gasthaus Ubl off the Naschmarkt, the art nouveau Café Rüdigerhof on Hamburger Strasse, Otto Wagner’s Kirche am Steinhof, contemporary art galleries on Schleifmühlgasse, bucolic wine tavern Heurigen Zawodsky in Grinzing.
Where’s the buzz? MuseumsQuartier, 7th district streetlife, Kettenbrückengasse flea market, open-air food stalls at the Naschmarket, Gürtel and Danube canal bars.
Famous emigrants Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Fritz Lang, Billy Wilder, Josef von Sternberg, Romy Schneider, Peter Lorre, Joe Zawinul.
Revolutionary artists and musicians Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Schönberg, Hermann Nitsch and the Viennese Actionists, Fennesz. Vineyards These total 7sq km, making Vienna the world’s largest wine-growing city.
Local flavours Kaiserschmarrn (chopped-up, fluffy pancake, with plum compôte), Beuschl (offal stew), Käsekrainer (aka Eitriger, ‘pus-stick’; sausage filled with melted cheese), Leberkäs (‘liver-cheese’; meatloaf made from horse flesh), Leberknödelsuppe (clear beef broth with liver-flavoured dumplings), Sachertorte (heavy chocolate cake with apricot jam filling), Tafelspitz (boiled beef with spinach and apple-horseradish sauce), Wiener Schnitzel (veal or pork escalope in breadcrumbs). Immortalised in The Magic Flute, Haydn’s Creation, Beethoven’s Ninth, Schubert’s Lieder, Mahler’s Eighth, Blue Danube, Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, A Man Without Qualities, Schönberg’s Pierrot Lunaire, Joseph Roth’s novels, The Third Man, Before Sunrise, Kruder & Dorfmeister Sessions.