Last month me and my trusty travel companion Kirsten finally made it on our long awaited trip to the opulent Austrian capital. Having booked our flights way back in the depths of our sober January boredom, it easily became one of the most well organised and ambitiously scheduled trips I’ve been on. You might think an overpacked daily itinerary would be a big holiday turn off but when it’s a schedule that revolves around lunch, dinner, Klimt’s and multiple daily strudel breaks (along with cups of rum spiked Viennese coffee), how can you resist?
The city itself is so breathtakingly ornate it almost makes Paris look drab. Its polished streets are filled with former palaces, speckled with gold, that tower over you with intimidating grandeur. Vienna is a city that wears its regal history as proudly as it does the famous artists and creatives that have called this place home. It’s so well preserved that it’s hard not to picture Beethoven or Mozart here like it was yesterday, or to imagine the great artists like Egon Schiele or Klimt, whiling away their days drinking at the table next you in one of the many Viennese coffee houses. Coffee houses that stay so wonderfully frozen in time, even down to the, somehow charmingly rude, waiters dressed in smart waistcoats. However there is a streak of youth and modernity that weaves its way harmoniously through this place. That contemporary vision was felt throughout the trendy new cafes and experimental restaurants that line the bohemian neighbourhoods, bringing new life to the city whilst being respectful and inspired by the past.
First things Schnitzel
After dropping our bags off at our home for the weekend – the colourful, industrial and fun 25hours hotel, complete with circus murals above each bed, a fantastic rooftop bar full of Viennese hipsters and an unbeatable location overlooking the historic buildings around the MuseumsQuartier – it was Schnitzel time, so we headed to Zum Roten Bären. It’s a lovely spot full of trendy locals and warm welcoming staff. An almost traditional “wirtshaus” (tavern) but with a relaxed contemporary atmosphere crafted by the young team behind the restaurant, whose strong focus on local produce is shown throughout the menu. Spend your afternoon feasting on the frugal lunch menu or splurge on the outstanding Wiener schnitzel with a delicious traditional potato salad. Wash it down with a large stein as Billy Holiday plays with the added percussion of the pounding of meat from the kitchen that’s destined for schnitzel. This is a wonderful place to start your trip.
Museums are to Vienna what Temples are to Kyoto and as I have warned before of the perils of temple fatigue, I am here to hum the same tune about museums. The sheer abundance of museums, galleries and regal buildings is somewhat overwhelming so plan your hitlist out well, ensuring there is still ample time for strudel and a chilled glass of local riesling here and there. We spent our first afternoon in the famous MuseumsQuartier, one of the largest cultural quarters in the world, it’s filled to the brim with fantastic institutions such as the mumok museum of modern art, the Kunsthalle Wien, the Leopold and many more. Before experiencing the best of Viennese modern art, we started just outside the boundaries of the MuseumsQuartier in the traditional and palatial Kunsthistorisches Museum. Here the walls are packed with iconic old masters but it’s the staggering building that steals the show.
After spending time with the old, it was off to see the new at the fantastic Leopold Museum. Here you will find more modern Austrian art with heavy focus on the works of Gustav Klimt and the largest collection of Egon Schiele in the world. We also saw a fantastic collection of Anton Koligs’s work which is showing until the 8th January 2018. We had hopped to visit the Mumok and the Kunsthalle Wien on Sunday before we left, but due to too many negronis at the Loos bar… we didn’t make it (more on that later).
A well-deserved Strudel
With an afternoon of museums ticked off it was time to experience some of that famous Viennese coffee culture. Café Sperl is at the traditional end of Vienna’s coffee house spectrum, frozen in time but without feeling stuffy or too fancy. It has a relaxed, warm and familiar vibe. Like most grand cafés in Vienna, coffee is served on silver trays along with a glass of water (and a shot of rum if you so fancy.) There is a vast array of sweet treats but it was their famous sugary and warm apple strudel that took my fancy.
Dinner at Labstelle
After a quick bottle of local organic wine back at the hotel it was off to dinner in the city’s grand and busy 1st District. Labstelle is a smart/casual spot set in a vaulted room filled with Scandi furniture and stylish finishings. The menu is rooted in local produce, they say ‘contemporary Austrian slow food with urban flair’ and with a strong focus on seasonal eating. This came across beautifully in my autumnal plate of local Austrian pheasant with rich wild mushrooms, black nuts and bread-dumplings.
A Naschmarkt Morning
For a perfect Saturday morning head to Vienna’s famous Naschmarkt. A food market filled with fruit, vegetables, delicious cheeses, fantastic pickles and middle eastern stalls selling spices and sweet baklava treats. On Saturdays the market extends to include a lovely flea market full of Viennese treasures so head down to snap up a bargain. If you’re staying in an airbnb or your hotel isn’t offering the fantastic breakfast spread that ours was, I would recommend checking out Neni in the heart of the market. I heard from multiple sources during my 8 months of on again/off again research that it not only has the best hummus in the city but a fantastic Israeli breakfast that shouldn’t be missed.
If you’rer still walking off the drinks from the night before like we were, head by trendy Café Phil for a mid-morning pick me up. Come here to experience the other end of the coffee house spectrum, located just across the street from Café Sperl, this bookshop/cafe full of vintage lamps and furniture would not be out of place in the depths of East London, except with a few added buckets of Austrian charm mixed in.
With caffeine levels replenished, we headed down the road to the Secession Building – hard to miss because of its impressive architecture and golden dome of sparkling leaves crowning the building. You’re heading here mostly (although the exhibitions are fab too) to see Gustave Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze – a fantastic shimmering piece that runs the four walls of a cave-like room hidden in the basement.
Pickles at Heuer
With your thirst for Klimt satisfied head across the street where you will find an oasis of green in this busy corner of the city and the restaurant Heuer Am Karlsplatz housed in a sleek glass pavilion. The walls that are not glass are filled with shelves of pickles and preserves. Come here for a delicious lunch of ingredients sourced locally or grown in the restaurant’s onsite garden. Feast on plates of interesting pickled vegetables, mopped up with sourdough flatbread cooked fresh in their clay oven and wash it down with another chilled glass of Riesling. If you still have room for dessert stay for their chocolate cake, cooked to order in their clay oven with sticky damson plums and served with creamy mascarpone. To my travel companion Kirsten’s delight, after 24 hours of watching me devour strudels, cakes and bread baskets this was finally a gluten free treat she could eat.
To work off the cake, take a walk around the stunning grounds of the magnificent 18th century Belvedere Palace. Inside it’s now a museum housing art from the middle ages to now, with a notable Klimt collection, although we decided to save our pennies and spent the early afternoon wandering the peaceful grounds.
Wes Anderson dreams can come true
We spent the rest of the late afternoon wandering back to our hotel via a few important pit stops. The first, after a stroll through the autumnal Stadpark, was Café Prückel. Another classic coffeehouse that’s been going since 1904 with delicious pastries, schnitzels, bratwurst and of course once again the somehow charmingly rude waiters. However this Café underwent a huge refurb back in the early 50’s, which has left it with a Wes Anderson style interior of sleek 1950’s furniture and millennial pink banners.
Wine in a palm house
Our second stop after a wander around the 1st District, via a few key sites such as the Opera, was the fabulous Palmenhaus. Take a seat as the sun starts to set in this tropical greenhouse of palm trees to enjoy a relaxed evening tipple amongst the beautiful architecture. Next door you will also find a butterfly house that is worth a visit if you don’t drink past its last entry like we did. 6:30pm FYI.
A very fancy Bratwurst
For our last dinner we went to Konstanian Flippou’s (of Michelin star fame) more ‘casual’ fine dinning bistro O’boufés, which is situated next door to their flagship star restaurant. Here you will find creative small plates to start with, some Mediterranean twists such as creamed fava beans and bacon, plates of charcuterie and burrata salad. The mains take some influences from Flippou’s greek heritage and you will also find the expected Austrian classics with some more contemporary twists. The pan fried schnitzel made with Mangalitiza pork looked mightily impressive, however I went for the delicious bratwurst which came with a mustard potato puree, mustard caviar, mustard leaves and a slightly retro mustard foam. It was basically a fancy plate of sausage and mash, but a very good one indeed. The restaurant is gorgeous with rough distressed walls paired with sleek contemporary furnishings and cosy lighting. An opulent little hideaway on a cold night.
Finish your night with the old school charm of Loo’s American Bar. This 100 year old institution will pop up in every guidebook or recommendation you get, but with good reason. If you can cram yourself into this shoebox of a bar you are destined for a good night as you sip cocktails in the smoke-filled mirrored room, rubbing shoulders with old regulars, trendy hipsters and tourists alike. The staff are charming and will make you want to stay for another and another as they ply you with complementary shots. So be warned all that enter here, you may well find yourself rolling through the streets of Vienna in the wee hours of the morning.
Escape to the country (almost)
The next day we awoke to sore heads. After destroying the elaborate breakfast spread our hotel had put on we scrapped our original plans of more museums for the much better plan of making use of our 12pm check out and actually enjoying the hotel. Well I did, Kirsten just tried to lay still until the room stopped spinning and it was time for lunch. After checking out we jumped in an uber for 20 minutes to the outskirts of the city and the old spar town of Hilgenstadt. The beautiful rural village-like area, which has since been engulfed by the city, was where Beethoven would once spend his summers staying in small apartments and eating at one of Vienna’s oldest and most loved restaurants Pfarrwirt where we had a reservation… or so I thought. When we turned up to the beautiful old restaurant covered in autumnal leaves that glistened in the sunshine we were met with some confusion as to why we were there for our lunch when apparently I had booked for the Sunday two weeks before. After we were shooed away from the full restaurant with our spirits crushed, we were lucky to be taken in by their warm and friendly sister restaurant around the corner. At Mayer Am Pfarrplatz just a few doors down we ate in the building where Beethoven once lived, surrounded by grape vines and piles of pumpkins. For our last lunch we drank wine from the restaurant’s own vineyard and feasted on ‘Stelze’ crispy pork knuckle with cabbage, more of that delicious Austrian potato salad and, from the celebratory pumpkin season menu, a plate of comforting veal goulash with pumpkin dumplings that were like little pillowy balls of gnocchi.
One last strudel
After lunch we took a cab across the city to check out the famous Wiener Riesenrad, a stunning old ferris wheel built in 1987 which happened to have a giant Octoberfest happening around it. Then we took one final walk back across the city to our hotel to collect our bags, with one final pit stop and one last warm apple strudel at the dark and cosy Café Hawelka.
From Wien with love…
Lastly before you leave, don’t forget to pick up a few packs of the Manner wafers to bring home to your loved ones, co workers or just to devour all by yourself. The originals are delicious and so is the packaging, also wonderfully Wes Anderson.