Celebrate culture with a capital “C” with Vienna’s cuisine, music, art and cosmopolitan way of life.
When 18th-century queen Marie Antoinette said, “Let them eat cake,” she must have been thinking of the incredible pastries she ate while growing up — not in France, but in Vienna where she was a princess in the Hapsburg family, the dynasty that ruled the Austrian Empire for 600 years.
Until my trip to Vienna, I didn’t even know Marie Antoinette was from Austria, not France, and I must have been snoozing during world history class because who knew Vienna had such an imperial legacy? No wonder it’s been a cool capital in Europe for so many centuries, attracting all sorts of composers, artists, architects, fashion designers, chefs and scholars, all hoping to hobnob, gain favor and line their pockets with royal booty.
Although ingrained into Viennese culture, the royal family was exiled in 1918, and today Hapsburg descendents are not allowed to run for president in this now neutral republic. Yet after being a mecca for great composers like Mozart, Strauss and Brahms, this beautiful city makes the muses feel quite at home as evidenced by the classic arts that remain an important part of its urban landscape and also by its bounty of contemporary art — from music to theater, to fashion, to art and spectacular nouvelle cuisine.
I arrived on a Sunday afternoon, taking the train from the airport to the city and then a series of subways to the city’s center. Navigating Vienna’s sophisticated underground train system was a bit overwhelming for a Los Angeles commuter, but I found my way, emerging into the sunlight for my first view of Vienna’s grand architecture — classic Roman, Greek and Gothic, but bigger than the ancient buildings that inspired them.
My hotel, the Altstadt, was perfect for a Viennese experience. Located within walking distance of the imperial palace, this former 19th-century apartment building was renovated into a four star hotel by its owner Otto Ernst Wiesenthal and offers 42 exquisitely and distinctively decorated rooms and suites. The decor harkens back to the building’s 100-year history but also reflects Wiesenthal’s love for art and color, with walls and artwork awash in sunlight from enormous windows.
I arrived just in time for the Altstadt’s complimentary afternoon tea, enjoying a creamy cappuccino and just-out-of-the-oven chocolate Bundt cake — my first taste of the delicious, fresh pastries that are part of what makes Vienna Vienna.
I ventured out that evening to check out the Music Film Festival at City Hall Square and found an IMAX-sized movie screen set up in front of the palatial City Hall with hundreds of empty chairs awaiting nightfall. Beyond that was Vienna’s Rathausplatz (City Hall Park) where food, wine and beer stands were jammed with Viennese strolling about, enjoying the good weather and refreshments before settling in to watch the free film screening of a classical music concert.
I passed up the food offerings because I had a dinner reservation at Palmenhaus, a trendy brasserie inside a giant glass atrium that was once a favorite retreat for Emperor Franz Joseph. Although it was dark by the time I finished my delicious multi-course dinner, I had no qualms about walking through the dark streets back to my hotel. There’s a sense of sanity here, of civil order. Just one of the reasons Vienna ranks No. 1 in the Mercer Quality of Living Survey.
Now a trendy café and bar, Palmenhaus was once a favorite place to relax
for Emperor Franz Joseph.
I like to have a local guide when exploring a new destination. It’s really the best way to discover all the fascinating facts and quirky nuances of a place. Mine was Alexa Brauner, a native Viennese, who filled me in on all kinds of fascinating details from Vienna’s formidable history. She pointed out things I would have missed on my own, like the plague monuments, spiral-like golden towers that were commissioned by the royal family to thank God for ending the disease that centuries ago, ravaged the city’s population.
Alexa also showed me a grassy patch by the railroad tracks near the Danube Canal, where the Nazis herded some 65,000 Viennese Jews onto railroad cars bound for death camps. Just beyond that, on the other side of the canal, the Tel Aviv Beach Club, the hottest nightclub in Vienna that is owned and operated by an Israeli woman, one of many Jews who have come to Vienna to set up their homes and businesses in recent decades.
One of my favorite discoveries was the Spanish Riding School, located next to the Imperial Palace in the city center and home to the famous white Lipizzaner dancing stallions. Despite “Spanish,” in its name, the school is pure Viennese. I’ve loved these horses since seeing them in a Disney movie when I was a kid, so watching them train with their dashing riders in this magnificent chandeliered arena was a special treat.
Just down the street are all the splendiferous shops that offer the best in food, clothing, furniture and art. Be sure to stop in at Demel, once the candy and pastry maker for the royal family. This charming “sweet boutique” still makes elaborate pieces of pastry art and candy just like those enjoyed by the emperor’s court. The chocolate Katzenzungen (cats’ tongues) and Sachertorte, a Viennese specialty cake, make great gifts for friends back home.
When you’ve had enough of the imperial theme, there are the up-and-coming Naschmarkt and Freihaus districts to explore. The trendy shops in the Freihaus district offer couture as well as incredible vintage treasures, and the outdoor markets of the Naschmarkt are overflowing with fresh fruit, local wines, seafood, pastries and even vinaigrettes in such varieties as cherry and blueberry. Within walking distance is the 7th District, with a surprising selection of innovative boutiques that sell creations crafted by in-house designers at surprisingly affordable prices.
Sidewalk cafés abound in this city. If the sun is out, the Viennese are out too to enjoy the golden light and brilliant blue skies while savoring fresh apple strudel and Melange (espresso with milk, steamed milk and whipped cream).
After dark, the numerous coffeehouses near the museum district are the haunt of Vienna’s nocturnal artists. Dressed in black, they venture out of their studios to eat, drink and converse with their peers while perusing the latest exhibit of art on the walls. Designed to feel like an extension of your own living room, these coffeehouses are great places to meet people if you’re traveling solo.
Another spot that’s great if you’re on your own is the Hollmann Salon, a dignified baroque restaurant in the heart of Vienna, where I learned that pumpkin seed oil is a standard condiment in Austria and used on everything from salads to vanilla ice cream. This restaurant includes a big community table where you can share a meal with others and make new friends.
The idea of good meals and eating well is important here, with many recipes preserved and still used from the days when savored in the palace. The cuisine is distinctive to Vienna itself and different from the rib-sticking alpine recipes found in the rural regions of Austria. Viennese cuisine is a blend of Central European cooking traditions, refined and blended over the decades to create something you won’t find anywhere else in the world. Don’t even think about fast food when you’re in Vienna — it’s an alien concept.
One of the best places to experience wonderful Viennese nouvelle cuisine is Ein Wiener Salon, a restaurant not found on the typical tourist’s path. Run by a gay couple, its chef is a fashion designer and his partner, the maître d’, is an architect. The small dining area is dominated by an enormous portrait of Empress Maria Theresa (mother of Marie Antoinette), and if you’re seated in the right direction, you can see straight into the dimly lit kitchen as the chef prepares your dinner of small but exquisite offerings.
Ah Vienna, who knew you had so much to show me — a truly cool capital I’ll want to visit more than once.
Copyright © Kim Calvert / 2014 Singular Communications, LLC
Kim Calvert is the editor of Singular magazine and the founder of the SingularCity social networking community. An outspoken champion of people who are living their lives as a “me” instead of a “we,” Kim oversees the creative direction and editorial content of the magazine and online social networking community. She secures contributors and is responsible for maintaining the fun, upbeat, inspirational and often-humorous tone of Singular, a lifestyle guide for successful single living.