I first traveled to Vienna to visit my sister (she had moved there for an Austrian boyfriend, now her husband), and at first glance I found a city that not only lived up to all I had read about it but possessed an air of familiarity, thanks to its abundance of iconic imagery (what college student has not decorated a dorm room with Klimt’s The Kiss at some point?). The longer I stayed, however, the more enigmatic the city seemed to me, and somehow I sensed that the “real” Vienna lay behind those 19th-century façades, and that learning to navigate its streets would require a vocabulary that went beyond Sachertorte, Strauss and Schiele.
On my second visit, my sister was engaged in a fierce love-hate relationship with her adopted city, having experienced some of its most inimitable qualities firsthand. She described an old-world formality that informed her professional life, where proper etiquette and titles mattered immensely (it is not uncommon to hear a person’s name prefaced by a list of their academic degrees, which are also printed on business cards). She spoke about the famous Viennese moodiness—the local term for it is Grantler, disgruntled—that can transform into tremendous charm in the course of a conversation.
She also knew all the gossip: why the Sacher hotel and patisserie Demel went to court (over who invented the cake’s recipe), why several of the cultural institutions that make up the MuseumsQuartier do not get along (some of them have state-appointed directors), and why locals no longer set foot in the Café Central (the owners renovated the venerable café). In short, she gave me a behind-the-scenes look that was more complete, and certainly more complex, than my initial impression.
At the time of my third trip my sister and her now-husband had moved to New York, but her suggestions and advice were very much part of my journey. Most of all I took to heart her belief that no matter how long you live in Vienna or how many times you visit, the city—and its beauty, whether in the historic structures of the Hofburg, the stately halls of the Albertina or the cobblestone streets around the Stephansdom startling, overwhelming and completely unique.
For many years, the unofficial motto of the Austrian capital was “Wien ist fad,” which translates to “Vienna is dull,” meaning that the city had not put much effort into evolving beyond a somewhat antiquated 19th-century image. In the past decade, a lot has happened: not only did Vienna polish its old self, with major restoration of such museums as the Albertina, but it invested in the future.
You can experience this poise in the MuseumsQuartier, a collection of cutting-edge art spaces and cultural forums housed in the former imperial stables; you can shop for it in hip fashion boutiques headed by young designers that are transforming up-and-coming neighborhoods; you can taste it in innovative interpretations of traditional Viennese cuisine; you can see it in forward-thinking architectural projects conceived by mostly local firms that are fed by a steady stream of young talent emerging from Die Angewandte (the University of Applied Arts). Best of all for visitors, Vienna has become more open to nonlocals: tourism numbers are soaring, thanks to the city’s reclaiming its place as one of the great cultural centers of Europe, and everyone seems interested in showing off the capital’s treasures. As a traveler, you can’t help but be swept up in the creative momentum.
is lovely most of the year, but the most popular months to visit are May, June, September and October. I like the holidays, from the end of November through December, when the city’s Christmas markets are up and the main streets are illuminated by festive decorations. Generally, winter here is no colder than in London or New York. On the other hand, summer can be unbearably hot, though for repeat visitors it offers an opportunity to explore the surrounding Donau Valley, which is cooler.
Vienna’s public transportation system—subway, tram and bus—is easy to use and inexpensive. Taxis are readily available at stands near all the major sights. But the city center is best explored on foot (many of its narrow cobblestoned streets are pedestrian-only). To get a sense of the layout of the city, whose snail-like districts recall Paris, take tram line 1 or 2; each runs along the Ring boulevard and has a fabulous overview as well as a look at the beautiful façades that reflect architectural styles from Baroque to the present.
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