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Vienna’s Time is Now

The Viennese have clung to their traditions and rituals for centuries, and in modern times this emphasis has not diminished. But the way in which the former empire’s history is celebrated is particularly interesting right now, when city dwellers are honoring their past in a distinctly thoughtful, contemporary fashion: Viennese creatives are remembering their imperial past by embracing those same traditions but with their own modern spin. As a result, Austria’s capital is undergoing a demure cultural revolution, as befits the nature of the city. And unlike fellow European cool cities like Berlin or Copenhagen, however, Vienna is modernizing into the 21st century in a way that holds on to its tradition and remains quintessentially Viennese.

Courtesy WeinTourismus, Peter Rigaud

Julianna Mühlbauer founded the Mühlbauer milliner in 1903 in a sleepy Vienna suburb, but today her uber-cool great-grandson runs the company that has morphed into a hipster designer atelier. Under Klaus Mühlbauer, the fourth generation of the family’s hat makers, the house is creating wide-brimmed woven straw hats highlighted with metallic accents as well as dapper felt fedoras that are favored by Brad Pitt and Madonna. Similarly, Theresa Siedl, born into a family of glove-makers, is obsessed with the old-fashioned accessory. Her store, Derby Handschuhe, offers updated versions of hand-stitched suede driving gloves and silk, above-the-elbow ladies’ opera gloves.

In the last few years, many of Vienna’s top designers, chefs, entrepreneurs and style tastemakers have opened or reinvented existing businesses offering products that attract an internationally hip clientele. During my recent visit, on seemingly every street corner I stumbled across quintessentially Viennese boutiques, cafés, restaurants, markets and even a hotel that seemed at once familiar and new. There were of course the classics: tavern-style restaurant serving wiener schnitzel and Gösser beer, coffee houses with soaring ceilings and grizzled old waiters, made-to-order haberdasheries and world-renowned museums featuring priceless works of art. But for every traditional, centuries-old place, there was a modernized restaurant, shop, café or institution that celebrates Vienna’s most intrinsic traditions.

Courtesy Grand Ferdinand

The newest property in the Inner Stadt, or first district, is the perfect example. The Grand Ferdinand, which sits on the illustrious and storied Ringstrasse features imperial Viennese aspects, like Lobmeyr chandeliers, tufted leather chaise lounges, old-fashioned ceramic light switches and Rococo style headboards. But overall the hotel is utterly contemporary—walls are painted a chic slate gray, those headboards are lacquered white and alongside the chandeliers are Edison style hanging lightbulbs. One of the restaurants, perfectly named Gulasch & Champagne for the two staples it serves, has become a hot spot for locals on their way to attending the opera or one of Vienna’s illustrious balls.

The city’s restaurants are following suit in a big way. Celebrity chef Juan Amador’s Amadors Wirsthaus und Greisslerei is set in a former wine tavern, where the original vaulted brick ceilings are still an important part of the design. He serves updated traditional dishes like goulash and milk strudel and family-style roast lunches on Sundays. Similarly, Wolfgang Zankl recently opened Pramerl + the Wolf, which features a different set menu each night, and diners only choose the number of courses they would prefer (between four and seven). Meanwhile in the trendy fourth district, Zur Herknerin, located in a former plumbing supplies shop, is the ultimate cozy neighborhood spot for traditional Austrian cuisine with a hipster twist. Many of the ingredients in dishes like homemade spinach dumplings and pumpkin lasagna come from the chef and owner Stefanie Herkner’s family’s farm.

Vienna’s illustrious coffee houses are being rethought, too, and kaffee bars are popping up in trendy neighborhoods. A favorite, Balthasar Kaffee Bar, in Leopoldstadt (the 2nd district), attracts happy groupings of locals at its outdoor tables and interior window nooks. Bright, cheerful décor includes funky light fixtures, a blue-and-white tiled bar and Scandinavian furniture. Phil, in the Spittelberg section of the 7th district, acts as a bookstore, café and vintage furniture shop (all the tables visitors sit at and the chairs they sit on are for sale). On occasion, the lively space hosts live music performances.

Courtesy Karmelitermarkt

Markets, long an intrinsic aspect of Viennese day-to-day life, remain important hubs of the city and Naschmarkt and Karmelitermarkt are must-stops for first time visitors. The very concept of the market however is being reimagined with two new spots: Markterei and Marktwirtschaft. The two institutions host artisan food stuffs producers and chefs. At Markterei, shoppers will find esoteric dishes and products, from Czech pancakes and escargot to artisanal salt and Austrian sparkling wine. The indoor food market Marktwirtschaft (which translates to “market economy” in German) sells more mainstream but still creative produce, food (including incredible homemade cheese, sausage and bread) and kitchen supplies, like colorfully painted ceramic bowls and dishes.

Many of these young initiatives have a social element to them, too. The former factory for Anker, Austria’s largest bread-making company, Brotfabrik is today one of Vienna’s most exciting contemporary art and social projects venues. Located in the 10th district to the southeast of the city center, the Victorian-era industrial space aims to bring business and education to its less affluent neighborhood, which is home to much of Vienna’s immigrant population. There is an education center in the space that caters to local children as well as a cantina and second-hand shop, which employ refugees. Throughout the large space are multiple art galleries, an outlet outpost of Lichterloh, a vintage furniture showroom and event spaces. Following this model created by MuseumsQuartier, the contemporary cluster of art museums set in the renovated former stables for the imperial palace, more art institutions have sprung up in old palaces. The Baroque Winter Palace regularly places host to exhibitions by Danish installation artist Olafur Eliasson and works by Anselm Kiefer, Julian Schnabel and Gerhard Richter.

Courtesy Lichterloh

And in the city where waltzing balls are making way for hip hop balls where women wear sneakers under their ballgowns and men sport baseball caps with their tuxedos, even functional mainstays have been given a contemporary nod. Vienna’s main train station Hauptbahnhof has been entirely rethought and -built and is today an architectural marvel that is fully powered by the solar panels on the station’s roof.

Michael Ritter, one of the co-owners of Supersense, a multi-sensory concept store and café, opened the space because, he says, “I was struggling to find analogue aspects to this suddenly very digital world.” Ritter further explained to me that digital technology doesn’t integrate all the senses like old-fashioned devices did, so his aim is to preserve these instruments—film cameras, letterpress machines, vinyl records and record players—for future. The theme in all of these new openings is loud and clear: the generation of creative in their 20s, 30s and 40s right now is celebrating its Viennese roots, perhaps because they see how quickly the millennial generation could forget them. I left the imperial—and contemporary—city with an appreciation for honoring the past while looking towards the future.

Published onApril 25, 2016

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