Kunsthistorisches​ Museum Vienna: Art on the menu in Vienna

I'm standing in front of The Tower of Babel, a crazed wedding cake of a building. Constructed of tapering layers, broken open on one side, this ancient skyscraper dwarfs the port city lying below it.

Though this 1563 painting by Bruegel​ may resemble a mighty structure from Game of Thrones, it's outdone by the architecture within which it hangs. For I'm viewing it within the Kunsthistorisches​ (Art History) Museum, Vienna's greatest repository of art.

When it was opened in 1891 at the height of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the museum was one of the jewels with which Emperor Franz Joseph decorated the city's Ringstrasse​. This encircling road replaced Vienna's old city walls, and the emperor lined it with grand buildings as a showcase of his empire's power and wealth.

It also gave the imperial family a place to store their art collection, while making it accessible to the public. The result is a remarkable Austrian cultural edifice with a graceful sandstone facade, a lofty octagonal dome, and rich internal decoration in a neo-Baroque style.

The items on show include sculptures, coins, and antiquities; but it's the collection of paintings which stands out, a broad range of great works by stars such as van Eyck​, Durer​, Rembrandt and Tintoretto.

And there's food. On Thursday nights, the elegant cafe area beneath the spectacular gilded dome is transformed into a restaurant. Crisp white tablecloths are attended by crisp white-clad waiters, serving patrons who've booked for the occasion.

This is what I'm here for, an unhurried combination of culture and cuisine to end the day.

Starters are laid out buffet-style for guests to serve themselves, with the remaining three courses delivered to your table. However, there's no rush – the brilliant idea here is that you eat a little, wander off to look at art, then wander back to eat some more before sampling further art.

It's very civilised, and a great way to spend an evening in this renowned city of cultural highlights. Fine food and high art is a perfect match, and drifting between them feels so natural that I wonder why more museums worldwide don't offer this experience.

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So, after some tasty starters (think flambeed goat's cheese on avocado and rocket salad) and a soup course, I head off in a random direction to view some paintings. There's a tour included at 8pm, but I prefer to season the repast with the element of surprise.

Before long I'm passing portraits from the Baroque era, then entering a room of huge canvases by Rubens. They're impressively colourful and sensual – the painter famously loved curvy subjects – but they're almost outdone by the room they're displayed in.

It's a creative masterwork itself, with delicate gilded plasterwork and bas-reliefs along the ceiling, and elaborately gilded doorways. Very welcome too are the sofas, regularly placed to allow comfortable contemplation of the art.

As I wander around this floor of the museum I find more famous works, including Bruegel's depiction of Babel. His vision of the mighty tower, leaning aslant and crumbling, is taken as a comment on the impermanence of earthly efforts. Which is ironic, considering the magnificent building the emperor decided to house it in.

Even more impermanent are the dishes served up by the museum's kitchen, though no less satisfying. 

Typical main dishes include roasted sirloin on glazed turnips and potatoes au gratin; pike-perch with coriander-mint crust on sweet potato; and butternut squash on polenta-buckwheat fritters with tomato-walnut salsa. It's all edible art, and that's before I've even reached the dessert and cheese course – marinated figs with pomegranate-orange syrup, anyone?

After another viewing excursion, there's a sense of calm as I return to my table, sip some mineral water and gaze up at the dome as the last of the sunlight shines through its glass panes. There's art to view, good food to eat, and an extravagant venue in which to enjoy both.

Franz Joseph and his empire may be long gone, but I'm savouring the museum he left behind.

Tim Richards was a guest of the Austrian National Tourist Office.

TRIP NOTES

MORE INFORMATION

wien.info

GETTING THERE

Qantas (qantas.com.au) and partners fly from Australia to Vienna. Vienna also has good rail connections to other European cities, see oebb.at.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Daniel, Landstrasser Gurtel 5, Vienna, hoteldaniel.com. A cutting-edge contemporary hotel near the main train station, fashioned from a former office block. Rooms from €98 per night.

Schweizer Pension Solderer, Heinrichsgasse 2, Vienna, schweizerpension.com. Inexpensive lodgings in a handy central location, walking distance from the  Kunsthistorisches Museum and other major sights. Rooms from €39 per night.

VISITING THERE

Kunsthistorisches Museum, Maria-Theresien-Platz, khm.at. Gourmet dinner €55 adults, €25 children, served 6.30pm to 10pm Thursday. Booking essential via email to khm-sales@gourmet.at, or by phoning +43 50 876 1001.

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