Ringstrasse cycle

Brian Johnston takes a tour of art's grand capital that defies its stuffy imperial stereotype.

In a clothes store in Vienna's trendy 7th district, I have several revelations. The first is that the dirndl is perhaps the most outrageously flirtatious traditional costume on Earth - girlishly demure, yet with so much bosom-popping promise it seems designed for the cover of a Mills & Boon bodice-ripper.

The second is that Vienna, far from being a stuffy imperial relic, is actually a siren city where sexiness is everywhere I look. Shepherdesses are seduced on Augarten porcelain and baroque bums moon me from palace ceilings, while fountain statues flash shapely thighs and skimpy fig leaves.

I'm reminded that even the rigidity of the Viennese waltz was once considered shameless cavorting thanks to the trembling intimacy of its embrace. My final revelation is that, while Vienna has its pockets of Germanic rectitude and art pretension, it also has a frivolous, savoir-vivre side to its character.

That's good news to those, like me, who find highbrow culture something of a chore. You can enjoy good art and design in Vienna and never step inside a museum.

Not that I necessarily want to avoid museums altogether. For one, I like the Augarten Porcelain Manufactory museum, where you can take a tour behind the scenes and see craftspeople at work. And, while Augarten has three centuries of tradition behind its porcelain figurines, its Decor restaurant is oh-so-trendy: count on men in designer stubble and pink shirts tucking into aged-beef carpaccio.

Hip eateries pop up unexpectedly in many Vienna museums. The Albertina has one in leather and marble, and Osterreicher im MAK at the Museum of Applied Arts is just as noted for its style as its traditional Viennese cuisine: check out the huge chandelier made of bottles hanging over the bar.

The pink sandstone and marble cafe at the Leopold Museum, on the other hand, has chandeliers that look like luminous jellyfish. Cafe Leopold goes mad after dark, screening Austrian experimental movies and erupting in hip-hop spun by DJs who don't seem to care that they're surrounded by hallowed collections of Great Art.

Fact is, you can learn about art, architecture and design in Vienna while having a hoot. If you don't want art stifled by dozy security guards and hushed museum tones, then the whole city is a junk shop crammed with design details across the ages, from hobgoblins dancing on the tomb of Frederick III to whipped-cream coffee flamboyant enough for Liberace. To me, this is what makes Vienna such a great place to visit.

Sit in a cafe, slouch at a bar, go shopping, and art and design just unfold.

I love wandering about at night, when the city's stunning buildings are illuminated and tourist horse-and-carriages clip-clop through shadowed streets. Gargoyles leer, baroque flourishes provide voluptuous curves, imperial bling glimmers.

I ride around the Ringstrasse on a tram, and it's like a coffee-table book on architecture come to life in facades depicting grand styles through the ages. City Hall is fantasy Gothic, the parliament Greek revival, the State Opera neo-Renaissance, the pompous Ministry of War built as the empire was on the verge of collapse.

The Ministry of War is quite the contrast to the plain facade of the Austrian Postal Savings Bank across the square. It's a fine example of early modernist architecture by influential architect Otto Wagner. Inside, concrete and aluminium - avant-garde at the time - provide a superb fusion of form and function. There's nothing to stop you wandering inside to check out this art nouveau masterpiece; the main banking hall is wonderful.

You can also see Wagner's work in the lamp fittings of the elevated railway line where, under the arches, bars spark with live music and conversation.

But if you want modernist architecture, you only need head to the American Bar. The onyx and black marble interior is right out of the Jazz Age: art while sipping apple martinis, something you'd never get in a museum. Dark and intimate, the bar is a sexy, Joan Crawford sort of place, where you wish smoking had never been banned.

For a bar experience right up to date, I'd head to Onyx. It has a lot going for it, designer-wise. For a start, it's on the sixth floor of Haas House, the in-your-face, postmodern creation of Viennese architect Hans Hollein, which perches like a carbuncle in stone and glass in the old town.

Slouch into the American Bar in whatever, but for Onyx you need to iron your brand-label jacket and sashay in as if you're used to drinking cocktails with Austrian celebs - who aren't to be confused with the supermodel staff.

As you slide onto a white leather banquette, you're eye-to-eye with St Stephen's Cathedral beyond the plate-glass windows.

Onyx is effortlessly cool, but generously leaves the scene-stealer to a Gothic roof. Actually, with its geometric orange-and-green tile design and spotlit gargoyles like something from Game of Thrones, you could almost believe it's crazily modern.

Vienna's cafes are another repository of design, even if not as much fun as the bars. The best have an inimitable retro decor that interior designers would kill to re-create. Whenever I'm in Vienna (which is not often enough) I make time for Cafe Sperl, somewhat off the tourist trail on a quiet street corner.

Elderly gentlemen sit here with Hapsburg beards, squinting at plump waitresses. The ambience is pure 19th century, down to brass lamps and tall windows hung with velvet drapes. It's a very Viennese fusion of the serious (20-odd newspaper titles) and frivolous (pastries of ornate madness) and strangely seductive in a repressed, Freudian manner.

Another favourite is Cafe Drechsler. It used to be a late-night student bar and cafe for the market stalls across the street. Renovations under British designer Terence Conran saw its original interior preserved, but cleverly redesigned in contemporary tan and grey, with suave leather banquettes to complement some of the original wooden chairs and marble bar counter. It dishes up classic comfort foods such as schnitzel and beef soup along with its 100 years of interior design.

It fuels me up for the surrounding 4th district, a bourgeois-Bohemian enclave full of little art galleries, vintage clothing stores and bistros.

The 7th district, however, is for fashion lovers. The newly chic area lies just behind the Museum Quarter and was one of those neglected neighbourhoods rediscovered by arty types. It's now a creative hub for designers of T-shirts, handbags, jewellery and clothes. Wandering around this neighbourhood is to be reminded that the Viennese have an almost Japanese knack for revering their culture while simultaneously delighting in the latest trends.

Designer Lena Hoschek's dirndl store is a fine example. Though she cites 1870s' Vienna as her favourite era and 1950s' Hollywood movie stars as her icons, her reinterpretations of the dirndl are wholly and wittily up-to-date and - like the Viennese themselves - part buttoned-up, part abandoned.

Vivienne Westwood, under whom Lena Hoschek once studied, commented that there would be no ugliness in the world if every woman wore a dirndl. You could say the same if everyone lived in Vienna. Be tempted by it charms, because Vienna is seduction with style.

The writer travelled courtesy of the Austrian National Tourist Office.




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Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom captures the best of new Vienna design. Rooms from $317. Phone 1300 855 975; see sofitel.com.


Purveyors to the imperial court can still be found in Vienna. The honorary title (k.u.k. Hoflieferant) remains, promising traditional design excellence yet contemporary style. Here are five of the best.


The imperial confectioner's sweet treats still provide eye-catching delights in its shop windows. See demel.at.


This perfumery, founded in 1809, keeps tradition alive with lavender water in elegant vials, but stocks classy contemporary cosmetics, too. See parfumerie-filz.at.


The textile and furniture-fabric manufacturer is noted for its early 20th-century and art nouveau designs. See backhausen.com.


The family-run glass company produces chandeliers fit for palaces, but has added innovative designer pieces to its tableware. See lobmeyr.at.


The gentlemen's outfitter used to dress archdukes; bespoke tradition continues in a store designed by leading modernist architect Adolf Loos. See knize.at.