Waltzing in Vienna

The Schonbrunn Palace.
The Schonbrunn Palace. Photo: Getty Images

Tatyana Leonov gladly loses herself in a city full of music and art - and, of course, coffee and cake.

My overnight train glides into Vienna's Westbahnhof station right on time. Vienna is renowned for its cafes, so I want to start exploring immediately. Mornings are for coffee, right?

Not so much in Vienna. Mornings are busy at cafes, but so are lunchtimes and afternoons and evenings. I quickly learn that coffee culture is not so much about the coffee as it is about atmosphere. Vienna is an atmospheric metropolis, perfect for those who want to get lost among music and art, for those who want to do nothing but think, dream, imagine and create.

I check into the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom and head straight to Le Loft, the hotel's rooftop restaurant, for a coffee overlooking Vienna's picturesque historical centre. The hotel is located within view of its Gothic namesake, St Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom), a must-see on any visit to the city.

A cafe in the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
A cafe in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Photo: Getty Images

Within a 10-minutes walk I'm there, strolling around Austria's most eminent Gothic edifice, taking in its grandiose marble exterior and imposing towers. I step inside to admire the wealth of treasures and art pieces on display before heading up to the old tower-keeper's room for another spectacular old city view. There's something magical about the old city.

Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss are some of the great former Viennese residents, and roaming the streets, possibly following their footsteps at some time or another, puts a certain dance-like spring in your step. Mozarthaus Vienna, the only apartment of Mozart's still existing in Vienna today, can be found a few steps away from the cathedral. The rooms in the renovated apartment are dedicated to the composer and I easily whittle away a few hours immersing myself in the historical exhibits that offer an insight into his life.

Back outside I find myself wandering again, taking in the remnants of the Austro-Hungarian empire and the Habsburg dynasty that are still visible in the charming city's regal architecture. Majestic baroque and Gothic buildings, ancient dwellings of white, calico and pink with cast-iron balconies ... you could spend days wandering around Vienna and keep on discovering. And so that's exactly what I do – roam around for days, alternating sights with coffee stops.

A table at Sacher Cafe.
A table at Sacher Cafe. 

Traditional Viennese cafes offer a cultural enclave almost unscathed by time. Whether you tour the city on your own or as part of a group, stopping for coffee and cake (takeaway is a big no-no) is obligatory. Vienna's cafes are full of people – sitting, reading, writing and some simply indulging in the glorious pastime of watching the world go by. Time is not of the essence in Vienna.

In a different era, when there were no electronic musical devices, the only place people could listen to music was in a cafe. Today, some cafes still act as spaces for both coffee and music, and the historical Cafe Central is one of the most famous. The cafe, opened in 1876, quickly became a pivotal meeting place for the intellectual and creative elite.

Today, it's a meeting place for locals and tourists alike, its sophisticated ambience and awe-inspiring interior reminiscent of another era. Here, waiters clad in jackets and bow ties elegantly weave between tables, delivering steaming coffees and decadent pastries while a pianist plays soft music in the background.

St. Stephen's Cathedral.
St. Stephen's Cathedral. 

The waiters at Cafe Central know everything there is to know about Vienna, and would most certainly recommend visiting any of the city's 100-plus museums. Art and history buffs should consider the Kunsthistorisches Museum, built by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1891 to house the collections of the imperial family. Today, the museum's lavish marble and gold interior is home to a cornucopia of artworks, including the largest collection of paintings by the Flemish Renaissance artist Pieter Bruegel.

I wander for hours studying the paintings, devoting most of my time to art from the baroque and Renaissance eras. Soon it's time for another coffee and cake break, so I head to Cafe Hawelka. Leopold Hawelka, the cafe's original owner, passed away three years ago aged 100. His son, Günther Hawelka, continues to run the cosy, artsy cafe and bake the Hawelka family's legendary specialty, buchteln. These sweet, yeast-based rolls are filled with jam, poppy seeds and curd, then baked closely so they stick together. When I ask to see a dessert menu, the waiter patiently explains that the cafe serves only one type of dessert – buchteln, of course.

Two suave-looking men invite me to join them for a cup of coffee, and after some probing on my part they share their stories with me. Both are artists, living in Vienna and working on several painting and sculpture projects. We chat for over an hour about the artworks I saw earlier that day at Kunsthistorisches Museum, and when we bid farewell we swap business cards.

Upon returning to my hotel, I learn that they are two of the most feted artists in modern Vienna. Vienna's cafes may be vestiges of another era, but it seems they still hold the same purpose - they are meeting places for creatives and intellectuals.

Whether sitting down for a coffee, visiting a museum or just meandering around the city, Vienna seamlessly blends its magnificent history of music, art and coffee together - and that is the most delightful discovery of all.

TRIP TIPS

Getting there
Qantas (qantas.com.au) code-shares flights with Emirates to Vienna via Dubai from Sydney, Melbourne, Perth, Brisbane and Adelaide. Getting to Vienna by train from most European capital cities is efficient and convenient with Rail Europe (raileurope.com.au).

Where to stay
Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, located just outside the first district, offers supreme views of the old city. The 182 rooms are monochrome with white, black or grey available as options (sofitel-vienna-stephansdom.com).
For rooms with pops of colour in the form of original artworks by the likes of Roy Lichtenstein, James Rizzi and Allen Jones, Hotel Sans Souci Wien is a fashionable and quirky option (sanssouci-wien.com).

What to wear
As you would in any European capital, dress stylishly but comfortably.

What to drink
Coffee lovers need not look far. Wine enthusiasts should try Austrian dry whites made from grüner veltliner, Austria's most abundant grape variety.

Essential phrases
Good day.  Guten tag.
Is there a table available?  Gibt es einen verfügbaren tisch?
What would you recommend?  Was würden sie empfehlen?
This is delicious.  Das ist köstlich.

Life-affirming experience
A visit to the majestic St Stephen's Cathedral. It also looks and feels altogether different in the evening, so be sure to at least walk past the famed building come nightfall.

Best memento
Mozartkugeln (chocolates wrapped in Mozart-illustrated packaging) – history and chocolate in one.

Essential reading
The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig.

More information
vienna.info.

Comments