[This story was published in the Toronto Star on June 15, 2011. I broke up a stay in Paris with three nights in Vienna in May and the sophisticated Austrian capital ended up becoming my favourite European city.]
VIENNA — Staid, conservative and beautiful in that European way are the perceptions of Vienna, the former seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire known for its classical music, ballgowns and coffeehouses. It’s also a focal point for the modern art movement that began at the turn of the 20th century and that experimental, free-form thinking continues to impact the city in ways far beyond just its design aesthetic.
In his novella “The Third Man,” Graham Greene described Vienna as a “smashed, dreary city” after World War II. It had been divided by the Allies for about a decade. Sixty years later, it’s a bright, friendly place with a flourishing tourism industry.
The nearly 5 million people who come here annually also discover it’s one of the most creative cities in the world. Concept stores have popped up in the new part of Vienna. They include: a fine dining restaurant that shares space with a hair dresser and fashion store; a bring-your-own-food champagne bar; a cookbook store with a kitchen that cooks and serves food, and also gives lessons, while patrons browse the shelves; a café that sells furniture, which is a good way to keep the décor always changing.
“We said why not? Why shouldn’t it work,” said Hermann Seiwald, the chef of the restaurant portion of Schon Schön, which also includes a two-seat hair salon and fashion store in a space of about 2,000 square feet. “This is just like a mall. In a mall you have restaurants next to department stores next to stores that sell beauty products. This is just the same.”
His logic makes sense, but it’s hard to imagine the zoning or restaurant-safety rules in Toronto being so liberal to allow such use of a property. Seeing creative people enjoying the freedom of experimentation is the delightful part of Vienna, where giving things a try is part of the culture. It leads to creative uses of old spaces — such as the rock-climbing wall that’s taken over a World War II bunker tower — and other displays of inventiveness that elicits smiles. At the fashion store, Park, the walls feature photos of its patrons dressed in the clothes they bought.
“Art is integrated into the store,” owner Markus Sterasser says. “Sometimes we do exhibitions in the store. We keep the space open-concept so we can move things aside easily.”
Park is among a number of fashion stores in Freihausviertel with a unique approach. Vintage Flo is admired around Europe for its rare pieces while Useabrand is as new as you can get, featuring designs that were nominated for production by its online community.
Elsewhere in the city, the whimsicality continues. At the gorgeous Kunsthistorisches Museum (or Fine Arts Museum), you might be lucky to see cheery Brigitte Humpelstetter set up with an easel and palette in front of one of the museum’s most famous paintings, “The Peasant Wedding” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder. She’s making a copy of it and it’s fascinating to stand there and watch her work, brushing the carefully drawn figures as Bruegel had done in 1568.
“I’m painting it on commission,” says Humpelstetter, who started working on the recreation in February. “I think I will be finished by July.”
She’s as much of an attraction as some of the other pieces at the Kunsthistorisches, which holds an abundance of big names in its collection. You’re confronted with Canova’s “Theseus Slaying a Centaur” when you enter. It’s at the top of a staircase landing beneath the ornate archway that greets you in the palatial building where the Hapsburgs kept the artwork they collected over their centuries in power. There are Rembrandt self portraits, Vermeer’s wonderful “The Art of Painting” and Velasquez’s portraits of Infanta Margarita, the child featured in his most famous piece, “Las Meninas.”
The museum also features the Hapsburg’s coin collection, which doesn’t include much in the way of pocket change. Many of the items on display are more like medallions than coins and depict historic scenes and people in fine detail.
The Kunsthistorisches is across the street from the MuseumsQuartier — the 10-year-old public space that features cafés, galleries, and a square for music and art performances — and is on a promenade that connects with the Ring Road (or Ringstrasse/Burgring). The street runs where Vienna’s fortified walls used to be, circling the city for four kilometres. Inside the Ring Road is the historic centre, or first district, where many of the 1.7 million people in Vienna work and where the majority of tourists focus their visit.
The main landmark of the old city is St. Stephen’s Cathedral, whose spire stretches 137 metres. It’s an iconic church in the centre of the first district that draws flocks of visitors. But the crowd doesn’t interfere with the life around St. Stephen’s. Behind it is another attraction, Mozart’s House (8 euros to enter), and in the vicinity are historic museums, hotels, cafés, artwork and more churches.
Continue to the eastern edge of the first district and you’ll reach the Danube Canal, which isn’t so impressive, or head back toward the sixth district and the venerable Naschmarkt, the open-air space with 120 market stands and countless treats.
If you’re getting the idea there’s a lot to see in Vienna, your eyes are opening to the appeal of this city. There’s also the Golden Hall, revered for its acoustics, the Vienna Philharmonic, the Boys Choir, the Lipizzaner Stallions, the natural history museum (the Naturhistorische) and majestic Schoenbrunn Palace.
The city’s tourism is flourishing, growing 10.3 percent in 2010 over its 2009 numbers. It had a record 10,860,000 overnight stays last year, including 108,622 by Canadians. In all 42,776 Canadians visited Vienna in 2010, up 11.4 per cent from 2009, the city’s tourism board reports.
Many Viennese, though, are most happy with the number 1 — as in the best city in the world to live. The Mercer Index, which ranks urban centres based on quality of life, annually recognizes Vienna at or near the top. It was No. 1 in the most recent study, with Vancouver coming in at four. Once you get here, it’s easy to understand why Vienna holds down such a lofty spot — these people, you’ll quickly realize, sure know how to live.
TRAVEL TIPS FOR WHEN YOU GO
SIGHTSEEING: Entry to the Kunsthistorisches Museum is 12 euros. It’s open every day at 10 a.m. from June 1 to Aug. 31; closing at 6 p.m. on all days but Thursdays, when it stays open until 9 p.m. “The Kiss” is at the Belvedere Palace museum’s Upper Palace, open daily from 10 a.m.; closing at 6 p.m. except on Wednesdays (9 p.m.); tickets are 9.50 euros. A “72 Hours in Vienna” card costs 18.50 euros and gets you discounts at several museums and establishments, and unlimited transit rides for three days from the time of validation. Visit www.wien.info for details and where to purchase.
SHOPPING: Park features new fashions, many from Belgian designers (Mondscheingasse 20, A-1070 , www.park-onlinestore.com); Flo Vintage has an assortment of fashions from various eras and owner Ingrid Raab is delightful (Schleifmuhlgasse 15a, www.vintageflo.com).
DINING: Zum Schwarzen Kameel (or The Black Camel) dates to 1618 and serves its famed finger sandwiches in a room adjoining a formal dining room. Ludwig von Beethoven was among its long list of distinguished guests. A three-course meal in the restaurant is 58 euros; most of the finger sandwiches in the café are in the 1- and 2-euro range. www.kameel.at
TIPPING: Unlike Paris and Rome, gratuities are not included in your bill. Tips of 10 to 15 per cent are customary at restaurants and bars in Austria.