Travel: 48 hours in Vienna

Art, architecture, the Habsburg empire, it's all here - as well as coffee and cream cakes, of course. David Sandhu offers a weekend guide to one of Europe's most elegant cities
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The Independent Online
Why go now?

Vienna's bitter-sweet symphony is best experienced in late spring, when winter's deep chill has receded and the tourist stampede is still a distant hum. Elegant old ladies, reflected in Baroque coffee-house mirrors tucking into indulgent cakes, may be the prevalent image of this most cultured of cities, but Vienna has more verve than you might expect.

Beam down

Austrian Airlines (0171-434 7300) and British Airways (0345 222111) from Heathrow; BA and Lauda Air (0171-630 5924) from Gatwick; Lauda from Manchester. You'll be hard pressed to find a price significantly below pounds 200; I paid just twice that for a Lauda Air ticket from Gatwick to Bangkok which allowed a Vienna stopover on the way home.

Get your bearings

Vienna is an orderly city with an excellent public transport system. The Modernist Wien Schwechat Airport lies 19km east of the centre. Trains from the airport run twice an hour and cost about pounds 1.30 for the 30-minute journey. A taxi will set you back about pounds 20 but may be quicker. You'll be spending most of your time sightseeing in the Innerne Staat (first district) which is easily - and rewardingly - navigated on foot.

Check in

Finding luxury accommodation in Vienna is never a problem. For location and tradition, Hotel Sacher, just behind the State Opera on Philharmonikerstrasse (00 43 1 51456) justifies the extravagance of its pounds 100-pounds 200-a-night tab. More frugal alternatives include the dozens of small and friendly pensions scattered around and just outside the Innere Staat. For example, Pension Kraml (00 43 1 587 85 88), located in a typically Viennese house, offers clean and comfortable doubles with shared bathroom for the equivalent of pounds 15 per night, including breakfast.

Take a hike

An absolute essential of any Vienna trip is a leisurely stroll along the Ringstrasse, a 4km-long boulevard containing an embarrassment of architectural gems. Emperor Franz Joseph I's outrageously grandiose plans to reflect the wealth of the Habsburg empire during the late 19th century were eventually halted by World War II but what was achieved - from the giant marbled halls of the Museum of Fine Arts to the Greek revivalist exterior of the Austrian parliament building, not to mention the City Hall, university, and National Theatre - pays testament to the power of imperial ego. The colossal Hofburg Palace, from where the Habsburgs ruled for more than 600 years, is also here, operating as headquarters for both the Vienna Boys Choir (queues start at around 8am for standing room at the 9:15am Sunday morning mass in the Royal Chapel) and the Spanish Riding School (tickets to see the Lipizzaner stallions' equestrian excellence range from pounds 10 to pounds 40). The double whammy of traditional and art-noveau architecture ensures a fresh perspective at every twist and turn. At night, it's impossibly romantic.

Coffee break

Viennese society is fuelled by caffeine and sugar. If you want to assimilate, don't balk at the strength of the coffee or start calorie-counting the cakes. Most coffee houses in the first district are of the upmarket, rococo- style decor variety and the palatial surroundings of Cafe Central (I Herrengasse) are perfect for people-watching from behind a bowl of old-fashioned potato soup.

Movie time

The Prater amusement park provided the dramatic backdrop to the most memorable scene in The Third Man, when Holly Martins confronts Harry Lime (Orson Welles) in the shadow of the imposing Ferris wheel. More recently, Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy smooched inside a cable car in the slacker romance Before Sunrise. The Prater itself is worth exploring for the macabre psychedelic metal sculptures scattered around the site.

For an even more evocative Third Man experience, relive the final chase sequence in the labyrinth-like depths of Vienna's sewer system. Book ahead for this one, on 00 43 1 79 514.

Demure dinner

Currently celebrating its 300th anniversary, the Piaristenkeller Restaurant (Piaristengasse 45) is in the former wine caves beneath an imposing Baroque church. It is Austria's oldest concert restaurant and its cultural heritage is reflected in the cuisine, wine list and music. For civilised dining this takes some beating, but if you can't afford the steep prices, tours of the wine cellars are available most nights (call 00 43 1 406 01930).

A night at the opera

While Austria mourns the loss of Falco, the nation's only modern pop star, who died in a car crash last November, it continues to pay homage to its more golden oldies - Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Strass, Brahms, Mahler ... Every weekend, the city hosts classical concerts and ballets, some free, while the forthcoming annual Vienna International Festival (mid May-June; 00 43 1 586 1676) is regarded as the highlight of the year.

The ultimate in aural pleasure is, perhaps, a night at the opera, although advance tickets for the Staatsoper (00 43 1 5144429) can be expensive. However if you're prepared to wait a few hours before evening performances, standing places are on offer for the proverbial song (a few quid).

A night on the tiles

Don your Helmut Lang suit (the clean lines of Austria's hippest designer are sold at his hometown store at 8 Seilergasse) and head for the central zone of the Danube Canal, known after dark as the "Bermuda Triangle", as drinkers disappear into the numerous bars and clubs. Despite Vienna's sedate reputation things can get pretty lively, especially on Saturday nights. Best bet: imbibe copious quantities of the palatable weissbier (wheat beer).

Sunday morning: go to church

Local folklore maintains that natives of Vienna start to feel homesick as soon as they lose sight of St Stephen's latticework spire. The Gothic masterpiece is a focal point for all visitors, but if a full Sunday service seems a bit much, try a tour of the church's catacombs, which include a mass grave and a bone house. Alternatively, a 343-step spiral staircase gives access to a great cityscape. There's currently some restoration work in progress, but the church remains a must-see.

Quick lunch

A couple of minutes' walk from St Stephen's, bite-sized sandwiches are available from the deli counter of Trezniewski (1 Dorotheergasse), once the hang-out of Kafka. Despite the touristy notoriety, there's still something of a bo-ho spirit within the cramped Art Deco interior as you're served tiny Pliff measures of Pils from the bar.

Icing on the cake

KunstHausWien museum, the invention of the maverick architect Hundertwasser, is seemingly inspired by the make-believe aesthetic codes of Alice in Wonderland or Hansel and Gretel. According to Hundertwasser, the uneven floors are "a melody for the feet, and bring back natural vibration to man". But what of the grass on the ceiling? Hippie or visionary: discuss over sour cherry strudel in the adjacent cafe, or while perusing the Cobra exhibition (until 3 May) which marks the 50th anniversary of the experimental European art movement.