48 Hours In: Vienna
Grand palaces and inviting cafés abound in the Austrian capital, and this month is a special time to visit, with concerts marking the bicentenary of Haydn's death.
Saturday 16 May 2009
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WHY GO NOW?
The 200th anniversary of Haydn's death will be celebrated on 31 May with special concerts, tours and a new exhibition at Haydn House (1) where the composer lived for more than a decade from 1793. Hardened film buffs may think of visiting Vienna now since this is the 60th anniversary of The Third Man, the noir-ish film in which Vienna is really the main character. Early summer, before many of the concert halls shut for the holidays, is the perfect season to drift from one atmospheric café terrace to another.
Vienna's Schwechat Airport is the focus of a fares war between Aer Lingus (0870 876 5000; aerlingus.com) and easyJet (0905 821 0905; easyjet.com), cutting prices from Gatwick to under £10 each way; easyJet also flies from Luton. Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; aua.com) and British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) compete from Heathrow to Vienna.
From the airport, leave the terminal building to catch the twice-hourly suburban railway (S-Bahn) to Wien Mitte station (2), just east of the old city. This costs €3.40 instead of €8 on the CAT express train to the same destination, and takes only eight minutes longer. Alternatively, the Vienna Airport Lines bus serves Westbahnhof (3) and Südbahnhof (4) for €6.
GET YOUR BEARINGS
The Old City, or Innere Stadt, is enclosed inside an imposing circular boulevard, confusingly referred to as the Ringstrasse, though comprising nine different names such as Opernring and Parkring. The Danube Canal completes the north side of the ring, but will disappoint those who carry an image conjured by Strauss's Blue Danube Waltz, as its banks are distinctly unattractive.
The old city is rewardingly walkable. It takes less than an hour to saunter east-west or north-south. Public transport is cheap and easy to use. The 72-hour transport pass for €18.50 is good value if you intend to take a tram, train or bus more than eight times. The main tourist office (5) on Albertinaplatz (00 43 1 24 555; vienna.info) is near the State Opera House (6).
Remarkably for a big European capital, Vienna has affordable and centrally situated guesthouses attached to monasteries. Behind an obscure door at Freyung 6 (00 43 1 534 98 900), in the side of the Schottenstift, the Benediktushaus (7) offers simple, clean single, twin and triple en suite rooms; bed and breakfast for two costs €99. (The name Schottenstift means Monastery of the Scots, though the monks in question were really Irish).
If the faint smell of incense and life-size statues of saints greeting you on the stairway are not to your taste, head for pretty Annagasse. The family-run Hotel Mailbergerhof (8) at number 7 (00 43 512 06 41; mailbergerhof.at) occupies one of the many elegant palaces to be found in this neighbourhood. Doubles start at €175, including breakfast, or look out for their special summer weekend rate of €280 for two nights.
Hollmann Beletage (9), a boutique B&B near the canal at Köllnerhofgasse 6 (00 43 1 961 19 60; hollmann-beletage.at), is central and stylish. The reception doubles as a guest lounge, with an open fireplace, sofas and a library. Doubles start at €150, including breakfast.
TAKE A VIEW
The stately pace of Vienna's antique 65m Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad (10) (wienerriesenrad.com), maximises views of the hills to the north and west, and of the low-rise city to the south of the Danube. Down below you will see the Viennese at play in the Prater, the historic amusement ground and public park opened by Emperor Josef II in 1766. Harry Lime looked down on the same scene, only to view with chilling contempt the people as expendable ants. Open daily, 9am-11.45pm, from 25 April to 30 September, and 10am-9.45pm the rest of the year. Admission €8.50.
TAKE A HIKE
Cemeteries reveal a great deal about a culture. In the vast Zentralfriedhof (11) you can roam for hours among the pompous tombs of Vienna's bewhiskered patriarchs and along the melancholy avenues of fallen Soviet soldiers and the obliterated Jewish community. The city's astonishing contribution to Western classical music is celebrated in the cluster of composers' tombs. Comparing the number of bouquets left by their graves and memorials, you can judge whose stock is currently highest among Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms and Mozart. You can reach the cemetery on tram 71.
LUNCH ON THE RUN
Back in the city centre, scores of intimate cafés serve a quick and filling Austrian lunch of dark bread and sausage with two kinds of mustard. One to aim for is Kleines Café (12) in Franziskanerplatz, which manages to appeal both to retired professors and hip young couples. For a less pubby menu and atmosphere, go round the corner to Immervoll (13) at Weihburggasse 17, a restaurant that lives up to its name, meaning "always full".
Nowhere else will you find used lederhosen, 5kg sacks of carrots, Mozart scores, gypsy accordions and refugees' rags all in the same place. Vienna's flea market or Flohmarkt (14) is a colourful affair every Saturday, extending south to Kettenbrückengasse U-Bahn station from the daily food market at Naschmarkt which sells everything from Izmir breakfasts to local country cheeses.
In this imperial city that likes to live beyond its means, you might be tempted to browse along the vaulted and marbled Freyung Passage (15), ogling the windows of Oliverium, Xocolat, and several antiquarian dealers selling everything from nostalgic snow domes to topographical prints.
Still full of the climbing plants and tropical flora which it was built to house inside the royal gardens, the Palmenhaus Café (16) is a stunning space for a pre-prandial indulgence. To a mellow soundtrack, you can try a special spritz made with Prosecco and Aperol, a bitter liqueur invented in northern Italy when it was part of the Habsburg empire. If you're seduced by the airy glass-and-steel cathedral-like building, stay on for an excellent dinner.
DINING WITH THE LOCALS
Heurigen are Vienna's answer to country pubs, except they serve wine made from grapes grown on an adjacent vineyard. Choose your wine-tavern garden carefully so as to avoid the ones that are squarely on the tour-bus trail. Heuriger Schübe-Auer at Kahlenberger Strasse 22 (00 43 1 370 22 22; schuebel-auer.at) in the suburb of Nussdorf is a favourite with locals – no English on its website – and it is accessible in half an hour via Tram D from Schottentor (17) in the old town. Go to the end of the line and walk over one street; it's open Tuesday-Saturday, 4pm-midnight. The food is displayed buffet-style, so you just have to point, for instance at a luscious slice of herbed pork accompanied by potato rösti and local produce.
SUNDAY MORNING: GO TO CHURCH
If you can overcome any objections to paying to go to church, you can attend Sunday mass at the imperial chapel, or Hofburgkapelle (18), at 9.15am. Here you will hear the Vienna Boys Choir, successors to Josef Haydn (September to June only). Standing room is free for those who get there early and €5 tickets are sold to those who don't mind not having a view; even the top-price €29 tickets do not guarantee a view of the choir who sing from the organ loft.
For a marvellous interior view, visitors have a rare chance to encounter a baroque ceiling up close. While the extravagantly decorated 18th-century Karlskirche (19) is undergoing restoration, visitors may ascend the temporary lift inside the sanctuary to a scaffold platform (€6). Seldom can the handiwork of a church fresco artist be so closely inspected and in this case you will see that Johann Rottmayr had trouble getting the big toes right. Expect to meet a scowling Martin Luther with a demon hovering over his shoulder. Open Monday-Saturday, 9am-12.30pm and 1-6pm, and Sunday, noon-5.45pm.
OUT TO BRUNCH
Café Diglas (20) is a traditional coffee house ideal for a morning visit. Located around the corner from the Stephansdom (21) and open from 7am daily, it serves a choice of breakfasts from small to large, sweet to savoury. Slide into one of the comfortable aged banquettes, pick up a foreign newspaper and indulge in coffee and pastries baked at its sister konditerei (cake shop). More substantial dishes are also available, such as Austria's signature dish, tafelspitz – boiled beef and potatoes with horseradish sauce.
A WALK IN THE PARK
Hidden behind some busy, nondescript roads in the third district south of the old city is the Belvedere (22). Two baroque palaces are linked by a vast sweep of symmetrical Versailles-like formal gardens. Avoiding the steep charges to enter the palaces-turned-art galleries, wander up through the parterres, past the classical statuary, clipped hedges and cascading fountains, all recently restored. When you reach the Upper Palace, turn back to enjoy a fine view over the city.
The concept behind the Museum of Applied Arts (23), or MAK, at Stubenring 5 (00 43 1 711 360; mak.at) is unique. Museum curators expert in their respective periods (gothic, baroque, empire, etc) have been paired with modern artists and designers to create exhibition rooms that display a meticulously chosen selection of objects in an original way, uncluttered by labelling, but accompanied by detailed brochures (available in English). Sometimes the tension is obvious, as in the rococo room where the artist is clearly uneasy with the confections of that period.
The gallery of Jugendstil (art nouveau) bentwood chairs, inventively backlit to throw their shadows on to transparent screens, highlights the variety of form and decoration. The harmonising of old and new is carried over into the museum's superb restaurant-café with its glittering chandelier made from hundreds of clear bottles, hung from the high coffered ceiling. MAK opens 10am-6pm daily, except Mondays; open till midnight on Tuesdays (admission €7.90; free on Saturdays).
THE ICING ON THE CAKE
The interior of the State Opera House (6) (staatsoper.at) at Opernring 2 is not quite as glittering and sumptuous as it was before the interior was burnt out by US bombs in 1945. But the musical and theatrical standards remain among the best in the world. Splash out on a ticket, ranging in price from €280 to standing room from €2.50 for which you will have to queue on the day. Performances take place almost daily, except in July and August. Everybody benefits from seat-back electronic subtitles in multiple languages.
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