As the grape harvest gets under way across Europe, Vienna is the place to celebrate. By Cathy Packe
Those in the know look for a pine branch dangling outside a farmhouse or country garden in the foothills of the Vienna woods. This is the sign of Heurige, the name used both for the season's new wine, and for the establishment itself - a kind of wine bar, with less refinement but more life.

Heurige is an essential part of the local economy. The wine-growers of Vienna are allowed to sell some of their new wines direct to customers. The sharp young whites are served in jugs, accompanied by plates of local meats and cheeses. The drinkers gather at long wooden tables, which are placed outside in summer - in winter everyone meets inside a barn or outbuilding - and they listen to the music of old Vienna on violins and other instruments.

Vienna claims to be the only capital city with a wine industry in the city itself. Wine-making has been a tradition here since the days of Charlemagne, more than 1,000 years ago. Special cellars were built, and aristocrats and monks alike served the wines they made to the local population. This custom has continued ever since, although areas such as Nussdorf and Grinzing, once villages, are now suburbs of the city.

Eating and drinking play a serious role in the daily life of Vienna. In fact, it would be possible to plan an enjoyable weekend based entirely around food and drink. This is a cafe society. When Marie Antoinette, daughter of the Austrian empress Maria-Theresa, urged that the peasants in the French Revolution should eat cake, she may have been thinking back to her childhood in Vienna where cake eating was, as it still is today, a serious business.

There is serious exploration to be done in Vienna, too; but such effort needs some kind of sustenance, so before setting out, start the day with a cup of coffee. Not that there is much point in asking simply for ein kaffee: there is a full range of choices, from mokka (small, black and very strong) through to a half-coffee, half-milk mixture (eine Melange), with variations in between topped off with a thick layer of whipped cream.

The coffee-house tradition dates back to the 17th century, when the Turks, who had laid siege to Vienna, finally abandoned the city and left behind them a large hoard of coffee beans. The drink - kaffee -gave its name to the places where it was drunk: cafes. They became fashionable under the empress Maria-Theresa in the 18th century, when artists, writers and intellectuals met to drink coffee, eat cakes and exchange ideas.

One of the liveliest cafes was the Hawelka on Dorotheergasse, which has long been a haunt of artists; many of the paintings on the walls are said to be donations from poverty-stricken regulars who could not pay cash for their drinks.

A century later, when Franz-Josef became emperor, Vienna began to take on the shape it has today. The old historic city centre was enclosed by the Ring, a kind of Imperial M25: a series of wide avenues that replaced the old fortifications and along which pompous civic buildings were constructed.

The old city is dominated by the vast cathedral of St Stephen, linked to the Opera House by the pedestrianised Karntnerstrasse, which runs through the city from north to south and is lined with smart shops and cafes.

The oldest part of the Hofburg - the imperial palace built by the Hapsburgs - dates from around the same time as the oldest part of St Stephen's. The Hofburg is best known as the home of the Spanish Riding School, where the white Lippizaner horses, with their riders in tailcoats and breeches, dance gavottes and polkas.

Vienna's most famous feature, the beautiful Blue Danube immortalised in waltz by Johann Strauss, is something of a let-down, although it improves as it leaves the capital and provides Austria with scenery that is both charming and breathtaking. The river itself bypasses Vienna; in the heart of the city there is only a canal which joins up with the Ring to enclose the historic centre.

The Sachertorte, Vienna's most celebrated culinary landmark, is less of a disappointment. Created by the chef to Prince Metternich at the beginning of the 19th century, this is a sticky chocolate cake with apricot jam in the middle. The version served at the Hotel Sacher is deemed to be the original; others claim to be the best. During a weekend in Vienna, there is time for plenty of your own research.


Getting there

The three scheduled airlines linking Britain with Vienna are British Airways (from Gatwick and Heathrow, 0345 222111), Austrian Airlines (from Heathrow, 0171-434 7300) and Lauda Air (from Gatwick and Manchester, 0171- 630 5924). Lauda Air has the lowest fares, quoting pounds 186.20, including tax from either Gatwick or Manchester. BA has a World Offer fare of pounds 206.30 (including tax), Austrian charges pounds 9 more.

Frequent buses run from the airport to the City Air Terminal and the South and West stations; the rail link from the airport is cheaper but slower and less frequent.

If you prefer surface travel, a train from Waterloo to Vienna (changing at Brussels) costs pounds 335 and takes 17 hours.

Staying there

The Austrian National Tourist Office (0171-629 0461) provides lists of hotels. The Independent's travel desk has a soft spot for the Pension Hargita (00 431 526 1928), which strikes a good balance between its central location at Andreasgasse 1, and price (starting at a modest pounds 35 per night for a double room, bathroom and breakfast not included).