A whistle-stop tour of the opulent palaces, breathtaking art and dancing stallions of Austria's elegant capital city leaves Christina Patterson dizzy with pleasure

If I ever have to choose a specialist subject for Mastermind, I think I might plump for Viennese cakes. It's quite a recent interest - less than two weeks to be precise - but it's one I could picture myself pursuing with passion for quite some time. It was love at first bite: of a richly succulent trüffeltorte at the Gerstner café in the Kärntnerstrasse. We were cold and tired. I was feeling a bit weird and woozy after a pre-dawn departure for the Tube to Heathrow, and I'd just climbed all 343 steps of the Stephansdom, the grand Gothic cathedral where Mozart got married. From the top, you can see the glories of Vienna laid out before you. It's all very nice, but perhaps not nice enough to warrant the killing ascent and giddying descent, which begins to feel like Hades crossed with Dante's circles of hell. When I joined my mother in the gift shop, I was shaky and sick. She was fine, but then she had taken the lift.

I was not, of course, too sick for cake. We both gasped at the titillating array of tortes nestling behind the glass and sighed heavily as we hovered by the counter and weighed up the options. Trüffeltorte for me, I announced, and a gorgeous linzertorte for my mother. And then there was the coffee. At least ten different options, most involving whipped cream. After one sip - even before I'd plunged my fork into the tongue-tingling slab of dark sweetness, I knew I'd found my spiritual home. "Gruss Gott," said the waitress, a traditional Austrian greeting that means literally "greet God". I was, in fact, ready to bow down and worship him.

It was, perhaps, appropriate that we were staying in that cradle of cake civilization, the Hotel Sacher. That's Sacher, as in sachertorte, a stupendous concoction of chocolate sponge coated in apricot jam and a luscious layer of icing that's soft to the tongue and as smooth as satin. It was, apparently, invented by Franz Sacher in 1832 as a response to a royal request for a posh pudding. His son, Eduard Sacher, opened the hotel in 1876 as a haven for nobility and - let's face it - the rich. We tried to look unfazed when we were ushered to our splendid suite but squealed with delight as we sank into the sofas.There were even, we discovered, menus with the chocolates on the pillows. Menus, that is, for pillows. You could have down, synthetic, horsehair, wedge-shaped or neck rolls. It was like the coffee all over again.

It was like the breakfast, too. "Continental" sounded, I thought, a little disappointing - until I saw the baskets of tiny, perfect pastries, the five different types of muesli, the six different types of bread, the huge bowls of fruit, the juices, the cheese, the meat, the salmon and the champagne. And the Sachertorte, of course. Who on earth would want to eat chocolate cake for breakfast? Well, me, for starters. "How," I asked Katharina, our guide, whose imminent arrival in the hotel foyer was what finally dragged me away, "do you manage to keep so thin?" She looked rather puzzled. "Well, the Viennese don't eat cakes that much," she said. "It is mostly the tourists. Or," she added kindly, "perhaps the older ladies."

It was snowing when we set off for the Hofburg Palace, that extraordinary collection of grand buildings that dominates Vienna and made up the Habsburg family home. First up was the Winter Riding School. For a mad moment, I thought the "morning exercise" signs were advertising some kind of gentle keep fit for those Viennese who, unlike Katharina, went to cafés for the cakes. They weren't, of course. In the winter months, when the Lipizzaner stallions take an annual sabbatical from their finely choreographed dances and dressage, they do music and movement instead. To the strains of Mozart or Handel they jog gently around the huge, chandeliered hall, guided by their tricorn-wearing riders. It was surreal, but charming.

Next up was the Silberkammer, the galleries of silverware and porcelain. These signifiers of an unbelievably lavish lifestyle proved surprisingly interesting. The silver cutlery is still, apparently, whipped out of its glass cabinets for presidential dinners. You can see the blue and green wine glasses, coloured to conceal the cloudiness of the rheinwein they contained, Marie Antoinette's porcelain and a room full of huge gold-plated candelabra - strategically placed to ensure that guests didn't break the strict etiquette of not conducting conversation across the table.

Some of the collection belonged to Sisi, the much-loved Empress Elizabeth who married Franz Joseph in 1853, was assassinated in 1897 and is generally regarded as Austria's Princess Di. In the museum devoted to her, you can see the bottles from her beauty routine, some of her clothes, her scales and even the press used to extract the juice of raw veal she drank daily. In her private apartments is further evidence of her obsession with her appearance: the simple bed, with no double-chin inducing pillows, the complicated bathing arrangements and the wooden gym. In the banqueting hall, there's a massive table laid out for a standard 16-course lunch. A sure-fire recipe for obesity, you'd have thought, except that the Emperor Franz Josef issued firm instructions that no meal should take longer than 40 minutes. The people at the end of the table, who'd barely seen a morsel, would rush to the Sacher for a hearty snack.

Emerging from the Hofburg, we wandered through the snowy streets to the main shopping area and stopped off at Demel, Vienna's best known pastry shop, whose eye-popping range of confectionary currently includes an all-sugar Kofi Annan. Could we, I asked Katharina a touch tentatively, treat her to coffee and a little something? We didn't really have time, she replied breezily. I'm still haunted by the thought that the king of cakes, or perhaps the Platonic ideal of pastries, might be lurking there, behind its fancy glass.

Back at the Sacher, it was time to say goodbye to our excellent guide. I should, she said, come back with a man and we could all go dancing together. It was a lovely idea, I replied, but we're not big on balls in London. I didn't add that most men I know are less likely to waltz than to win the lottery.

We decided to devote the afternoon to art, setting off through the Berggarten, buried in a thick blanket of snow, past the palm house and on to the Museumsquartier, a stunning architectural mix of old and new. Once home to the emperors' horses, the huge Baroque building was turned into an exhibition centre in 1918. After a massive programme of building and refurbishment, it reopened in 2001 as a giant cultural complex, which includes the Architectural Centre and the Museum of Modern Art. At the Leopold Museum we saw a gorgeous array of Klimts and Schieles and at the Kunsthistorisches Museum we gawped at Raphaels, Rubens and Bruegels. We also, of course, stopped off at the magnificent gilt and marble café. Under its grand cupola, we had a glass of gruner veltliner (a young Viennese wine), an open sandwich and then coffee and gerstnertorte, a variation on Gerstner's trüffeltorte which boasts no less than six layers. I was, myself, beginning to feel more than a little Rubenesque.

More art followed - there's enough in that one building to keep you going for weeks - and then a recuperative drink in the Sacher's Blau Bar before it was time for another Viennese speciality - no, not the wiener schnitzel we had later, but music. In the tiny, ancient vault of the Sala Terrena, in the crypt of the house where Mozart briefly lived and worked, we listened to the Mozart Ensemble. The young quartet in 18th-century dress, performed music by the Austrian master as well as Hayden, Dvorak and Mendelssohn. Yes, it was touristy, but it was also delightful.

A good night's sleep in our sumptuous suite, and a spectacular Sacher breakfast, set us up for our final full day. At Freud's apartment, we peered at photos and letters and watched footage of family outings and, more soberingly, of the apartment block swathed in swastikas. On the way back into the centre, we stopped off at his favourite haunt, Café Landtmann, for coffee and maroniblüte - a huge chestnut concoction that looked like a cloud. Call it oral fixation if you like, but I call it heaven.

After a trip to the beautiful Belvedere, a Baroque palace that now houses a fabulous collection of Austrian modern art, including works by Kokoschka and Schiele, as well as Klimt's The Kiss, and to the Haus der Musik, which includes a high-tech interactive exhibition on sound as well as mini-museums on Mozart, Beethoven, Mahler and Strauss we were ready for our big night out. This time the journey was just across the road, to the Staatsoper, to see Bellini's Norma. I was expecting a fully staged production, so was a little surprised to find men in evening dress singing (according to the surtitles) things like: "Druids, the moon has risen". But the music really was magnificent - a true feast for the ears, if not the eyes.

On our last morning in Vienna, we went to a mass at the Augustinerkirche. When the music gave way to a long sermon in German, I'm afraid we sneaked out. Instead, we raced through the Chagall exhibition at the Albertina Museum, marched in the icy wind to that temple of Art Nouveau, the Secession building, and then back to the Augustenkeller, the cosy wine tavern beneath the Albertina for a final jug of riesling and some goulash soup. And then we were off. It was goodbye to the Sacher, goodbye to luxury, goodbye to a capital city that really does live up to its myth of exquisitely mannered and timeless elegance. This morning, in the post, there was an embossed envelope from the Hotel Sacher. It was a letter from the charming manager, thanking us for our stay. I shrieked with laughter. Any time, Herr Heilmann, any time.

TRAVELLER'S GUIDE

GETTING THERE

Austrian Airlines (0870 124 2625; www.austrianairlines.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to Vienna. British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) flies from Heathrow, Birmingham and Manchester. Niki (0870 738 8880; www.flyniki.com) flies from Stansted.

STAYING THERE

Hotel Sacher at Filharmonikerstrasse 4 (00 43 151 4560; www.sacher.com) offers doubles from €257 (£184), room only.

VISITING THERE

Museumsquartier (00 43 1523 5881; www.mqw.at). The Kunsthistorisches Museum (00 43 1525 2403; www.khm.at). Hofburg Palace (00 43 1533 7570; www.hofburg-wien.at) . Albertina Museum (00 43 153 4830; www.albertina.at).

FURTHER INFORMATION

Austrian National Tourist Office (0845 101 1818; www.austria.info/uk)

The main tourist office (00 43 158 8660; www.wien.info) in Vienna is at Margaretenstrasse 1 and is open Monday to Friday from 9am-5pm.

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