IN 1908 a relatively obscure artist called Theo Zasche painted Vienna's afternoon 'Corso' at the Sirkecke, the corner by Sirk's coffeehouse, across the street from the Opera, which you can see in the background.

It is a crowded and animated scene. Confident gentlemen in top hats greet beautiful ladies in elegant gowns and audacious millinery. Among them, the artist has painted real people: Gustav Mahler, who had just ceased to be director of the Opera, and the great architect, Otto Wagner, with a neat white beard, next to that new-fangled thing, an automobile.

This is an unforgettable snapshot of a city, a culture, a civilisation, at the apex of its glory, but also at the poignant moment when the seeds of its destruction, unknown to the flaneurs on the Ringstrasse, were already ripening. The city's government had been for more than a decade in the hands of the dynamic but cynically anti-Semitic mayor, Karl Lueger. His arrival in 1897 signalled the end of the liberalism in which Viennese Jews had contributed so much to what has been called 'our century's nearest approach to the Athens of Pericles or the Florence of the Medici'.

In 1908, the angry young Adolf Hitler was spending his way through his father's inheritance, day-dreaming of building palaces even more grandiose than those of the Ringstrasse and listening more than 30 times to the Liebestod of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Opera. In September, Hitler was rejected for the second time by the Academy of Arts and started on the downward spiral to poverty, madness and world power. Thirty years later he was greeted by vast crowds in the Heldenplatz, on his way to completing the destruction of a once brilliant civilisation.

And brilliant it was. In 1907, Mahler was forced out of the Opera job - where he had raised standards of singing, acting and design to the highest pitch - by an anti-Semitic intrigue. In 1908 he went to New York, but he spent the summer in Vienna, composing his Ninth Symphony and Das Lied von der Erde. He was the inspiration of a new generation of composers who were transforming classical music: Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, Anton von Webern.

In 1908, Elektra had its first performance, fruit of the collaboration between Richard Strauss and the quintessentially Viennese poet, Hugo von Hofmannsthal. In February 1909 Hofmannsthal was to write excitedly to Strauss about an idea for 'an opera, full of burlesque situations and characters', which he thought would do even better. He was right: it was Der Rosenkavalier.

In painting and design, this was the high summer of the Secession, Vienna's version of art nouveau. In architecture, Otto Wagner, who had thrilled the Viennese with his designs in the Jugendstil, the 'youth style', had just finished his masterpiece, the Postal Savings Bank, with its mastery of utilitarian form and new materials. Adolf Loos was being daringly modern with his shop (now a bank) in the Michaelerplatz, and delightful simple with shop fronts, suburban houses and the American bar just off the Karnter Strasse. And in 1897 Josef Olbrich had built the Secession gallery, a masterpiece of the new style with a golden, open-work dome dubbed the 'golden cabbage'.

Five years later, the painter Gustav Klimt decorated a crypt where Max Klinger's statue of Beethoven was to be displayed with his own supreme achievement, the powerful and moving 'Beethoven frieze'. Klimt was painting imaginary women of luscious sensuality, and elegant portraits of society beauties. He was also generously encouraging new artists such as Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele. In 1908 the former, who was 21, had painted some astonishingly mature portraits, including one of Loos, and was working on his louche expressionist play, Murderer, Hope of Women.

In art, as in music, a second generation of modernists, more anguished and more innovative, was beginning to emerge, and it is hard not to see in their work a foreshadowing of the coming catastrophe.

The intimacy among Viennese artists is brought out in almost comic form by the career of that extraordinary lion- hunter, Alma Schindler. A beautiful and talented musician, she was the stepdaughter of the Impressionist painter, Carl Moll. She married successively Mahler, the great architect Walter Gropius and the poet and novelist Franz Werfel. She also had a torrid affair with Kokoschka, who painted a powerful picture of the two of them in bed together.

In her memoirs, Schindler describes how she first met Mahler at a dinner party given by the pioneer feminist and peace campaigner, Berta Zuckerkandl. Schindler lived in the Hohe Warte, the Hampstead of Vienna, in a house that the great Secession architect, Josef Hoffmann, had built for her family. He was one of the founders of the Wiener Werkstatte, the Viennese Jugendstil equivalent of what Morris and Company was to the Arts and Crafts Movement in England.

The young Kokoschka designed delightful postcards for the WW - I saw one on sale for dollars 40,000 - and Hoffmann and his co-director, Kolo Moser, produced a stream of elegant designs for furniture, fabrics, glass, porcelain and leather, much influenced by Charles Rennie Mackintosh.


Getting there: British Airways and Austrian Airways offer direct flights to Vienna.

Accommodation: Hotels are expensive since the Black Wednesday devaluation (the Austrian schilling is pegged to the German mark). The two classic palace hotels of the Habsburg era are the Imperial, patronised by the Habsburgs themselves, across the street from the Musikverein, and the Bristol, beloved of the old nobility, across from the Opera. There are lots of more modest hotels, however. We stayed in the Karntnerhof, a comfortable and friendly hotel in the medieval heart of the Old City, for pounds 56 a night (double room with bath ).

Food: Solid, not to say heavy, but well-cooked. Two excellent places frequented by younger people in the inner city are Oswald und Kalb, in Backerstrasse, and the Salzamt, in the 'Bermuda Triangle'.

Opera: Opera tickets run from pounds 8.80 for standing, leaning on a rail, to pounds 88 in the middle of the dress circle; tickets at pounds 15 offer a perfectly acceptable view: do not dress: you will see everything from full fig to jeans.

Getting around: For under pounds 7, a three-day ticket entitles you to travel on the (excellent) U-Bahn (underground), streetcars and buses.

Other attractions: Some of the 'musts', other than those mentioned in the article, are the museums (ethnography, musical instruments) in the Hofburg palace complex; the Kunsthistorisches Museum, on the Ring; the Hundertwasserhaus, a crazy masterpiece of kitsch built by the painter and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser in the Lowengasse in the IIIrd District; the Karl Marx-Hof, the pioneering public housing project, 1,000 yards long, that the government shelled to break the resistance of the workers in 1934; and, 20 minutes away by train, the great monastery at Kloster Neuburg.

The best collection of Klimt, Kokoschka and Schiele in Vienna is at the Upper Belvedere, though the Museum of the History of the City of Vienna in the Karlsplatz is worth a visit. Do not miss two small but perfect buildings in the Karlsplatz: Olbrich's Secession gallery, with Klimt's magical frieze; and Otto Wagner's white-and- gold Karlsplatz station. A gem in the suburbs is the tiny station (Hofpavillon) that Wagner built for the emperor near the summer palace at Schonbrunn. Three cemeteries are worth a visit: the great Zentral Friedhof with its deserted Jewish section, in the XIth District; the St Marxer cemetery, in the IIIrd District, of the Biedermeier period (early 19th century), where Mozart was reburied.

The great baroque palaces are mostly around the Herrengasse, and the most splendid of many baroque churches is the Karlskirche, in the Karlsplatz. Do not miss the auditorium of the Old University, a superb rococo baroque building, now the Academy of Sciences, or the nearby Jesuit church.

Apart from the coffee-houses mentioned, try the Cafe Brunerhof, in the Stallburgstrasse, smoky and melancholic; the Cafe Mozart, centre for spying in the Third Man era; and Cafe Tuchlaub, in the Tuchlaubstrasse in the Old City.

Information and books: The Vienna Tourist Board provides useful information, including Vienna A to Z, a 'guide to sightseeing on your own'. Architecture in Vienna published by Prachner, is an invaluable guide to 350 buildings, Gothic, baroque, 'Ringstrasse style' Jugendstil and modern in the city and suburbs. But the real find is the series of books by Christian Nebehay, with neat potted biographies of the greats of Vienna, with notes on where they lived and worked. One, Vienna 1900 Architecture and Painting, covers Otto Wagner, Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Olbrich, Hoffmann, Moser and Loos; one is on the classical composers; and a third is on Music around 1900, covering Berg, Wolf, Mahler, Bruckner, Brahms, Schoenberg and others.

(Photograph omitted)