The best-selling author of Eat, Pray, Love could have saved herself a lot of trouble. Instead of galumphing all over the globe, she simply could have headed for Vienna, Austria, where it’s one-stop shopping for all three. Not to mention coffee.
Coffeehouses have acted as Vienna’s source of caffeine, insurrection, resurrection, information, and entertainment for more than 300 years, long before Starbucks jumped aboard. You don’t just order “coffee” here—that’s like ordering, say, “meat—for there are as many variations as Baskin-Robbins flavors. Each comes on a little tray with a pot of cream, a glass of water, and maybe a chocolate. Newspapers on their sturdy sticks, weekend piano players, and primo people-watching all are free.
Café Central is the place to begin, where, since the 1800s, waiters in suits and ties exclaim “Ach, so!” as they set down your choice. Or Café Dreschler, a legendary icon given a Deco facelift by London’s Terence Conran. Or Café Mozart, to lounge in the shadow of the royal palace as pony carts clop by. Or Demel, rivaling Café Sacher for bragging rights to the “authentic” Sachertorte pastry (a court battle ensued). Or the Pepto-pink Aida, the workingman’s coffeehouse chain, where portly elders sip their brew “mit schlag” (topped with whipped cream—not such a bad idea).
Eat? We’ll get to that in a minute.
As for praying, the opportunities are endless, starting with the city’s landmark St. Stephen’s, restored to its Gothic grandeur after the bombs of World War II. Here, Mozart’s funeral was held, and Napoleon tacked up his good-bye message as he beat it back to France. St. Michael’s is where wunderkind Mozart first performed. University Church is the site of many a free concert, such as Haydn’s Creation, which I enjoyed amid writhing columns of pink and white, more über-the-top than Vegas. Equally Baroque Augustine Chapel is home to Hapsburg weddings. Today, the Scottish Church of 1156 is another wedding cake of swirling pink and beige.
Love, too: Whatever your fancy, Vienna can deliver. Art aficianados can drink in the masterworks of Rembrandt, Dürer, Holbein, and Brueghel at the Fine Arts Museum, while the MAK, dedicated to applied arts, showcases stylish turn-of-the-past-century furniture, china, and jewelry.
Counterculturalists have even more arresting choices. The antitraditionalist Secession Museum was done up on my visit as a throwback swingers club in the building fondly called the Golden Cabbage for its gilded topknot. The Leopold showcases the unsettlingly suggestive works of Klimt and Schiele (tortured portraits, like the lusty Cardinal and Nun, and nude self-views). It’s part of the avant Museum Quarter (MQ), where MOMAK also shows works that make the Walker look behind the times.
By the way, MQ is the city’s hottest late-night bacchanal for singles of all stripes, including its gaycentric café, Halle. Or check out Motto, the ultimate “in” place by the same owner. Café Berg and Café Savoy draw swarms of GLBTers, especially for Sunday brunch. Join July’s Rainbow Parade, where the crowd on the Ring Road goes against the flow—and the traffic. Stick around for the Life Ball and Queer Identities film festival. Gay bars? Vienna invented the genre. Visit <www.vienna.info/queer guide> for what’s hot. If love, to you, means marriage, same-sex unions, which became legal this year, can be performed in venues as varied as Schönbrunn Palace, a vintage streetcar, or the city’s giant Ferris wheel.
If love means music, then Vienna is the mothership. Besides whatever Mozart/Beethoven/Haydn concert the hunks in waistcoats and powdered wigs are shilling, while discreetly muttering into their not-so-historic cell phones, a visit to the landmark State Opera House is a must. If you cannot swing the 50 euro tickets (me neither), join the line for standing-room places (4 euros), filled with impoverished music-lovers who seem to be under 25 or over 60. Same drill for the venerable Vienna Philharmonic.
The city is so fond of its native composers that it names streets after one and all, the way we do with French explorers. In fact, music is such a staff of life that Strauss waltzes oom-pahed from every loudspeaker along the route of the Vienna Marathon. No, I didn’t run, because I’d spent the night before in the hospital’s ER, after managing to sprain an ankle. If you’ve got to take a tumble, I recommend you do it in Vienna, where the whole team was, as they often declaim in this city, “su-per!”
Plus, it won me the sympathy vote at Die Fromme Helene, a café within hobbling distance of my splendid hotel, Wein & Design, with sweet staff, contempo rooms, grand breakfast buffet, and—most important—location-location-location. It adjoins the neotrendy 7th District’s shops of up-and-coming designers, jewelers, and more: Klipps for haircuts; Be A Good Girl for cult labels; Violettsays, featuring “brands for cheerful women and fearless men”; and Disaster Clothing for, well, casual wear.
Browse the famed pedestrian boulevards Graben and Kartner. Search for antiques on their backstreets, including Dorotheum, a vast auction house where the once-rich-and-famous offer their treasures (fancy watches, Deco accessories, masters’ paintings) at ridiculously agreeable prices. Or, sally off to Naschmarkt, where beyond the fab food stalls spreads the flea market, at which descendents of the once-ruling Ottomans offer everything from army boots to bric-a-brac and vintage fashion. The newer Brunnenmarkt is even more multiculti in its flavors, strolled by ladies discreetly swathed in head scarves and long, black manteaus.
Now to that all-important eat part. In alliance with the art part, several of the city’s finest dining finds are in cultural venues. Osterreicher im MAK, named for the chef who traded his fine-dining cred for more accessible fare in the museum’s airy setting, devotes half its menu to traditional dishes (goulash with dumpling, schnitzels, noodles with caramelized cabbage), while the other half distills modern Viennese renditions, such as trout atop spinach and root vegetables, or lamb with semolina dumplings and zucchini-pepper toss.
Likewise, in the basement of the Burgtheater flourishes a rathskeller-gone-elitist, haunt of the city’s foodies, called Vestibul. Here, I dined on perhaps the best dish of my entire visit—lobster tossed with creamy cabbage—along with ethereal wiener schnitzel partnered with potato salad, and vitello tonnato touting local organic veal atop a rosy tuna slice.
Palmenhaus, another must, is, as its name suggests, a palm-filled conservatory where the food—especially the fish—is as lush as the plants, and the patrons. Consider sea bass grilled with ginger, coriander, and chilies, then insist on palatschinken, crepe-like pancakes filled with apricot jam.
Just steps from my hotel (Vienna is supersafe to walk at night), I came upon the newly-opened Bernhauer’s, a bistro of bright, modern design and kitchen, starring beefsteak with pancetta and mushroom cannelloni, as well as a gossamer schnitzel paired with pureed potatoes. For dessert: warm chocolate cake floating in strawberry-rhubarb compote. At the even-closer Fromme Helene, another cheery, gently sophisticated space, again the schnitzel, light as air, and the cheese strudel over the moon.
Huth, too, offers a pleasant meld of today and tradition, where the President of Austria often is spotted eating lunch. Does he love the carp steamed with minced bacon and garlic as much as I did? Or does he go all trad with onion roast cum fried potatoes and mustard pickles?
Hats off to tradition! Tiny Gasthof Ubl, with its ancient iron stove where families congregate to celebrate, majors in robust dishes like tafelspitz (boiled beef with all the trimmings), pork knuckle, hefty roasts with dumplings, and lots of sausages mit kraut. Ofenbach, in the medieval Jewish Quarter, started life back in 1288 as a bathhouse, then a bakehouse. Today, dirndled servers cheerily deliver fare either old-time (goulash, schnitzels, pancakes stuffed with poppyseeds), or modern (like my chicken stuffed with black pudding aside polenta and apples laced with thyme-honey jus).
Zum Schwartzen Kameel (the Black Camel) takes the middle route, having debuted as a delicatessen back in 1618, and today a pleasure palace of Art Nouveau design where delicatessen, restaurant, and buffet lure ladies who lunch and business suits alike. I was drawn to the arty assortment of finger sandwiches: Just point to two or three (smoked salmon, egg salad); summon a glass of Gruner Veltlinger at a sidewalk table; and rest your feet (but not your senses). Finally, Orlando di Castello—all white and trendy—is run by the son of Café Central’s owner, just as modern as Dad is déjà-vu.
That’s the essence of Vienna: forward as tomorrow, but rooted proudly in the past. Eat, pray, love. To get your share, visit www.vienna.info.