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Vienna Unexpected

A city that remains stubbornly, defiantly anchored in its past shows encouraging new signs of modern life.

Vienna Then "He continued down the street toward the city . . . The houses were still enveloped in darkness; a few windows here and there were illuminated. Fridolin thought he could feel that people were gradually awakening. It seemed to him that he could see them stretch in their beds and arm themselves for their miserable and sour day. A new day faced him too, but for him it was not miserable and gloomy . . ." Arthur Schnitzler, Dream Story

Vienna Now Arthur Schnitzler's Dream Story becomes Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide Shut. Schnitzler's La Ronde is David Hare's—and Nicole Kidman's—Blue Room. In his fin de siecle Vienna there is debauchery at every corner, whether concealed in the powdered-sugar stucco of Baroque buildings or beneath golden Secessionist domes. If Schnitzler's native city was a snake-filled Eden, Vienna today is an art lover's paradise. It houses a newly revamped Albertina museum, one of the world's largest museum complexes, and one of the largest collections of Egon Schieles anywhere. Vienna bred Schiele, Klimt and Freud; surely it merits a place on the map of cutting-edge culture. Yet for many it remains a place firmly and stubbornly entrenched in an often glorious, sometimes ghastly, tradition. But Vienna may, finally, be ready for its new day.

"The old clichés—Lipizzaner horses, Mozart chocolates—are no longer applicable in the 21st century," said Austrian chancellor Wolfgang Schüssel. And his government has been frantically reinventing Vienna with investments in radical architecture and world-class art.

"A knife in the air" is the way in which Klaus Albrecht Schröder, the man responsible for a dramatic reinvention of the city's once-dusty Albertina museum, describes Pritzker Prize winner Hans Hollein's design for the museum's new entrance. Perhaps it is this—the last stage of the remodeling and expansion of a venerable Viennese institution—that will finally cut through the images of waltzes and wedding cake construction, buried under whipped cream.

Thomas Krens, who is the director of the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, was on the committee that picked Hollein's design for the Albertina museum. And that led some to speculate that the government hoped to bring a bit of Frank Gehry's Bilbao magic to Vienna.

Reopened in March after almost ten years and a $117 million overhaul, the Albertina occupies the ingeniously reconfigured 18th-century Neoclassical Hofburg palace. It's now full of high-tech installations to better display and showcase a world-class collection of more than 65,000 works by Michelangelo, Rembrandt, and Picasso, Rauschenberg, Sol LeWitt, and Dürer. There's also a strong new photography collection with works by Anselm Kiefer, William Egglestone, and Stephen Shore.

But the radically remodeled Albertina is only the latest addition. "I came back to Vienna fours years ago after twelve years in New York and found a changed city," says Wolfgang Waldner, director of the strikingly designed MuseumsQuartier, a redevelopment of the former imperial stables and winter riding school that was completed in 2002. "It looks different—so much money has been spent on public buildings. And so much time and money have been invested in fostering contemporary art," says Waldner.

At first glance, the MQ cultural complex, just blocks away from the city's historical center, looks resolutely retro—the heavily restored original 1723 facade of its perimeter building is intact. But behind its Baroque outer shell stand two monumental new galleries designed by the Austrian architects Ortner & Ortner. The Leopold Museum exists in a partially submerged cube and consists of four adjoining rectangular blocks arranged around an atrium, where a portion of the floor is done in glass, allowing views into the gallery two stories below. Its galleries—calm, airy, faultlessly lit—are perfect places for looking at the more than 5,000 works by Klimt, Schiele, Kokoschka, and Richard Gerstl. On the other side of the MQ is Mumok, Vienna's Museum of Modern Art. Grimly faux-industrial and almost windowless, it is of dark, rough basalt lava with exposed ventilation and lighting systems. Other highlights among the 45 cultural sites housed in the MQ are the Kunsthalle, two massive spaces for temporary exhibitions, and the Architekturzentrum Wien, or Viennese architecture center, converted from the barrel-vaulted stable blocks (sculpted horses' heads are set into the keystones of some doors in the courtyard). The original manège, in which the glorious Neoclassical moldings have been meticulously restored, has become the Tanzquartier, a center for contemporary dance with a brilliantly conceived contemporary performance space. There is also a children's museum, Zoom, packed with interactive multimedia exhibits; and bizarrely, a museum of tobacco which is so pungently scented that nonsmokers may find it unbearable.

"People come to Vienna for traditional culture," says Waldner. "But increasingly, people are coming to see the other side of the city. The MQ is only part of a deliberate cultural policy to create a concentrated center for contemporary art."

This government's new and enlightened focus has created a city brimming with young artists. "Art in Vienna used to be about a small, elite group," says Franz West, a Viennese artist who also shows at the Gagosian Gallery in New York. "The Kunsthalle, the MQ, work very well because they give artists a place to present their works. Now the art world is broad, and the art schools are full. Vienna is alive, I never expected it, but it has happened."

No art-loving visitor to Vienna should miss the Breughels and the Vermeer in the grand Kunsthistorisches Museum, but the best view of the city is from what may be its most traditional gallery, the Belvedere (whose collection includes works by Van Gogh, Degas, Monet, Renoir, Pissarro, Corot, Rodin, Léger, Munch, and, inevitably, Schiele and Klimt). The magnificent Baroque interiors of this former prince's palace are matched by its formal gardens and astonishing view across the city's spires and domes to the Vienna Woods and mountains.

And yet, despite all this change, the things you would expect to see in Vienna—horse-drawn faux-19th-century carriages, students in redingotes outside the Hofburg imperial palace selling tickets to concerts where periwigged musicians perform Mozart and Strauss—is still visible from every vantage point, very much a part of everyday life.

New though it all may be, the city seduces with tradition. Vienna is quintessentially romantic, steeped in music, art, and history. It will always rank as one of the great cultural centers of Europe, if not the world. But it has also always been a capital of contrast—High Baroque and the crucible of Modernism, home to the waltz and to Mozart, then to Schiele and Freud. It is a place forever pulled between old and new, past and present. In accepting the Pritzker, Hans Hollein called this the "Viennese way of looking at things . . . standing with one leg in the old world, in tradition, and the other in the new world, in the future." Today the tension is only highlighted by the juxtaposition of the Baroque imperial stables in the MQ beside the 21st-century modernity of the galleries, or in a public outcry when Albrecht Schröder proposed a photography collection at the new Albertina, or, despite a growing restaurant scene, a reluctance to accept credit cards.

Musically, too, the city has historically pushed forward while holding back. The opera house, a hulking neo-Renaissance structure with an ornate loggia and imposing marble staircase, was commissioned by Emperor Franz Josef I, not a man to champion innovation. When architect Adolph Loos' austere but groundbreaking building, the Looshaus, was completed in 1911, the emperor was so affronted he ordered the window blinds permanently drawn. From then on he left the palace by another gate so as to avoid the sight of it from his carriage.

Most recently, Vienna has become a center for an ever-growing electronic-music scene, breeding DJ "geniuses" and remixing "gods" with names like Kruder & Dorfmeister, Pulsinger & Tunakan and DSL. But most people go to Vienna to hear the 161-year-old Vienna Philharmonic, which admitted its first-ever female member, a harpist named Anna Lelkes, in 1997. (The second, viola player Ursula Plaichinger, was hired in February, 2001.) The orchestra, whose string sound is among the most sublime, doubles as the house band of one of the finest international opera companies, the Wiener Staatsoper, which mounts 40 to 60 different productions in any one season.

Neil Shicoff, an American-born tenor who lives in Vienna when performing at the Staatsoper, says the opera's productions tend to be more innovative than elsewhere. "Directors seem more willing to take risks here. And Viennese audiences are fantastic. They're very knowledgeable and committed to art. They make an artist feel adored." Those audiences, Shicoff adds, also reflect the new face of Vienna—"there are all different cultures in the seats now. Vienna has become a cosmopolitan city."

But even the opera house is no match for The Musikverein's Grosser Saal, or concert hall, a riot of warm-toned wood, gilded edges, and crystal chandeliers, known to television audiences for its annual New Year's concert. Be sure to attend a concert there—as walk-ins on a Saturday night we were given excellent seats for a near-miraculous performance of the Händel oratorio Alexander's Feast, conducted by the venerable Nikolaus Harnoncourt.

And if some in Vienna are frequenting clubs like the Volksgarten in the historic center and the Roxy in the trendy fourth district, others still lay flowers on the graves of Beethoven, Brahms, Gluck, Schubert, Johann Strauss the Elder and Younger, and Hugo Wolf, all of whom lie among the three million buried in the atmospheric Zentralfriedhof in the southeast suburb of Simmering. Mahler, who came to Vienna to study and, having converted from Judaism to Catholicism, became director of the opera at the age of 38, lies in the cemetery at Grinzing, a pretty suburb northwest of the center. His conversion saved him from a final resting place in the Jewish area of the Zentralfriedhof (site of Schnitzler's grave, along with those of various members of the Rothschild family), a shaming sight: overgrown, unloved, and desecrated.

If there is an ugly side to Vienna, it is its Nazi past. Prewar Vienna had the third largest Jewish community in Europe, and it was, to a large extent, Jewish intellectuals who pioneered the city's Modernist renaissance. But by 1945, 120,000 had fled, 65,000 had been killed, and just 2,000 remained. Half a century later, their numbers have risen to about 7,000. Over the last three years, Austria has been governed primarily by a coalition of the far-right nationalist Freedom Party and the center-right People's Party.

Not far from the Jüdisches Museum in what was the city's original Jewish quarter, the square known as Judenplatz is now dominated by British artist Rachel Whiteread's Holocaust memorial, a concrete "mausoleum," its walls like bookshelves on which the volumes have been arranged back to front. The names of the extermination camps are set in brass around its shallow plinth. And at its front, texts in German, English and Hebrew commemorating the dead are all but obscured by votive candles. It ought to be a place of meditation and reflection. But whenever we passed, food had been thrown at it and candles knocked over, their glass holders smashed.

But, this November, Neil Shicoff will reprise the role of Eléazar in Jacques Fromental Halévy's La Juive at New York's Metropolitan Opera, a production he first starred in at the Vienna State Opera in 1999. La Juive (The Jewess), set in Konstanz in the early 15th-century, is about a love affair between a Jewish woman and a Christian man and the price of intolerance and cruelty. In 1933, it was banned in Austria. After New York, it moves to Paris in 2006, then on to London in 2007. "But it all began again," says Shicoff, "here in Vienna."


Hotels: Dennis Hopper et al. Slept Here

Vienna is full of grand hotels, most famously the Bristol, the Imperial and Hotel Sacher (4 Philharmonikerstrasse; 43-1-514-56-0; www.sacher.com). Renowned for its cake and still family-owned, the Sacher feels resolutely 19th-century. The general manager clicked his heels and bowed as he greeted me. Certainly its wood-and-marble reception area has changed very little since Graham Greene was inspired to write The Third Man while staying there, but it's none the worse for that. Our suite, the Leonard Bernstein, was blissfully romantic: eau de Nil silk on the walls, white-and-gold Rococo furniture, a pink-marble bathroom, and a view right into the Hofburg Palace. Its formality is slightly studied, but it has an eclectic celebrity following and displays photographs of the Prominenten, as they are known in German, who have stayed there.

Dennis Hopper, the Queen of the Netherlands, Vivienne Westwood, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton were among those I recognized. Tobias Moretti, "first colleague of the famous Austrian TV police dog Rex," was one I did not. Its restaurant serves the most famous Tafelspitz—a dish of boiled beef that is better than it sounds—and was so popular with Emperor Franz Josef that he reputedly ate it here daily when he was in town.

If you'd prefer a real palace, Im Palais Schwarzenberg (9 Schwarzenbergplatz; 43-1-79845-15-0; www.palais-schwarzenberg.com) is just that, the opulent home, built in 1697, of His Serene Highness Prince Schwarzenberg. Most of its 44 guestrooms are less fabulously Baroque (the designer Park rooms and suites are the most modern) than its ornate public areas, with their old master paintings and Meissen porcelain. But it's magically luxurious all the same, and with its 18.5-acre private park, a fine choice in summer.

A welcome antidote to all that Alt Wien opulence is Das Triest (12 Wiedner Hauptstrasse; 43-1-589- 18-0; www.dastriest.at), the most stylish modern hotel in the city. Converted from an ancient coaching inn and designed by Terence Conran, it's colorful (think strong primaries), comfortable (Frette bed linens, Molton Brown unguents), and central (only a ten-minute walk from the Stephansdom).


Restaurants: Schnitzel, Strudel, and Specialties

Neue Wiener Küche (or new Viennese cuisine) has popped up in several restaurants, though the focus is still on the meat, cabbage and potatoes of old. Of the city's modern restaurants, one of the most attractive is Palmenhaus (1 Burggarten; 43-1-533-1033), converted from an imperial glasshouse and still full of exotic plants, with a massive video installation behind the bar. The menu is inventive; the crowd young and hip; the music loud; the service charming and friendly; and it's open till 2 a.m.

Other much-talked-of restaurants include Vestibül ($ 2 Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring; 43-1-532-4999), arguably the city's most fashionable eatery, which sits in a side wing of the Burgtheater (formerly the imperial private entrance) and serves contemporary, reassuringly refined takes on Viennese classics to actors and politicians. And at Chrinor (21 Kirchengasse; 43-1-522-3236), chef Christian Voithofer offers eclectic menus, including a "klassik" and a "Mediterran," and other dishes that range from carpaccios to potato soup. The MuseumsQuartier contains several restaurants (as well as numerous cafés). Halle ($ 43-1-523-7001), in what was once the emperor's loge, has a New Viennese menu, with Italian and Asian accents, and is open until 2 a.m. The MUMOK restaurant has recently reopened as Il Museo ($ 43-1-525-001-440), an osteria with Venetian specialties on the menu. Other much-talked-of restaurants include Vestibül ($ 2 Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring; 43-1-532-4999), arguably the city's most fashionable eatery, which sits in a side wing of the Burgtheater (formerly the imperial private entrance) and serves contemporary, reassuringly refined takes on Viennese classics to actors and politicians. And at Chrinor (21 Kirchengasse; 43-1-522-3236), chef Christian Voithofer offers eclectic menus, including a "klassik" and a "Mediterran," and other dishes that range from carpaccios to potato soup. The MuseumsQuartier contains several restaurants (as well as numerous cafés). Halle ($ 43-1-523-7001), in what was once the emperor's loge, has a New Viennese menu, with Italian and Asian accents, and is open until 2 a.m. The MUMOK restaurant has recently reopened as Il Museo ($ 43-1-525-001-440), an osteria with Venetian specialties on the menu.


Café Society: Of Ottomans, Emperors, and Kapuziner

Vienna's cafés have been justly famous since, so the story goes, the end of the Ottoman siege of the city, in 1683. An Austrian spy, Georg Franz Kolschitsky, was rewarded for his services to the emperor with a souvenir bag of what he thought was camel fodder, but turned out to be coffee beans. Having made this happy discovery, he set up the first coffeehouse, securing his fortune. Incidentally, legend has it that croissants were a Viennese invention, introduced to France by Marie-Antoinette, another Viennese by birth.

Essentially the city's cafés divide into two distinct camps: nicotine-stained, boho, and basic or elegant, gilded, and expensive. Of the former, the legendary Hawelka ($ 6 Dorotheergasse) is a good place to eat breakfast. Essentially the city's cafés divide into two distinct camps: nicotine-stained, boho, and basic or elegant, gilded, and expensive. Of the former, the legendary Hawelka ($ 6 Dorotheergasse) is a good place to eat breakfast.

Of the smarter ones, the haut-bourgeois Café Central (14 Herrengasse), unexpectedly a favorite of Trotsky's, has a wonderful circular interior with a brightly painted vaulted ceiling supported by columns. The food is good but not great, solid but unsubtle: spicy goulash, decent schnitzel, and of course excellent strudel. Landtmann (4 Dr. Karl-Lueger-Ring), famous for its Freud associations, has fine Art Deco wood paneling and serves excellent goulash soup in its smart, high-ceilinged rooms. Best for cakes is the crowded and justly celebrated Demel (14 Kohlmarkt), a sparkling confection of mirror and Venetian glass where the hot chocolate is as good as Angelina's in Paris. Griensteidl (2 Michaelerplatz) has impeccable literary and musical credentials (Schnitzler, Hofmannstahl, Wolf and Schönberg all frequented it) and is a decent place for a schnitzel supper. But Café Imperial (16 Kärntner Ring), for all its connections to Wagner and Mahler (it's close to the Musikverein), is over-lit and overpriced. Better to slip next door to the atmospheric Bar Maria Theresia, with its blood-red silk walls, candlelight, and pianist, for a glass of Sekt.

Starbucks apart, among the newest cafés are those at the MuseumsQuartier: Café Una $, next to the Architekturzentrum, has a pretty faux-Moorish tiled ceiling and an enterprising menu. And Café Leopold $, in the Leopold Museum, is a witty take on 19th-century café style: limestone and caramel leather on dark wood, and extraordinary chandeliers of pleated Perspex. Starbucks apart, among the newest cafés are those at the MuseumsQuartier: Café Una $, next to the Architekturzentrum, has a pretty faux-Moorish tiled ceiling and an enterprising menu. And Café Leopold $, in the Leopold Museum, is a witty take on 19th-century café style: limestone and caramel leather on dark wood, and extraordinary chandeliers of pleated Perspex.

Many cafés serve meals as well as coffee. On the topic of coffee, for the equivalent of a cappuccino or latte, order a mélange, pronounced en français. What the Viennese call a Kapuziner is black coffee with milk. An Einspänner is a double shot of espresso that's been sprinkled with cocoa, slathered in whipped cream, and is often served in a tall glass.


Shopping Vienna Now

You're right: Vienna is not an obvious shopping destination. Nevertheless, there is no shortage of glamorously appointed stores. Most main international designers have outlets here, many in exquisite buildings.

The Looshaus, at 3 Michaelerplatz, contains a branch of VALENTINO (43-1-533-7901), its interior recently redone by the international design firm Superreal. Vienna-born designer HELMUT LANG still has a shop at 6 Seilergasse (43-1-513-2588).

If a green boiled-wool hunting coat and feathered hat are your thing, then make for LODEN-PLANKL (6 Michaelerplatz; 43-1-533-8032). Still the classic.

For conventional menswear, KNIZE (13 Am Graben; 43-1-512-2119) has historically dressed such stylish gents as Georg Solti, Maurice Chevalier and Adolphe Menjou, not to mention the Austrian Empress Elisabeth, better known as Sisi, who had her riding habits made here. Architecture enthusiasts should note the Loos-designed shop front and interior.

Aficionados of a well-turned glove will find their passion indulged at CHRISTL (4 Stallburggasse; 43-1-533-1061), which has supplied gloves of every possible hue and cut to many distinguished customers, including the city's famous Spanish Riding School. While shoe fetishists may equally be drawn to GEORG MATERNA ($ 5 Mahlerstrasse; 43-1-512-4165), whose shoes, bespoke and prêt-à-emporter, are exquisite. Aficionados of a well-turned glove will find their passion indulged at CHRISTL (4 Stallburggasse; 43-1-533-1061), which has supplied gloves of every possible hue and cut to many distinguished customers, including the city's famous Spanish Riding School. While shoe fetishists may equally be drawn to GEORG MATERNA ($ 5 Mahlerstrasse; 43-1-512-4165), whose shoes, bespoke and prêt-à-emporter, are exquisite.

Visitors cannot help but be struck—or should I say shocked—by the extraordinarily curious number of lingerie shops: one on almost every shopping street. The most prolific seem to be the many branches of PALMERS (14 Am Graben; 43-1-532-4058; among others), which sells beautifully made underwear, swimwear and nightwear in silk and fine cotton.

JULIUS MEINL (19 Am Graben; 43-1-532-3334) is the city's principal gourmet food store, whose wide-ranging selection runs from the ultra-luxe to Dr. Oetker's Schoko instant Sachertorte-style cake mix. For wine, UNGER UND KLEIN (2 Dorfgasse; 43-1-532-1323) will oblige with the perfect bottle of Grüner Veltliner.

Note: Many stores are closed weekends, bar Saturday mornings (unless it's the first Saturday of the month, when they are open all day), and some smaller shops still shut for lunch.

London-based Claire Wrathall writes on travel and opera. This is her debut article for Departures.

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