European capitals typically fulfil, rather than surpass, their reputations. Vienna has managed to do both, retaining its long legacy as Europe’s capital of classical music while embracing – with notable success – contemporary architecture and design. In the city’s golden age, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert performed their sonatas in its 50-odd gilded theatres, opera houses and grand music halls. At the turn of the 20th century, the city was a hive for intellectuals and artists, including the likes of Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt, that keystone member of the Viennese avant garde whose 150th birthday is being celebrated this year throughout Vienna (and abroad) with a clutch of fascinating exhibitions.
These days, though, Vienna is on a quest to inaugurate radically contemporary architecture into its mostly baroque, gothic and art nouveau urban fabric. Nowhere is this more evident than at the new Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, located on the bank of the Donau Kanal in the city’s vibrant second district. The 182-room glass totem, designed by the French architect Jean Nouvel, opened in 2010 and is a homage to the monochromatic. Rooms are awash in all white, all black or all grey, save for pixelated and abstract stencilling on the walls or ceilings, executed by students from the Vienna Fine Arts School. The grey rooms peer over the city; black and white rooms look onto a vertical garden created by the French botanist and artist Patrick Blanc. The hotel’s rooftop restaurant, Le Loft, is manned by Antoine Westermann, a chef with three Michelin stars to his name, here one can sip vintage rieslings and take in an unparalleled view of Vienna.
A cosier and more intimate version of contemporary style can be found at the 25-room Hollmann Beletage, a boutique design hotel, spa and restaurant with a beautiful baroque courtyard, steps away from St Stephen’s Cathedral in the historic first district. Owner Robert Hollmann offers guests high-ceilinged rooms, suites and residences, blending modern furnishings and technology with original architectural details. But the magic here is in the intimacy of the experience: the hotel also offers seasonally and regionally focused cooking classes, and has a tiny cinema with eight vintage theatre seats and three daily film screenings.
Vienna’s fleet of grand-dame hotels, though all aged and resolutely traditional, still impresses – most notably the 138-room Hotel Imperial Vienna, and the 152-room Hotel Sacher Wien, which underwent extensive renovations in 2010. The Sacher Wien probably wins by a nose on the nostalgia front, with its location opposite the Staatsoper Opera House, and its antiques-laden drawing rooms and restaurants upholstered in vibrant blue, green and red silks and damasks. You might, however, find the long line of non-guests crushed into its public areas to sample a slice of its famous Sacher torte an annoyance, which is why the Hotel Imperial could be a better pick. Built in 1863 for the Prince of Württemberg, it is a picture of 19th-century Viennese elegance: high stucco ceilings punctuated by crystal chandeliers, and a staircase lined with marble statuary and 18th-century paintings. Its location along Vienna’s Kaerntner Ring is ideal – not teeming with tourists, but still moments away from attractions such as the Hofburg Imperial Palace.
The Viennese avant-garde is instead what is on display at the Leopold Museum, which holds one of its largest early 20th-century paintings collections. Works by Schiele and Klimt hang next to furniture, jewellery and decorative design by the Austrian architect and designer Josef Hoffmann. The Leopold is in the heart of the Museumsquartier among nearly a dozen equally riveting institutions, including the MUMOK (the museum of modern art), the Museum of Natural History and the Kunsthistorisches Museum (the latter two identical Italian baroque buildings opened in 1889 to hold the collections acquired by the Habsburg family). At MAK, Vienna’s museum of applied arts and design, visitors can wander amidst various epochs of furniture, textiles and crafts from the Middle Ages and beyond. Architecture buffs will appreciate the museum’s collection of design models by contemporary architects such as Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid, while those nostalgic for the days of art nouveau will find a collection of silver and porcelain by Koloman Moser, a leader of the late 19th-century Secession movement. The sheer volume of work here can overwhelm, in which case you can take refuge in MAK’s gorgeous shop – stocked with ingenious gifts like twisted Sheffield steel bar sets by Michael Antrobus – or relax with a coffee or a cocktail at its modern restaurant and bar, Österreicher im MAK. A bit further afield, the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere is also worth a visit, set in the surroundings of the former Belvedere Palace, with a collection spanning the Middle Ages to the 21st century. Gold-on-vellum paintings by Klimt and Max Liebermann are displayed alongside Vincent van Gogh’s pastoral post-Impressionist works.
Saturdays are the best day of the week for both shopping and indulging in Vienna’s culinary scene. This is particularly true at the Naschmarkt, the city’s largest outdoor market, which over the last few years has seen its produce stalls converted into modish wine and oyster bars and bistros. Among the standouts is Naschmarkt Deli for its young creative crowd, excellent range of beers and DJ line-up. Plates here are heaps of thin, golden schnitzel, tender steaks, pastas and green salads – humble but deeply satisfying. What remains of the actual market, on Saturdays only, is a pleasing jumble of antiques dealers, second-hand hawkers (no shortage of candlesticks and tea-sets here – some in top nick) and local treasure hunters.
A more upmarket dining experience – and one of the hardest tables to secure in town (it is, rather inconveniently, closed on weekends, so book Friday night) – is Restaurant Steirereck, located in the Stadtpark. A menu of modern Austrian fare features dishes like puntarelle and trumpet chanterelle mushrooms with cashew nuts and radish sprouts. For the full monty, the six- or seven-course tasting menu with regional wine pairings is the way to go. If it’s Saturday and you find yourself anywhere near Augarten – Vienna’s oldest baroque park, where Beethoven premiered his Kreutzar Sonata in 1803 – visit the fascinating new Augarten Porcelain Manufactory so as to have lunch at Décor, its café-restaurant. Rendered venison fillets with wild mushroom sauces and home-made chocolate cake are just two of its calorific standouts.
Part of Vienna’s charm is that the classics rarely fade away here. This is as true of its retail scene as of any other. J&L Lobmeyr, a fine glass and crystal company that has been operating since 1823, still draws serious collectors and causal shoppers alike with its whisper-thin stemware, carafes and decanters that can be cut or engraved with designs or initials. Almost as established is the men’s luxury accessories and linens purveyor Wilhelm Jungmann & Neffe, founded in 1881. The dapper shop is stocked with a riot of whimsical bow ties and silk pocket squares stacked in neat piles on old oak counter tops; clients are fitted for suits tailored from any of the 1,000 bolts of wools, cashmeres and tweed fabrics in stock. Ladies might wander over to Sisi, a fashion salon with tailor-made wool jackets and skirts, dainty millinery, floral-print dresses and silk blouses patterned after the famously stylish Empress Elisabeth. A century and a half ago, Sisi herself had the candied violets produced by Demel, Vienna’s patisserie-confiserie par excellence, hand-delivered to her; today they’re one of scores of delicacies available – from cheese biscuits to marmalades and the famous Sacher torte – in Demel’s pastel-toned shop on the Kohlmarkt.
Close the shopping day with a slice of cake and cup of black coffee at Café Central, one of the many historically important cafés in the city. It’s where great minds, artists, politicians and travellers have rubbed elbows for centuries – and, by the look of things continue to do so, in proper Viennese form.