It’s (almost) summer, and I have been bitten by the travel bug yet again. First on my list was Vienna, where I had last been over a decade ago. I recall a very lively city with a plethora of new restaurants to try and a superfluity of art and music to explore. Since then, several friends have actually moved to Vienna so this seemed like the perfect time to return.
Vienna has an extremely rich and complicated history. The Holy Roman Empire of the Hapsburgs morphed into the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And through marriage and conquest, the Hapsburgs ruled the Netherlands and the Low Countries as well as Spain. Citizens of the empire then flocked to Vienna over the centuries, bringing with it a diverse culture.
Vienna is still the go-to destination for young people as it is a city driven by design, art, architecture, music and more. The city has grown even buzzier over the years; so much so that a week was not enough time to explore everything on my list.
I decided to rent an apartment in the city center as I was curious to see how much of the city I would remember. We checked in to the sounds of church bells ringing.
The city is divided into districts. Innere Stadt is the inner-most district of Vienna dating back to Roman ages. Stephansplatz lies at the geographical centre of Vienna. Stephandom is a Gothic masterpiece that quietly fills the square. Since our apartment was just a few minutes’ walk to all of the above, we immediately headed out to investigate the neighborhood and combat our jet lag.
We walked up Graben, the main shopping street, and headed to one of our favorite stores in Vienna, Julius Meinl. It is on Graben where Kolhmarket ends. The Hofburg Palace was dead ahead. We were headed to Meinl to buy coffee as theirs is among the best in town. Vienna is famous for its coffee and coffeehouses. The terrace in front of the shop is always full of people enjoying pastries and coffee.
Julius Meinl houses two floors of luxury food products. This display case above was crammed with ostrich eggs and foie gras; and luxurious organic chicken eggs, too. We bought some beautiful seafood, fresh veggies and a bottle of local Grüner Veltliner, a crisp, dry white. Eating at home seemed like a good idea.
Julius Meinl am Graben, Grabben 19
We headed back down Graben towards the apartment savoring the car- and care-free center. We couldn’t help but notice there were a lot of American businesses here, for better or worse. Vienna is a very walkable city, boasting beautiful and varied architecture and hidden buildings on old and interesting streets (there are over 7,000).
The next morning we walked to the Ringstrasse, a circular road that circles the center. It had been the ramparts of the city until it was destroyed and replaced by the wide boulevard in 1857. We met up with friends and walked past Secession. Named after an art movement, it is a beautiful space with rotating exhibitions, and permanent works by Klimt and others.
Naschmarkt is set in the middle of two wide streets. It is a collection of food stalls with both exotic and locally grown produce. Small bars and restaurants are busy all day. On Saturday, there is a major flea market with a huge selection of things, from furniture to knick-knacks. It is imperative to get there early.
These buildings above are across from the Nachmarkt. The fin de siecle decor on the facades is very Viennese.
We were headed to the train that goes to the Schonbrunn, the Hapsburg family’s summer palace. Buses and trains are entered on an honor system. You buy a monthly or weekly pass, and just walk in or out of stations. No questions asked. Very civilized. The large grounds of the palace are perfectly manicured. The topiary-like bushes are found all over the city. The Palmenhaus is a greenhouse with many different species of plants (there are about 4,500 of them!). The trees in the gardens are pruned with, original to the palace, giant rolling wooden contraptions that are a few hundred years old. Just beyond the Palemhaus is a splendid baroque zoo. Built in 1752, it was Europe’s first. We visited it on our first trip. It is a must.
The gardens are immense. You can walk up and down a long hill or take a mini-train to reach the top and the Gloriette. This triumphal arch now houses a cafe with beautiful views from either side. After lunch we opted for the train ride down the hill. Gardens, pavilions and huge fountains adorn the route.
We had been invited to a preview viewing of a VR experience in the private apartments of Crown Prince Rudolph. The VR film was made by Lior and Ethan Babadost. Their production company, Filmfinity Film Production, recreates historical subjects using live actors and film enhanced with computer magic. The experience offers a look at the history of the Hapsburgs and its large family tree. The Schonbrunn Palace restored these rooms, which have been closed for a very long time. The Prince’s suite overlooks the Privey Garden. Very nice digs.
Additional seats were located in a few of the gorgeous Bergl rooms painted in the 18th century by Johann Wenzel Bergl. We viewed the film in the room with the red silk walls at the end of the enfilade. The rooms, which are magnificent and one of a kind, and the VR experience will be open to the public starting on July 12th. Book your tickets ahead of time.
You could easily spend an entire day enjoying the park, the gardens, as well as the palace and zoo.
There were some intriguing stores on our street. Real Viennese stores, not just big brands and chains. This store, owned and operated by an elderly man, is called, simply, Walking Sticks. Along with many canes, he also sells handmade shoes and exclusive leather accessories. My husband got a beautiful leather traveling shoe polish case with polish and a tiny shoe tree. Vienna used to have many more independent stores like this. Let’s hope that those remaining shops stick around.
Walking Stick, Singerstrasse 14
Nearby was another fun find. Grams, short for Weinhandlung Familie Grams, is a wine shop located in a former monastery. We were looking for some gifts for friends, and found them here. The store can create a label for any bottle of wine that you buy using a photograph that you have taken, or you can choose an image from their many books. It is a nice way to commemorate a special event. We gifted a bottle to friends we had dinner with at the Nautilus Fish Restaurant back in Naschmarkt. It was fun and delicious.
Wienhandlung Familie Grams, Singerstrasse 26
The Kunsthistorisches Museum was our first stop the next day. The museum, which opened in 1891, houses the collections of the Hapsburg emperors and archdukes over the centuries. It is magnificent. I had spent the better part of a day there on my last visit, but several large galleries were under renovation. The art comes from across the empire, and the Hapsburgs were major collectors.
The main staircase is topped by a a Canova statue of Theseus. You get the sense that you are going to be seeing ART. When the empire fell at the end of World War I, the entire imperial collection became the property of the new Austrian state. One could easily spend several days here.
There are many German masterpieces in the collection. The Adam and Eve, Paradise, and The Stag Hunt by Cranach hang with a Leonhard Beck St. George and The Dragon.
There is a room filled with Bruegel paintings, with twelve paintings in the collection out of the 40 that exist in the world. We told the guard that she was very lucky to work in that room. She nodded, then laughed, “Except at 9 a.m. when the tour bus customers crowd into the gallery.” I guess it’s better to visit later in the day as we pretty much had the museum to ourselves.
There is a grand cafe at the top of the staircase where we had a Viennese lunch of local sausages in splendor.
Giuseppe Arcimboldo worked for Emperor Maximillian II and others. There are works from the Four Seasons and The Elements. Spring and Winter are on the sides; and Water is in the center. Arcimboldo’s distinctive style predated the surrealists. These are only a few of the many masterpieces in the collection.
On the ground floor you will find the Kunstkammer. This is a gallery of selected masterpieces, a museum within a museum. One masterpiece is the Benvenuto Cellini salt-seller. Made for Francois I of France, it was brought to Austria as a wedding gift. The Naturhistorisches Museum sits across the park. It is an architectural mirror image of the art museum. It too is filled with many rare things and is high on my must-visit list.
A short walk back to the city center brought us to the hub of luxury shopping. Every major brand you can think of is located in Innere Stadt. Prada has a large store carrying men’s and women’s clothing. A decade ago there was not the concentration of international designers that exists today.
Prada, Bognerstrasse 4
Liska has three floors full of designer clothing and accessories from many international brands. The edit is different than one would find in New York. They also design and produce coats and fur coats. Renewing and updating furs is a specialty. The airy store is full of interesting merchandise.
Liska, Graben 12
The night before we’d dined at Heurer in Karlsplatz, a fun cafe with indoor and outdoor seating. The next morning we took a stroll down Graben on the way to The Albertina. In the center of Graben there is an ornate baroque memorial called Pestsaule, or the plague column, put in place in in 1683 to commemorate the approximately 100,000 lives lost to the plague. It is one of the best known artworks in Vienna.
The Albertina was under extensive renovation when I was last there. The building had been a part of the Hofburg Palace complex. The Albertina features graphic arts, including its mascot: the Dürer Hare. The Munch exhibit shows a selection of his paintings that are rarely seen, and also rooms full of art inspired by Munch. This exhibit is closing soon, but the Monet to Picasso, the Batliner Collection offers a lot. The Albertina also has another building, the Albertina Modern in Karlsplatz, currently showing Ai Weiwei.
Sausage stands are a Viennese staple. They are found everywhere. The local sausages are stuffed into a hole in the center of a roll and a choice of mustards is offered. The Bitzinger Wurstelstand is famous for its food, and also for the copy of the Dürer Hare on its roof. Lunch made simple.
At the back of the Albertina is another palmenhaus with a restaurant inside instead of specimen plants. The peaceful Burggarten stretches to the Ring.
This is the back of Staatsoper, or the Opera House. The Ring has railed trolleys as well as buses. Vienna is a city of music as well as art. Hayden, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Bruckner, Brahms, Mahler and of course, Strauss all lived and worked here. Opera and ballet performances take place ten months a year.
A short walk away is the MAK, a museum of decorative arts, which houses an impressive collection of Jugendstilm and Wiener Werkstatte. There is currently a large exhibit of the works of Josef Hoffmann. It details his life and works with an extremely detailed retrospective of the many mediums he worked in.
There is a cluster of furniture stores and galleries in the city center. Heading back to the apartment I found a few posh antique stores, selling art and furnishing. Bel Etage has two floors of Wiener Jugendstil. These are collectors pieces.
Bel Etage, Mahlerstrasse 15
Going back to Graben we passed the Kaisergruft, or Imperial Crypt. 12 emperors and 18 empresses, and other Hapsburg royals, are entombed here undisturbed.
We went for dinner at a very traditional Viennese restaurant, Figlmuller. Of course we had Wiener schnitzel with all the trimmings. The food was delicious, but upstairs a large gang of soccer fans/hooligans were yelling and hooting. Our fellow diners downstairs shared resigned exasperation. The restaurant is close to Stephansdom, which was a peaceful reminder and beautifully lit. The Stop War signs were plastered all over the city.
The Heidi Horten Collection has just opened. The museum was funded and built by the collector in an ex-chancellery building right behind the Albertina. The building was gutted and is now thoroughly modern. A portrait of the late patroness hangs on the wall at the back. Horten collected over a thousand pieces of art. A small fraction of the collection is on view at any one time. The first collection is called OPEN. A Claude Lalanne Grand Lapin de Victoire and Francois-Xavier Lalanne’s Singe Avise hold the ground floor. At the back is an Armleder work from 2001, Untitled (Target).
Upstairs there are a series of spaces filled with wonderful objects. A Rauschenberg sculpture, Crawfish Village Summer, from 1987 sits in front of a Basquiat and Warhol collaboration, Paramount from 1984/85. Brigitte Kowanz mixes light and paint in Light up, 2010 at the right. The shows change two or three times a year, rotating the collection.
The tearoom offers a place to rest. The ceiling sculpture by Hans Kupelwieser is site specific, and will stay in place. There are other objects behind the portholes. The next presentation, Look!, opens in October 2022. This wonderful small museum will keep offering visual surprises for years to come. Tickets do need to be booked ahead as all entries are timed.
Another private museum is offered by the Liechtenstein family. They have two palaces in Vienna, The City Palace and The Garden Palace. You need to book tickets in advance, as there are two tours per month (with limited capacity). The tours are in German, but there is an English audio guide. The Baroque Garden Palace used to be in the country. You can now reach it easily by underground or tram. Private tours can also be arranged; and the Palace also provides an elegant backdrop for private parties and corporate events. It is all spelled out on their website.
The ground floor has beautiful stucco ceilings. The Golden coach on display is extremely rare. It was built in Paris in the early 18th century. Most carriages of this type did not survive the French Revolution. It was built to take Prince Joseph Wenzel, the Ambassador to France, to Versailles.
Photographs are permitted in the huge Hercules Hall and a Baroque library. Both rooms are spectacular. But once you are inside the Private Picture Gallery, where Rubens, Rembrant, Van Dyck, Raphael and many others reside, no photos are allowed. It’s probably for the better. Only a part of the family collection is on display at any one time, and they rotate the pieces. In case you’re wondering, the family is still collecting.
We headed back to the center and walked past the huge Hofburg complex. The palace is pretty much a town within a town. Vienna was never sacked or looted, nor were there revolutions or mass destruction of buildings. So much remains of the Hapsburg collections that there is a museum for almost everything.
The Kaiser apartments as well as apartments for many other royals are located in the palace. The complex houses the Schatzkammer, or Imperial Treasury, a Papyrus Museum, Ephesos-Museum, Musical Museum, The Imperial Furniture Museum, the Butterfly House (with real butterflies) and many more. There is also a splendid Baroque library. More on that later.
You pass by the stables and the famous Spanish Riding School and the Lipizzaner horses and emerge on Michaelerplatz at the front of the palace. We headed down Kohlmarkt to do some more shopping.
Demel, famous for its candies and cakes, was on the way. Several years ago Demel had opened a small branch in the Plaza Hotel, but it is now gone. Ten years ago the owner of the Do & Co group bought the business and is now doing the baking for Demel. It is officially out of the founding family’s hands.
The Karl Lagerfeld brand has a small boutique in Vienna. Guest designers bring the Kaiser’s looks to life. The brand is now owned by an American company and with contemporary prices and a young look, it is a fun place to shop. There used to be a boutique on West Broadway that closed. Wish they would open another one.
Karl Lagerfeld, Kohlmarkt 11
Located down the street, and hidden in a courtyard, Chegini is full of avant-guard fashions. Margiela, Rick Owens, Marni, Loewe, Comme des Garcons and more are tastefully displayed. The store wraps around the courtyard and is full of sophisticated looks.
Chegini, Kohlmarkt 7
Heading home, we decided to go into Stephansdom. The soaring Gothic ribbed vaults were beautiful. As were the intricate carvings inside, the art from other eras is mixed in, and the colorful tiled roof. Had an excellent dinner with friends that night at the Guesthouse Brasserie.
Our last day in Vienna was a lazy one. Our first stop was The Museums-Quartier. The space used to be the imperial stables. A group of modern buildings were built in 2001 inside the older structure — MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art) the Kunsthalle and the Leopold. There are areas for children to play throughout the courtyard. We had a Vietnamese lunch in one of the many cafes in the square.
The Leopold Museum had two very interesting shows. One of them was Vienna 1900: The Birth of Modernism. It is a survey of all the art and design in the city at the turn of the century. There were also many paintings by Egon Schiele. He died at a very young age of the Spanish flu after WWI. The paintings cover a wide range of subjects, not just the edgy nudes we all know.
I discovered that there was a famous Bosch hidden in Vienna, specifically in the Akademie der Bildenen Kunste, or the Art Academy. At the top of the school is an amazing gallery with modern pieces mixed in with the classics. The Last Judgement sits at the end of a series of galleries. The Last Judgement and The Seven Deadly Sins fill the center panel, while The Fall of the Angels, The Creation of Eve, The Temptation, The Expulsion from Paradise are on the left. The right panel is full of Hell and Its Laws. One could spend a day pouring over this work. There is also a beautiful Botticelli, Cranachs, Titian and more hidden. The Akademie is the art school that Adolf Hitler applied to and was refused.
We then walked back to the Hofburg to visit the sublime Prunksaal, or the Baroque Library. You enter the palace from Josefplatz, and walk up a monumental staircase. There are roughly 200,000 leather bound books and an interesting collection of globes, too. A true masterpiece.
The cupola of the library has a fresco that depicts the apotheosis of Karl VI. The Hapsburgs certainly knew how to live and read on a grand scale.
It was then time for a bit more shopping. Wolfensson is a boutique for men and women that is designed with a lot of attitude. The clothing is artistically chic. I believe that the man in the photo above was Sascha Wolfensson himself. Another unique boutique.
Wolfensson, Habsburgergasse 1/1A
Cuisinarum is the sort of store I wish existed in New York. It is a series of shops filled with everything that you might need for cooking and entertaining. At every price. This was the picnic area with cocktail shakers lining the walls. If you couldn’t afford the extravagant hampers on the table, there were more affordable options under the table. The barbecue section was just as impressive. As were the linens, glassware and tablesettings.
Cuisinarum, Singerstrasse 14
Down the street was Dominici. The shop was filled with affordable shoes and sneakers not found in America. I bought a fun pair of Philippe Model sneakers. Never heard of this brand? That’s because you cannot find them here. Getting to choose between small European companies is a really nice change.
Dominici, Singerstrasse 2
That night we went to a dinner party. Walking home we passed through the arch and paused to admire the Palais Pallavicini and its distinctive doorway. Still privately owned, this palace too can be rented for private events. We were headed to Paris in the morning for a quick visit, and then back to New York the next day. My second trip to Vienna made me realize that the city still has so much to discover. After two trips I had not even seen the Danube once. I guess that is reason enough to return.
Barbara Hodes is the owner of NYC Private Shopping Tour, offering customized tours in New York and Brooklyn.