If you come to Vienna, wear loose clothes. Seriously. You’ll burn off plenty of calories strolling through the streets and boulevards, filled with elegant Baroque architecture. But you’ll undo all that exercise with just a few mouthfuls of the city’s excellent cake. Viennese café’s pride themselves on their beautifully presented and delicious gateaux and cakes. And I didn’t find a single one of those dry Viennese whirl biscuits that we eat in Britain!
Traditional coffee houses have chandeliers, dark-panelled walls and white-aproned waiters with the snooty attitude you might expect. And the Hotel Sacher is where you need to go to sample the famous Sachertorte, a thick chocolate cake containing apricot jam and coated all over in dark chocolate icing. It was created at the hotel in 1832. But be warned – there are long queues for a table and you’ll feel rushed. It’s also €12 for coffee and cake.
The Landtmann is another popular café and is often used by journalists and government officials. I wonder what stories have been shared over a slice of Mozart cake?
My tip is to go to the neighbourhood cafes for more affordable cakes and some interesting extras. When you enter Supersense Café in the second district, you will first admire the high white ceilings decorated with ornate gold stucco. But past the tables and café counter, you’ll walk into the world’s first analogue delicatessen. It’s part shop and part museum for anything non-digital. There are hundreds of old film cameras, records and various printing materials. Mickey Ritter gave me a tour.
One of the coolest items is a wooden booth resembling an old-fashioned telephone box. Go inside, follow the instructions and, for a small payment, you can record your voice or you can ask a technician to operate the microphones and mixing desk outside the booth to create a musical or vocal souvenir of Vienna. “You can come in here without any previous notice and record a single lasting ninety seconds, for just €15,” Mickey told me. The booth was once used for analogue voicemail messages. “Soldiers in the war could send greetings back home. This is one of the last machines of its kind in existence,” said Mickey.
Supersense will also help you bottle your good memories of Vienna in their smell lab. It’s a room filled with lots of tiny samples of fragrances. You mix your scent using a range of unusual odours and smell it. When you sniff it again in the future, the smell will remind you of your trip. Mickey explained, “Smell is the strongest sense you have. You’ll remember a smell much longer than a sound or something you have seen. If you smell something that you haven’t smelled before and combine that with an emotion, you will bring that feeling back later on by smelling the same smell. It only works with a new smell.’
Vienna tour guide Alexa Brauner offered to take me for more coffee. I didn’t sleep for a week when I got home! Alexa wanted me to sample the true taste of Vienna’s cafes. “The cafe melange is half coffee, half hot milk with froth. It’s a very traditional way of drinking coffee in Vienna and is the most popular drink,” she told me. And she said coffee drinking is taken very seriously in the city. “As you British drink tea we are the coffee drinkers,” she said. “It started in the late 1600s but the big boom was in the second half of the 19th century, when poets and intellectuals met in coffeehouses. They’re like a second living room in Vienna.”
I noticed that people lingered over their coffees. It’s not like visiting a café in Britain where you go in, have a drink and leave once your thirst is quenched. “Even if we don’t drink coffee we like to go to a coffeehouse for the social aspect. People are also interested in the different roasts and how the coffee is served,” said Alexa. “If you’re really coffee addicted, Vienna is a good place for it.”
We were in Phil, a hip coffeeshop in the Sixth District, where you’re free to read or buy books. It’s run by former journalist Christian Schaedel, who was inspired by a similar café in Laos. “The name comes from the Greek word for friend or lover. In German we stress the end of the word bibliophile. It’s a play on words.”
Christian hand picks a selection of good books, which he thinks his customers will enjoy. “We’ve got everything from the latest David Bowie biography through to English translations of interesting Austrian literature, so visitors can find good books too. We have cooking books, coffee table books, graphic novels, books on art, life, spirituality and philosophy,” he proudly told me. “I do it for people to discover new books and for books to discover people. Money comes in with the coffee, spirit comes in with a book.”
As you plough through Christian’s recommended reading list, an in-café DJ provides the soundtrack of ambient music. I’m pleased to say it’s not so loud that you can’t have a conversation or read comfortably. It really creates a warm, welcoming vibe. I could easily have spent the afternoon there.
Vienna has all the shopping choices you’d expect in a world capital. But if you’re shopping on a weekend break, bear in mind that you’ll find most shops closed on Sunday, even the city centre chain stores. Many locals get up early on Saturdays to visit the Naschmarkt in the Sixth District. It hosts over 120 antique, bric-a-brac and clothing stalls.
Cross the canal and walk for ten minutes to Karmelitermarkt for outdoor cafés, fruit, veg, baked goods and cheeses. This is the up-and-coming hip area for bars and galleries.
But I wanted to experience traditional Viennese nightlife and that, surprisingly, centres around the city’s wine production. Alexa took me to see a tiny vineyard in a space no more than four-by-ten metres. It was right in the city centre. “Vienna is the only city in the world with over a million inhabitants where wine is grown within the city limits,” she told me. “Gemischter Satz is a blend of a minimum of three different types of grapes, which must be planted in one vineyard. They are all harvested on the same day and at different stages of ripeness, which makes it a very special wine.”
You’ll find wine shops and taverns all around the city centre. Authentic Austrian wine cellars have a pine wood branch hanging outside the entrance. They are called heuriger. It means something that is produced this year. The new wine is served from November onwards. “The heuriger always have to be close to the vineyards, so that’s where you drink the wine,” Alexa explained. “It is often very good with food like roast pork, cold cuts, salads and cheeses. The new wine is drunk from a handled class. In the old days people brought picnics from home and the glass design was adopted so it didn’t slip out of your fingers.”
If you’d like a personalised walking tour of the markets, open spaces, up-and-coming areas or Vienna’s elite neighbourhoods, visit AlexaBrauner.at.
I boarded the tram and then caught a bus to reach Grinzing in the Nineteenth District. It’s a pretty village, filled with mustard-coloured Alpine cottages, many with window shutters and flower-filled windows baskets.
There are plenty of wine taverns and Gerstner’s Lanhaus, which offers outdoor courtyard seating surrounded by vines, appealed to me.
Chef Thomas gave me a chance to sample local Gemischter Satz wine produced in the area. “It is made by a neighbour,” he told me. “It’s from 400 metres up the hill,” Thomas continued, pointing to his left. I could tell that Thomas was proud of the wine and Vienna’s winemaking heritage. “We’ve been producing wine for 2,000 years, since the Romans were here. This type of wine was almost forgotten but there’s been a renaissance and it is popular once again.” As we chatted, Thomas handed me a bunch of grapes, freshly picked from vines on the walls enclosing the courtyard at the back of the tavern.
I knew sausages and cakes were popular foods in Vienna, but I asked Thomas what other items might be found on a Viennese menu. “Well, we do Austrian beef broth, Viennese schnitzel and goulash.” Thomas explained that the city’s diverse menu has come about because of its history and location. “This has been a melting pot, so there are a lot of influences from the Czech kitchen, with the dumplings and goulash from Hungary and grilled meat from the Balkans.” For veggies, the city’s staple restaurant choice is ravioli but there’s a good range of food everywhere. I found vegan, gluten free, kosher and carb-free dining options. And even a shop that only sold muesli! You certainly won’t go hungry in this beautiful and interesting city.
I stayed in a cool, boutique hotel in Vienna – the Ruby Marie. It’s in the creative Seventh District, a 20-minute walk to the centre of town along the main shopping street, Mariahilferstrasse. The hotel is in a circular building clad with metal panels that glisten in the sunshine. As you walk down the curving, windowed corridor to the lifts, the view gives the impression that you could be on board a ship.
The hotel has a very relaxed feel and the main bar area felt more like a New York loft apartment. It’s a comfortable space with low lighting and sofas and chairs opening out onto a terrace, where you can enjoy a sunny breakfast or a chilled out evening drink looking over the city.
Chief operating officer Michael Struck says it’s calm, serene and relaxed. He calls it an ‘urban oasis.’ It’s also very hi-tech. There’s no reception. New self check-in terminals are within the open bar and lounge space, which has free tea and coffee and a library. I did laugh at the meeting room – there are, let’s call it, ‘management bingo phrases’ written on the walls so if you’re having a meeting you can see who’s using all the clichés. Michael says this meeting area was important to their design. “Sociologists use the term ‘alone together’. People don’t want to be sitting in their rooms by themselves as they check their emails or Facebook,” he explained.
My room was spotlessly clean, comfortable and nearly all-white with a deep, freestanding roll top bath in the middle and a wet room to the side, with a shower. Michael told me, “We wanted to define a new type of luxury. Our idea of luxury is not gold taps or a marble entrances or huge rooms that you don’t need on a city trip. It’s about lighting, it’s about quality of materials.”
The hotel group has several different room types in each of their properties and they work around the building, rather than follow a set format. There are some interesting artistic touches too, like graphic novel-style murals and as you leave the building, the lift features the words of a James Blunt song: ‘Goodbye my lover, you have been my friend.’
The Vienna Tourist Board arranged my accommodation at Hotel Ruby Marie. I’d definitely stay there again.
Vienna is a beautiful, opulent and varied city and it’s so easy to get to from London. Flying time is 140 minutes and single fares start at £35.