Beneath this ornate Baroque cityscape exists a rich cultural heritage and some of the greenest urban space in the world, writes Anthony Pearce
When cities are ranked by their ‘liveability’ – that is, the quality of life of residents as determined by factors such as stability, culture, green spaces and public infrastructure – Vienna is consistently towards the top. The pretty Austrian capital, which combines the grandeur of Paris and culture of London with the cleanliness of Copenhagen, came in first and third respectively in The Economist and Monocle’s most recent annual surveys, and financial consultant Mercer has named it in top place for nine consecutive years. And the qualities that make Vienna such an enjoyable city to live in also make it a fine one to visit.
The well-connected Vienna International Airport is served by a number of direct flights from the UK, and is just 16 minutes from Wien Mitte (the city centre) by train. A manageable size, the city is served by an excellent public transport network, made up of the U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (local train), Straßenbahn (tram) and Autobus (bus).
The city centre, where most tourists focus their attentions, is remarkably compact: the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage site, covers three square kilometres, of which 82,000 square metres is pedestrianised. Given the array of stunning architecture on display, it’s a city best enjoyed on foot. The city’s construction boom, which followed destruction caused during the Turkish Siege of 1648, coincided with the Baroque period, meaning Vienna offers some of the most striking examples of this architectural style. There are more than 50 preserved Baroque palaces, churches and landmarks, such as the Schönbrunn Palace and Belvedere Palace.
These are accompanied by beautifully arranged Baroque gardens – an enjoyable feature of a city that ranks among the world’s greenest. In fact, more than half of Vienna’s metropolitan area is made up of green space; or, to put it another way: there are 120 square metres of green space per resident. The immaculate Volksgarten, in the Innere Stadt first district of Vienna and part of the Hofburg Palace, may be the pick of the bunch.
With more than 100 museums and over 140 art galleries, Vienna is one of Europe’s cultural powerhouses: an entire district, the MuseumsQuartier, is dedicated to culture and contains no fewer than nine institutions. Among these are the Mumok, the Museum of Modern Art, containing works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Yoko Ono and Gerhard Richter; Leopold Museum, which houses 42 paintings and 187 original graphics by Egon Schiele; and the Kunsthalle Wien, which is known for its temporary exhibitions. The breathtaking Belvedere houses one of Austria’s most valuable art collections, with works by Gustav Klimt, Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.
The Republic of Austria turns 100 this year. Its centenary will be marked by the opening of the House of Austrian History on Heldenplatz on November 12, 100 years to the day since the republic was declared. As it is also 80 years since Austria’s “Anschluss” (annexation) into Nazi Germany, a sound installation – ‘The Voices’ by Susan Philipsz – on Heldenplatz will recall the horrors of the 1930s and 40s. Through a series of events in 2018, Vienna also marks 100 years since the deaths of Klimt, Schiele, architect Otto Wagner and craftsman Koloman Moser, four of the eminent protagonists of modernism – a style that remains visible across the city, from its architecture to its exhibitions (see wien.info/en/sightseeing/vienna-2018).
No visit to the city that Beethoven, Brahms and Bruckner called home would be complete without experiencing a classical concert. The Vienna Philharmonic’s Summer Night Concert, an open-air event for 100,000 visitors with free admission and set against the backdrop of Schönbrunn Palace, is the highlight of the classical music calendar, but opportunities to enjoy the city’s music are numerous (see wien.info/en/music-stage-shows/city-of-music).
It’s often said that the Austrians have elevated coffee drinking to an art form: the city’s historic grand cafés, and modern equivalents, help make up the fabric of Viennese life. Café Central – which was opened in 1876 and counts Trotsky, Freud, Stalin and Hitler among its former patrons – is perhaps the city’s most famous, but Café Landtmann (1873) and Café Sperl (1800) are just as striking. It would be wrong, however, to paint Vienna as a city that lives in the past: Austria’s most liberal metropolis, it is a distinctly modern capital, with a vibrant arts, bar and restaurant scene, borne from a large student population and creative industries based in the city. For Austrian fare, visitors can choose between the likes of the Michelin-star Zum Schwarzen Kameel (Bognergasse 5) and the rustic, low-key Gasthaus Pöschl (Weihburggasse 17). In summer head to the Spittelberg area, with its Biedermeier buildings, ivy-covered lanes, cosy bistros, lively student bars and Schanigärten options (outdoor dining areas). Spend just a few hours in the city and you’ll realise why Vienna is the perfect city to call home.