Last year, Vienna was ranked No. 1 among the world’s cities for quality of life by Mercer, an international human resources and financial consulting company.
Fifty-five years ago, life in the Austrian capital would not have won any awards. Devastated by World War II and occupied for 10 years by the Allies — the United States, Soviet Union, Britain and France — Austria made a wise choice. In return for sovereignty, Austria would remain neutral in world politics and eschew membership in NATO. This pledge of neutrality has paid off. After 2,000 years of military threats by Romans, Carolingians, Mongols, Ottoman Turks and German Nazis, Vienna was free to celebrate the pleasures of peace.
We sampled some of the city’s pleasures during a recent week in Vienna. We heard the Vienna Boys Choir at the Hofmusikkapelle, we watched the Lipizzaner stallions perform an exquisitely choreographed equestrian ballet and stood through a performance of “The Wizard of Oz” at the Burgtheater.
Art museums abound. We saw an extensive collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s paintings at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, a fine arts museum that also has other northern European and Italian art, well-explained collections of Egyptian and Roman sculptures, and Austrian archaeological treasures.
We revisited Turkey at the Ephesus Museum and were amazed by the relief frieze celebrating the Roman victory over the Persians in the second century. There are also collections of musical instruments and armor in this museum.
We reveled in the Beethoven frieze by Gustav Klimt in the basement of the Secession Building. We were awed by the gold embossing on the Klimt paintings titled “The Kiss” and “Judith” at the Upper Belvedere Palace and the stunning views of the gardens. We were enthralled by the tales of the women Klimt painted, especially the tale of a Jewish woman who died at a concentration camp.
We reviewed the history of the city of Vienna at the Wein Museum. The highlights were the original stained-glass windows from St. Stephen’s Cathedral and wooden models showing how Vienna had changed. Every period of Viennese history was represented. The surprise was no tribute to Mozart. Even though Mozart lived in Vienna from 1781-1791 and wrote many of his best-known works in the city, the only evidence of Mozart in the Wein Museum was a painting of a concert given at a Freemasons’ meeting.
There is even a reconstruction of Adolf Loos’ living room. Loos was an early 20th-century architect who believed that decoration was a crime. He thought the Greek columns and statues on the Habsburg buildings were a waste of the workers’ time. His waste of the workers’ time. His designs featured stark, geometric lines.
We saw more of Loos’ work at the American Bar. The exterior was plain except for a stained-glass sign. The interior was tiny but paneled in wood, marble and mirrors.
Loos’ use of elegant wood also could be seen in the public restrooms on the Graben near St. Peter’s Church. Paneled in mahogany, these restrooms — worth the 50 euro cents fee to use — have chandeliers and are sometimes used for poetry readings.
Another architectural highlight was the Karlskirche. The church was dedicated to Charles Borromeo, a 16th-century bishop from Milan, when a plague epidemic spared Vienna in 1713. Because of renovations, it was possible to ride an industrial elevator to the base of the 235-foot dome. Then we walked up about 10 somewhat shaky flights of stairs into the lantern of the church for a great view of Vienna and the tiny dove at the top of the dome.
Vienna caters to the senses. Music is everywhere. We saw memorials to composers including Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg. My husband hates opera, so he would not spring for a 3- or 4-euro ticket for standing-room places at the Staats- oper, but there were plenty of opportunities to buy chamber concert tickets featuring music by Strauss and Mozart. We heard street musicians throughout the city and accordion players in the Stadtpark and Augustinerkeller restaurant.
(If you go to this restaurant, sample the wine or guzzle the beer, but do not order the tafelspitz, or boiled beef. It tasted more like corned beef than the Vienna classic that Emperor Franz Josef was reported to have eaten every day.)
Food is another pleasure in Vienna. The third branch of the United Nations opened in Vienna in 1980, but the city’s true melting pots are found in its restaurants. Our favorite was Firenze Enoteca. Our splurge was first courses of risotto with mushrooms (layered with thin slices of Parmesan cheese) and huge tortellinis stuffed with duck and served with slices of avocado and ginger. We also had an immense saddle of lamb cut into inch-wide chops accompanied by roast potatoes and vegetables. With chianti and tap water, the tab was 68 euros. The meal was so essentially Italian my husband was sure the owner was from Tuscany. Instead, he had come to Vienna 30 years ago from the Croatian island of Korcula.
We had another fabulous meal at the s’Muellerbeisl. The owner was Turkish but had gone to cooking school in Vienna, and the entire menu was traditionally Viennese. He didn’t serve Turkish coffee, but the Tafelspitz, or boiled beef, was excellent. Emperor Franz Josef was reported to have eaten it every day, and after this meal I could see why.
Turkish coffee was readily available at the coffee houses, but we opted for more Viennese options as part of our daily “late lunch” routine. The classic was mélange, a coffee and whipped cream concoction that was better at some cafes than others. It was best at the Café Mozart and disappointing at the Café Landtmann (known as Sigmund Freud’s morning hangout).
There were so many variations of coffee that many cafes had pictures showing the possibilities. I had one with brandy at the Museum Café and one with orange liqueur at the Café Demel. As an Austrian native (with his Russian girlfriend) whom we met in the American Bar told us the only good thing about Starbucks in Vienna was that the coffee was made from Viennese water.
Lunch also included some cake, and the options were overwhelming. I compared the original Sacher torte at the Sacher Hotel with the Café Demel imitation and preferred the original because there was a richer apricot flavor and the icing was thicker. My other favorites were Esterhazy, marzipan, panda and nut tortes. My husband preferred the strudels, generally served with vanilla sauce.
Our oddest food adventure was during a trip on the D Tram to Vienna’s wine gardens in Heurigen. I had fond memories of spending hours in latticed cubicles laced with vines overlooking the Danube from my first trip to Vienna in 1964. We set off on a tram ride fortified with cans of Turkish Efes beer, which a native Austrian told us could not be imbibed on the trams. (How different from Germany!) We were heading for the Beethovengang, the last stop in Nussdorf, a long distance north of central Vienna. I knew the river-top wine gardens of my youth would be closed because it was December, but I had high hopes for the three in Nussdorf. All were closed.
But we did have a great dinner of beer, pork schnitzel and spinach-stuffed potatoes at the Bamkraxler, the only beer garden amid the wine gardens. It was worth the trip.
Know & go
We flew to Vienna on Germanwings from Cologne. Vienna’s airport is a 20-minute express bus ride to Schwendenplatz, both a U-bahn and a tram stop. The closest tram stop to the bus drop-off point is Salztorbrücke (a half block to the west of the drop point). Many of the trams are handicapped accessible, which makes it easy to load luggage.
Transit tickets are cheapest if bought at a tobacco shop. The seven-day Wochenkarte transit pass is a bargain at 14 euros, but it goes from Monday to Sunday, so it might be necessary to buy some extra tickets. A single ticket is 1.70 euros at a tobacco shop or 2.20 on the tram. A 24-hour pass is 5.70 and a 72-hour pass is 13.60 euros.
Where to stay
We stayed at the Novotel Wein City, Aspernbrueckengasse 1. The hotel is a minute’s walk from the Nestroyplatz U-bahn, two blocks from a tram stop at Julius-Raab-Platz and a 10-minute walk from St. Stephen’s Church. The rate (through booking.com) was 114 euros a night for a double, and it included a sumptuous breakfast buffet.
Good eats and drinks
• Zanone & Zanone is a gelato shop two blocks from the cathedral. As we walked home to the hotel on Rotenturmstrasse, my husband always stopped for a gigantic 2.50-euro cone. It was so huge he was still eating it as we crossed the canal to the hotel.
• Enoteca Firenze is at Singerstrasse 3 near the Stephansplatz. Its telephone number is (+43) (0)1-513-4374
• S’Muellerbrust is at Seilerstaette 15 , about four blocks northeast of the Opera House; (+43) (0)1-512-4265.
• Augustinerkeller is in the basement of the Augustina Museum at Augustinerstrasse 1; (+43) (0)1-533-1026. If you go, stay away from the Tafelspitz; it tasted more like corned beef than the Vienna classic.
• Bamkraxler is a block from the last northern stop of Tram D (direction Nussbaum) at Kahlenberger Strasse 17; (+43) (0)1-318-8800. It is closed Mondays.
Find ticket information for the Vienna Boys Choir, the Spanish Riding School for Lipizzaner stallion shows, operas, balls and theaters at www.viennaticket.com and in Rick Steves’ book titled “Vienna, Salzburg and Tirol.”
• Good movies to watch before going to Vienna are “The Third Man” (about black-market intrigue and the Allied occupation of Vienna) and “The Rape of Europa” (about Nazi plans to commandeer art for Hitler’s museum).
• Each year, the declaration of neutrality is commemorated on Oct. 26, Austrian National Day, with parades and a work holiday.
Lynne Dillingham teaches reading at Bitburg Elementary School in Germany.