It is no secret that my heart is in Vienna, so when Accor Hotels invited bloggers to write about their favourite place for their A Tale of Three Cities competition it seemed a bit of a no-brainer to enter. Here are the top three things I love about the city I’m proud to still call home, half a lifetime later.
1. Centre Of A Bygone Empire
There’s a reassuring continuity about Vienna. A sense that time has stood still. A knowledge that these are the same streets walked by Mozart, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Klimt and a million others.
Walking around the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard encircling the city centre, you’d easily be forgiven for thinking you’d gone back in time to when the mighty Austro-Hungarian Empire stretched to Poland in the north, Romania in the east and Croatia in the south.
Starting at the State Opera House and strolling clockwise you pass imperial palace the Hofburg, two museums, parliament, the town hall and the university. These were all built during the late 1800s to show off the power and splendour of the Habsburg rulers. And they still stand, as glorious as they did then, nearly 100 years after the demise of empire.
But where Vienna differs to let’s say, London, for example, is that these grand historical buildings are part of the everyday. People sunbathe in the gardens of the Hofburg, they are not fenced off for paying tourists. You can go for cocktails in the Palmenhaus, the former palace greenhouse. Commuters walk the cobbles of the First District just as people have done for centuries beforehand. I once worked near Schoenbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Habsburgs, and spent many a lunch hour sitting in the imperial rose garden.
I return to Vienna several times a year, having lived there as a child and a teenager in the 1980s and 1990s. I find it reassuring that in my 30s I know it as well now as I did then.
2. Summer In The City
With a continental climate that brings hot summers as well as very cold winters, Vienna is truly glorious in the sunshine. From May to September, every open space in the city gets turned into a place to relax, enjoy the sunshine and catch up with friends.
Having retreated safely inside for winter, the cafes of the Graben once again spill out into the sunshine. The square in front of the town hall, the Rathaus, plays host to a variety of events including music festivals and an open-air cinema – as well as the glamorous annual Aids fundraiser, the Life Ball.
Down by the Danube Canal, tons of sand are dumped by the water to create an inner city beach. Then there is the Prater, the vast city park that is home to several sport stadiums, a racecourse and most famously, a funfair. No trip to Vienna would be complete without a ride on its famous Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad.
A short ride out of the city is the Donauinsel, or Danube Island, where the Viennese go to enjoy the many bars and restaurants of the Copa Cagrana. A couple of U-Bahn stops beyond that and you reach my personal favourite, the Alte Donau. Here you can rent a boot and swim in the oxbow lake. I spent many summers here as a teenager and enjoy it as much in my mid-thirties as I ever have. The restaurants overlooking the water are particularly noted for their spare ribs, although beware the portion sizes.
And for the ultimate pool with a view, it it worth a trek into the hills for an afternoon at the Krapfenwaldlbad. Built on the eve of the First World War and opened a couple of decades later, the old-fashioned changing rooms come replete with Habsburg crest. Here you can take a dip while looking out over spectacular views of the entire city, or rest in the shade of the surrounding woods.
3. Capital Of Coffee
The Viennese Kaffeehaus is everything that Starbucks, Costa and the rest of their ilk aren’t. The story goes that coffee was introduced to Vienna by an Austrian spy who, as reward for his work during the siege of 1683, asked to be brought the coffee beans left by the fleeing Turkish forces. The Kaffeehaus has been an Viennese social institution ever since.
It can be a daunting experience for the uninitiated with a vast array of coffees to choose from. So much so that one chain, Aida, has introduced a handy wall chart for guests to identify their ideal brew. Looking for a Cappuccino? You’re probably best off ordering a Melange, as a Viennese Cappuccino comes with a hefty dose of whipped cream on top. Want a caffeine shot? That’ll be a Kurz. The more epicurean among you may want to try a Fiaker – a coffee with rum and whipped cream.
There are no cardboard cups to take away your coffee as you rush to work. Once seated, a smartly-dressed waiter will serve you your drink and you can stay as long as you like – to read a newspaper, people watch or savour one of the many sinful-looking cakes on display. Whatever you wish. Coffee is treated as something to savour and a trip to the Kaffeehaus is a perfect anecdote to the regular caffeine-fuelled rush of modern life. Much like a stroll around Vienna itself.
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Copyright Natalie Marchant/Tales from Taliena