DUBLIN: There are few places more regal than Vienna. The former capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire is one of Europe’s great cities, filled with imperial palaces, baroque architecture and countless artistic and cultural highlights. It’s also increasingly being seen as a haven for design and food — and gradually shedding its rather staid reputation: while Austria’s star may have fallen since the heady days when it ruled a large part of the world, Vienna’s star is very much in ascendance.
First, the palaces. You can thank the Habsburg Monarchy for the Hofburg palace complex, a stunning collection of imperial architecture in the center of the city. Highlights include the Spanish Riding School, where stallions perform intricate equine dances; the Burgkapelle, where the Vienna Boy’s Choir sings at Sunday Mass; and the fascinating Kaiserappartments, where the city’s royalty lived and played.
Other palaces worth visiting are the Schloss Schonbrunn, the Habsburg’s 1,441-room summer residence, and the Schloss Belvedere, a huge complex of baroque buildings, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and includes a museum featuring a plethora of Austrian art.
And if you’re looking for an artistic fix, you are in the right place — Vienna is one of the world’s great art capitals. Head to the Albertina first, which is a converted 19th-century palace filled with old masters and some of the world’s best 20th-century artists. There’s work by everyone from Monet to Picasso to Rothko and it’s worth spending a few hours here to take it all in. A few minutes away is mumok, Vienna’s contemporary art museum. It has a huge collection of more than 10,000 works, featuring the likes of Jasper Johns, Roy Lichenstein and Pablo Picasso. It focuses on modern art, something reflected in the building’s stark design.
By this stage, you are going to need a pit stop, and a few minutes’ walk from mumok is the Hotel Sacher — the most storied hotel in the city. It’s hosted Queen Elizabeth II, John F. Kennedy and a host of other world leaders and A-listers. It is deservedly famous for its Sachertorte, a type of chocolate cake invented for Prince Wenzel von Metternich by the hotel’s founder, Franz Sacher, in 1832.
Given that its former residents include the likes of Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Strauss, it’s no surprise that Vienna is a city obsessed with music. There are countless venues across the city where you can hear classical music, including Musikverein, where the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perform; the stunningly designed gold-and-crystal Staatsoper (State Opera House); and the wonderful Konzerthaus. For a tour of the city’s musical heritage, pay a visit to Haus der Musik, which features a range of interactive exhibits and traces the musical journey from the prehistoric age to the present day. It’s located in the Palace of Archduke Charles, where the founder of the Vienna Philharmonic once lived.
Vienna may not traditionally be known for its food (aside from the ubiquitous schnitzel), but recent years have seen it rise up the foodie ranks. A good place to start is Naschmarkt, a popular market dotted with small stalls and restaurants. There’s everything from noodles and falafel to, of course, wurstel.
For something more upmarket, head to Gastwirtschaft Wratschko, a favorite of the late Anthony Bourdain. Housed in a low-lit, wood-paneled restaurant that oozes atmosphere, it features a huge range of traditional Austrian cuisine. We recommend trying the steak with green peppercorn sauce, although if you want to go veggie, opt for the cabbage, tomato and cheese lasagna.
Once you are fed and watered, head to the Riesenrad, a huge Ferris wheel built in 1897 that’s over 65 meters high, and takes 20 minutes to complete its rotation. You may recognize it from its many cinematic appearances, including the 1987 James Bond movie “The Living Daylights.”
For something more down to earth, sign up for one of the many river cruises that head up and down the Danube. Most of the cruises offer similar itineraries, although costs can vary wildly, so do your research. The Danube is Europe’s second-longest river and flows nearly 3,000km through 10 countries, and there are plenty of boats that will bring you across Eastern Europe via the river. Although Vienna’s charms are such you’ll likely be reluctant to leave.