So cries Midge Ure in his 1981 classic, which sadly can’t be classified as a chart-topper as it was kept off that spot by John Lennon’s Women (fair) and Joe Dolce’s Shaddap Ya Face (awkward). I’m not entirely sure what the message of the song was, but along with waltzes, biscuits and ice cream, that’s what immediately came to mind when I thought about the word Vienna.
The city itself is about a lot more than that. Its role in European, nay, world history cannot be underestimated: it was the capital of one Europe’s most important Empires, home to so many great composers, and the site of the defeat of the Ottomans – it was the pinnacle of their incursions into Europe, and from then onwards they just lost territory. This is a city with character that seems to be ignored on most people’s go-to lists, dropped in favour of the pulsing techno of its linguistic brother Berlin, its upstart former subject now famed for cheap beer, Prague, or for its one-time co-capital and mecca for affordable romantic (and boozy) weekends, Budapest. But it really deserves much more attention.
October: Summer was over and wanderlust was setting back in. New York had been done in February, Stockholm in June and a new destination was required. Cue a joint agreement with my girlfriend to visit somewhere neither of us had been and after a lot of browsing on British Airways’ package deals, we settled on Vienna.
We walked in the cold air
Freezing breath on a window pane
Late November: Dark mornings come to dominate the autumnal days as winter creeps up on us. I still experience childish excitement every time I go away, so my sleep was understandably poor, but I dragged myself from a snug bed, picked up my luggage and braved the elements to rush into a waiting taxi – we were Heathrow bound! It’s a habit, nay, a tradition that jaunts from LHR start with a few glasses of the good stuff, so after a swift libation (accompanied by a wince at the prices) at Caviar House and Prunier, we were crammed into BA0696 and soon were wending our way across a frostbitten continent. I think I’m a great travel companion, friendly and talkative, but unfortunately this puts you in the “not great travel companion” category when your +1 enjoys the chance to nap at any given opportunity. Regardless, my journey whizzed by and just two hours after leaving chilly London we were in slightly warmer Vienna.
If you’re heading into the centre of the city, I can’t recommend the transfer coach enough. It’s super cheap, you get to practice your German skills (or can make your companion handle that as I did), it’s nicely heated and with comfortable seats. Plus, the journey to our hotel took no time at all. On this occasion we chose to stay at the Melia, located across the Danube/Donau from the central part of the city. It sits in the Viennese equivalent of Canary Wharf, full of glistening glass buildings and a bracing breeze off the river, and nearby to the home of the UN Office in Vienna, the VIC. This is a solid five-star hotel, and even though the prices are slightly cheaper than some of the Central (Ringstrasse) options, it doesn’t disappoint in any way.
Floor to ceiling windows, deep luxury carpet, a gigantic bed, and a deep soaking bathtub in a large, black marble bathroom all mean that your room is more than adequate. A buffet style breakfast offering a range of hot and cold options and unlimited sparkling (a fine vintage Cava was on offer – this being a Spanish company) means your appetite is sated for whatever the day ahead holds. Oh, and it’s in the tallest building in Vienna so the views aren’t bad either.
The Viennese love their food and drink so we came back from a supply run laden with goodies at very reasonable prices, ranging from cheeses to smoked meats, and a good range of beers (his) to the ingredients for an Aperol Spritz (hers).
Being late November, Vienna was Christmas ready – markets everywhere, lights up and decorations galore – making it perfect for the kind of break that can be romantic, foodie or boozy (or all three). Wrapped up warm we headed from the hotel to the nearby U-Bahn station of Kaisermühlen (famed, apparently, for a Austrian police procedural drama, a good fact to pull out to show/pretend you know your stuff) and after another few minutes, including a rather impressive crossing of the Danube, we were in the heart of Vienna, both historically and culturally: Stephansplatz.
Named after the landmark of Stephansdom, a twelfth-century masterpiece that is still one of the tallest churches in the world, this is a great place to start your exploring. In November it has the added bonus of being surrounded by Christmassy kiosks selling everything from hot food to wooden decorations and – my personal favourite – warmed and warming wine based concoctions. I opted for the Turbo Gluhwein, a potent boozy brew based around spiced wine spiked with a healthy glug of Stroh 120, the Turbo element. This is a dark spiced Austrian rum coming in at a hefty 60%. Served in a festive pottery boot (something I suspect was meant to be a stocking but definitely more closely resembled a wellington), this proved to be just what we needed, providing a sugary boost paired with cockle warming booziness, something very hard to find a fault with.
In terms of tips for exploring Vienna, I’m going to prove to be a pretty terrible travel writer and just recommend wandering. The city centre is a winding network of ancient streets featuring gorgeous shops selling everything from antique books to outstanding handcrafted carvings. Prices are inflated to touristy levels, but some things actually work out cheaper, for example I took the +1 on a trip to Tiffany’s which was about 15% cheaper than the UK. Happiness ensued for all.
Commercial desires satisfied, it was time for a mainline of culture, and as a pair of avid bibliophiles the obvious destination for an afternoons distraction was the Austrian National Library. Located in the Hofburg Palace, this is quite simply one of the most beautiful places on earth. Packed with many leather bound books and smelling of rich mahogany, it also has the bonus of the State Hall of the Old Library being covered in murals painted with such vivid colours they seem to leap out the walls. This place is possibly the pinnacle of Baroque art and architecture.
A day of wandering (accompanied by fuelling stops at Gluhwein stands, of course) resulted in two hungry travellers, who at teatime just happened to be ambling past Café Frauenhuber. As far as historical provenance goes, this ticks quite a few boxes. Founded by a personal chef to Empress Maria Theresa in 1721, not only was it the haunt of Mozart and Beethoven, it is also Vienna’s oldest coffee shop. As a devoted carnivore, I couldn’t visit Vienna and not order the Wiener schnitzel. For the uninitiated, this is a titanic cutlet of veal, breaded and fried. Frauenhuber’s version was rather spectacular – tender and tasty meat encased in crispy breading, and served with buttery herbed potatoes and a squeeze of lemon that cut through the potentially fatty nature that accompanies anything deep fried. As the sun began to set and the lights on the old town came on, it was time to head back to the hotel, appetites of culture, food and spiced wine products more than sated.
The music is weaving, Haunting notes, pizzicato strings.
The rhythm is calling.
Upon hearing that we were heading to the Imperial City, my mother had excelled herself and procured two tickets for one of the biggest dates of the European social calendar – and I got the added bonus of telling a major Disney Princess fan “you shall go to the ball!”. White tie and tails were stowed away in my luggage alongside a bottle of our favourite fizz, Laurent Perrier Ultra Brut. Showered and shaved, and refreshed following a nap, an Uber was hailed and we were on our way. Now preparation isn’t my strong point so we ended up scurrying around the host venue until we found the right entrance, probably cutting quite an amusing sight as we weaved in and out of Christmas stalls, tails and ballgown streaming behind us.
Entrance found and tickets presented we were there and what a sight it was. The first event of the prestigious and jam-packed Viennese ball calendar, the Wiener Rotkreuzball kicks off the season in style at the wonderful Rathaus, the political centre of Vienna. Possibly the only Brits there, that didn’t stop us from having a brilliant time, procuring a great position to watch the debutantes waltz and whirl around the room in time honoured tradition, with our thirsts firmly held at bay by some excellent Austrian sparkling wine. This would be a night to remember. As a rather clumsy, tall Yorkshireman, dancing wasn’t my priority but I suspect these events are possibly as much, if not more, spectator events as they are participatory, and it was both an honour and pleasure to be part of a tradition stretching back to the days of the Strausses.
A day including Habsburg libraries, Wiener Schnitzel and a Viennese ball – what could be a better first encounter with this ancient city?