Written by Sue Dobson
With some of the grandest architecture in Europe, museums packed with art and priceless treasures, music by world-renowned orchestras, cosy coffee houses, fine food, and smart shopping, Vienna captures the heart and engages all the senses. For sheer elegance and style, Austria’s capital city is almost unparalleled.
Vienna’s architecture speaks of centuries of power and grandeur; its museums house some of the world’s finest works of art, while Imperial palaces display dazzling treasures. More composers have called Vienna home than any other European city – think Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Haydn, Gustav Mahler, and both Johann Strausses – and its musical tradition continues with an ever-changing season of operas and concerts in settings of suitable grandeur.
But Vienna’s glorious past is only part of this masterpiece. This is a city that successfully incorporates the contemporary with the historical. Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the eccentric 20th century architect and artist, brought colour and fun into community housing and his surreal creation which, together with the KunstHausWien, are among the most visited and photographed buildings in the city. Four different architects each converted four vast brick towers, the Gasometers, from the decommissioned municipal gasworks. Today these structures, known simply as A, B, C, and D, are a city within a city, filled with a healthy mix of student and luxury apartments and offices, as well as shopping malls connected by skybridges, and are the subject of numerous theses and studies into urban planning.
For centuries, the Habsburg dynasty ruled their empire from the Hofburg, Vienna’s Imperial Palace. This massive complex houses 18 vast buildings, incredible museum collections, powerful squares, and elegant parks, plus cafés and restaurants for when your feet tire – as they surely will. The glass Palm House with its exotic plants and Hofburg garden views is a delightful setting for a coffee.
See the sumptuous family apartments where Emperor Franz Joseph, his Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), their children and the entire royal household lived and held court. Admire the porcelain and extravagant dining services in the Imperial Silver Collection, be mesmerised by the jewels, crowns, and insignia in the Treasury, and don’t miss the Sisi Museum with its portraits and personal possessions of the beautiful and tragic Empress.
Having a ball – waltzing into 2010
Rooted in the late-18th century, high-society dance evenings held in Viennese palaces, Vienna’s annual Ball Season is unique. It begins on New Year’s Eve with the Kaiserball, when flower displays fill the sumptuous state rooms of the Hofburg Imperial Palace and a Viennese Operetta Gala is part of the proceedings.
? The Opera Ball (February 11) at the Vienna State Opera House is a dazzling social event. The city’s debutantes and their partners open the ceremony at 10pm with a formal polonaise, and some 5,000 international socialites take to the floor for waltzes, foxtrots, and even some swing until 5am.
? Around 300 balls are held during the January and February carnival season, with various professions and organisations holding their own special event. They are romantic and glamorous occasions with men in black evening attire, or white tie and tails for the most formal and traditional events, and women in floor-length ball gowns. For the Vienna Philharmonic Ball (January 21) the dress code is strictly white gowns and gloves for the ladies, black tails and white gloves for the men. While the waltz reigns supreme, ball music includes jazz and popular dance hits.
? Dining City, February 22-28, is a festival of fine food when exclusive gourmet meals at an affordable fixed price (two-course lunch for €12.50, three-course evening meal €25) are on the menu at some of Vienna’s top restaurants.
? Vienna Ice Dream, January 22-February 7. Two giant ice rinks, linked by a skating trail through the park in front of City Hall, attract thousands of skaters and onlookers. Countless stands sell hot drinks and warming food. On City Hall Square from 9am-11pm daily.
Spanish riding school
For over 400 years, the Spanish Riding School has been the home of classic equestrian skills, and the sight of the immaculately trained, high-stepping, white Lipizzaner stallions performing ballet movements in perfect harmony with the music is unforgettable. Tickets for the gala performances in the Baroque hall can be hard to come by, but the morning training exercises with music (Tuesday to Saturday) are open to visitors and are hugely impressive.
Get your bearings on the yellow Ring Tram that travels along the Ringstrasse. This broad and tree-lined, 4km-long boulevard encircles the inner city and offers views of some of its grandest buildings.