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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.

The modern city

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.

A revitalised complex of Baroque stables – where horses once stamped their imperial hooves – now forms the post-modern MuseumsQuartier (MQ) which packs in contemporary art, dance, and theatre, designer shopping, gourmet restaurants, and cafés and bars that buzz until past 2am.

At the epicentre of the MQ arts complex is the world’s largest collection of works by Egon Schiele, while the Leopold Museum houses masterpieces of European Modernism. The Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK) – with its monolithic exterior of basalt-lava-stone – features works of Fluxus and Nouveau Réalisme movements, pop art by Andy Warhol, Claes Oldenburg, Jasper Johns, and classic moderns like Mondrian and Kandinsky. Special theme exhibitions at the striking Vienna Kunsthalle are another popular attraction. But the MQ is not just a realm for adults.
Children flock to ZOOM, their own museum where budding artists get creative in the ZOOM Studio, experiment with trick movies and sound in the multi-media ZOOM Lab, and make myriad discoveries at interactive exhibitions.
Fans of Gustav Klimt, founder of the Vienna Secession (Austria’s Art Nouveau) movement, will find his work in museums across the city, but most notably at the Belvedere. This princely Baroque summer palace boasts the world’s largest Klimt collection, including the golden Judith and legendary The Kiss, with some fine examples of work by 20th and 21st century artists.
Klimt’s breathtaking Beethoven Frieze is housed in the basement of the Secession building, an eye-catching Art Deco white cube topped by a cupola of golden laurel leaves that also houses exhibitions of contemporary art.

Imperial Vienna

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.

The Habsburgs were great collectors of art, and in the Museum of Fine Arts (Kunsthistorisches Museum, or KHM) you can immerse yourself in paintings by Titian and Tintoretto, Rubens, Rembrandt and Raphael, Vermeer, Velasquez, and the largest Bruegel collection in the world. A Thursday evening treat is the superb buffet in the spectacular Cupola Hall – you can walk through the picture gallery between courses. Or go on Sunday morning for the Art Brunch.

Make the most of a fine day to visit Schönbrunn, the Habsburg’s grand summer palace, considered one of the most beautiful Baroque palaces in Europe and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The State Rooms and the Great Gallery are stunning, and you can enjoy walks in the surrounding parkland, home to the world’s oldest zoo, a giant palm house, and marionette theatre; and climb to the hilltop Gloriette for coffee, pastries, and an unparalleled view of the city. Indeed, an unmissable facet of Viennese life are some of the best, most atmospheric coffee houses in the world for which this city is renowned.
Two highlights are the glamorous Café Sacher Wein, Philharmonikerstrasse 4, famed for its divine chocolate cake (Sacher-Torte) – now shipped around the world; and fresh, homemade Buchteln (cakes filled with apricot jam) accompanied by a Maria Theresia Coffee (a large espresso served with Cointreau) at the legendary Café Hawelka at Dorotheergasse 6.

Like the city itself, these establishments are both steeped in Vienna’s heady mix of rich history and tradition, served with a modern twist.


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.

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