Vienna: the cultural capital comes of age

Once sedate Vienna is reclaiming the creative spirit of its fin-de-siècle heyday with a host of exceptional new luxury hotels and intriguing attractions

Rose-hued tangerine clouds roll out high over the city of Vienna like a Turneresque sunset. The fiery sky forms a canopy that extends from the Belvedere Palace to the east, across the gothic towers of Stephansdom cathedral, to the Rathaus, the town hall, in the west.

Such is my view from Le Loft, the 18th-floor bar and restaurant of the Sofitel Hotel. The Vienna-on-fire effect is, in fact, an optical illusion: a reflection in the 360-degree surrounding glass walls of Le Loft’s illuminated ceiling by the visual artist Pipilotti Rist.

Vienna is a city looking at itself through a 21st-century prism. “Schön, ja ?” drawls a soigné Austrian woman in her late thirties sipping Aperol Spritz next to me at the bar. “I normally spend all my time in New York or Berlin, cities with energy,” she tells me.

“Vienna made me feel old. But, it’s changed. Wien is cool now — it’s sexy.” She runs her fingers through her hair, a sleek black bob streaked with a single line of electric blue: a contemporary accent to her classic Chanel ensemble.

I used to think of the Austrian capital as a dowdy grande dame, suffocatingly corseted, and weighed down by too many petticoats. But if the spirit of today’s city were a woman, then my drinking partner would be its new incarnation.

My memories of Vienna had always been tinged by a cloying stuffiness. I first came here as a child, dragged by my parents through the Habsburg’s collections of Titians, Brueghels and Velazquezes in stuccoed rooms that looked as if they were built out of wedding cake. I felt like I’d overdosed on sickly pink marzipan. Yet there was a maverick spirit lurking beneath the city’s gilded surfaces.

The elegant café at the Kunsthistorisches Museum
The elegant café at the Kunsthistorisches Museum

I later discovered the disturbed self-portrait of Egon Schiele; the works of iconoclastic Secessionists Gustav Klimt, Koloman Moser and architect Otto Wagner, the forerunners of our contemporary art gallerists; and the city’s Kaffeehäuser, where in 1913 revolutionary ideas began to tick like time bombs in the minds of Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky, Joseph Stalin and a failed watercolourist called Adolf Hitler. But the city had slipped into a century of lethargy.

Today, like a Sleeping Beauty, Vienna’s audacious spirit has finally been resurrected. A spate of hotel openings and renovations, contemporary galleries and Michelin-star restaurants has reawakened the comatose bourgeois city like a shot of adrenalin to its heart.

Where once only the steeples of Stephansdom, the Rathaus and the city’s churches dominated the skyline, there are now buzzing rooftop bars from which to view them – at thrillingly vertiginous heights.

The rooftop bar at Hotel Lamée, with a view of Stephansdom cathdral
The rooftop bar at Hotel Lamée, with a view of Stephansdom cathedral

Traditional, family-run milliners, cobblers and glove-makers have been joined by young, avant-garde fashion and furniture designers and global fashion empires. In the new Vienna, it’s possible to go for a reviving swim at a pool in a former bank vault before a tour of the Hofburg Imperial Palace; visit Mozart’s Figarohaus in the afternoon and dance to a Beethoven remix in a club in a former underground pedestrian walkway at night.

The apotheosis of this best-of-old-and-new philosophy is the Park Hyatt in Am Hof square, Austria’s first Hyatt, at the heart of the first district. Formerly the headquarters of the National Bank of Austria, the sandstone art nouveau building, which opened to guests last summer, has been sensitively restored to provide a new level of contemporary Viennese glamour to rival that of New York.

When I arrive at the Hyatt, youthful concierges buzz about in the vast oak-panelled and marble lobby, which features two enormous 19th-century Austrian landscapes. “You absolutely must go to Mochi’s in Leopoldstadt ,” I overhear one say. “It’s the best sashimi in town.”

Inside the Stefansdom cathedral
Inside the Stefansdom cathedral

The curved back of a modern leather couch in the lobby’s centre, in the style of star designer Matteo Thun, is a gentle reminder of the organic flowing forms of the art nouveau movement, as are the giant blown-up brooches and hairpins exhibited in its suites and corridors, an oblique reference to the paraphernalia of Viennese balls.

The original marble banking hall now doubles as the hotel’s restaurant and contemporary art gallery. I order an espresso in the silver art deco coffee lounge: the pièce de résistance  here is an original mother-of-pearl mosaic column that leads to a mirrored staircase inspired by the one Coco Chanel had in her Parisian apartment.

The couture salon allusions are apt. Next to the Park Hyatt Vienna is the Prada store in a similarly notable building, its interior designed by the architect Roberto Baciocchi,  complete with black marquina marble staircase and Verner Panton  sofas.

This store and the Hyatt make up part of the new award-winning Golden Quarter, a U-shaped luxury shopping district that comprises the traditional boutiques in Kohlmarkt and Graben, as well as an Alexander McQueen store and Louis Vuitton’s largest outlet in Europe.

Konstantin Filippou is the chef behind Vienna's most talked-about restaurant
Konstantin Filippou is the chef behind Vienna’s most talked-about restaurant

The Hyatt’s debut, and the launch of a Kempinski hotel in Palais Hansen two years ago, have had a domino effect on some of Vienna’s luxury institutions, which have undertaken their own renovations.

One is the Hotel Imperial — the Grand Budapest Hotel of Vienna — built by the Duke of Württermberg  in 1863, where I stayed on my first trip to Vienna. The updated Elisabeth Suite (Room 222), where my parents once slept, is the same, but pristine: cream damask wallpaper, chaise longue and a leather-studded Napoleonic bed.

The hotel’s recent extension offers respite from the relentless ornateness, the art deco-style cake shop, café and restaurant fitted with red velvet banquettes to draw in a younger, hipper crowd. In the restaurant, I can’t help staring – in awe – at a tiny Austrian woman who elegantly polishes off a Wiener schnitzel the size of the Gobi Desert in less than two minutes.

A dish of blood pudding, beetroof and wood sorrel at Konstantin Filippou
A dish of blood pudding, beetroof and wood sorrel at Konstantin Filippou

I’ve suffered from chronic schnitzel fatigue on previous visits to Vienna, but since then the Viennese culinary scene has been radically shaken up – helped, in part, by the diverse influences of the city’s large migrant population.

Most interesting is Konstantin Filippou, the half-Austrian, half-Greek chef with a Michelin star, who had previously worked under Gordon Ramsay, Jean-Christophe Novelli and Heinz Reitbauer at the twice Michelin-starred Steirereck in the Stadtpark, where the waiting time for a table is eight weeks.

At Filippou’s, I nab the best seat in the house for lunch: the slate-grey kitchen table opposite the kitchen, where I glimpse Konstantin’s mass of curly black hair bob up and down. He is part conductor, part mad scientist. The design of this place is minimal: Turkish lamps hang on bare, grey walls over simple ash wood tables; it’s all about the food here.

Young waiters carry out six-plate menus: duck-liver parfait rolled in beetroot, with grilled langoustine, apple and seaweed; suckling pig with eggplant and kimchi; peach with a curd ball in a green skin of dill oil. Konstantin’s intricate and innovative creations are a natural progression from his mixed culinary heritage, which is a fusion of the fruits of the Ionian Sea and the Graz countryside.

The food is so light, I’ve digested it within an hour, but I still need a shot of caffeine to resuscitate me from my pleasure stupor. The coffee-house culture in Vienna is listed as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” by Unesco; the Viennese claim to have invented the process of filtering coffee when Turkish forces left behind 100 sacks of coffee beans when they abandoned the Ottoman siege of the city in 1683.

I avoid Café Central – the former local of Freud, Lenin and Trotsky, and now a tourist trap – and take a tram to Café Prückel, which celebrated its centenary last year. It is situated between Otto Wagner’s modernist Postsparkasse post office, which looks like the set of a Fritz Lang film, and MAK, the city’s Museum of Applied Arts.

The MuseumsQuartier Vienna
The MuseumsQuartier Vienna

Prückel was partly redesigned in the Fifties by Oswald Haerdtl  with a neon sign, gooseberry-coloured seats and Formica tables and is eternally fashionable. Its habitués are young design types and literati, but I’m most charmed by its older patrons: two ladies dressed in matching lavender hats playing a very competitive game of bridge.

The Viennese have mastered many important arts of civilisation – from the etiquette of serving coffee (always with a glass of water) to museum curation. To avoid what they call here die Qual der Wahl (the agony of choice), I limit myself to visiting exhibitions at two of the city’s 100 institutions.

In March 2013, the Kunsthistorisches Museum debuted the Kunstkammer, the “Cabinet of Curiosities” originated by Rudolf II, Holy Roman Emperor from 1572 to 1612, and continued by subsequent Habsburg collectors.

I saunter through 600 years of rare treasures under frescoed ceilings – from 16th-century religious busts to chess sets, 13th-century Venetian glassware, gilded bronze cabinets and spring-operated clocks and automatons – without any soporific side effects.

In fact, the 19th-century Habsburg clan are much more colourful than I had remembered. The perfectly restored Winter Palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy opened its doors for the first time in 2013; it is the sister palace to Belvedere, which houses the world’s biggest collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt.

When I visit, the Winter Palace’s baroque interior – which includes the wondrous golden cabinet room, its powder-blue walls painted by Franz Zogelmann – is offset by contemporary works by Grayson Perry, Sean Scully, Christopher Wool and Yayoi Kusama, alongside a permanent collection that includes Rubens and Van Dyke.

By the time I leave, the sun is beginning to drop behind the tiled roof of the 12th-century Stephansdom. I’ve heard the best view here is on the top-floor terrace at Hotel Lamée in a Thirties building named after the Austrian-born Hollywood actress Hedy Lamaar.

From the ninth floor, the cathedral towers are so close I feel as if I could catch pigeons with my bare hands. Ludwig van Beethoven realised the extent of his deafness when he saw birds flee from the bell tower, but heard nothing.

In Haus der Musik, the city’s innovative museum of sound, there is an installation of five listening devices that allows me to experience the deterioration of the composer’s hearing while looking at Pop Art portraits of the Viennese greats:

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Johann Strauss, Gustav Mahler, Josef Haydn. On my way out, I listen on my iPod to Mozart’s Requiem Mass and the warbles of Lacrimosa to watch the 23,000 tiles of the Stephensdom turn from blue and grey to gold in the dwindling sunlight.

To catapult myself back into the 21st century, I take the U-Bahn to Donauinsel, an island in the Danube River, to the Sky Bar on the 58th floor of the 787ft-tall DC Tower 1 . Designed by the French architect Dominique Perrault, it is the the tallest building in Austria and houses the city’s futuristic hotel, Meliá Vienna.

Here I meet Ildiko, a Berlin fashion designer who takes me to Roberto American Bar, a late-night drinking den. It’s like stepping into Twenties New York. To the sounds of Satchmo, I sip a Sweet and Sour Symphony (vodka, elderflower liqueur, raspberry and lemon juice) on a velvet banquette.

Groggy the next morning, I hire a city bike and take a trip the Naschmarkt, the food market, to pick up some bread and cheese for a picnic in the Stadtpark’s  English gardens. I enjoy a heavy brunch of cheese made with truffle and honey, and traditional Bergkäse  (mountain cheese) topped with apricots, and slip into a blissful lactose coma.

That evening, I sit in the lower ring of the stuccoed Spanische Hofreitschule (the world famous Spanish Riding School) in the Hofburg, looking down on Lipizzaner stallions that look carved out of marble, as they pirouette and cabriole to a Strauss waltz with all the haughtiness of prima ballerinas.

Their equestrian ballet in a hushed, imperial setting – combined with a fading hangover – is making me feel quite lachrymose. Some Viennese traditions should never be reinvented.

Kirker Holidays (020 7593 2283; kirkerholidays.com) offers three nights at the Park Hyatt from £1,069 per person, the Kempinski Palais Hansen from £892 per person, The Hotel Sacher from £1,029 per person or The Imperial from £1,025 per person. Prices are based on two sharing, and include breakfast, flights from London Heathrow, private transfers, a ticket that allows entry to the Kunsthistorisches and Leopold museums, and Kirker’s concierge service.

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