The opening of an ambitious complex of museums, restaurants and cafés highlights the first year of the new millennium in Vienna, a city already rich in culture.
|Vienna's Schloss Schönbrunn|
Stanley Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey, features two prominent musical selections, Richard Strauss's Thus Spoke Zarathustra and the famed Blue Danube by Johann Strauss (no relation). It is with this tenuous, yet chronologically relevant connection that we begin our Vienna report, a summation of what the city has to offer this year, plus hotel and restaurant reviews, including updates of some old favorites. So, as we proceed, imagine Zarathustra's trumpet fanfare and swirling violins rising up to introduce one of the most exciting cultural events to take place in Vienna in the last decade: the opening of the Museumsquartier.
The MQ, as it is being called, is an enormous cultural complex located in the former Imperial Stables just behind Vienna's Fine Arts and Natural History museums. The city is spending about $130 million to convert these noble equestrian buildings designed by the imperial architect Fischer von Erlach into a living and breathing modern art district, open round-the-clock (with just a short break when the coffeehouse/dance club closes at 4am and the Children's Museum opens again at 8:30am).
On an ordinary day, the MQ will offer a flock of exhibits, as well as dance, music and art performances. There will also be a host of cafés, bars, and garden restaurants the best of which should be the beloved Gleisebeisl, which for years has occupied a part of the former city wall at the back of the complex. The project's architects have planned multiple entranceways to the quarter to encourage people to wander through in hopes of turning it into a popular pedestrian walkway.
MQ's anchor tenant is the Leopold Museum (www.leopolmuseum.org), which is impressive enough to take a place among the city's most important fine art venues. It boasts the world's largest collection of works by the great Austrian artist Egon Schiele, including paintings and superb hand-colored drawings. The collection received outstanding reviews a few years ago when it opened at New York's Museum of Modern Art. There are also major works by Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka, as well as important arts and crafts objects by Otto Wagner, Adolf Loos, Josef Hoffmann and Kolo Moser. The Leopold is not to be missed.
The Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna (www.mmkslw.or.at/MMKSLW) contains works by Picasso, Kandinsky and Magritte, as well as modern Austrian artists such as Arnulf Rainer and Hermann Nitsch. The impressive building is reminiscent of a big black basalt obelisk. (Notice the connection again to Kubricks 2001!).
Additional modern and performance art can be found at the Kunsthalle, which will feature living artists as well as theme and multimedia exhibitions. The quarter will also house the city's Architecture Center, a refurbished Tobacco Museum, and a children's museum.
The MQ will host a number of performances and festivals, including the Vienna Festival in May (see box at right); Viennale, the city's film festival; and Im Puls Tanz 01, Europe's largest festival of contemporary dance (www.tanzwochen.at). At other times the hall will be known as Tanzquartier Vienna, the city's first permanent dance space.
MQ will launch in two stages, the first in June with the opening of the Kunsthalle, the main entrance and courtyards. The first summer event, entitled "A Baroque Party," will link Vienna's baroque heritage with its present-day artists. It all promises to be a mix of the interesting and the strange with attractions such as spoken commentaries in baroque choral style and sound recordings of the last European castrati.
More activities are scheduled for late September-early October with the opening of the aforementioned and soon-to-be-world-renowned Leopold Museum, the Architecture Center, and the children's museum.
For other important events in Vienna this year, see the sidebar story on page 3.
If, as directed, you've been imagining the 2001 Zarathustra theme—perhaps even humming it—you are no doubt finished by now. It's time to switch to the Blue Danube to accompany the hotel and restaurant reviews. (Editor's Note: This is the first time we've had a musical score behind a Gemütlichkeit story. Perhaps again in 3001...)
Our 1994 "Hotel of the Year" hasn't lost a step. The Altstadt retains all the endearing charms that first attracted us to it: Art Nouveau decor, pleasant guestrooms, and, most of all, owner Otto Wiesenthal's efficient but guest-friendly management style.
This is a hotel blessed with great "bones," a wonderful building from a long-gone era whose legacy includes wide corridors, squeaky old wooden floors, high ceilings and soaring windows.
The Altstadt's spacious and inviting "Red Salon" is its gemütlich heart. Here, on a late winter afternoon, guests warm themselves with hot drinks by an open fire while looking out over the roofs of Vienna to the neighboring Church of St. Ulrich. The room works equally well for a nightcap and, next morning, as a light and airy breakfast room.
The 29 guestrooms, no two alike, have been carefully decorated in a minimalist Art Nouveau style that includes halogen lighting and well-chosen modern art. Every room comes with a telephone in both bed and bathroom, master light switches, cable TV with CNN, and a selection of complimentary toiletries.
Added last year was a new floor of rooms including three new suites.
A capable and accommodating staff will see that your early-morning taxi to the airport is on time, arrange for opera or concert tickets, and recommend off-the-beaten track restaurants in a variety of price categories.
The Altstadt's location, outside the Ring, might be a drawback for some, but others will enjoy life in an urban neighborhood of interesting shops, good restaurants and few tourists. The Zentrum is only 15 minutes on foot or five minutes by underground. In an expensive city, this hotel is a remarkable value.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $120, doubles from about $146, suites from about $183
Rating: Quality 16/20, Value 17/20
Starlight Suites Hotel Salzgries Vienna
This hotel is part of a small local chain of business-oriented hotels that have sprung up in the last five years. Owner Dieter Jbstl seems to have developed a winning formula: find a centrally located old building with an historical exterior in a tranquil street, fill it with a few dozen tastefully-decorated suites, and then offer them at a comparatively low price. The results have been impressive.
The Hotel Salzgries is on a quiet but central street of imposing turn-of-the-20th-century façades in Vienna's Innenstadt. The building is entered through a massive, antique oak door that flings open automatically. The entrance and lobby retain the lovely stucco ceiling work, but everything else is stylish and modern. The high ceilinged lobby, which doubles as bar and breakfast room, is decorated in blue and slate gray, with marble accents and leather chairs.
A glass elevator rises to short hallways that connect the suites, each of which comes with a relatively spacious living room and bedroom, both with phone and TV. The former is attractively decorated with a chrome framed royal-blue leather lounge set, large corner desk, and a stylish bar with stainless steel sink, microwave, and complete coffee service.
Guestrooms have double beds with thick white linens, gold-hued bedspreads, retractable reading lamps, smallish open closets and broadly patterned curtains in gold, green and blue. The sparkling white bathrooms are separated into two rooms; one has the sink and the other the toilet plus either a bath or shower.
Other hotel amenities include a free sauna and three-machine exercise room.
This is the best of Vienna's three Starlight Suites hotels and a good choice for visitors who prize space and modern comforts over traditional Viennese décor.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $165, doubles from about $105. Breakfast is an additional $15, though you can do better at a nearby coffee house.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 17/20
This 120 year-old hotel is operated by the Schick family, who also own the Am Parkring, Erzog Rainer, Capricornio and City Center. The family's other hotels have some unique attractions—for example, the view from the sky-high Am Parkring—but the Stephanie is still the best. It offers an excellent location across the Danube canal in the lively and somewhat trendy 2nd District, a short walk from the city center.
Although over a century old, the Stephanie stays looking fresh and clean with regular renovations and refurbishments. The façade, with its lights, pillars and striped banners, looks something like a Mississippi steamer. The lobby strives for a modern version of traditional elegance, with marble floors, beveled mirrors, dark wood, brass fixtures and leather sofas, all illuminated by a myriad of sparkling halogen lights. A few antiques add a touch of gravitas to the lobby, especially the massive museum-quality Augsburg wardrobe and the washbasin of the hotel's namesake, Princess Stephanie, wife of Rudolph and the forgotten victim of Mayerling.
Breakfast and all other meals are served in an imperial dining room or, during the warmer months, in the pleasant tree-shaded courtyard.
Accommodations are squirreled away off very long hallways. All offer traditional design with a modern twist, though there are a number of versions, some more dated than others. The clean baths are decorated in flat gray tiles, and offer a mix of bath or showers.
The old-fashion staff is formal, but obliging, making the Stephanie a good—and more Viennese—choice.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $130, doubles from about $155
Rating: Quality 14/20, Value 12/20
Hotel Mercure Josefstadt
Although part of the French hotel chain, the Josefstadt manages to retain an owner-operated atmosphere. Instead of the Mercure's flashy Eurodesign, the Josefstadt is a charming hostelry in a baroque manor house located on a quiet cobblestone street in one of Vienna's favorite neighborhoods. The Vienna English Theatre is next door, the restaurant-rich Josefstadt district surrounds, and the Rathaus and Ring are just a short walk away.
Guestrooms are spacious and tastefully decorated with a light classical touch. Most have parquet floors, dark wood furniture, rich fabrics, and brass chandeliers dangling from high ceilings. A few come with small kitchenettes.
While the staff might not be very numerous or experienced, they are remarkably friendly and do their best to make one feel at home.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $111, doubles from about $155. Rates do not include breakfast; try the nearby Café Eiles or Café Rathaus.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 12/20
This longtime Gemütlichkeit favorite continues to impress. It certainly has one of the friendliest staffs in town as well as pocket-friendly rates. The location is almost unbeatable: in a tall, attractive turn-of-the-last-century building overlooking the Neuemarkt, where the emperors' hearts are buried, and the Kärntnerstrasse, Vienna's most elegant and popular promenade.
The Aviano occupies the top two floors and is reached by a poky little elevator that can handle only one request at a time. All rooms are attractively draped in a commercial, classical style, though the best are on the lower floor and have high ceilings and the original wood- and stucco-work. Ask for Numbers 302, 303 and 304, which overlook the street rather than the less interesting courtyard (the rooms are high enough that street sounds are not a problem). Number 301 is small, but has a nice view.
Daily Rates: Singles from about $85, doubles from about $130, junior suites from about $140
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 18/20
Hotel Römischer Kaiser
Though this hotel benefits by comparison with its rude neighbor (see below), it is a winner in its own right. Over the years, Gemütlichkeit has had numerous pleasant experiences with this beautifully located Alt Wien charmer; the welcome has invariably been warm and the staff helpful and efficient.
The bonus is that over the last two years the Römischer Kaiser has undergone extensive renovations and is better than ever. The maroon- and ivory-toned lobby and breakfast room have been expanded and refurbished, and the guest quarters enhanced.
Guestrooms have been refreshed with striped silk fabrics accenting the carved ivory-toned furniture. We prefer the newly renovated Biedermeier rooms with cherry-wood wall panels framing rich silk insets. Good choices among the new rooms include the classically decorated room Number 9 and the Biedermeier rooms numbered 17, 34, and 43 (the latter is on the top floor and a bit lower priced.)
The Kaiser is for visitors who want a small hotel with a touch of imperial Vienna.
Contact: Hotel Römischer Kaiser Annagasse 16, Vienna A-1010, tel +43/01/512 77 51 0, fax +43/01/512 77 51 13
Daily Rates: Singles from about $138, doubles from about $175
Rating: Quality 15/20 Value 16/20
Hotels to Avoid
(Editor's Note: For the second time in 10 years, a scheduled review of the Hotel Mailbergerhof, located on the same cobblestone street as the Römischer Kaiser, had to be scrapped because its management refused us access. We can only conclude they are not interested in North American guests.
Worse was the Best Western Hotel Tigra where the reception staff kept swearing under their breaths about customers and fellow staff members. These are two hotels to avoid.)
My favorite coffeehouse in Vienna is owned by the co-president of the Coffeehouse Owners Association, Hans Diglas. This café-restaurant offers delicious pastries, excellent food, good coffee, and true Viennese coffeehouse atmosphere. A glass case overflows with tempting Torten (cakes) that are among the best in town, all made at the coffeehouse's private pastry shop (Kölnditorei). Nearby are trays of Schintten (row cakes), strudels, and even a pan or two of quiches or gratins. Best of all, the portions are large.
The food is also very good, and the three daily menus are a particularly sumptuous bargain. A typical lunch might include a small bowl of tangy wine cream soup followed by a main course of pork ragout with mushrooms and sweet cream over verdant spinach curd noodles, and a dash of cranberry compote. Dessert might be warm apple cobbler with almond vanilla sauce. All this for about $15.
One can spend just a bit more and order the soup ($4) and main course ($12) separately in order to have a choice of cake (around $4). The truffle torte is always good as is the yogurt and blueberry cake. Or you might choose a white butter-cream cake covered in smooth marzipan icing.
A krugel (half liter) of Ottakringer beer costs about $4 and with dessert one of the excellent coffees—kleiner brauner ($2)—is recommended.
Other Diglas' attractions are the waiters, archetypes of their profession: wry, formal, unctuous, or bemused, and the exquisite atmosphere, with tiny little red velvet booths, dark wood chairs, crystal chandeliers, ivory walls and white marble table tops touched with an acceptable hue of pink.
The Diglas is recommended for dinner, dessert, breakfast - anytime, really. The only drawback is that it is almost always full, but a table is sure to free up after a few minutes wandering around.
Contact: Café Diglas 1. Wollzeile 10, tel. +43/01/512 57 65.
Rating: Quality 17/20, Value 18/20
Zum Schwarzen Kameel
Entering this elegant restaurant and import shop is like going back 100 years. The Black Camel is many things: import store, luxury restaurant, and stand-up delicatessen. The interior has oak wainscoting, tile floors and the dim lighting of a dream. Around the top of the walls a tile relief shows ships at sea laden with exotic goods from exotic lands.
The restaurant is pricey, but gets consistently stellar reviews for its top quality Austrian dishes. Those meager of purse can enjoy a light lunch or snack in the main room, while people watching and soaking up the atmosphere.
The crowd is an elegant mix of ladies in fur coats and jewels; dapperly-dressed elderly men, some with cravats; and businessmen and women from the nearby banks and offices. There are a number of counters to choose from. On the left is a delicatessen case chock full of quality salamis, prosciutti and hams, as well as salads, pickles, olives and a vast selection of appetizers and prepared dishes. Another case holds a small selection of petit fours, strudels and sliced cakes. Continuing from the main counter is a long bar facing backlit oak shelves lined with rows of distinguished liqueurs, Schnapps and aperitifs.
Right of the entrance is a counter with rows of small breads covered with different spreads, such as salmon, herring, salami, herbs, eggs, and pumpkin, all for only about $1—though you will need at least three to make up a light lunch. At the far right is the coffee and drink counter. There are a few tables at the back, but most people stand along the wooden counter that snakes its way through the room.
Black-tied waiters dart here and there taking and delivering drink and menu orders and settling bills. The atmosphere is warm, vivacious and, for those who can tolerate a little smoke, endearing. If you require further testimony as to the uniqueness of this food emporium, the Schwarzen Kammel is the only place where the city's nobility can be found eating sandwiches standing up.
Contact: Zum Schwarzen Kameel, 1, Bognergasse 5, tel +43/01/533 8125, fax +43/01/533 812510, open Monday-Saturday 8:30-midnight.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 15/20
Universitätsbräuhaus & Stiegl's Alte Ambulanz
These two restaurants are located in the large, park-like courtyard of the city's 19th century former hospital complex, which now houses the University of Vienna's new campus.
Despite sharing the same address, they are a bit different. The Universitätsbräuhaus, or UB, is a rustic Austrian brewpub with hearty food and good, homemade beer. The Alte Ambulanz is a stylish brewery-owned pub that offers traditional Austrian food, beer and even a few well-chosen wines.
The UBs imaginative management has made the most of its scenic location. In summer, a tent covering a large grill in the spacious courtyard is surrounded by a sea of tables. Also nearby is a small playground for children. At Christmastime, a two story wooden "manger" is constructed. On one side of the bottom half is a petting zoo and on the other is a stand serving mulled wine and sandwiches. The top floor provides a stage for folk choirs and brass bands.
The Universitätsbräuhaus offers pork Schnitzel ($9), filet of trout ($9), prime rib from bio beef ($12), and a hearty hunters plate with venison, boar, yams, lentils, and sliced dumplings ($15).
Stiegl counters with fiaker goulash (the hearty Hungarian stew fortified with a fried egg and two frankfurters, ($10), grilled spare ribs with two sauces ($16), and tricolored gnocchi with blue cheese sauce ($8).
At both places, beer is poured at about $3 for a small and $3.50 for a large.
A friendly atmosphere is sure to accompany the meals.
Contact: Universitätsbräuhaus, Campus Altes AKH, Hof 1. 9, Alser Strasse 4, tel. +43/01/409 1815, open daily 9am-2am.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 16/20
Contact: Stiegl's Alte Ambulanz (same address as above), tel +43/01/409 57 84, open daily 9 am-2 am.
Rating: Quality 13/20, Value 16/20
This Croatian restaurant recently opened in the Josefstadt area (8th district) and is already popular. Its name refers to the small, informal restaurants that dot the Dalmatian coast, serving good local wine and fresh-caught fish and seafood. The restaurant strives for simplicity, quality and freshness, accompanied by service that is formal yet extremely welcoming. The decor is Croatian bistro, with wicker-bottomed chairs, rustic wood tables dressed with thick white linens, and whitewashed walls sporting a few watercolors.
The day's selection of fish occupies a glass case, while an adjoining one displays the selection of hors d'oeuvres and a leg of prosciutto. The open kitchen is a treat, as the chef is very much into his work (I watched him toss about 20 bowls of potato salad with unwavering gusto).
The menu focuses on fish and a few pasta dishes. Two crowd pleasers are mussels "buzzaka" (a bargain at about $10) and grilled calamari with parsley potatoes ($12). The mussels are steamed in a broth of white wine, garlic, olive oil and parsley that's perfect for soaking up with the soft french bread.
A blackboard displays such daily specials as risotto negro (rice with cuttlefish, a Dalmatian speciality) and a fish platter for two.
We tried first courses of spinach soup ($4) and prosciutto with honey melon ($8), made memorable by the top quality cured ham. Then came the grilled fish platter for two with calamari, a pair of giant shrimp, a small sea bass, and slices of anglerfish and pikeperch, all for the low price of $45 for two persons. Accompanying were mounds of parsley potatoes and spinach. A veneer of garlic covered everything and few of the restaurant's dishes escape its wrath.
The wine list contains a short selection of Austrian and Croatian wines. Of the latter we preferred grasevina, a Riesling, over the malvazija. A complimentary and welcome glass of Croatian Schnapps came with the bill. The restaurant's only flaw—and this is a major one—is that there is no beach for an after-dinner stroll.
Rating: Quality 15/20, Value 15/20