By Douglas Linton
Great views, quiet walks, classic architecture, gemütlich restaurants, and an inexpensive castle hotel await the traveler willing to desert Vienna's center for its fascinating environs.
One of Vienna's most charming features is its combination of city and countryside. From the central urban bustle of the Stephansplatz, one can hop on public transportation, and in less than 30 minutes be in the midst of the forested hills and mountain spurs of the evocative Vienna Woods.
When visitors to Vienna want a taste of the city's greenery, most limit their travels to the quaint and well-touristed wine villages of Grinzing, Dobling, or Nussdorf. Surprisingly, few visit the city's closest incursion of nature, the Gallitzinberg. This mountain spur, one of the last gasps of the Alps, sits on the edge of Ottakring, Vienna's 16th district. The district begins at the Gürtel (Vienna's outer ring, formerly a defensive fortification) and rises gently towards the city's outskirts. Then, at the edge of town, the land climbs steeply past century-old summer villas and newer luxury apartments to the top of the Gallitzinberg, where it finally dissipates amidst the valleys and slopes of the Vienna Woods. The woods contain a network of walking trails linked to open fields, which are perfect for picnics, exploring, and providing inspiration for your next song or symphony.
But the Gallitzinberg has more than just greenery. It also offers a cluster of good restaurants and Heurigen, an inexpensive castle hotel, and one of Vienna's must-see though seldom-visited historic buildings. This natural outpost provides the makings of a memorable daytrip or, even better, a lovely, leafy base for excursions into the city. Those requiring a celebrity endorsement should know that Vienna's mayor, Michael Häupl, likes the area so much that he lives there.
Between the 18th and 19th century, the land on the Gallitzinberg was owned by a host of assorted heavyweights, including an Austrian field marshall, a Russian ambassador, a member of the Romanov family, and a few of the empire's lesser nobility. A prince who owned the land in the 1860s, tried unsuccessfully to get the city to rename the mountain after his wife, Wilhelmina. When the city refused, the prince had all the signs leading to his property changed to say "Wilhelminenberg." The name sort of stuck, and still serves as the mountain's second, unofficial name.
Finally in 1895, the land was given to a member of the Habsburg family, Archduke Rainer. In 1908, the archduke built an imposing neo-Empire style castle at the top of the mountain, overlooking all of Vienna. The castle was converted into a hotel, christened the Schloss Wilhelminenberg (reviewed on page 4). The hotel's low rates, spectacular view, and easy access to downtown make it an equally good base for hikes in the woods and trips into the city. The hotel also has a good café with an outdoor terrace overlooking the city, so, even if you are not staying there, you can still linger and enjoy the view. What makes the view so spectacular is that it overlooks the center of Vienna and far off into the plain that stretches into Hungary, Slovakia and beyond.
Using public transportation, you can ride the #3 U-bahn to the end station Ottakring. From there, catch either bus #46B or #146B. Both travel up one side of the Wilhelminenberg and down the other; but in opposite directions.
By car, take the Gürtel to Thaliastrasse. At the end of Thaliastrasse, turn right onto Johann-Staud-strasse, which climbs the Gallitzinberg. To make the complete circle around the top of the mountain, turn right at the fire station onto Savoyenstrasse, and then right again onto Wilhelminenbergstrasse, which leads back down to the foot of the mountain.
Once on the mountain, you can explore it on foot. Its back side has routes that link to the rest of the Vienna Woods and on top is a lookout spiral tower with spectacular views of the city and the woods.
Our recommended walk takes in the Steinhofgründe and one of Otto Wagner's masterworks, the Church of the Steinhof. The route typically begins near the top of Gallitzinberg, though hearty souls can start below and battle uphill, if they prefer.
The Steinhofgründe is a large public park located behind the city's main psychiatric clinic. From up top, the grounds can be entered from behind the large 19th-century fire station just off of Johann-Staud-strasse, which can be reached on either of the aforementioned buses (though #46B is a bit faster).
Once inside, the path to the left leads to a large field with a children's playground, while the walkway to the right goes to a field ringed with rosehip bushes. Continue straight on the path lined with walnut trees (feel free to collect a few nuts if it's the right time of the season) until reaching a water trough carved in the bough of a tree and a small caretaker's cottage. Behind is a little duck pond and a fruit orchard. At this point, following the trail to the left brings you to a spectacular sight: a string of meadows bordered by woods that roll down to the Rosenthal river valley below and look out on the green hills of the Vienna Woods beyond. The scene provides a wonderful backdrop for a picnic or afternoon snack.
Take the path down the slope (a 20-minute walk) where you will exit the park and walk around to the front of the psychiatric clinic. Why on earth would you want to visit a such a place? Because it is the site of architect Otto Wagner's masterpiece, the Church of the Steinhof, which historian Carl E. Schorske called one of "the most radically modern monumental buildings built by a European state since the erection of the Eiffel Tower."
During the day, the clinic grounds, laid out according to a plan made by Wagner, are open to the public, so you won't need any special permission to enter through the main gates. (Intrepid souls can also enter the grounds from the Steinhofgründe, through one of the permanent holes in the fence that is a short walk from the duck pond - follow the well-trod foot paths).
The main gates of the clinic are of brick and wrought iron bent into Jugendstil designs. A broad walkway lined with fir trees climbs the terraced grounds, past attractive turn-of-the-century brick buildings and a small theater (look for the bust of Franz Josef out front).
Perched high on a wide terrace above is the church, a stunning marble jewel box crowned with an imposing copper-plated cupola. The front façade is covered in white marble slabs attached by aluminum studs. Over the entrance are three slender Jugendstil angels, and on the front towers are seated statues of the patriarch's Moses and St. Peter. (Moses is holding a copy of the church.) Behind the angels are spectacular stain glass windows designed by the Secessionist, Kolo Moser.
The interior is astounding. The walls and floor are decorated in pure white tile accented with gold and blue mosaics. On the sides are more elaborate stain glass windows by Moser. The altar is a stunning gold dome overshadowed only by the enormous mosaic behind, designed by Remigius Geyling in glittering majolica, marble, glass and enamel. The church is only open on Saturdays at 3 pm, but if you go at any other time you can still peek in the windows. Though few visitors come here, this is one of the city's most impressive buildings.
Although they are not on the Gallitzinberg, two other Jugendstil Wagner buildings can be found on nearby Hüttelbergstrasse. These are the graceful Villa Wagner I and II. The latter is now a private home, but you can still see the exterior from the street, including a lovely mosaic over the main entrance.
The other villa, however, is open to the public. It is also referred to as Villa Fuchs, after Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs, who has opened a private museum inside the historic building. Fuchs, a member of the flamboyantly mystical school of Viennese Fantastic Realism, has transformed the villa into his own work of art. Though certainly not for everyone, the museum is a memorable experience. It feels like visiting the artist's home. You walk in the gates, ring the doorbell and are let in to wander around the rooms on your own, or the artist's daughter might even show you around.
A few of the decorations are by Jungendstil artists, but most everything else is designed by Fuchs himself - not only the large, vibrant paintings and triptychs on the wall, but the sculptures, chairs, floor tiles, even the door handles and the silk wallpaper.
Outside is a small pavilion - what Fuchs refers to as a meditation room - that defies description. Its exterior is incredibly ornate and the interior even more so - almost like a large piece of architectural jewelry. The museum, located at Hüttelbergstrasse 26, is open Mon-Fri 10am-4pm (tel+43/01/914 85 75). It can be reached on Bus 148 and 152.
A visit to Gallitzinberg provides a glimpse of Vienna seldom seen by tourists. It could easily fill a weekend or you could simply try one of the walks or restaurants on a daytrip or afternoon jaunt from the city. The Gallitzinberg is too nice for the Viennese to keep to themselves.
Hotel Schloss Wilhelminenberg
This lovely neo-Empire style castle is one of Vienna's best but least-known bargains.
A circular drive provides a regal entrance to the graceful colonnaded structure. The enclosed cobblestone carriage entranceway leads to the spacious, ivory-colored main hall. The polished stone floor gleams with the reflection of the crystal and brass chandelier dangling from the coffered ceiling above. To the right is a small reception desk, and on the left is a grand staircase dressed with a long red carpet.
Behind the reception is the restaurant and café. The restaurant is good, if a bit pricey, but the café is certainly worth a visit. Take a seat in the enclosed terrace or on the outdoor patio with sweeping views of the city.
Spread out in back of the hotel is a spacious green lawn fringed with vineyards. There is also has a small playground for children and a nearby minigolf course.
Parking is free in the lot out front.
Guestrooms are divided into standard rooms and split-level studios. Both are decorated in attractive contemporary furnishings with tastefully muted fabrics and shower-only tile baths.
With their astounding 9-foot ceilings and tall windows overlooking the city, the best rooms are the studios on the first and second floor. Because these rooms are relatively small, the height of the ceilings and windows seems all the greater. Note that the handful of standard rooms on the first two floors overlook the parking lot and those on the third floor have city views, but you will have to stand on your tip toes to look out the windows.
Most impressive about the hotel is the price - a third of what other castle and manor hotels in the city charge, and a good deal less than some without peerage.
• Daily Rates: Single in standard room 675 ATS ($48), single in studio 795 ATS ($57), double in standard room 900 ATS ($64), double in studio 1010 ATS ($72).
Contact: Hotel Schloss Wilhelminenberg Savoyenstrasse 2, A-1160 Vienna, tel. +43/01/485 85030, fax +43/01/485 4876.
Rating: Quality 14/20 Value 17/20
Not as impressive as its castle competitor, but still a small, solid, and well-run hotel in a quiet neighborhood, the Gallitzinberg is in a modern dormered building halfway up the eponymous mountain.
Little space is spent on public rooms - the reception is no more than a small wood desk in the hall entrance. However, guests who want to lounge can do so in the large breakfast room or on the small terrace out front.
Upstairs, plain double doors open onto simple rooms decorated with built-in furniture, floral fabrics, and low pile carpet. Studios are a bit bigger than standard rooms, and some offer kitchenettes and coffee and tea services. Rooms overlook either the tree-lined street or a large walnut tree out back. Two larger apartments on the top floor make decorative use of the sloping ceilings, and have skylights with electric shades.
Parking is free in the hotel's private garage.
• Daily Rates: Single with shower only 760-860 ATS ($54-$61), Double with shower only 1150-1200 ATS ($82-$86), Studio with bath 1300 ATS ($93), Apartment 1500 ATS ($107).
Contact: Hotel Gallitzinberg Johann-Staud-Strasse 32, 1160 Vienna, tel. +43/01/419-8770, fax +43/01/419-87705.
Rating: Quality 10/20 Value 10/20
The Villa Aurora is reason alone to visit the Gallitzinberg. Good food, a scenic setting and marvelous view amply reward the short ride from downtown. (For guests of Schloss Wilhelminenberg, the Aurora is only a 5-minute walk.)
It is difficult to do justice to Aurora's wealth of offerings in this limited space. It consists of an attractive cluster of 19th century buildings surrounded by a caste iron fence and shaded by enormous horse chestnut trees. The main structure is a lovely two-story villa with enclosed wooden sun terraces on each floor.
Curving around the back and side is a pebble patio set with green Heuriger tables, which are busy during the warmer months. Also to the side is a long wooden building that holds a pretty 19th-century swimming pool and kegelbahn (a small bowling alley) that can be reserved for parties.
Next to it is a former barn converted to a rustic banquet space. At the rear is a level grassy area and beyond that a small field with wood benches for guests to enjoy the sweeping views over Vienna. Stairs lead down to a small playground.
The interior of the villa is as charming as its grounds. The first floor consists of two large rooms. The first has aged plank-wood floors, polished wainscoting and rustic wooden tables surrounded by antique straight-back chairs.
The second room is in the enclosed terrace, with large-wood framed windows on three sides and traditional 19th-century tile floors. In the evening, the windows and wood paneling glimmer with the flickering light of candles.
The restaurant is also quite kid friendly, offering a host of distractions, including an antique rocking horse and a rocking bear for children.
The food is very well prepared and presented, especially the large, wafer-thin Schnitzels, which are served with an astounding assortment of greens. A particular bargain is the working-day lunch menu, which offers the Austria's Three "S's" - soup, Schnitzel, and Strudel - all for a low 86 ATS ($6). The first course consists of Griessnockerlsuppe (a pillow-soft farina dumpling in chicken broth), followed by a heavenly Wienerschnitzel from pork served with a dollop of mashed potatoes, a splay of pickled green beans, and an enormous salad. Dessert is a hearty serving of apple Strudel served with a dusting of confectioners sugar and a strand of gem-like red currants.
A la carte offerings are also tasty and well-priced. Appetizers include stuffed zucchini blossoms (128 ATS; $9), duck breast carpaccio (148 ATS; $11), and different soups, some served in bowls formed from hollowed-out vegetables.
Recommended main courses include the Schnitzels (110-148 ATS; $8-$11), Salzburg Roulade (ham, sheep cheese and pumpkin seeds rolled in a pork scallop, which is then breaded and fried; 156 ATS, or $11), and roasted Barbarie duck breast served in red wine sauce with red cabbage (195 ATS; $14).
Desserts are the traditional Austrian delights such as Kaiserschmarren (a sweet pancake broken up, sautéed in butter, dusted in confectioners sugar, and served with plum compote), Mohr im Hemd (a chocolate almond souffle served with chocolate sauce), and, of course, apple Strudel. Order the plum Strudel if they have it.
The Villa Aurora also can arrange gourmet picnic baskets for two (650-680 ATS; $46-$49). The breakfast basket includes fresh-squeezed orange juice, champagne, smoked salmon, and a reproduction of Eduard Manet's famous painting "Luncheon on the Grass." The restaurant admirably achieves its promise to allow guests to relive the cosy pleasures of the good old Kaiserzeit.
• Villa Aurora Wilhelminenstrasse 237, tel +43/01/489 33 33, open daily 10:00 am-midnight.
Papuschek & Kohl
This unusual nouvelle Heuriger is located in a charming two-story house that clings to one of the Gallitzinberg's steeper slopes.
The P&K is reached via a small shady lane that winds its way from the entrance of the Steinhofgründe down to the little garden houses that cover the Rosenthal or, "valley of roses."
The building is pearl blue with a red tile roof and a large sculpture of a sunflower just under the awning. A little wooden bridge crosses to a cobblestone patio set with wooden tables under silky white umbrellas. Above, a canopy of horse chestnuts dapples the light from the blue sky and summer sun.
During the colder months, café tables in the small rooms below the terrace with little wood-framed windows overlooking the Rosenthal, are filled with guests. The atmosphere might be called neo-gemütlich.
The food is a tasty departure from traditional Heuriger fare. The menu, printed in a blue school notebook, offers a salmon and spinach lasagna (128 ATS; $9), roasted dumpling with egg and truffle sauce (115 ATS; $8), and my personal favorite oyster mushrooms and chicken strips marinated in soy sauce and roasted sunflower-seed oil (88 ATS; $6).
The wine list reflects the owner's taste and good judgment, with quality wines from the Weinviertel and Burgenland, as well as a few international selections.
Oddly, Papuschek & Kohl is closed during the winter and every other month between May and December. But when it is open, it is certain to be filled with Viennese enjoying good wine and good food.
• Papuschek & Kohl, Heschweg 185, telephone: +43 1 9140360, open Tue-Sat 5-11:30 pm. Closed June, Aug., Oct. and Dec.-Apr.
Though technically, not on the Gallitzinberg, this lovely old Heuriger, the city's oldest, is near enough and historic enough to warrant mentioning. It has been serving guests as far back as 1740 - a good four decades before Emperor Joseph II first allowed the wineries to directly sell their new wine.
The 10er Marie is housed in a small vine-covered cottage on a little square at the foot of the Gallitzinberg. Walk inside the gates and you will find a cluster of cozy rooms located off two pretty courtyards, one shaded by a chestnut tree and the other by a walnut tree.
In its time, this inauspicious Lokal has attracted some of the greats: Schubert and Strauss the elder imbibed here (though at different times), as did the tragic Prince Rudolph and his favorite fiaker driver.
The buffet boasts an extensive Heuriger menu of cream spreads (Liptauer, blue cheese and herb), salads, pickled vegetables and cold cuts, as well as fried and oven-roasted meats such as Stelze (grilled knuckle of pork), Kümmelbraten (crispy roast pork with caraway seeds), Schnitzel and roast chicken. Grammel (cracklings) and Schmaltz (lard) spreads are also available for the strong at heart. The new wines are served in carafes or gespritz (with a little soda water).
To visit is to experience history.
• 10er Marie Ottakringerstrasse 222-224, tel +43/01/489 46 47, open 3-11 pm daily.