By Mark Honan
One might think Vienna, a city long renowned as a cultural stronghold, didn't need any more highbrow attractions, but that's exactly what it's gotten in the last few years.
The massive Museumsquartier was featured in Gemütlichkeit when it opened in 2001. Most of its 40 diverse attractions were up and running by then. Last year, the final two pieces were slotted into place with the opening of the Children's Theater and Quartier 21. The latter describes itself as an "innovative infrastructure for the production, dissemination, and presentation of contemporary cultural offerings." Cutting through the verbiage, it means you can see works by emerging talents in the field of art, design, fashion, photography and other media.
The year 2000 heralded the opening of the Haus der Musik (Seilerstätte 30, A-1010), an excellent exposition of all things musical. Admission is $10, senior citizens $8.50, and it's open 10am to 10pm daily. You can conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, construct your own electronic sounds, even record your own CD. The lives and achievements of Vienna's great composers (Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, etc.) are imaginatively presented via visual displays and English commentary. Bypass the extra section on the Vienna Philharmonic (additional $9.80) - it's pretty superfluous once you've spent two to three hours in the rest of the museum.
Last year, Vienna unveiled its musical take on Hollywood's famous Walk of Fame, by creating 70 plaques honoring its best-known musical protégées. The star-shaped plaques line the pavement along Kärntner Strasse and between the Theater an der Wien and the Haus der Musik.
Last March, the Albertina, Vienna's vast repository of graphic art, re-opened its doors after several years of renovation hid its treasures from public view. In March 2004, when the Liechtenstein Museum opens in the Liechtenstein Palace at Fürstengasse 1, visitors will gaze upon works by such masters as Rubens, Raphael, and van Dyck, study bronzes and weaponry, and tour the palace library ($3.63).
Not everything about the city is erudite. The winter season brings Christmas markets to Vienna's streets. These are held at several locations around town, but the biggest and most atmospheric is in front of the Rathaus. Sip a mug or two of hot, spiced Glühwein, lob a snowball of artificial snow (or the real stuff, if the weather obliges), and wander round the stands selling kitsch Christmas gifts and paraphernalia. This year, the market runs from 15th November to 24th December. Other popular Christmas markets in the center include those at Freyung/Herrengasse (29th November to 23rd December) and Spittelberg (19th November to 23rd December).
Other traditional winter attractions include the opulent black tie balls and the New Year's Eve/Day concerts. This year, there's also the New Year's Eve Trail, an all-invited open-air party which promises fun and revelry across the whole central district. For details of this and much else, visit the tourist office Web site.
If the above sounds enticing, bear in mind that we haven't even mentioned Vienna's truly great sights - Stephansdom, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Schloss Schönbrunn and the like. With all this, it's no wonder that the town's historic center was granted the status of UNESCO world cultural heritage site, in 2001. Our only question is this: what took them so long?
Hotel Altstadt Vienna
Gemütlichkeit's 1994 "Hotel of the Year" still retains its Art Nouveau decor, clever guestrooms, and owner Otto Wiesenthal's efficient but guest-friendly management style.
In a building of wide corridors, squeaky old wooden floors, high ceilings and soaring windows, the hotel's spacious and inviting "Red Salon" is its gemütlich heart. Here, on late winter afternoons, guests warm themselves with hot drinks by an open fire while looking over the roofs of Vienna to the neighboring Church of St. Ulrich. The same room is also the place for a nightcap and, next morning, works as a light and airy breakfast room.
No two guestrooms are alike and all have been carefully decorated in a minimalist Art Nouveau style that includes halogen lighting and well-chosen modern art. Each comes with a telephone in both bed and bathroom, master light switches, cable TV with CNN, and a selection of complimentary toiletries.
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 hotel's location, just 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 good value.
Daily Rates: Singles $99 to 138, doubles $129 to 148, suites $149 to 249
Rating: QUALITY 16/20, VALUE 15/20
In most cities, overlooking the Post Office would not be a plus. However, this is Vienna, where architectural jewels shine in the most unexpected places. Sure enough, the Post Office boasts a graceful pediment depicting a brace of angels bearing Austria's two-headed-eagle crest - it's a fine sight to greet you as you draw back your bedroom curtains. The three-star Post has always been good value for its central location, though the rooms used to look somewhat tired and dreary. Then renovations a couple of years ago endowed them with cheerful pastel colors. Yet they still retain an old-fashioned feel, with parquet floors and solid, standard-issue furniture. They also come with television, radio and telephone. Many are a generous size, and those without private bathroom are especially good value if you don't mind using communal facilities.
Daily Rates: Singles $62-68, doubles $93-111. Rooms with shared bathroom facilities are about one-third less.
Contact: Hotel Post Fleischmarkt 24, A-1010 Wien, Austria, tel. +43/1/515830, fax 51583 808
Rating: QUALITY 12/20 VALUE 15/20
Tucked away down a quiet yet central cul-de-sac, this three star hotel lets you enjoy Vienna's sights and nightlife while allowing easy retreat to your room to shut out the noise when it suits. The calm setting is reflected in the demeanor of the reserved yet helpful staff, and the comfortable yet unostentatious furnishings. Many rooms have crystal chandeliers, gilt mirrors and oriental carpets, alongside the occasional Baroque or Biedermeier ornament. All have TV, radio, telephone and mini-bar, though some cheaper rooms are without private bathroom.
Daily Rates: Singles $49-95, doubles, $78-120
Rating: QUALITY 13/20 VALUE 14/20
If you've had your fill of Viennese Baroque, and yearn instead for modern designer chic, check into this fashionable hotel. You'll be following in the footsteps of celebrities like Johnny Depp and Elton John. It's come a long way since its humble beginnings as a coach-stop on the trade route to Trieste port.
Designed by Terence Conran, the spacious guestrooms are stylish yet understated. The simplicity of white walls is offset by the warmth of bright-colored fabrics and welcoming cherry-wood furnishings. Vienna's historical legacy is not ignored: the salon retains its original 17th-century vaulted ceiling, while black-and-white prints depict the city's spectacular statuary. An impressive perspective of central Vienna can be enjoyed from the rooftop terrace.
Evenings, the glitzy bar is a popular meeting-place for well-heeled, fashion-conscious locals. Reasonably priced for a five-star, there are 143 rooms, but only two singles. Das Triest has all the facilities and comforts expected of a top-class hotel.
Daily Rates: Singles $190, doubles $245, suites $299-375
Rating: QUALITY 17/20 VALUE 15/20
DO & CO
DO & CO introduced gourmet cooking to the skies with their catering contract with Lauda Air. Here, at its flagship restaurant in Haas Haus, the seating and ambiance are more enjoyable than typically found within the narrow confines of a 737.
For a start, there are the fabulous picture windows overlooking Stephansdom's spire. Nevertheless, this modern, open-plan space suffers from its own popularity. It's usually busy, sometimes hectic, and the tables are set a little too close together. Service is not the swiftest, but the food, when it arrives, does not disappoint. There are Viennese standards, Thai dishes, and wok-fried meals where you can select your own fresh ingredients.
With prices coming in around $5-14 for starters/salads, or $18-24 for a main course, you get top quality for a relatively modest outlay.
Contact: DO & CO Restaurant Stephansplatz 12, A-1010 Vienna, tel. +43/1/535 39690
Rating: QUALITY 13/20 VALUE 14/20
Though you won't go wrong here with the excellent crêpes, there are plenty of other choices, including meat and fish ($11-19), and a multi-course gourmet menu. The crêpes ($3-13) are large enough that a savoury one each, followed by a shared sweet one, is usually enough for two. The Florentine ($7.60) is a palatable combination of ham, bacon, cheese, egg and spinach, with a side serving of sour cream.
There are sidewalk tables, but half the attraction of this place is the creatively-decorated rooms inside. One room is decked out like a circus big-top, while other areas feature antiquarian books, atmospheric murals, snake-like spears-the diverse artifacts are effective conversation pieces.
Contact: Grünangergasse 10, A-1010 Vienna
tel: +43/1/512 5687
Open 3pm-11.30pm Monday-Friday, 11am-11.30pm Saturday & Sunday
Rating: QUALITY 13/20 VALUE 14/20