Updated on April 28, 2015
When will you realise, Vienna waits for you?
When Billy Joel wrote the 1977 song ‘Vienna’ the ‘waiting’ city was a metaphor for all life’s possibilities rather than a plea to visit the Austrian capital. But he might have been on to something had he been more literal.
Packed full of picturesque buildings, steeped in complex history, clean and easy and cheap to navigate, Vienna rarely makes the annual ‘must see now’ lists, despite being voted the world’s most liveable city for the sixth year running , and once again making Wanderlust’s top 10 cities in their annual readers poll. It doesn’t seem to shout out to be visited with any sort of urgency, perhaps somehow aware that we will get round to it in the end, and then wonder why we didn’t come sooner.
It was a resolution to take more shorter trips, the desire to see a favourite musician in an interesting location, and a friend who has made a life for herself in the Austrian capital that motivated me to make the trip now.
So, with my trusty local guide, and only two and a half short days to spare, I set about the sights with a sense of purpose.
Up the 343 steps of the colourfully-tiled St Stephens Cathedral we head for a bird’s eye view of the city, then across town to the (rather sad and deserted at this time of year) Pratar amusement park to step aboard the famous Weiner Reisenrad Ferris Wheel, noted location of Hollywood intrigue (The Third Man), espionage (The Living Daylights) and romance (Before Sunrise), where we enjoy the view of an alternate if slightly rickety bird.
We circumnavigate the Ringtrasse, on foot under the cover of darkness. Here we gawp at the sympathetically lit, ornate edifices of the Imperial Hotel (headquarters of the KGB during the post war occupation) the State Opera House, The Parliament Building, Stock Exchange, Academy of Fine Arts, and Ministry of Justice, as we make our way around the famous inner ring road.
Veering a little off the Ringtrasse, and finding the Judenplatz deserted and bathed in an eerie orange glow, we are alone in silent reflection at the national holocaust memorial. Designed by British artist Rachel Whiteread and completed in 2000, the Nameless Library stands in memory Austria’s 65,000 holocaust victims.
Tucked in unceremoniously amongst the buildings on a nearby street we find the city’s (disputed) oldest church, St Rupert’s, which dates back as far seventh century. It seems there is some sort of monument, statue or significant building at every turn in this city.
Messing about on the Danube
All this history and walking is thirsty work so we step down off the Ringstrasse in search of some refreshment and modernity, which we conveniently find in the form of Badeschiff, a converted boat moored on the Danube canal.
The main body of the boat is given over to a bright airy restaurant and bar serving country-inspired modern Austrian cuisine – and very agreeable gin and tonics. At weekends the tables and chairs are cleared for club nights, including a popular swing night. But on a cold spring Thursday night we are the only customers, so the barman happily agrees to leave his post and give us a tour.
We go downstairs to view the bowling alley, before heading out onto the deck (passed the ‘three person’ sauna) to discover Badeschiff’s big selling point – the swimming pool and sun deck sunk into its hull.
Even on a chilly spring night it’s not hard to imagine what a lovely spot this would be in the intense summer heat of a city hundreds of miles from the sea.
For those wishing to extend their time aboard once the weather picks up, the roof of the boat boasts a number of architect-designed camping pods, offering an affordable alternative to the usual bog-standard city centre hotel.
If guests fancy some honey on their toast the following morning, then it comes truly ‘locally sourced’ thanks to the resident bee hives – part of an urban bee keeping project.
Bandeshiff, Donaukanallände, 1010 Wien
Ludwig goes Pop
It would take weeks to take in all the galleries and museums Vienna has to offer, but I have just a paltry afternoon. Figuring the permanent collections will still be here next time, I opt for a visiting exhibition and head to MUMOK – Vienna’s slate grey modern art gallery, which is currently showing a vast Pop Art exhibition over four floors.
Ludwig Goes Pop brings together over 100 works owned by German industrialists Peter and Irene Ludwig, holders of the largest private Pop Art collection outside of the USA.
The Ludwig’s seem to have understood the significance of the movement early on, quickly amassing a significant collection including multiple works by Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper John, Peter Blake, David Hockney and Robert Rauschenberg.
The sheer scope of the collection is jaw-dropping – there’s an iconic image at every turn, and with many of the works on permanent or temporary loan to galleries and touring exhibitions, this is a rare opportunity to see them brought together, not only highlighting the diversity of the movement but also creating a neat snapshot of an era of space exploration, rock’n’roll, and growing mass consumerism.
Ludwig Goes Pop runs until 13 September 2015 and costs €10 euros (or €8 for concessions, including the Vienna card).
Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Wein.
Why visit now? On the 23rd May the eyes and ears of Europe (and inexplicably Australia) will be trained on Vienna as it hosts the 2015 Eurovision song contest.
If questionable euro-pop is not your thing May 1 is 150th anniversary of the opening of the Ringstrasse, and there are a number of events and exhibitions taking place to mark the occasion.
Before I left : I watched The Third Man and Before Sunrise and learned some German words with the Dualingo app.
I travelled: with Easyjet from Gatwick to Vienna and then sat on the top deck of the CAT train into the centre of town.
I stayed: with friends in the 13th district, home to Vienna Zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn) and the Schönbrunn Palace (A UNESCO world heritage site) which provide a wonderful backdrop of sights, sounds (and smells when passing the zoo) to a morning run.
I ate: applestrudel, topfenstrudel, much cake, Eiernockerl (egg dumplings) Karamellisierter Kaiserschmarren (chopped, sugared pancake) and some very tasty Israeli food at Neni in the Naschmarkt.
I drank: ‘Big John’ – a tasty Austrian red, and the delicious crystal clear, alpine filtered Viennese tap water.
I saw: Lemonheads frontman Evan Dando perform solo under the arches at @B72 whilst trains rattled overhead.
Getting around: Vienna is simple to navigate, the integrated tube, train and tram service is clean, uncrowded, reliable and cheap enough to make the average Londoner weep. You also only have to validate your ticket once, after which there are no barriers, or routine ticket checks. If you do get caught without a ticket during a random inspection there are steep fines, but with an annual pass costing less than a monthly 9 zone London travelcard, why would anyone bother.
For long weekender the 48 or 72 hour ‘Vienna Card’ (€21.90/€18.90) offers unlimited transport, plus discount off museums and some shops and restaurants. The museum discount usually works out at about 10%, so if you are not planning to visit a lot of paid attraction then it might be worth considering the transport only card – €16.50 for 72 hours or €13.30 for 48.