Vienna: Introduction

  • © DUMONT Bildarchiv / Ernst Wrba

    © DUMONT Bildarchiv / Ernst Wrba


Whenever people start talking about Vienna, clichés inevitably crop up: Schönbrunn Palace, the giant Ferris wheel and St Stephen’s Cathedral, Sachertorte with whipped cream, Lipizzaner horses, the Boys’ Choir and Strauss – the ‘King of the Waltz’. However, the image of a post-imperial, postcard idyll is in urgent need of an update.

Of course, it would be hard to top the splendour of the festively illuminated Ringstraße and Imperial Palace. The numerous Heurigen (wine taverns), Beisln (bars) and coffeehouses have also doggedly clung on to the remains of a royal and imperial gemütlichkeit from the Habsburg era. And is there any lover of music who does not go into raptures after a performance in one of the world-famous temples of the Muses such as the Musikverein or State Opera? The familiar image of sickly-sweet perfection overflowing with music – and sometimes wine – needs however to be corrected. The city on the Danube with its 1.67 million inhabitants has developed into Central Europe’s boomtown in recent years: dynamic and self-assured, full of energy and joie de vivre – the economic motor and creative centre of a nation that, not by chance, is one of the most prosperous and successful countries in Europe and the world, and one where life is really worth living. Heurigen and hip hop, Sisi (Empress Elisabeth) and Schönberg, imperial pancakes and fusion cuisine – a trip to Vienna is actually two rolled into one.

Heurigen and hip-hop, Sisi and Schönberg

The first takes visitors back to the glorious past where they will be enchanted by the imperial splendour of the Ringstraße, Schönbrunn Palace and the area around St Stephen’s Cathedral. The second catapults you into a multicultural metropolis in the heart of an expanding Central Europe. The miraculous rejuvenation of what was a grey, grumpy, even morbid city long after 1945 started in the mid-1970s. A large portion of the poor structural fabric from past centuries was renovated and place was even found for some showpieces of contemporary architecture – the most spectacular is probably the Haas House on Stephansplatz. In 1979, the UNO City was opened – since then, Vienna has become the third seat of the United Nations after New York and Geneva. A generously subsidised alternative cultural scene with countless small and mediumsized theatres, saw the light of day in that get-up-and-go period – along with a lively bar scene.

Vienna was given another decisive boost when the Iron Curtain fell in 1989. All of a sudden, the former imperial city found itself no longer on the outskirts of the western world but as the central cultural, political and economic hub between East and West – as it had been under the monarchy. The city, which had been governed by the Social Democrats since time immemorial until they were forced to form a coalition with the environmental party as junior partner following the communal election in 2010, received a further push towards modernity with Austria’s accession to the EU in 1995. When the neighbouring countries Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic acceded in 2004, Vienna once again profited from the strong links that had been forged. Finally, the renowned Mercer Studies voted Vienna the city with the world’s highest quality of life in 2010. There are many reasons for this. For example, the special feeling the Viennese claim for themselves. Their gemütlichkeit and proverbial schmäh, the capability of being able to face up to an unpleasant situation with humour and make jokes about it, might also be clichés, but if you rub shoulders with one of the locals philosophising quietly after a glass or two of wine in an inn or pay attention to the regulars in one of the traditional cafés chatting over a cup of melange or letting the world go by as they read their newspapers, you will recognise that these notions are still valid today.

A special way of looking at life: Viennese schmäh

Vienna, however, is not a peaceful island in the turbulent river of time in all respects. The overall Austrian situation is naturally reflected in the federal capital as if through a magnifying glass. Some dark clouds can be made out in the (socio-)political weather forecast and some of them have been hovering over the city and country for many years. The education situation is one of them. There has still not been a decision taken on extensive full-day schooling and a comprehensive school for all 10–14 yearolds in spite of the pupils’ miserable performance in various Pisa tests. The universities also have embarrassingly poor places in international ratings. And this will possibly not change even though and Institute for Science and Technology (IST Austria), conceived as a world-class institution, was established near Klosterneuburg just beyond the city boundary in 2009. Defence is another area in which those responsible are reluctant to make long-overdue decisions, such as doing away with conscription or the country’s antiquated neutrality – seen from the European-political perspective. Many find public-opinion making, which is dominated by the tabloids and a crisisridden national broadcasting organisation (ORF), catastrophic and the same applies to parliamentary debates. The two largest parties, the Social Democrats (SPÖ) and conservative People’s Party (ÖVP), who have been transmitting images of the world and ways of life as a kind of ersatz religion and still govern the country in a grand coalition, are considered to be notoriously incapable and unwilling to tackle reforms and are consequently both suffering dramatic membership and electorate losses.

It might seem something of a paradox that a city and country with such handicaps could still take top rankings in many areas in international comparisons. The economic performance is splendid, exports are booming and the youth unemployment rate is far below the EU average. Social peace also appears to be guaranteed. In reality, the ‘true-blue’ Viennese and immigrants – most of them from Turkey, Germany, former Yugoslavia and Poland – get on much better with each other than public debate and integration policies, which were inexcusably neglected for many years, would have you believe. And, as a result, there is a very high level of public safety. It is possible to walk along Viennese streets late at night without any danger.

The quality of the air and water, woods and beaches is also impressive. The city is amazingly free of smog and dust. The luxuriant vegetation plays a major role in assuring this. Prater, Lobau, Laaer Berg, Schönbrunn, the Lainz Animal Reserve, the expansive woods between the valley of the Wien River and Leopoldsberg in the northwest and the numerous inner-city parks cover almost 50% of the 160 mi² metropolitan area. Sections of the oft-sung and oft-painted Vienna Woods that surround Vienna in the west and are up to 40km (25mi) wide in some places also act as dust filters and oxygen providers. The New Danube is especially attractive and close to the city centre; it is a unique recreational area with beaches which are as lively as Rimini on hot days and balmy summer nights, stretching for miles along its banks.

The Habsburgs reigned for 650 years

In a manner of speaking, Vienna’s picturesque location is in keeping with the historical role it played in the more than 2000 years of its history. Nestling in a basin between the eastern foothills of the Alps and the western fringe of the Carpathian arch that descends to the Danube over gentle slopes, it has acted both as a bulwark against invading peoples, mainly from the east, and as a meeting place. There was an important army camp, Vindobona, here during Roman times that helped safeguard the Danube Limes, the empire’s border to Germania. In the High Middle Ages, the Babenbergs had their residence here for around a century. Following that, the Habsburgs ruled their enormous realm from Vienna for almost 650 years. The city was besieged twice by the Ottoman Empire, in 1529 and 1683; both times, without success. As a consequence, Austria developed into a major power. Vienna, the eastern bastion of Christendom, whose suburbs and neighbouring villages had suffered greatly during the second siege, was reconstructed and expanded under the emperors Leopold I and Karl VI to become a magnificent Baroque metropolis with impressive churches, palaces and government buildings. Emperor Franz Joseph I freed it from its corset when he had its bastions and fortress walls demolished in 1857 and the majestic boulevard, the Ringstraße, built on the cleared space. In the second half of the 19th century, an age of massive industrialisation, the imperial city grew into a modern metropolis – one of the largest in the world at the time. The city’s population reached its peak with over 2 million inhabitants in 1910.

Coffeehouses with a creative atmosphere

The cultures of Central and Eastern Europe started mingling in the Danube metropolis in the 19th century. The result was that intense, creative atmosphere that found its way into intellectual history as the ‘Viennese fin de siècle’. In those years, Viennese coffeehouses were crystallisation points of the European intelligentsia. Great poets including Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Franz Werfel and Josef Roth honed their linguistic skills there, Egon Erwin Kisch and Karl Kraus combated each other with their sharp pens, Bertolt Brecht and Leo Trotsky played chess and even Sigmund Freud dropped by regularly to have a cup of coffee and check his theories by observing live subjects.

You will still get a feeling of that inspirational atmosphere in the Griensteidl, Bräunerhof, Café Central and many other traditional Viennese coffeehouses. The intellectual and artistic creativity of the city is actually still quite remarkable. The more than 9 million guests who flock to the Austrian capital every year mainly do so because of its exceptional cultural tradition – to attend a performance in the Musikverein or the State Opera where the likes of Richard Strauss, Gustav Mahler and Herbert von Karajan once conducted, to listen to the velvety sound of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, or make a pilgrimage to memorial sites honouring Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Haydn, Léhar and all the other musicians this city inspired. But music is just one aspect of Vienna. Take a leisurely stroll along the Ringstraße, over Heldenplatz and through the narrow medieval streets; visit the Gothic and Baroque churches, the time-honoured theatres, the outstanding art museums and dazzling palaces such as Belvedere and Schönbrunn. And, go to Grinzing in the evening to taste the young wine. Or throw yourself head over heels into the turbulent nightlife in the discotheques and bars in the city centre and along the Gürtel and party the night away.

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