This article was first published in the October 2018 edition of BBC History Magazine
I view Vienna not through a visitor’s eyes, but those of a former resident. I spent four years there as a journalist in the 1990s, have a Viennese son, and often revisit the city. Therefore, if not exactly my favourite place, I certainly know Vienna well enough to pronounce it near the top of European cities for its quality of life, its culture and, of course, its history!
Vienna today gives the impression that history has passed it by since c1900, when it was the most vibrant cultural and political centre in Europe. It was home then to such varied personalities as psychologists Sigmund Freud and Alfred Adler, composer and conductor Gustav Mahler and his wife Alma, Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky, artists Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele and, for Vienna’s history is shadowed by its dark side, a young vagrant named Adolf Hitler.
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Those days have long gone, but if you take a tram or horse-drawn Fiaker ride around the Ringstrasse, which circles the city’s historical heart, the First District, you will still see the ghosts of its great imperial past in the shape of imposing buildings like the Hofburg. Once the palace home of the Habsburg dynasty, it now houses the crown jewels, the national library and the famous white horses of the Spanish Riding School. Then there is the Opera House, the sweeping parliament building, the Burg (Court) theatre, and opposite, the huge Rathaus, or city hall, a bastion of the Social Democrats, who long dominated the city, making Vienna a progressive island in a conservative Austrian sea.
These grandiose structures attest to Vienna’s role as capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire of 100 million people, a multi-ethnic patchwork quilt torn apart a century ago at the end of the First World War. Since then, the city, with the exception of its Nazi years, has been capital of the truncated Austrian republic – with a population today of around 10 million people – and has largely lived on its past glories.
But what glories they were! A visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Austria’s national art gallery, reveals a wealth of genius – Bruegel, Velazquez, Raphael, – from when the Habsburgs ruled almost half of Europe. Or take a U-bahn out to the city’s leafy western suburbs, where the butter-coloured Schönbrunn, the Habsburg summer palace, lies in its vast park (which also contains Vienna’s Zoo) and see where Napoleon lived after conquering the city. Vienna’s magnificent city hall, built between 1872 and 1883, can be found in the heart of the city
Austria’s pre-eminent art, naturally, is music. Vienna has been home to most of Europe’s greatest maestros, from Haydn and Mozart, to Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms and Bruckner, down to the atonal music of Schönberg. Following his death in 1791, Mozart was interred in a communal grave in the St Marx cemetery.
If you go to the suburb of Heiligenstadt you can sip fresh local wine and nibble meaty morsels in a Heurigen (restaurant) in one of the innumerable houses where the cash-strapped Beethoven had lodgings.
Food and drink are as much an intrinsic part of Viennese culture as music. If Wiener-schnitzel (veal in eggs and breadcrumbs) or Goulasch soup are not to your taste, then how about an apfelstrudel or a Sachertorte cake with Schlagsahne (whipped cream)?
Vienna’s crowning culinary jewel has to be the coffee house. Legend has it that the city was once the portal for the arrival of coffee in Europe, when the Viennese discovered sacks of beans in abandoned Turkish tents after an unsuccessful Ottoman siege of the city in 1683. Its legacy lies in languid cafes like the Central, the Pruckel and the Landtmann, (Freud’s favourite) that litter the city. Here you can linger for hours over a Grosser Brauner (double espresso), or Melange (an espresso with steamed milk), read newspapers, or just gossip with friends.
For active pursuits there is the Prater, a huge park given to the Viennese for leisure purposes by Emperor Josef II in the 18th century. The Prater contains one of the world’s oldest funfairs, which is famous for being the backdrop to Orson Welles’s line about cuckoo clocks in the 1949 film The Third Man.
Though proud of its past, Vienna has made sterling efforts to keep up with modern times: building the Donaustadt quarter on the banks of the not-so-blue Danube to house international agencies like the UN and Opec, and in the Museums Quarter showcasing galleries presenting contemporary art. For me, however, it will always be a place of the past.
On a sleepy afternoon last year, I visited Vienna’s Military History Museum, the prize exhibits of which are the bloodstained sky blue uniform worn by Archduke Franz Ferdinand at Sarajevo on 28 June 1914, and the car he and his wife rode in on that fatal day. A neat round bullet hole punctures the car door. The shot that started a world war: you can’t get much closer to history than that.
Nigel Jones is author of eight historical books. He co-founded and leads tours for the travel company historicaltrips.com
Next month: Meleisa Ono-George explores the Caribbean island of Jamaica
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Advice for travellers
BEST TIME TO GO
All year round, really. Vienna can be sultry in summer, but its many parks and spa pools offer a refreshing escape. Many people choose to visit in winter, when Christmas markets abound. Autumn and spring are also delightful times to visit.
Vienna has superb transport links by road, rail and air. The city’s international airport is a two-hour flight from London, and non-stop trains, scheduled every half hour, will get you to the city centre in just 20 minutes. Purchase a tourist ticket at the airport for unlimited city transport by trams, U-bahn or bus.
WHAT TO PACK
Comfortable walking shoes, a German language phrase book (though most people speak English), and a couple of the many excellent histories of Austria and Vienna available in English.
WHAT TO BRING BACK
Leberkuchen biscuits and, if you dare wear them back home, traditional Austrian clothes: dirndl dresses for women, lederhosen for men. They are expensive, but last a lifetime.
Walk up the Kahlenberg just outside Vienna and see the city from the same place that 3,000 Polish hussars did in 1683! @morphashark