Austria: Cultural Tourism in the Shadows of Empire

In 1913, Vienna was the glorious capital of a multicultural Empire, 50 million people strong, one of the five powers of Europe, metropole of the modern world. Then World War One happened, Austria lost, its Empire disintegrated, and Vienna was left the oversized head of a mountain province of eight million people with slightly less influence than Switzerland. The city, however, remains a relic of Austria’s greatness. It’s the place to visit for those interested in European history and culture.

The City

The first thing to see are the landmarks of the Vienna Secession: the most famous being the Post Savings Bank and the gold leaf dome of the Secession building – a building which the Viennese (with their knack for nicknames) used to call ‘the Golden Cabbage’. Other buildings worth seeing from this period are the Church of St Leopold – located in the Steinhof mental asylum – and Otto Wagner’s Court Pavilion, to name a few.

However, Vienna’s architectural history goes well beyond the Secession. Unlike many of the merchant cities of Germany, Vienna has always been dominated by its nobles, who spent big on churches and palaces to glorify their power. Visit the Belvedere, the Schönnbrun Palace, and St Stephan’s Cathedral to see their Baroque glory.

Belvedere photographed by Dmitry Anikin

If the vainglory of the aristocracy leaves you cold, try to visit the social housing units of Karl-Marx-Hof, monument to the socialist governments which ruled Vienna between1918 and 1934, earning the city the name ‘Red Vienna’. While there, see the art-deco Amalienbad swimming pool. The area is a stunning example of what an ambitious and well-resourced socialist programme can achieve.

As you cycle or walk between these locations (and Vienna is so small, that self-propulsion is a desirable option) be sure to stop off at the Stadtpark, which hosts monuments to Schubert, Strauss and other Austrian cultural heroes. When I last visited (April 2016) it had just hosted a protest against the far-right Freedom Parties presidential candidate Robert Hofer. His effigy was, quite literally, hanging from a bridge. That weekend, he was defeated by the Greens candidate. Now, his party is part of the government as a junior partner in a conservative coalition. Typical 2017.

The Art

At the turn of the 20th century, Vienna was probably the only city that could compete with France as a centre of culture. Its art was an internal one, expressionist and symbolic, obsessed with sexuality, irrationality, ugliness, psychosis and terror. The best places to see this art is in the Upper Belvedere museum, the Leopold Museum (which has the largest collection of Egon Schiele paintings), and the Albertina.

Egon Schiele, Self-Portrait with Chinese Lantern Plant

The Food

Austria is a mountain province so, naturally it serves mountain food. Hardy stuff, made for hairy lumberjacks who need to go yodelling. Visit any café or restaurant here and you’ll find Weiner schnitzel, sauerkraut, sausages, beef soup and potatoes. Then, there are the cakes. Every café in Vienna seems to specialise in serving thick, fat, creamy, heart attacks.

If you want to eat one of these sins against dieting, and absorb Austria’s café culture, visit Vienna’s most famous hotel, Hotel Sacher, and enjoy one of their Sacher tarts (a somewhat famous Viennese delicacy). It’s conveniently close to the Albertina museum in town, and overlooks the neo-Renaissance state opera house. Alternatively, you can go to any of the cafés in the area. One, though atypical in its modernism, is Alfred Loos’ modernist American Bar.

If you (or your colon) protest such a concentration of carbs, Vienna has a solution; the Do&Co. It’s one of the premiere fusion food restaurants in Europe and has its flagship restaurant in this city, and a view on to St Stephan’s Cathedral. The restaurant has a great sense of humour: when I visited the menu’s frontispiece was a drawing of a woman doing inappropriate things to a cream-covered asparagus.

The Music

Vienna is undoubtedly the father of modern music. The great modernist, including Schoenberg, Webern and Strauss, worked here, producing some of the most influential music of the 20th century. This culture continues to persist, with unmissable performances happening everyday at various venues that cater to every taste: the State Opera, the more experimental Volks Opera, and the Vienna Concert House amongst others.

One piece you should see is Strauss’ Rosenkavelier, a beautiful satire of baroque Vienna and also a subtle portrait of a woman facing the end of love. It plays at the State Opera nearly every year. Daddies beware, the woman is very old, and her lover is in his early twenties and would, today, almost definitely be called a twink.

The Scene

But don’t worry, ravers and club kids, the Viennese music scene does extend beyond the concert hall. There are several good gay bars, the oldest gay club in town is Why Not located in the centre of town. It generally plays pop and what my friend calls ‘euro-trash’ which, he assures me, is not derogatory in Austria (I know, go figure).

Another area is the Naschmarkt which is also worth visiting on its own as a place to buy mulled wine and hot chocolate. The neighbourhood also hosts a large number of gay venues, ranging from friendlier options like Mango Bar, to shady dives like Sling. While Vienna’s gay scene is more conservative than London’s, you can generally find what you are looking for.

Naschmarkt photographed by Ian Peezick

Vienna, today, remains a comfortable city, with a glorious history written into its cityscape, the pressed bloom of a vanished empire. Brexit London should probably take note.

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