Jo Kendall peers into the murky depths of Vienna’s history, the city filled with both talent and tragedy
“Which city in the world has the most spies?” our guide asked us over traditional coffee and cake at the famous Cafe Eiles in Vienna.
At our time of visiting, Vienna had recently won the ‘most liveable city 2018’ award and, perhaps more surprisingly, was also revealed to have the most number of spies.
Coffee and spying for the state might seem unlikely partners, however as we got to know the Austrian capital, it became clear this was the perfect summation.
The grandeur of the baroque style buildings, elaborate parks and impressive collection of museums and galleries, make the city a cultural haven.
Highlights include the Museumsquartier, Hofburg Palace and Rathaus (Town Hall), along with the Universitat (founded in 1365) and grand Austrian Parliament. It’s easily walkable too, with plenty of coffee houses and cafes to break up the journey.
Vienna is certainly no stranger to tragedy, the most famous being the death of an architect responsible for co-designing the Vienna Court Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) in 1868.
The unveiled design failed to live up to expectations, causing public outcry and drawing criticism from the Emperor. Deeply troubled by the vehement outpouring of dislike, one of the architects, Eduard van der Null, took his own life.
Some 50 years later, a struggling art student visited Vienna from the Austrian countryside and sold a painting to a Jewish neurologist.
In a cruel twist of fate, twelve years after their first encounter, that same artist-turned-politician would use anti-Semitism to force the Jewish doctor into exile, and later push Europe into the Second World War.
Despite its dark history, Vienna is also credited as helping to forming the basis of western civilisation, and producing some of the best known figures in the 19th and 20th century. Famous names include Wagner, Mozart, Freud, Beethoven and Klimt, as cultural pioneers in music, the arts, psychiatry and science.
Providing the backdrop to these grand ideas is the Viennese institution; the coffee house. First formed as early as the 15th century, the city’s intellectuals would gather to discuss politics, religion, ideology and philosophy, as well as gossip.
Over the centuries, the coffee house has not evolved much from its original design or purpose. Today they remain a staple of life in Vienna, a place to think and reflect, or to pass the time people watching.
Nursing a single cup entitles the drinker to sit there all day, nobody will move you on. Tourists sit side by side with locals, old with young and men with women – the coffee house is open to all.
If you’re visiting for more than a few days, take a quick trip by train to neighbouring Slovakia. Bratislava is altogether less showy and lets you feel closer to nature thanks to its mountainous surroundings.
Any visitor to Vienna cannot fail to be blown away by its grandness, but if you dig a little deeper under the surface, the chance to uncover the city’s secrets and tangled history awaits.
Find out more and start the adventure via wien.info
Words by Jo Kendall
PLUS: Two top hotels to rest your head
1 Best for something classic: The Hotel Sacher Wien
The epitome of an opulent hotel, The Hotel Sacher Wien is both classic and incredibly comfortable.
With previous guests including the likes of John F. Kennedy, Indira Gandhi and Queen Elizabeth, this elegant stay is everything a gourmand getaway should be. sacher.com
2 Best for beautiful design: Das Triest
For a blend of both modernity and archaic charm, Das Triest is perfect. A former staging post-turned-luxury hotel, this sleek accommodation features 71 guest rooms and suites, all filled with the talented work of Austrian architect Peter Lorenz and British interior designer Sir Terence Conran. dastriest.atdastriest.at