A love letter to Vienna and its culture-steeped way of life

Having first experienced the Austrian capital’s idiosyncratic way of life in 2014, our travel editor Arta Ghanbari revisits old haunts and discovers a vibrant contemporary culture that is making its mark on a city known for its past glories

Vienna has associations with such classical music greats as Schubert, Mozart and Beethoven – the latter moved house more than 60 times in the 35 years he lived here and numerous plaques mark his various addresses. And you can spend days following their steps through the city. But despite its gloried past, Vienna feels as if it is undergoing another creative renaissance, one that is charged by a new generation of forward-thinking locals and expats who are helping the city to awake from a long sleep.

Lilli Hollein, director of MAK

Julius Hirtzberger

‘Vienna has a certain coolness in terms of not approaching things with too much euphoria – things here are relaxed and laidback,’ said Lilli Hollein, one of the founders of Vienna Design Week and now director of the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK). Since its inception in 1864, the MAK has remained one of the most important establishments in promoting Austrian design, crafts and fashion – from Baroque to contemporary. Fashion designer Helmut Lang has entrusted his archive to the museum and it has joined important pieces by the likes of Thonet, Koloman Moser, Franz Hagenauer and Josef Hoffman. This summer, the museum will hold a show on Vienna World’s Fair in 1873 to illustrate how it was a turning point for the city and the driver of Modernism here.

Trams traverse the city

Julius Hirtzberger

Then, as now, it is easy to grasp what makes this place so liveable and lovable: Vienna cares deeply for itself and its inhabitants. It is unimaginably clean for a city, affordable rent remains a reality and there is copious access to beautiful spaces, so it has attracted creatives much in the same way as Berlin did decades ago. ‘Given its relatively small size, the density of the cultural offering is also remarkable,’ Lilli says. ‘Anyone can consume culture.’

The Art Deco Amalienbad public swimming pool

Julius Hirtzberger

Indeed, culture is nearly impossible to avoid. Historically, the ‘city of music’ also gave the world the ‘city of dreams’ by way of notorious resident Sigmund Freud’s theories of psycho-analysis. Soon after, the beauty and intensity of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele’s art shook the world in extremities of favour and dislike. Despite Schiele’s early death aged 28 in 1918, he produced an impressive number of paintings, which can be viewed across the city from the Albertina to the Leopold in MuseumsQuartier. This patch of the 1st District alone has about 60 cultural centres and galleries showing everything from classical greats to artists working today.

Brick15 in the upcoming area of Rudolfsheim-Fünfhaus

Julius Hirtzberger

After an afternoon of such heavy consumption, it was time to retreat to the coffee house to reflect – this time, Café Jelinek in Mariahilf. Unpretentious and less formal than the likes of Café Landtmann (a favourite of Freud’s), Jelinek feels like a bygone-era jazz club with walls lined in theatre and cabaret posters from decades past. Unlike Landtmann, which remains the hangout of politicians, diplomats and journalists, Jelinek is the meeting point for the literary crowd. ‘Coffee houses of the Viennese style have served as the perfect setting for all kinds of activities for hundreds of years,’ says Lilli. ‘They are like a public living room, where all these different things happen at the same time. There’s no distinction between day and night and it’s one of those rare places where you feel comfortable going alone, to have a chat or read the newspapers.’ In this pleasant state, with sweet mouthfuls of sachertorte replacing cigarettes (the laws finally caught up), I watched as time moved slowly.


Austrian Airlines has daily flights to Vienna from London Heathrow (austrian.com). Rosewood Vienna (rosewoodhotels.com) is the smartest address in the city, ideally located on Petersplatz Square in the Inner Stadt, with views to the 18th-century St Peter’s Catholic church and the earlier St Stephen’s Cathedral – two of the key sights in the city. From here, you can get to anywhere in the 1st District quickly on foot. Rooms cost from €700, B&B.