Vienna Is Beloved for Its Museums, Café Culture, and Gorgeous Parks — But It's Now One of Europe's Most Exciting Cities for Nightlife
Vienna's 20th district, a traditionally working-class neighborhood across the Danube from the city's famous Rococo churches and Jugendstil villas, was well down the list of places I expected to have one of the most spectacular meals of my life. My friend Ellie Tzortzi and I were already five courses into a 15-plate extravaganza of sublimity, subversion, and occasional eruptions of out-and-out weirdness when a dish arrived that both my palate and my cerebellum are still buzzing from: a miniature döner kebab, made not with lamb but shoulder of venison, on a flatbread incorporating dark poppyseed, Austria's most cherished baking ingredient. Devotee of Sacher torte and knödel that I am, the combination struck me as delicious and incongruous in roughly equal measure. As I'd soon come to learn, however, a more perfect culinary totem for today's Vienna couldn't be devised.
Ellie had convinced me that we should spend my first evening in the Austrian capital at Mraz & Sohn, currently the hottest ticket in Vienna, but I'd accepted her suggestion with more than a slight twinge of doubt. As an Austrian American living in the United States, it hasn't escaped me that Vienna has gone through some promising changes in recent years. Nevertheless, the idea that the grungy 20th district, whose claim to culinary fame was always its sausage stands, might really be the place to spend half my travel budget on a single dinner took some time to get my head around.
But Ellie — who was already far more sophisticated than I was when we dated, back in our misspent youth — has a way of putting me in my place with a glance over the top of her stylishly clunky glasses, and I've never been more grateful for her powers of intimidation than I was on that night.
Austria's cuisine has been described as excessively tradition-bound. But well before the final course at Mraz & Sohn — after charred-leek pappardelle in a sauce of aged Emmenthaler, a porcini-foam consommé, shrimp sashimi with umeboshi mayo, and something called "Fig-alize It," which I can't even begin to describe — I was starting to question whether what I thought I knew about the Viennese restaurant scene should be lobbed into the beautiful blue (actually brownish-green) Danube.
Manuel Mraz, one of the owners of the Michelin two-starred restaurant, wheeled a bookshelf-size cheese cart through the spare white dining room to our table.
"People sometimes ask us whether this neighborhood is even still in Vienna," he told me. "Even twenty years ago, when my brother and I grew up here, this area was seen as great for affordable dining, but too far out of the way for most people. What's different now is that they're more willing to go for an adventure beyond the inner districts."
That night I stayed in the quirkily luxurious Altstadt Vienna hotel, which, like Mraz & Sohn, is located outside the Ringstrasse, the boulevard that circles the central historic district where visitors typically congregate. Each of its 62 rooms has a different design scheme, including one created by Viennese fashion innovator Lena Hoschek. My airy suite was essentially a one-and-a-half-room homage to the work of Josef Frank, an icon of mid-century Austrian design who spent much of his working life in Sweden and became a major player in what later came to be known as Scandinavian Modern design.
Lying on the somewhat austere but undeniably comfortable Josef Frank bed, I found myself thinking back to my days at the University of Vienna, when I would often have the feeling I was living in an enormous open-air museum: a city that was generously supplied with scenic views and immaculate temples to classical European culture, but felt lifeless once the sun went down.
Vienna in the 1990s seemed bored with itself, cynically content to profit from the art and ideas of a more vibrant era, one that fascism had snuffed out six decades before. You even felt it in the all-purpose ennui at student parties: everyone seemed to be standing around in a state of existential paralysis, chain-smoking and rolling their eyes. In those days, if you were looking for excitement, your best bet was to spend the weekend in Prague, or even — if you could afford it — to take the night train to Berlin.
These days, the kids from Berlin are just as often taking the night train to Vienna.
"This city lives much more of its life out in public now," Peter Wünschmann, one of the designers of Vienna's exquisitely functional subway system (who also happens to be my uncle), told me as we strolled through the Prater, the imperial Hapsburg hunting grounds in the leafy second district. "There's street life here, the kind you might expect to find in Naples or Dubrovnik."
We had spent the morning at a festival for cutting-edge art, and now were in the mood for something more traditional. So we took a five-minute subway ride to the Rathausplatz, a large public square adjacent to the town hall, where arguably the best-known of Vienna's famous Christmas markets sell handicrafts, confectionery, handmade tree decorations — and, most importantly, hot mulled punch — from late fall through the end of the holiday season. Some of my most cherished childhood memories are of strolling from booth to booth in these almost impossibly picturesque markets.
To my delight, very little has changed: the toasted almonds are still sugar-crusted, the punch is still steamy, and the booths still look like tiny alpine cabins constructed by gnomes.
As we absorbed the festive spirit, my uncle argued that I shouldn't be surprised at what he's taken to calling the "Viennaissance," given the city's long and cyclical history of immigration from Eastern Europe and the Balkans.
Vienna recently surpassed Frankfurt as the second-largest urban center in the German-speaking world, and most of that demographic explosion has been driven by immigrants from the so-called former Soviet republics.
What's more, in spite of what the far right may claim, the city's mushrooming diversity represents a return to — not a departure from — Vienna's glory days.
"The languages you hear on the street today are the same ones you'd have heard in the nineteenth century," my uncle told me as we strolled through the Museumsquartier, the vast former stables of the imperial court that have since been repurposed into a daunting assemblage of cultural offerings, from contemporary museums to architecture studios to theaters to a pop-up tiki bar.
"What we're witnessing right now is a return of the qualities that made this city one of the centers of the intellectual world a century ago. None of this is unprecedented." His eyes went to the tiki hut for a moment, where a gaggle of well-heeled Viennese hipsters were lounging on brightly colored plastic divans. "Except, I suppose, the kombucha caipirinhas."
Vienna has certainly never been the destination of choice for those in pursuit of a world-class cocktail — even on more recent visits, my impression had been that you were pushing your luck ordering anything more intricate than a glass of Grüner Veltliner.
On my third night, however, my cousin Sophie, who writes and designs cookbooks and has lived in Vienna all her life, took me to a series of watering holes that would give the most overpriced speakeasy in Manhattan or Los Angeles a run for its artisanal ice cubes. At one of them, I overheard an exchange between a young British couple at a neighboring booth that captures the essence of my five curious days in Vienna better than I ever could:
"Wasn't Mozart born around here?"
Not wanting to deprive myself of a taste of the city's tradition of genteel luxury, I spent my last night in town at the Hotel Bristol, a grande dame that boasts a list of eminent former guests as glitzy as the Hapsburg crown jewels. Sergei Rachmaninoff, Kim Novak, and Ernest Shackleton have all stayed there — even, to my astonishment, Iggy & the Stooges, though presumably only once.
The rooms at the Bristol are every bit as cushy as one would expect. Mine had a balcony with a view of the Vienna State Opera and something called a "pillow menu." (I'm still kicking myself for not trying out the Mühldorfer horsehair body cushion.)
Visiting the gloriously retro wood-paneled hotel bar that evening, I found myself seated next to a middle-aged German man so extravagantly dissolute-looking that he could only have been an aging rock star — which he duly turned out to be. The dreadlocked young man on the barstool beside him, who bore a striking resemblance to Nigerian Afro-fusion sensation Burna Boy, delighted me. At one point in the evening he ordered a pint of beer in the thickest Tyrolian accent I'd heard in years.
"The most beautiful change, to me, is not that Vienna is multicultural again — it's that Vienna is proud of it, after eighty-plus years of stuffiness," Ellie enthused to me that evening over a glass of Weissburgunder at Deval, a restaurant so new its menus hadn't even been bound yet.
"You can see this in the places people are going to eat. Most of the rising stars of the Viennese gastro scene are either of Austrian-plus-something-else heritage, or they're relatively new to the country. It's almost impossible for them not to be bringing all sorts of unfamiliar elements here."
As if on cue, Daan de Val, the Dutch-born co-proprietor of Deval, brought out a dish that put an abrupt end to our pontificating: rendang-style lamb with potatoes and parsnips from the Austrian province of Burgenland, all on a bed of crispy Sichuan leeks.
If this new Vienna were in need of an ambassador, it couldn't ask for a better one than Ellie. Greek-born and U.K.-educated, Ellie spent her childhood traveling the world on container ships with her engineer father. She co-owns a Vienna-based design firm, but her defining passions are food and drink, especially olive oil, for which she developed a flavor chart for the labels of artisanal bottles to educate numbskull Americans like me in the subtleties of flavor and bouquet.
Ellie is a passionate and demanding eater and drinker, to say the least, and as recently as the turn of the millennium, she might have had a hard time adjusting to life in Austria's capital. To my surprise, however, Ellie actually thinks of herself as a local.
"I feel at home here," she told me, when I pressed her to explain. "I'm not Austrian, of course — not even close. But, in some bizarre way, I am Viennese."
There's a word in the German-speaking world — Wahlheimat — for which I've never found a precise equivalent in English. Put simply, it means a homeland that you've chosen for yourself, regardless of your own history and origins.
Listening to Ellie talk with such affection about the city that she's claimed as her own, I was reminded of something I've sometimes said about New York. For me, one of the great wonders of my adopted hometown is that anyone can spontaneously naturalize themselves as a New Yorker — and, most importantly, that the city will generously indulge them. In that sense, New York is the ultimate Wahlheimat, and this, perhaps more than any other quality, is the secret of its perennial allure.
But never in my life would I have thought that someone — some outsider, some immigrant — could possibly think or feel that way about Vienna. On that bittersweet last night in the city, looking out from the balcony of my room at the Bristol over the copper-roofed expanse of the opera house and the glittering lights of the Ring, I found myself in the grip of an emotion that my teenage self would have been astonished by: the sudden temptation to stay.
Vienna, from the Classic to the Contemporary
Where to Stay
Each of the 62 guest rooms at the Altstadt Vienna (doubles from $225) has a unique look.
The Hotel Bristol (doubles from $400) has been one of the city's grande dames since 1892, and the rooms are every bit as comfortable as you would expect.
The 63-room Sans Souci (doubles from $275) is a bright, airy boutique hotel that complements the grandeur and romance of its location in the Museumsquartier.
Where to Eat
Venture to the 20th district for the unmissable Mraz & Sohn (15-course tasting menu $160), a family-run establishment with two Michelin stars.
Deval (four-course tasting menu from $78) is an Indonesian fusion restaurant near the Ringstrasse.
What to See
Open from late fall through the end of the holiday season, the Christmas Market at the Rathausplatz is the city's largest. Expect a dazzling display of colored lights and more than 150 stalls selling ornaments and sugary treats.
The Prater, a massive park in the second district, houses an amusement park among its many green spaces and trails.
A version of this story first appeared in the November 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline The Viennese Hour.