Weekend Away: Sacher Hotel, Vienna
This grand hotel in the heart of Vienna lies on the aptly named Philharmoniker Strasse, opposite the Vienna State Opera. It's a short walk to the striking Stephansdom Cathedral and the Hofburg Imperial Palace, and close to the pedestrianised shopping street, Karntner Strasse.
Upon arrival, a flurry of immaculately dressed attendants whisked our luggage out of our grasp as we were ushered into the 'Entrée'. Marble, mahogany, chandeliers and rich red velvets recreate the opulence of the Habsburgs but the business of checking-in takes place at a discreet reception through an alcove.
You are in lofty company walking through the Picture Room, lined with photographs of famous patrons from past and present royalty to celebrities of screen and stage.
Room to book
We were impressed with our elegant, powder-blue room on the seventh floor, one of two floors added in 2005. The bathroom was spacious and airy if a little lacking in character. These newer rooms don't have quite the same grand ambience of the more venerable ones on the floors beneath, but are tastefully appointed in a similar style and feature technical mod cons and terrace views over the city -- Stephansdom's beautiful mosaic-like roof dominates the skyline.
The hotel is renowned for the invention of the world-famous Sachertorte -- a sublime chocolate and jam confection. In 1832, the kitchen was commissioned to create a special dessert for an aristocratic VIP, Klemens Wenzel von Metternich. The chef was ill and confined to bed, so 16-year-old apprentice Franz Sacher stepped up to the dessert plate and put his stamp on culinary history. We also sampled the rival Demel Sachertorte and found the original to be superior thanks to its richer, moister taste.
Breakfast was a delight, though not for the waist. The buffet heaved with a plethora of choices from perfectly ripe fruit to pastries, cheeses, charcuterie, seafood and a delicious range of hot food cheerfully cooked to order and beautifully presented.
In the evening, we ate in the hotel's charming Rote Bar restaurant to the sound of a live piano. The menu included the city's legendary breaded veal -- Wiener Schnitzel -- as well as an Austrian take on international staples. We loved the veal with blinis and cherries, and tender boiled beef with apple and a flavoursome horseradish cream. The wine list is long, with a strong emphasis on the Old World, as you'd expect in this sort of place.
The pamper factor
We soon discovered that too much Sachertorte is a dangerous thing so we zipped down to the spa, which features a thermal suite and gym.
Signature massage and facial treatments use the hotel's disappointingly bland Time to Chocolate range of cocoa-oriented products. However, when it comes to chocolate, better in than out, I say, so we gave in to our guilt and opted for chocolate cocktails in the intimate Blaue Bar.
What to do
Bill Bryson was right when he wrote that a Martian landing on Earth would assume Vienna was the planet's capital. We were dazzled by the city's magnificent buildings and stately thoroughfares, with evidence of its opulent past at every turn.
There is far too much to take in over a mere weekend, but a walk along the grand Baroque thoroughfares of Graben and Kohlmarkt is a great starting point. Shoppers seeking international brands should head to Mariahilfer Strasse and the quirky speciality store, Neubaugasse, is well worth a visit.
To escape the rush, try a cocktail at the tiny, atmospheric Loos Bar, just off Karntner Strasse. It's unchanged since 1908 and a must for architecture aficionados.
For dinner, the Österreicher im MAK restaurant on Stubenring was a delight. We ate al fresco in a beautiful space serenaded by an accomplished jazz trio.
For the classic Vienna coffee house experience, visit Café Griensteidl near the Spanish Riding School, the city's must-see attraction which makes horse-lovers swoon.
There wasn't much to quibble about in a hotel that has some justification in boasting that it can "anticipate every wish" of guests. That said, a room service order never arrived -- apparently the kitchen didn't receive our order.
We were upgraded to a suite costing €900 a night. The price tag may well promote a certain exclusivity, but I'm more impressed with good old-fashioned value for money. I've stayed in much larger, more eye-catching rooms for less than half the price. Despite this, the Sacher is a very special hotel.
Double rooms start at €355 per night for two people sharing.
Hotel Sacher Wien, Philharmoniker Strasse 4, Vienna; 0043 1514 560 sacher.com. For cheap rates bookthrough the Leading Hotels of the World group (lhw.com). Aer Lingus (0818 365 000; aerlingus.com) flies from Dublin to Vienna.