This is the one European city you must visit in winter
You'll need a warm coat, but a winter visit to Vienna is one of the great European city breaks, says Nick Trend
Winter is the very best time to visit Vienna.
You’ll need a warm coat, of course. In December and January temperatures barely struggle more than a couple of degrees above zero, so that the parks and gardens are deep frozen and you will leave your hotel with prickling eyebrows and a cloud of vaporised breath.
But it’s such a compact city and so many world-class sights, palaces and museums are crammed into the old town and strung around its encircling Ringstrasse, that you never have to walk for long before stepping out of the frost and into another world of glittering salons, fabulous art collections or exhilarating operatics. And if you need a fix of warmth en route between the sights, you are never far from the wood-panelled indulgence and cream-topped hot chocolate of one the grand cafes which are scattered liberally throughout the city centre.
You might, if it’s your kind of thing, head out there in December for the city’s Christmas markets, some of the most and atmospheric stylish of the Mittel-European tradition. You might alternatively be tempted by the New Year celebrations - even if you don’t manage to book into one of the many celebratory balls, the Old Town becomes one big festive party with hot food stalls and live music from lunchtime onwards. Alternatively, wait for January when the first serious snow usually comes, and the city is properly transformed with its shimmering white winter coat.
You might immerse yourself in the city's golden age, which stretched roughly from 1890 to 1918. It was a moment of extraordinary geo-political change after a period of astonishing creativity. The moment when Jugendstil - central Europe’s expression of Art Nouveau blossomed - and then gave way to the darker mood of modernism.
Geographical proximity means that, in the UK and Ireland, we tend to think of these movements as a Parisian thing, led by artists such as Picasso, Braque, Matisse and Duchamp to a soundtrack by Stravinsky and special effects by the Ballets Russes. There are hardly any works by Klimt and Schiele (or their contemporaries Oscar Kokoschka and Richard Gerstl) in our galleries. But Klimt’s reputation continues to soar, and he easily competes with Picasso in the auction rooms. Between 2006-2016 three of his works have been listed among the most expensive paintings ever sold. And Schiele’s edgy, energised and often disconcertingly explicit work still seems astonishingly relevant a century after his death.
It wasn’t just Viennese artists who were at the forefront of Modernism. The city’s architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos were vital influences, and there was revolution in the concert halls and opera house too. Mahler was giving way to the atonal iconoclasts Schoenberg and Alban Berg, and Richard Strauss’ more daring operas - notably Salome and Ariadne auf Naxos - were breaking the 19th-century mould.
Meanwhile the playwright Arthur Schnitzler shocked audiences with his explorations of sexual themes, Sigmund Freud was delving into the subconscious and the young philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein was trying to make sense of, well, the meaning of meaning.
But for all that radical intellectual and artistic innovation, it was the end of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and especially the death in 1916 of an old reactionary dinosaur - emperor Franz Joseph - which marked the moment of most profound historical change. In power since 1848 Franz Joseph had been was the embodiment of the conservative establishment against which the Viennese Modernists rebelled. Yet it was he - with a massive 56-year building project - that gave Vienna its Ringstrasse and transformed the city into the architectural showpiece we see today and which is so central to its appeal.
Especially in winter.
What to see and do this winter
The Belvedere Palace
The early 18th-century palace - has a fabulous view over Vienna, but more importantly it is the place to get a grip on the extraordinary impact made by Klimt, Schiele and their contempories on the history of Austrian art. The collection includs the world’s largest collection of paintings by Klimt paintings including his most famous: The Kiss and Judith. Admission €15 (belvedere.at).
The Secession Building
The Secession art movement of the 1890s - led by Gustav Klimt - was the Viennese equivalent to Art Nouveau and a radical break away from the established academic tradition. This white and gold exhibition hall of 1898 was built to further the cause of modern art. It houses his landmark Beethoven frieze of 1902 - his interpretation of the 9th symphony - but also holds regular exhibitions of contemporary artists. Admission to the Frieze and current exhibition: €9.50 (secession.at).
Klimt wasn’t only a non-conformist when it came to his art. He lived an extremely unconventional lifestyle based around his studio in a villa in the city suburbs where he surrounded himself with young women he recruited as his models. Few men ever visited and neighbours were scandalised by the way the women would wander naked in the gardens. The villa itself has been subsumed into a larger building, but the key rooms and some of the gardens survive, and it is well-presented as a museum. Admission €10 (klimtvilla.at).
This contemporary building in the MuseumsQuarter has by far the most important collection of works by Egon Schiele as well as a rich collection of 19th and 20th-century Viennese art. It is closed for a month for renovations, but re-opens on December 5 when the main exhibition is a celebration of Schiele’s centenary: Reloaded. It runs until March 10, 2019. Admission €13 (leopoldmuseum.org).
Museum of Applied Arts (MAK)
Vienna’s equivalent to the V&A in London celebrates craft and design, and its Art Nouveau rooms give an excellent sense of the pervading trends around the turn of the century. They include Klimt’s sketches for the his celebrated mosaics at the Palais Stoclet in Brussels. Admission €12 (mak.at).
The Post Office Savings Bank
Otto Wagner’s most famous work is the minimalist Post Office Savings Bank of 1903. It was an iconic moment in architectural history - the first building to use the newly discovered aluminium as a key part of its structure and decoration. The highlight is banking hall, with its curved glass ceiling, and glass-tiled hall. Admission free (ottowagner.com).
The Kunsthistorische opened in 1891 as part of Franz Joseph’s plan to line the new Ringstrasse with monumental public buildings. A young Gustave Klimt made some of the paintings above the main staircase. Based on the Habsburg collections, it is one of the world’s greatest art museums and this winter is holding a seminal exhibition of Pieter Bruegel’s paintings, including four of the famous Seasons series (until January 13) (khm.at). One of the Christmas markets takes place in the square in front of the building.
The Vienna State Opera
The Opera was central to Viennese cultural life a century ago and it still is today. Richard Strauss’ operas are still regularly performed- I saw Ariadne aux Naxos, which was premiered in Vienna in 1916; his Arabella is on the programme in February and March. Tickets can be booked online (wiener-staatsoper.at/en/) and printed out or downloaded onto a smart phone.
The main venue for classical music in the city and orchestral performances by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The place to hear Alban Berg, Richard Strauss, Mahler, Bruckner, Beethoven, Mozart and all the Viennese greats. Book well inadvance (musikverein.at).
Where to eat and drink
Viennese cafés are the ideal antidote to its chilly winter. There are dozens to choose from but the one with most historic resonances is the Café Museum near the Naschmarkt and the Secession building. It opened in 1899 and was popular with Schiele, Kokoschka, Alban Berg, Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos who designed the original interior (though this was redesigned in 1931) (cafemuseum.at).
Loos American Bar
Adolf Loos designed this tiny bar with its angular mahogany ceiling, onyx wall tiles and marble floor in 1908 after a visit to the US - it marked a clear rejection of the curves and curlicues of Art Nouveau designs (loosbar.at).
This giant art nouveau glass house in the gardens just below the Albertina is the place to have lunch on a sunny day. Traditional main courses include haunch of venison at €24.50 (palmenhaus.at).
Zum Schwarzen Kameel
The Back Camel was opened in 1902 and still has a Belle Epoque air about it. The menu is based on traditional Viennese meats and stews such as saddle of venison in juniper butter or veal goulash. There’s also an excellent Austrian wine list. From about €55 a head (kameel.at).
The Green Room
The Sacher Hotel’s boudoir-like showpiece restaurant is redolent of the 19th-century luxury of high Habsburg Vienna - all crisp white linen, green velvet and oil paintings. Menus from €85 (sacher.com).
Where to stay
Nick Trend stayed at the Imperial Hotel which was built in 1863 as one of the palaces lining the new Ringstrasse. Within ten years it had been converted into the Hotel Imperial and quickly became one of the political, social and cultural centres of the city. The rear doors open directly opposite the Musikverein and Brahms, Wagner, Mahler, and Bruckner were all regulars at the hotel. Standard doubles from €430 including Champagne breakfast.
Vienna Tourist Board (wien.info/en).
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