There are certain cities where a blanket of fog actually enhances the character of the place. So it is with Vienna in winter. In the Austrian capital, walk down a damp, cobbled street as the darkness of night starts to envelop, and you are the star of your own film noir, a modern-day Third Man.
I thought this as I passed the neat shopfront of Scheer’s at number 4 Bräunerstrasse, where both German kaisers and Austro-Hungarian emperors had their boots made more than a century ago.
You can still get a pair of shoes made today by the seventh generation of the family: prices start at €5,000 (HK$43,000). Onwards, I ambled behind the tall spire of St Stephen’s Cathedral, adjusting my umbrella to stop the rain running down my trousers, then turned left down Brandstätte, towards Café Korb.
The Austrian capital is one imbued with tradition: how could the capital of a former empire not be? But at this time of year, delve a little deeper and there’s an alternative side: more to see than picture-postcard Christmas markets, mugs of steaming mulled wine, formal white-jacketed waiters, women in dirndls (traditional dresses), baroque churches and grand boulevards.
That’s true in Café Korb, owned by actress, performance artist and ‘cosmopolitan’ – both noun and adjective – Susanne Widl. Every second Saturday she hosts a gathering of local philosophers and every second Wednesday psychoanalysts discuss current issues. Sigmund Freud used to frequent the café back in his day. The last time I was here, I brought my mother.
I know, I know…
There are some very grand, imposing cafés in Vienna, but truthfully Café Korb isn’t one of them, although that’s certainly not to say it doesn’t have bags of character: if Mad Men were ever to shoot an episode in Vienna, it would be here. I thaw out with an order of melange, the local take on strong but milky coffee, and a generous slice of apfelstrudel, which comes swimming in hot, deliciously yellow vanilla sauce. Perfect for a cold afternoon. And good to eat while I sit and think why you should visit Vienna over say, Berlin or Prague at this time of year. Because of Vienna’s seamless blend of the traditional and the contemporary, bundled up in a relatively compact area. There is a lot to do but you don’t have to go far.
Vienna is made up of districts and after my dessert I make my way to the trendy restaurants and boutiques of the 7th. ‘Is this the Brooklyn of Austria?’ I wonder to New York expat and fashion stylist Lucie Lamster-Thury, who moved for love 12 years ago and on the way became smitten with her adopted home, too. She now offers bespoke shopping tours, concentrating on local designers who fly under the radar.
‘You could say that,’ she replies, laughing. ‘There’s a concentration of designers here, some great quality and what I really like is they’re super eco-conscious.
‘For example, there are two sisters who have a shop called Werkprunk. One makes leather products; the other, silver. And the shop is their atelier – you can see them at work there as well as buy.
‘And there’s a cool store called Local.
The designer works there but she also hosts others from central Europe. The stuff is avant garde but wearable. You could wear it in the office then go straight out in the evening.’ She reels off other favourites but you’ll have to join her tour to learn more.
This juxtaposition of the outwardly traditional and the progressive is apparent in architecture, too. Away from the grand exhibitionism of palaces and cathedrals you can see a contemporary, forward-thinking focus in Zaha Hadid’s spectacular Library and Learning Centre at Vienna University’s economics and business campus, for example.
And it’s apparent if you pass by the stark white 1930s buildings of the Werkbund housing project in the 13th district. Just north of the Danube, the zigzag vertical pleats of French architect Dominique Perrault’s DC Tower 1 make up the country’s tallest building (250 metres). This area was formerly a rubbish dump. Head towards the top for a drink with a view at 57 Restaurant & Lounge, where you can try cocktails, Austrian wines or knock back an apricot schnapps or three.
Vienna’s contemporary side is also apparent in its cuisine. Of course, you don’t have to look too far for a wiener schnitzel in a typical beisl (bistro) or a warming plate of kaiserschmarrn (sweet shredded pancake) but at Tian on Himmelpfortgasse, you’ll also find Michelin-starred vegetarian cooking under the watchful eye of handsome 37-year-old head chef Paul Ivic.
‘Don’t get me wrong,’ he says as I tuck into black eggplant, white beans and Sumac berry. ‘But Austria has a lot more to offer than just breaded veal – there’s definitely a higher awareness these days for quality products.
‘On a day off I’ll head to O Boufés on Dominikanerbastei. It’s a great little spot to relax with friends and enjoy its good food and excellent wine.’
If you want alternative, you can’t get much more so than Conchita Wurst, the bearded beauty who won the 2014 Eurovision Song Contest. My efforts to track her down – I think the word ‘stalking’ is a tad vulgar – come to nothing but I do manage to chat to JC Hoerl, who makes many of Conchita’s outfits and is a style icon in his own right with a lovely shop on Köstlergasse.
‘Most people still relate Austria to The Sound of Music, not with Conchita,’ he says. ‘I think she gave people a modern and fresh approach to our wonderful country, which has a lot more to offer than mountains and Julie Andrews in a dirndl singing in our lush, green hills.’
It’s a valid point, I think, as I finish off my day with a cocktail in new bar Tür 7 in the 8th district. I ask for something warming and unconventional and receive a Winter Punch – bourbon, honey, hot water, lemon and cinnamon – from owner and head barman Gerhard Kozbach-Tsai, who explains his philosophy on what makes the city tick. ‘We have a good scene here. The mix of artists and professionals, classical and new works very well in Vienna.’
I head back out into the night towards my hotel, past the Christmas market in the Rathausplatz. Street lamps glow eerily in the fog. It’s too cold to linger, but there’s plenty more to explore tomorrow.