VIENNA (Reuters) - The German expression “Es weihnachtet sehr” (It’s getting very Christmassy) fits the mood in Vienna as Austria’s capital decks itself out in style for the holiday season.
The center of the old Habsburg empire treats locals and visitors to quaint Christmas markets featuring crafts and decorations, hot punch and baked goods in all the city’s main squares.
Consistently voted the world’s most liveable city, Vienna goes all out for the season. Christmas markets are open daily from 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. and to 10 p.m. on Friday and Saturday. They close on December 24 at 5 p.m.
The Ottoman Turkish sieges of Vienna in the 16th and 17th centuries never managed to overwhelm the city but did leave behind a cafe culture that still thrives. Every Viennese has their own favorite for coffee and a leisurely klatsch about the day’s events.
Try the Landtmann across from City Hall - once Sigmund Freud’s regular haunt - or the Cafe Central, and watch the heads of society-conscious locals snap up to see who has just walked in with whom.
A stroll through the Naschmarkt, the 1.5-km-long (1-mile) open-air market with food stalls that first opened in the 16th century, offers more international variety.
Cheese fans shouldn’t not miss Poehl’s.
Restaurants don’t offer just meat and potatoes, exemplified by the renowned breaded and fried veal dish known as Wienerschnitzel.
Steiereck in Stadtpark (City Park) is a foodie magnet that often books out weeks in advance. Figlmueller is known for Wienerschnitzels too big for the average plate to hold.
For people ready for a jaunt on Vienna’s excellent public transport, head out to the 19th District to a heuriger, the often rustic taverns featuring local wines.
Austria is filled with grandiose castles and palaces, and three of the best are in Vienna. The Hofburg, inside the elegant ring road that encircles the city center, used to be the imperial residence and was built up with ever more majestic additions by a series of emperors from the 14th to the 20th centuries, each striving to outdo his or her predecessors. Today, it’s the official residence of the Austrian president but most sections are open to visitors. The complex includes the Spanish Riding School, where the famous Lippizan horses are put through their paces in balletic displays. For a double dose of schmaltz, the Spanish Riding School is teaming up on a few selected dates until June 2014 with the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
The baroque Belvedere palace, just outside the city center with sweeping views over Vienna, houses an impressive art collection from Vienna in its fin-de-siecle heyday. It includes the famed Gustav Klimt painting The Kiss, which you can also see reproduced on countless scarves, packs of cards and lighters in souvenir shops around the city.
A 15-minute taxi ride from the center, or a cheaper tram, brings you to the Schoenbrunn Palace estate. Originally planned as a palatial hunting lodge in the 17th century, the site includes extensive gardens and Europe’s oldest zoo. In December, it also hosts - you guessed it - a Christmas market.
Back in the city center, the MuseumsQuartier is a complex of mostly modern art museums built around the former imperial stables. Cafes spill out into the large outdoor courtyard and the area has a lively yet laid-back feel - think Pompidou Center minus the street artists.
Among the plethora of museums in the city, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, with its extensive Habsburg painting collections of Venetian, Flemish, Dutch and German masterpieces stands out. Until January 12, it is also home to an exhibition of 141 paintings by the late British figurative painter Lucian Freud, many of them on rare loan from private collections. It is the first time Sigmund Freud’s grandson has had a show in Vienna and it is likely to be the last time for several years that such a collection is brought together.
For a glimpse of the more recent history of “Red Vienna”, the nickname of the socialist-governed city between the two world wars, check out some of the more extravagant social housing that was built during the period - for example the giant Karl Marx-Hof in Heiligenstadt, where revolutionaries of the 1934 February uprising barricaded themselves against artillery fire. A more recent example is the eccentric 1980s Hundertwasser House close to the Danube Canal, a expressionist riot of color, bendy lines and tree limbs poking through the windows. The city’s architectural history is described in the MuseumsQuartier’s Architecture Center.
A visit to the recently revamped Jewish Museum is essential for anyone wanting to understand the central place Vienna’s 200,000-strong Jewish population played in the city before it was wiped out in the Nazi Holocaust. As well as documenting the Jews’ often grim history, the museum also celebrates the rebuilding of contemporary Jewish life in the city.
For many, Vienna is above all the city of Strauss waltzes. Tickets for the Vienna Philharmonic’s schmaltzy New Year’s Concert are sold months ahead of time by lottery but for those with more adventurous musical tastes there is plenty on offer. The world-class Vienna State Opera, housed in one of the city’s landmark buildings on the elegant inner ring road, hosts world-class stars and also offers tours of its marble and red-plush interior. Front-row tickets in the boxes come with discreet sub-title screens at every seat.
For something more sophisticated, head to the rooftop bar Le Loft at the Sofitel at sunset for a magnificent view over the rooftops and Prater park.
Live music is a staple at Rhiz rhiz.org/, a club in the 8th District where DJs start around midnight. It is one of several joints tucked under the arches of the U6 metro line that runs along the Guertel outer ring road, once the center of prostitution in Vienna that has now shifted into the Prater.
If you like football hooligans, you will love the neighborhood called the Bermuda Triangle. A quiet neighborhood by day whose synagogue and kosher restaurants reflect its history as a Jewish quarter, the area near Schwedenplatz transforms at night into a series of watering holes. The drinking age is 16, so brace for a young crowd.
The 1,300-square-km Wienerwald (Vienna Woods) offers a huge block of intact nature just a skip and a jump from the metropolis. Many hiking paths pass taverns for thirsty walkers.
The Prater public park in the 2nd District, donated by Emperor Josef II to the people of Vienna in 1766, is a magnet for fun-seekers, combining long boulevards with an amusement park and Vienna’s landmark Giant Wheel ride, immediately recognizable to fans of the 1948 film The Third Man.
The Donauinsel (Danube Island) has loads of space to stroll or bike. The city has plenty of places to rent bikes - even electric ones - and Segways.
If the Christmas markets are too saccharine, try visiting the snow globe museum in the 17th District for a look at the glass orbs that have enchanted people for more than a century.
Cooking and baking aficionados will find all kinds of courses on making everything from goulash to torte and sweets.
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The popular outdoor skating rink next to City Hall does not open until late January, but lace on the skates at the Wiener Eislaufverein near the Stadtpark or at the Engelmann rooftop rink, established more than a century ago as the first open-air artificial ice-rink in the world.
And if you’re here for New Year’s Eve, you’ll have a chance to witness the closest the Viennese get to letting down their hair in public. At midnight, locals stream out onto the streets to waltz to the tune of Strauss’s Blue Danube. The following morning, you can do it all again as the New Year’s Concert is broadcast live outside the Vienna State Opera.
(Corrects timing of New Year’s concert in last paragraph)
Reporting by Michael Shields and Georgina Prodhan, editing by Mark Heinrich