Beautiful and opulent Vienna waits for you
With its stunning architecture, Vienna is ostentatious, outdoing Madrid, Rome and Paris with its audacious opulence, writes Lesley Stones
Climbing up the stairs from the Stephansplatz underground station is best done slowly. End with a ceremonial pause for breath to prepare for one of the most beautiful cities in the world.
With its stunning architecture, Vienna is ostentatious, outdoing Madrid, Rome and Paris with its audacious opulence.
St Stephen’s Cathedral in the centre is relatively restrained in the architectural stakes. Its roof tiles form colourful mosaics depicting a double-headed eagle and the city’s coat of arms, but for real over-the-topness, keep walking. Your eyes will be drawn down a wide street or narrow lane to investigate an interesting building before they spot something even more magnificent further on.
Even the ice creams in Vienna are decadent, with the queue snaking out of Zanoni & Zanoni’s parlour at least giving customers time to decide which flavours to try.
There is a magnificent cluster of buildings where each outshines the last, with the massive Hofburg Imperial Palace at centre. The last of your ice cream may melt and drip down your hand, because you’ve forgotten to eat though your jaw is hanging open in awe.
I cross the ring road almost craving a break from the visual overload. No chance. Now I’m at the Volkstheater, a leafy area where three stunning buildings mark the museum quarter.
A friend said he found Vienna too perfect, and he had a point. The city gleams with sparkling white facades and litter-free streets, statues of Mozart and other composers posing in pristine parks. The public transport operates with Austrian efficiency, and women walk chic little dogs that don’t do anything as vulgar as poo on the pavement.
The raunchiest thing I saw was an advertisement enticing punters to "Come for a Kiss" — but the invitation was issued by an art gallery. I went in for The Kiss, the stunning gold bejewelled painting by Gustav Klimt hanging in Belvedere Palace.
The gallery makes art highly understandable, with a replica of The Kiss positioned specifically for selfies, and succinct information boards explaining how young upstart artists in Vienna rebelled against the accepted norms.
The Belvedere is another Baroque wedding-cake creation, with upper and lower palaces separated by lawns and fountains, built in the 18th century as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy. Like so much of Vienna, it would be the perfect place to set a splendid costume drama.
The city’s most arty experience has to be the opera. I’d tell you how ornate the State Opera House is, but I expect you’ve guessed. Tickets are pricey, but a queue forms every night to buy cheap 'standing tickets' for the highest balconies
For real drama there’s the English Theatre, where the audience is a mix of expats and locals who speak impeccable English. I enjoyed The Odd Couple by Neil Simon, and in the bar admired a poster for Kat & The Kings from when the Cape Town crew performed there.
One of the many interactive museums is the House of Music, a labyrinth of rooms devoted to various composers.
There’s so much detail that history students can spend hours there and casual visitors enjoy demonstrations such as on how sound is transmitted. The highlight is a podium in front of a screen showing the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, who respond as you conduct them.
I managed a passable version of the Can-Can, then the next visitor made such a botch of the Radetzky March that the orchestra jeered him.
The next visitors all waved the baton aimlessly to see what other prerecorded insults the musicians could hurl at them. Café culture is vital in Vienna, with delicious cakes and pastries and nobody rushing you as you linger over a rich Sachertorte or apfelstrudel.
The city’s most arty experience has to be the opera. I’d tell you how ornate the State Opera House is, but I expect you’ve guessed. Tickets are pricey, but a queue forms every night to buy cheap "standing tickets" for the highest balconies.
I pay €3 and work my way to the top, past ladies and gentlemen in elegant evening finery heading towards the high-priced seats.
A chatty old man in the cloakroom takes my backpack and tells me that many people buy standing tickets even though they don’t like opera, they just want to say they’ve been. We tut conspiratorially, then I find a place to stand where I can see most of the orchestra, a third of the stage and read subtitles on a screen on the banister.
At the interval I am shamed by the attendant’s judgmental eyebrows as I collect my bag and leave. "I didn’t like the opera, but at least I can say I’ve been," I say.