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Viennese Alchemy Part 2: Central Europe’s Speakeasy

Updated: Jul 18, 2023

Willkommen in Wien!

Grandeur, legacy, culture, cuisine, scenic parks, palatial museums, and fine dining. What more could you want? This is my second trip to the City of Music, a splendid Shangri-La on the Danube where Beethoven and Mozart revolutionized symphonic sound, Archduke Charles marshalled armies to fight battles of annihilation against Napoleon, Gustav Klimt bejeweled The Kiss during his Golden Phase, Freud diagnosed wealthy and neurotic patients, and the Hapsburgs administered a serpentine empire across Europe. Plus, it’s a blasé place to spend a few days or longer if you can stretch it (I only had 4 days time for Part 1).

What makes Vienna so appealing? Its pros are many so let’s begin with the cons voiced by eponymous critics over the years. The main criticism is that Vienna is dull, the only thing to do is go to museums, catch a sale at Zara or its spin off Mango (stores are available only in Europe), or don your swankiest ensemble for an evening at the Opera house (Pro Tip: pay substantially less to see a quick 2 hour Mozart concert abbreviated for the town and country folk). The food is good not great – schnitzel is tasty not delicious to be fair – and the nightlife is, well, muted. Austrians like their German cousins (and Americans outside a few big cities) are early risers so cafés, restaurants, shops etc. open early and most places close early, even on weekends. What a pain if your opera ends after 2200.

Vienna’s biggest selling point is its seamless blend of classy and causal without compromising either.

The other sticky rebuff is that Vienna is

too touristy, especially in the summertime. For many in Central Europe, Vienna is the top vacation spot so on weekends orchestral entertainment tends to be fully booked, restaurants are packed, Stephansplatz is ransacked with tourists, street entertainers, and aggressive tween shoppers. Further, Vienna lacks the counter-culture-cool of Ruin Bars in

Budapest or the Medieval trappings of the thumping night clubs of Prague. Austrians and the Viennese in particular are too refined, too inhibited for such distressed style so instead they prize regal cafés like Café Central, a picnic on Volksgarten (see to the right) against a prismatic city skyline, or a smooth cocktail inside a shadowy lounge.

In sum, many believe Vienna is just too conservative, too vanilla. While there is a pittance of truth to this on the surface, there is more to this city than meets the eye if you have the diligence to look. Let’s discover more together.

Paris Lite

In many ways, I regard Vienna as Paris-lite, which is interesting because Paris often provokes similar recoil from veteran travelers who spurn its touristy pulp (I was one of them – read more here). Interestingly enough, P

aris and Vienna evolved together in the 19th century as big cities grappling with population explosion, congested urban designs and inadequate public transport. Both cities tore down medieval walls, narrow streets and military fortifications to construct boulevard systems that opened up the city so the cafés, the expansive streets, and some of the golden-hued and cream-colored architecture exudes a Parisian élan. However, while both cities are breathtakingly beautiful Vienna is far more casual, easy-going, friendlier, and cheaper. To borrow a wine analogy from Sideways (one of my favorite films) Vienna is more Cabernet Franc than Pinot Noir.

Paris is not a city easily digested whereas Vienna’s biggest selling point is its seamless blend of classy and causal without compromising either. The restaurants are expertly run, smartly decorated, and offer unobtrusive sophistication. Prices are reasonable and plates offer hearty portions. Austrians speak English fluently and there is no condescension, no subtle dismissal followed by a Parisian smirk when you say “excuse me.” Austrians are charmingly upbeat and unassuming, enthusiastic about sharing their crown jewel. It is the perfect spot to shoot an understated low budget romance like Before Sunrise. If there were any city where two young strangers could believably meet on a train and fall in love in 24 hours Vienna would be the perfect place (aside from the awkward Anglo-French pairing).

Speakeasy and Spy Hard

The night scene echoes the soft-spoken theme. Nowhere in Vienna will conversation be drowned out by the pulsating drumming of top 40 American pop songs as often happens in Barcelona, Budapest or Prague. Rather, Viennese nocturnes are a slow burn under a dimly lit street lamp rather like a city-wide speakeasy. Loos American Bar perfectly captures the spirit of Viennese outings: relaxed, chatty, dark and stylish. Cocktail bars, lounges, and moonlight spots in Wien would blend into any Film Noir classic.

Viennese nocturnes are a slow burn under a dimly lit street lamp rather like a city-wide speakeasy.

The cinematic reference is no accident given how deep the spy lore runs here. Vienna's central geography made it "a natural battleground between Soviet and Western intelligence services and a great place to conduct espionage." Clandestine operations have been ongoing in Vienna since Roman times and as recently as 2010 a US-Russian spy transfer was carried out in the Vienna airport. Given its pivotal role in the fortunes of empires the world over (Ottoman, Habsburg, American) many regard Wien as the espionage capital of the world. For a vintage Film Noir that highlights this black and white mystique checkout The Third Man written by Graham Greene, headlined by the inimitable Orson Wells, and set in Vienna. Where else?

The best thing to do in Vienna at night is walk around. On your path you will discover dozens of hidden spots and corners amidst throngs of chortling university students puffing a smoke over some casual conversation in German, English, Slovak, Hungarian, or Russian, sometimes a tri-lingual mix. Such is the milieu where Vienna comes alive. For a chic but not stuffy café fully equipped with reddish décor, a sequestered outdoor platz, tasty Sachertorte, and tucked away from the crowds checkout The Kleines Café. Outside the city center you will find some interesting spots like Krypt, probably the best lounge in the city but it is well hidden so make sure you ask a local nearby to be sure.

Vienna Done Right

Vienna is a subdued mindset. It is not a theme park ride like Miami, it is not an urban jungle like Hong Kong, nor does it thwack you like NYC rush hour traffic, it is not overwhelming like Florence, and there is no mad dash for croissants or Eiffel Tower selfies clogging up the Champs-Élysées. Rather, Vienna is symphonic, everything is sublimely conducted. The city is not too big, it is not too touristy, not too fancy, not too expensive, not too old, it is not too much of anything. What Vienna does so well is balance the virtues of Euro living.

What Vienna does so well is balance the virtues of Euro living.

Perhaps this is why Wien is consistently ranked the most livable city in the world. According to the Economist Vienna’s main drawback is the “relative lack” of big sporting events. Zero fucks given by the Austrians or anyone else living here I can assure you. For the reasonable minded, juicy schnitzel is available and affordable in places like Figlmüller, both modern and classic art is on display at Albertina (see above), and an afternoon picnic at the gardens behind Schönbrunn Palace is free and the park is open until 10 PM. If you need to do some work there are plenty of cafés and one I recommend is The Pelican Coffee Company. Say hi to owner Adam Kovacs for me when you go.

So, when you come to Vienna, relax, chill out, and ease into it. If you can do so, your inner Viennese will waft over you like a summer’s breeze or pull on your heart strings like one of Mozart’s sonatas, and you will feel right at home. Such blessings explain why the Viennese say Grüß Gott.

For now, auf wiedersehen and see you in Poland.

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