Grand setting for bohemian and classical show

PUBLISHED : Friday, 26 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 26 October, 2007, 12:00am

The city of classical music and coffee houses, Vienna's magnificent public buildings and monuments belie a stormy history that has often left the city in ruins.

In addition to being renowned for producing composers, artists and great thinkers, Vienna has also produced countless skilled professionals to do the restoration work that has followed the several wars, insurrections and the siege of the city by the Red Army in 1945.

Ironically then, the last cruel trick that the 20th century played on Vienna was the ending of the cold war. Through the 1990s, a constellation of previously inaccessible cities such as Prague, Krakow, Dresden and Riga began to glitter. And this caused the Austrian capital's star to dim.

But visitors are now beginning to rediscover a city as beautiful as Prague and as enigmatic as Budapest, and which, unlike either, is not suffering from overexposure to tourism.

The city seems too grand to be the capital of such a modestly proportioned central European nation, but there is a reason for this. For centuries, until the first world war, Austria was the capital of an empire that sprawled over central and eastern Europe. Imperial Vienna also served as a vibrant cultural centre, whose legacy we can still enjoy through the music of Schubert, Strauss and Beethoven, and the decadent artwork of painter Gustav Klimt.

Thanks to a respect for the past in its approach to planning and development, it is identifiably the Vienna of its golden age - a period-architecture wonderland. Here the Romanesque, such as the Ruprechtskirche (Church of St Rupert), coexists with the baroque of the Karlskirche (Church of St Karl) and the art nouveau of the Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station.

Particularly impressive are the imperial palaces of Hofburg and Schonbrunn.

The skyline is restrained. There are only about 100 buildings over 40 metres, and the number of high-rises is kept low by legislation. World-renowned attractions such as the Burgtheater and Volkstheater Wien (two of the most illustrious German-language theatres in the world), Vienna State Opera, Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School) and the Vienna Boys' Choir contribute to the city's bohemian and staunchly classical character.

Vienna has more than 100 museums and art galleries, many of which are clustered around the Museumsquartier.

One can spend many a dreamy afternoon observing the treasures in the Museum of Modern Art, the Leopold Museum and the private art collection of the Liechtenstein Palace.

Vienna is known for its kaffeehaus or coffee houses, many of which are remarkably opulent. An entire subculture revolves around these places where lovingly brewed coffee fuels conviviality, artistic and political debate.

A Viennese coffee-house first announces its presence by its warm aroma of freshly milled coffee beans - an olfactory ploy that is hard to resist. And is certainly a place for the visitor to experience at least once. If you get the kaffehaus bug, don't be surprised if, on your third or fourth visit, the highly attendant and switched-on staff know exactly what you'd like to order.

One of the largest cafes in Vienna, and most rewarding for the visitor, is the Landtmann, opposite parliament.

Under its high ceiling an eclectic crowd of politicians, journalists, actors, artists, students and tourists, mingles amid a slightly conspiratorial atmosphere.

The Viennese claim to have invented the conventional process of filtering coffee from bounty captured after the second Turkish siege in 1683. It is said that when the invading Turks fled, they abandoned hundreds of sacks of coffee beans, and one thing led to another in the hands of the inventive Viennese.