The same scene plays out no matter the season: Amid the grand historic buildings, vast plazas and prim parks, Vienna locals, young and old, lounge on marble steps or on the wide lawns, stroll riverside dining districts and seasonal markets, sharing philosophies, dramas and midnight kisses. It’s no wonder Richard Linklater chose this city as the canvas for his Gen X classic Before Sunrise, in which Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy spend an evening strolling Vienna, doing exactly that.
An Evolving City
This cinematic city, one of the world’s most musical, oozes creative inspiration, though not all its history is comfortable. After all, it was here in Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Square) that Hitler delivered his famous 1938 speech marking the takeover of Austria and the beginning of a murderous blitzkrieg. The monolithic anti-aircraft towers the Germans built around the city remain, though some have been repurposed. One is now the Haus des Meeres (House of the Sea), a 300,000-liter aquarium with a family of hammerheads swimming on the 10th floor, while rock and free climbers (members of the Austrian Alpine Club) take to the colorful ropes on the tower’s exterior. Another houses the MAK Contemporary Art Collection, a gallery that moves forward from the artistic genius represented in the expressionist collection at the Leopold Museum. All this proves that to focus on its darkest days is to ignore what Vienna has become: a wondrous, bustling, walkable, affordable and diverse city full of intellectuals, artists, new world-class chefs and a pleasure-seeking populace.
The holidays are a shimmering spectacle in Vienna as Christmas markets spring up around the city and more than 10 miles of streets are illuminated by 2.5 million bulbs. The best of the markets is set along the narrow lanes of Spittelberg, just behind the Museum Quarter, and the most visited is on Rathausplatz, against the imposing Gothic backdrop of city hall—a reimagined cathedral where you’ll also find an outdoor ice rink and a 98-foot-tall tree. After Christmas, the plaza in front of Schönbrunn Palace becomes a New Year’s market and the center of Vienna’s famed New Year’s Eve Trail, when the historic core is transformed into a giant party venue with multiple stages featuring musical performances from waltz to pop and rock. The bells of famed St. Stephen’s Cathedral chime at midnight, when a giant waltz is held on Stephansplatz out front. If you’re after an edgier scene, find the stages in the Riesenradplatz neighborhood in the more bohemian Second District.
The Naschmarkt buzzes along the Wien River at any time of year. Here you’ll find a variety of snacks, spices, wine and produce from the traditional to the exotic. Back toward the center you can grab a Viennese sausage at Bitzinger’s Würstelstand, a hip little jewel box of a sausage vendor near the opera house, or make your way to Engel in up-and-coming Leopoldstadt.
Here, you can choose something from the seasonal and traditional menu handwritten daily in composition books. The decor is spare and vintage, the service is superb, and the hearty food delivers. After dinner, catch live jazz in the intimate and funky environs of Porgy & Bess, or hit the Volksgarten, a house-music playground with an expansive dance floor inside and an outdoor space, bathed in ambient yellow light, where tables are scattered deep into a garden adjacent to a park. When your night ends, sleep it off at 25hours, a circus-themed hotel in the Museum Quarter with a popular rooftop bar and whimsically decorated rooms.