Vienna’s Best Kept Secrets

A few insider tips for those heading to the Austrian capital

For history geeks: Mozart’s apartment

Vienna offers some of the greatest museums in the world. The positively stately Naturhistorisches Museum and Kunsthistorisches Museum face each other across a grand courtyard, and are neighboured by the MQ (Museumsquartier) which houses the Leopold Museum and MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art). These are all worth a visit. They are truly spectacular, and utterly world-class.

But a surprise treasure among these titans is the much smaller setup of the Mozarthaus. Here, on Domgasse, the great composer’s 18th-century apartment — and the rest of the building — have been restored and turned into a museum exploring the music, politics and personal life of Mozart. The museum is relatively small, but excellently put-together and (despite quite minimalist exhibition spaces) really very insightful. Particularly interesting is the information on Amadeus’ involvement in the Freemasons, which was new to me and showed a new side to his political and social interests.

Stephansplatz, close to the Mozarthaus, is a beautiful tourist hotspot
The Burg Kino, which regularly shows the 1949 classic The Third Man

For culture seekers: The Third Man

In 1949, Vienna starred in what would come to be heralded as one of the greatest noir thrillers of all time — The Third Man. Based on the Graham Greene novel, the film is set in post-war Vienna and follows American Holly Martins, who arrives in the city to meet his friend Harry Lime (Orson Welles), only to find that he has been killed in a car ‘accident’. Martins grows increasingly suspicious that Harry’s death was not an accident at all, leading him on a road of discovery with a shocking twist.

Vienna’s Burg Kino cinema on Opernring is among the oldest cinemas in Europe (founded in 1912) and one of the only places in the world where you can still see The Third Man on the silver screen. Catch a Friday night viewing at 11pm in the cinema’s tiny ‘Studio’ screen and you can expect to be joined by no more than 10–15 others. Then, the next day, make sure you visit the Dritte Mann Museum (Third Man Museum, open Saturdays only) not far away, which tells the story of the film’s production — and the surrounding political context — in amazing detail. There are original posters from 20 countries, photographs, annotated scripts, cameras used in the film, and even the opportunity to see a short segment of the reel on a genuine 1930s cinema projector, complete with all the cracks, scratches and whirring. This — and the screening — were the highlight of my entire trip. Magical.

Newspaper cutting from the Third Man Museum

For art lovers: the work of Victor Hugo

The Leopold Museum is one of the city’s most famous and popular museums, showcasing the height of Austrian art including works by Klimt and Egon Schiele. But in the museum’s lower floor, at time of writing, is a special exhibition on the visual art of famous novelist and poet Victor Hugo. Best known for Les Miserables, Hugo was not noted as a visual artist, and even dismissed his work as a trivial pastime in letters to his friends.

But the work is extraordinary.

Depicting horrific landscapes of death and destruction, human and supernatural evil, the violent ink and charcoal attacks on sepia paper are genuinely chilling. Some, such as the first image seen as you enter, of gallows standing in a bleak open pasture, are rooted in Hugo’s own defiance of the death penalty that was widely used by his nation during his lifetime. While Vienna is known for its classicism, these are little-advertised works of relatively contemporary art, and deeply emotive. Not to be missed.

Entrance to the Victor Hugo special exhibition, Leopold Museum

For foodies: top 3 not to miss

Kaffee mit Sachertorte: Sachertorte is a must when you visit Vienna, and the temptation is to head straight to Cafe Sacher opposite the opera house where you will find a queue stretching out the door and service that feels fed up with tourism. Instead, try Cafe Mozart, an equally elegant traditional coffee house popular with musicians from the nearby Staatsoper and also where Graham Greene wrote The Third Man (see above). Great coffee, great cake.

Italian: Germany and Austria are reputed to have the best Italian restaurants outside of Italy, and there are many fine examples in Vienna. One such is the very unassuming Frascati pizzeria and gelateria at Barnabitengasse 3. Just off the ever-busy shopping street Mariahilfer Strasse, this cosy family-run place provides basic but delicious Italian meals at absolute bedrock prices. I enjoyed an enormous fresh Pizza Napoli and a large glass of wine for under €10.

Wienerschnitzel: Overrated in my view, but if you do want to try the city’s famous delicacy of deep-fried veal, you won’t do much better than Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper. Located close to the Opera House, the Gasthaus does a traditional Wienerschnitzel with potato salad for around €20 which is fairly standard across the city. If you’re going to do it, do it properly at an authentic Viennese Gasthaus. Don’t be tempted by non-veal alternatives (chicken, pork) at the city’s Greek, Italian and Turkish establishments.

There’s also great street-food to be had in Vienna, from hot-dogs to Schnitzel, and even more at Christmas

For socialising: try the MQ courtyard

It’s not exactly undiscovered, but perhaps underappreciated. Vienna is packed with amazing bars and clubs, but none quite have the atmosphere of the MQ. In all seasons, the central courtyard between the Leopold Museum and the MUMOK is a hub of activity. I visited in the winter months, and spent many evenings here enjoying a mug of Glühwein with hundreds of others — locals and tourists alike. Sometimes there are even live DJs or bands playing. I caught Austrian band Naked Cameo performing, joined by a youth dance group, see video below. This open-air space has an amazing atmosphere of unity and social openness about it, and should be your first stop on any bar crawl of the city, especially around Christmas time.

For party animals: Saturday night @ Volksgarten

Vienna’s nightlife is, to say the least, elusive. I spent my week there trying to sniff out the club scene, researching online, to little avail. Eventually I reached my final night, and decided to give Volksgarten a punt and hope for the best. Located in the park of the same name (literally Peoples’ Garden), the club doesn’t look much from the outside. Surrounded by a metal fence, it has a Mediterranean look, open courtyards dotted with palm trees and high tables. The building itself is uninspiring. But head inside, and you won’t be disappointed. I dropped in around midnight on a November Saturday, their ‘Overground’ night, and the place was already starting to fill.

€13 entry seemed steep, but included a free drink at the very impressive cocktail bar. I actually got two stuck together. Bonus. The highly professional bartenders make a range of top-notch cocktails, and there’s also every spirit, beer and champagne to boot. Tables surround a central island of palm trees. Behind there, it wasn’t long before the dancefloor got bouncing. By 1am it was wild. The atmosphere electric. A man appeared with a bunch of balloons which he handed out to people. Periodically, the roof over the dancefloor would slide open like Thunderbirds, letting the soft rain fall on the ravers below. House thumped here, while it was hip-hop in another room through the back. If you want a party, head to Volksgarten. Highly recommended.

Saturday night at Volksgarten

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