Austria :: Vienna and Beyond
Based on an informal poll-basically we asked everyone we met the same question-we estimate that about only 2% of Austrians have seen The Sound of Music, that iconic, campy movie classic that put Austria on the map...or, at least made Americans aware of its existence.
That should tell you something about the real Austria: it has nothing to do with raindrops on roses, frolicking in the hills and lakes around Salzburg, or making lederhosen out of drapes.
Rather, the Austria of today is about exciting international destinations like Vienna, thrill-seeking activities like lake windsurfing, as well as sophisticated tastings in Austria’s renascent wine industry, which benefits from a location alongside some of Austria’s most visited tourist sights.
First, Vienna. This city, long one of the Europe’s most cosmopolitan centers, has an extensive gay past that reveals itself all over the town. It was home to such gay luminaries as composer Franz Schubert and military hero Prince Eugene of Savoy, and even the world-renowned Staatsoper opera house was designed by a pair of gay lovers...who eventually committed suicide due to the hail of criticism their baroque structure provoked.
Today, most gay visitors seem to come for the annual Life Ball, a star-studded HIV/AIDS benefit that takes place in the Rathaus Platz (City Hall Plaza) every summer. Though it would make a fantastic centerpiece to any traveler’s Austrian itinerary, there is plenty more to keep you busy during a stay in this beautiful city-which is a good thing because tickets, which range from $75-150 directly from the organizers but are usually much more expensive because they are extremely limited in number and allotted very sparingly-are so hard to come by!
Vienna is home to a slew of new, boutique design hotels like the ultra-fashionable (and accordingly expensive) DO & Co. Hotel right across from the famous St. Stephensdom cathedral. The trendy Altstadt Hotel is in the bohemian 7th District, and the friendly Hotel Rathaus Wein and Design, where each room is named after a famous Austrian winery, and the wine bar is one of the best stocked in the city, is conveniently located near the neo-Gothic City Hall.
You don’t come to Vienna to stay put in your hotel, though. Venture out to the city’s world-class museums, especially the ones around the old imperial palace complex, the Hofburg. There you will find Kunsthistoriches Museum, with its collection of paintings by old masters like Rembrandt and Rubens, the Albertina, whose permanent collection of modern art has finally gone back on display, and the old imperial treasury, the Schatzkammer, which houses the Hapsburg family jewels.
On the other end of the spectrum is the nearby Haus der Musik, which is devoted to Vienna’s musical history, and contains exhibits on the physics of sound as well as historical installations about the lives of famous composers. In the final room, you can conduct a virtual session with the Vienna Philharmonic.
The www.mumok.at|MUMOK modern art museum, and the Leopold Museum, whose collection is based around Austrian artists like Klimt and Egon Schiele.
Of course, any gay trip to Vienna would not be complete without visits to one of the best decorative arts collections in the world, the imposing but manageable Liechtenstein Museum, and the enormous (and yellow!) former home of the Austrian royal family, Schönbrunn Palace, just outside the city center but accessible by metro. Let’s not forget the Belvedere Palace either, which was once home to the aforementioned Prince Eugene, and now houses an amazing collection of works by Gustav Klimt.
Though you won’t find too many beaches or swimming pools, in the summer, the Danube Canal that runs through the center of the city is the site of bars like the sandy Tel Aviv Beach, as well as an old barge that has been converted into a swimming pool-nightclub, the Badeschiff Wien, which literally means "pool barge." Just make sure you have your Borat one-piece clean and ready to wear.
Vienna is also fast becoming a culinary destination, with new restaurants from famous chefs popping up all over the city and serving cuisine that is a modern take on classic Austrian dishes (you know, like schnitzel, boiled beef, and spaetzle dumplings). We came across some truly excellent ones like chic Artner, which is owned by a winemaking family, fancy Meierei in the lovely municipal Stadtpark (with its famous statue of waltz-king Johann Strauss), and trendy Oesterreicher im MAK, probably the city’s most buzzed-about new eatery in the Museum of Applied Sciences.
Of course, the best way to sample Vienna’s food scene is simply to wander along the stalls of the Naschmarkt outdoor food market just off the Ring road where you can buy and try everything from produce to meats to fancy vinegars.
Vienna is equally famous for its classical music as its café culture, so start your day with a specialty coffee at the historic Café Sperl, where you’ll still find the original 19th-century lighting fixtures despite two world wars and a Soviet occupation, and then end the day with a concert at the Musikverein, where the splendid décor is only slightly outshone by the phenomenal acoustics.
To go along with the food trend is the burgeoning Viennese wine scene. That’s not just the drinking scene, but actual wine production that takes place within the city limits. Though Fritz Weininger is credited with starting the trend, check out some more recent (though just as highly regarded) winemakers like Rainer Christ and Stefan Hajszan, who both have upscale heurigen, or taverns, at their wineries where you can enjoy some nibbles along with the tipples. The only drawback is that it takes just about an hour to get to either from the city center, though you can make it on public transport at least.
Although not home to a huge gay scene, Vienna does offer some decent nightlife options that are a little more mellow and congenial than some other European capitals. Start the evening out with a casual beer amongst new friends at Café Savoy, then hit the popular Felixx café/bar, or the cozy Mango Bar in the 1st District. The newly reopened Village Bar is just two blocks over and draws a slightly more professional clientele. An older crowd congregates at Alte Lampe, across the Naschmarkt.
If you’re in town on a weekend and in the mood for dancing, try Why Not, Heaven, or the popular G-Spot party held at Camera Club on the first Friday of the month.
For a full picture of all Vienna has to offer, and more information on the places mentioned above, take a look at the über-informative Vienna Tourism Board site: www.wien.info.
If you’ve got a little more time to spend in Austria but can’t make it too far from Vienna, we’d suggest a couple of the following spots within an hour or so of the capital.