Welcome to Vienna!
My in-laws recently travelled to Vienna, Austria, and asked me to give them some advice and a few tips for their visit. My short list of points of interest quickly grew to several pages and included a brief, opinionated, somewhat political, description of Vienna in its Austrian context. Here is a slightly edited version of what I sent them off to Vienna with.
I’ve divided this guide into three parts, each part containing several sections. I recently posted Part 1. Below is Part 2 and Part 3 will follow.
II. Why/How I love Vienna
III. Vienna Fun Facts
IV. General Information about Vienna
V. Class and Jews in Vienna
Part 3 : To be posted:
VI. A quick political history of Vienna for people with a political interest
IV. General Information about Vienna
Viennese, and all Austrians, greet each other with “Grüss Gott” “Greet God”. As an atheist, I always answer with the distinctly German “Guten Tag” “Good Day”, but that’s me. Nonetheless, I find it cute that there still is this different way of greeting from Germany in this age of cross-border conformance.
Viennese, and all Austrians, love rules. You don’t cross the street on a red signal – even if there are no cars in sight – and cars respect your right to cross, once you have the light. If there is a rule, the Viennese will follow it. And then sometimes they won’t and that’s when it becomes more fun.
It’s awesome, fast, efficient, clean, safe, and relatively cheap with passes available for periods of time to hop on and off whenever you like. It works on the honor system and you can get on any bus, tram or subway without showing a ticket or pass, but there are occasional ‘checkers’. I don’t ever recall being ‘checked’ but I always pay because a) I believe in supporting mass transit, b) I don’t like to take chances with a fine and, c) I am part Viennese and I follow the rules (see “Rules” above).
When riding public transit in Vienna, you will hear recorded chimes followed by announcements of station stops. The announcer’s dialect, choice of words and tense is distinctly Austrian-Viennese and clear (“it is sought to surrender seats to elderly or frail persons, as well as persons with small children”).
The U4, U6, U3 Subway Lines
Vienna has a relatively new subway system that is still being expanded. The U4 and U6 subway lines are converted old metro lines, which were originally designed by the architect Otto Wagner. Even as a kid growing up in Vienna I liked the architecture of these stations. In the 1970’s the city ‘modernized’ the metro into a subway system and some of the stations lost some of their charm. They have seen the error of their ways, though, and are now bringing back much of the original architecture.
The U3 subway line is a new line through the center of the city. What I love about this line is the architecture of the stations; the engineers seemed to celebrate in the difficulty of driving a train tunnel under a dense, historic center. As such, platforms are askew, and elevators are enclosed in glass surrounded by stair towers within a giant underground tower.
V. Class and Jews in Vienna
Class in Vienna
Vienna’s 23 districts have clear distinctions as either ‘noble’ districts or ‘working class’ districts. The ‘noble’ districts are the inner city and many of the old towns outside of the Ring. The working class districts are those that were developed with the industrial revolution. My grandmother would only live in a ‘good’ (i.e. ‘noble’) district. When I studied in Vienna and moved to the 10th district (“Favoriten”, a working class district), she was appalled!
Jews in Vienna
Until they evicted and murdered almost all of them during WWII, some ten percent of Vienna’s population was Jewish. There were two districts in particular where Jews concentrated – the 2nd and 9th district (the 9th is where Sigmund Freud lived). Jewish Viennese had their own soccer club and seemed particularly concentrated in the arts, finance and medicine. To this day Hebrew and Yiddish words pervade Viennese slang (e.g. “buddy” is “Haberer” from the Hebrew “Haver”) although modern-day Viennese may not always realize its origin. It is even considered to be a bit folksy or educated to mix a Yiddish word into a conversation here and there, and Jewish-style humor is very much at home here (e.g. a poster by the Vienna Transit Department against scofflaws: “who needs ‘Zores’?” (trouble)). Today, Vienna’s Jewish population is again rising in numbers, through immigration from Eastern Europe or Israel, and it is not uncommon to see orthodox Jewish families in parts of town.
V. Places to See
Museumsquartier – literally “Museums quarter” or “district”, it is a conglomeration of several galleries plus outdoor spaces and cafes and restaurants right near Spittelberg (see next) created in the 1990’s out of the former horse stable complex of the imperial court.
Spittelberg – in the 7th district (next to the Museumsquartier) is an area of old renovated buildings and narrow streets that have been closed to traffic and serve as outdoor restaurants and cafes. There are many art galleries here as well. My grandparents – and my mother – lived there until the 1970’s when it was a regular neighborhood. Then, in the late ‘70’s the city invested in the rehabilitation of the old buildings here and it is now a popular center for arts and crafts.
“Heurigen” wine gardens
Heurigen are outdoor wine gardens where Viennese drink local wine (beer, too) and eat hearty food. Generally, Heurigen are concentrated in the 19th District (Grinzing) but can be found in other districts as well.
A “Café” is a place that serves coffee, as well as other beverages, and limited food and sweets. A “Konditorei” is a place that serves coffee and other beverages, no food, and a full assortment of sweets. Cafes are the lifeblood of (intellectual) Vienna (Viennese 1: “for my vacation, I like to go somewhere where it’s warm and there is water”. Viennese 2: “then you should go to the Café Braunerhof because there they always have the heat on and serve you water.”). Cafes are wonderful stopping off points and make good Viennese people watching. Every Viennese has their favorite café; my father’s was the Café Prückel (Stubenring) or, when visiting my mother at her parent’s home, the Café Raimund (Museumsstrasse). Mine was the Café Tirolerhof (to the rear of the Opera). The most famous of café or “Konditorei” are the Sacher or Demel, but they are way very fancy and pricey. For a little fancy, there is Konditorei Heiner in the inner city with a second floor that is ideal for people watching. Lots of Zsa Zsa Gabor-like elderly women in fancy clothes come here. There is also an excellent Konditorei chain called “Aiida” all over Vienna and their pink décor (and staff uniforms) is hard not to admire. The staff there will wear these awesomely weird, comfy, service half-boots that amaze every tourist.
The Hundertwasser Haus is a public housing project built by the City of Vienna in the early 1980s and designed by the (controversial) Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (hence its name). Hundertwasser lamented that architects usually build buildings and then artists paint them, so he painted a building and had an architect build it. The effort was a HUGE success (there is a gift shop on the ground floor) and a sign to tourists to keep out of the building. It was so expensive to build, that tenants had to pay more than anywhere else to live here. Every apartment is supposed to have direct access to something green such as a tree or grass, and hence all the greenery around the façade. Hundertwasser built a few more buildings of its kind around Austria and Germany. He was controversial because he gave back an award he received from the Government of Austria and even rejected its citizenship in protest over Austria’s policies (he became a citizen of New Zealand; note to self).
The Central Cemetery “Zentralfriedhof”
Vienna has many cemeteries and one “Central Cemetery” founded when funeral services were municipalized in the late 1800’s. The Central Cemetery is huge (they say it’s half as large as Zürich, but twice as funny) and, besides serving as a resting place for regular dead people, also contains “Honor graves” (i.e. Famous Austrians, like former Austrian chancellor Bruno Kreisky) and even a Jewish part (some of the Rothschilds are buried here). The final scene of The Third Man with Orson Welles is filmed in the Central Cemetery. Cemeteries, like districts, are a big deal in Vienna and class-identified. My grandmother is buried in the cemetery in the district she lived in. She always seemed to end a story about someone with the phrase “…and now (s)he lies in the X cemetery…”, which would either be a compliment or a disparagement.
To be posted following:
VI. A quick political history of Vienna for people with a political interestWinston Von Engel is an urban planner for New York City and teaches about urban planning at Pratt Institute and at the City University of New York. He grew up in Vienna before moving to New York and later studied Vienna’s public housing program for his Master’s thesis at Pratt Institute.