Karlsplatz is one of Vienna’s largest town squares, and its busiest transport hub. From the U-Bahn station the state opera and the Museums Quarter are each a short walk away; the Kunsthalle, a treasure trove of modern art, and Vienna’s most famous concert venue, the Musikverein, sit on the square itself. This is one of the most culturally rich city centres in the world.
And just a few minutes’ walk south, away from Vienna’s famous attractions, is a very different place altogether, the city’s fourth district – Wieden. The roads that lead there aren’t immediately promising. Operngasse is student territory, home to the University of Technology, and Wiedner Hauptstrasse is a commercial high street.
But either one leads quickly to the heart of a vibrant urban neighbourhood, where commercial buildings sit beside baroque architecture, and youth culture co-exists with tradition. It is also home to the hotel where my friend Becki and I chose to stay, Urbanauts, which is so on trend it doesn’t have a building at all – it’s, you know, a concept. A group of architects has transformed half a dozen commercial premises, former shops and warehouses, into five individual 'hotel rooms', which are dotted around the district.
Ours, The Tailoress, was once a haute couture dressmaker’s studio, and now contained an iMac, a typewriter and an espresso machine, though its past use was hinted at with an entire wall backlit with a giant photograph of a woman in an evening gown. A well-stocked (and happily all-included) minibar completed what Becki described as the 'bunker chic' look.
The architects behind Urbanauts have co-opted their favourite haunts as their 'hotel services'. For our breakfast, the bespoke map in the room pointed us towards Cafe Goldegg, an Art Deco beauty tucked away on a street behind the Spanish embassy. It was an instant winner – and not just for the generous Viennese omelettes, but also for its panelled booths, its billiard table, and the senior gentlemen who frequented it. By our second morning we felt like regulars.
Setting off each morning with the Urbanauts' list of recommendations, and the best of intentions to visit them, we inevitably passed somewhere we liked the look of more, and felt thrilled by our discoveries. If the guiding hand of our unseen hosts hadn’t pointed us towards an earnestly alternative creperie called Aromat, we wouldn’t have walked past Zweitbester, and jettisoned our intended galettes for the risotto, goat’s cheese salad and riesling that proved the best meal of our trip. And if we hadn’t got lost on the way to a contemporary art space, who knows if we’d have found the store that sold second-hand lederhosen.
There was a flaw in being dropped into the urbane, aspirational Viennese life. Our wallets never felt fat enough to venture to the Urbanauts’ suggested couture house, or to visit their international jeweller friend, who does a special line in eyepatch bling. But what the concept did achieve was to launch us down interesting streets and into areas of town we might not otherwise have explored.
Wieden certainly has a younger, edgier feel than Vienna’s smart, moneyed city centre. The music advertised around there is not opera but beats, and the district is home to one of the city’s best gay clubs, Motto, where Conchita Wurst regularly performed before her Eurovision victory last year.
On our second day of exploring, we came across a small bohemian enclave around Operngasse which provided moments of pure Portlandia. At the bicycle cafe Radlager, we drank delicious coffees that took considerably longer to make than they did to drink. A run of shops on Operngasse, from vintage men's wear to 1950s modern furniture, looked inviting enough, but even though we studied their complicated opening hours carefully, they were still closed on every occasion we visited. Perhaps the owners were waiting for their orders in the bicycle cafe.
Wieden isn’t just some hipster paradise. In fact, walking the district provided a reminder of how multicultural Vienna is. For all its high art and ballgowns, the city that was once the nerve centre of a global empire remains varied and cosmopolitan.
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A few blocks from the grand facades of Austria’s diplomatic embassies, whose flags hung damply in the rain, we stumbled across pockets of thriving Japanese and Chinese businesses, before reaching the area’s celebrated Naschmarkt. Running down a 1.5-kilometre strip between two main roads, the 400-year-old market originally sold milk bottles. Today it has specialist tea stalls, Alpine cheese and vegetables galore, but the colours and smells that dominate are those of the Mediterranean and the Middle East.
With Italian antipasti and Lebanese sweetmeats vying for our custom, we did the decent thing and bought both, and a side of 'mountain salami'. And while we had no intention of doing anything more complicated than scoffing down our treats as an afternoon picnic, we nevertheless passed a happy quarter-hour browsing recipes in Babette’s, the nearby shop-cum-bakery that specialises in cookery books, spices and delectable pastries.
We may have been eating, drinking and shopping like locals but there was one place we simply had to embrace our inner tourists: Belvedere, the area’s very own Habsburg palace (although in the neighbouring Landstrasse district). Its extensive art collection had us enthralled even before we reached the third floor where, in its own special gallery, gleamed Gustav Klimt’s portrait of The Lovers, otherwise known as The Kiss. After a lifetime of exposure to cheap poster reproductions, the most famous painting in Vienna did not disappoint.
We bathed in its vast, golden glow, then headed to a window and looked out on Belvedere’s baroque gardens. Flanked by provocative statues of lady-sphinxes, they stretched all the way back to the Karlsplatz. Vienna, viewed from a different angle.
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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Emma John from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.