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A whirl through Vienna's modernist era, 100 years on

Austrian idyll: the north tower of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna.
Austrian idyll: the north tower of St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. Photograph: Alamy

If you need a push to visit Vienna, here it is: 2018 marks a century since the end of the city’s modernist era. To celebrate the creative output of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and many others, Austria’s capital will host a huge number of exhibitions this year.

Fin-de-siècle Viennese culture was the envy of the liberal world. This year is the 100th anniversary of the deaths of four of the movement’s leading lights: painters Klimt and Schiele, architect Otto Wagner and graphic artist Koloman Moser – though there were many others, too. Between 1890 and 1914 Austria was a gorgeous melting pot of ideas. The city was buoyed by the wealth of the Habsburg Empire – those guys loved a baroque palace, there’s one on pretty much every street corner. Alongside them lived Jewish immigrants who had new money and full civil rights. This equality meant that they could build avant-garde houses, commission interesting artists and run salons where progressive politicians and establishment figures met and mingled with psychoanalysts, writers and painters.

Prost: the American Bar, designed by Adolf Loos in 1908.
Prost: the American Bar, designed by Adolf Loos in 1908. Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

This unique period deserves to be celebrated, so go and see the renovation of the art nouveau Secession Building – home to the modernist artists and the first European exhibition space dedicated to the movement. Head for the “Klimt Bridge” at the Kunst Historisches Museum – a viewing platform first made for the 150th anniversary of Klimt’s birth which gives the perfect view of the artist’s 13-painting cycle decorating the museum’s arches and pillars. At the Leopold Museum there’ll be a great Egon Schiele show which includes his poems and writing alongside the paintings for the first time. Mahler, Schoenberg, Wagner and many others will all be given their creative due. The Museumsquartier – a clever development of baroque and modern buildings situated in the former Habsburg court stables – houses nine of the city’s major museums, so you’d have to be extremely lazy not to catch some of these shows during a visit.

But the city itself is the greatest exhibit. Walk the inner districts and you’ll see the stark art nouveau architecture of the Austrian Post Savings Bank, the delicate flowers decorating the tiled Majolica House on Linke Wienzeile, and the white and gilded domes and facades of the underground stations at Karlsplatz and Kettenbrückengasse, all monuments to Wagner’s skill. (If you visit the Majolica House, stroll through the Naschmarkt, a food and flea market that’s been there since the 16th century. Don’t leave without eating some of the local cheese or flicking through the vinyl.)

The Vienna Workshop was a commune of applied artists established in 1903 who created modernist furniture, jewellery and ceramics – and if you head to the city’s shops, you can still find a rare mix of traditional craftwork and modernist treasures on sale. Lobmeyr is famous for chandeliers, but drinking glasses by Josef Hoffmann and Adolf Loos are bestsellers in their shop on Kärntner strasse. Similarly, Wiener Silber Manufactur has Koloman Moser boxes alongside contemporary silverware in their boutique and designer Vally Wieselthier’s china is available at Augarten’s chinaware store.

Finish your window shopping with a cocktail at the American Bar. The mirrored and tiled interior is the work of modernist architect Adolf Loos and it’s been the drinking hole of choice for everyone from Jean Cocteau to Quentin Tarantino. You can still smoke inside here and many other bars in Austria, though hurry – a ban is being mooted by Parliament.

To go the full modernist, stay at the boutique Hotel Topazz. Murals in its rooms pay homage to the Vienna Workshop artists and the unusual oval windows across its facade play on a Koloman Moser design. It’s also cosy and the views from the rooftop bar it shares with sister establishment Hotel Lamée, are something else.

Window on to Vienna: Hotel Topazz.
Window on to Vienna: Hotel Topazz. Photograph: Anna Blau

Oh, and if you’re enjoying the idea of art in everyday city life, then do head to Am Hof Square in the old town. Olafur Eliasson may not be part of the modernist movement, but his light installation Yellow Fog drifts across the front of the Verbund-Gebäudes building here each night. It reminds me of director John Carpenter as much as anything else but in a city of statues and monuments, it’s a great change of pace.

Luckily those modernists were a sensible bunch. They may have rethought art as we know it, but they didn’t mess with tradition when it came to local food. If you’re into faddy clean eating, then you need to rethink your life on many levels, but for now, let’s focus on the fact that you will find eating in Vienna stressful. This is a meaty, potatoey, buttery, offaly, cakey kind of city, and all the better for it. If you genuinely care about the provenance and preparation of your food, you’ll be happy here. Most of the wine and beer is extremely local – produced within the city walls – the meat is organic and this is the only city I’ve ever been to where the waiter boasts about the purity of the tap water as they put it on the table. Fresh from the mountains, apparently.

Exhibitionist: the recently renovated Secession Building.
Exhibitionist: the recently renovated Secession Building. Photograph: Christian Stemper/Peter Rigaud

There are many amazing traditional restaurants. I can’t recommend Lugeck, with its swimming-pool tiles and beer-glass chandeliers, highly enough. The sausage, strudels and salads here are outstanding. Petz im Gusshaus, where the menu is created from what the chef finds in the local market each day, is great for offal. No, really. Especially the offal pasta. Keep your fingers crossed that there are some lungs in the market when you visit. Beuschel – calf lungs – is a traditional Viennese dish.

But there are also smart new takes on the old school in this vibrant, forward thinking city. The name Meissl & Schadn is a Viennese restaurant legend, but their new premises, just opened at the Hotel Grand Ferdinand, feeds modern versions of the boiled beef and schnitzels of yore to sophisticated diners in polonecks who look like graphic designers (and probably are: this city is still a hotbed of creativity). Or try Labstelle, which is cool but cosy and unpretentious, and has a great cocktail menu to sample alongside their Austrian cuisine.

Vienna has won the award of most liveable city an amazing eight times now. And you really should come and see why. This year’s centenary offers a unique insight into its history but there’s a thoroughly modern city to be discovered, too.

Way to go

Flights with My Austrian airline from £93 (austrian.com). Rooms at Hotel Topazz (hoteltopazz.com) from £139. For more information about events to mark the centenary of Viennese modernism, go to wien.info

This article titled "A whirl through Vienna's modernist era, 100 years on" was written by Alice Fisher, for The Observer on Sunday 11 February 2018 07.00am

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