The Austrian capital punches above its weight with its wealth of imperial monuments and array of cultural attractions including its Rococo palaces, coffee houses and wine gardens.

Palace lives
Vienna’s Habsburg monarchs had a motto: ‘Others wage war, but you, happy Austria, marry.’ The first part wasn’t wholly true, but strategic marriages and lucky inheritances did help to upgrade the Habsburgs from 12th-century bit players to ruling an empire that in 1750 stretched from Belgium to Transylvania.

Walking through the gardens and state rooms of the palace of Schönbrunn does indeed feel like covering an imperial-sized chunk of central Europe on foot. Despite its 1,441 rooms, it wasn’t even the Habsburgs’ main base, merely their summer home. One of the staff who helps visitors make sense of the complex is John-Joseph Cheyne, British-born and now a guide at Schönbrunn. ‘You have to look at the palace with the eyes of an 18th-century person,’ he says. ‘To us, the gold decoration is important, but to them it would have been the lighting and the chandeliers.’

The palace was built at a point when it all nearly came a cropper for the Habsburgs. Emperor Charles VI, finding himself without sons, got France, Prussia and other rival European powers to agree to let his daughter Maria Theresa inherit his crown. But when he died in 1740, they attacked Austria anyway. Maria Theresa weathered the storm, and between ruling an empire and producing 16 children, she found time to convert a royal hunting lodge outside town into a summer home fit for an empress.

Three of the rooms are inlaid with Chinese lacquer panelling – part of the 18th-century craze for Chinoiserie. Happily, it blends quite well with the white-and-gold Rococo surroundings. Amid the finery, one item of furniture stands out – the brown, military-style camp-bed in the corner of the bedroom of Emperor Franz Joseph, who ruled from 1848 to 1916. ‘It was the kind of bed that Austrian army officers used while on duty,’ says Cheyne. ‘Franz Joseph believed he was on God’s duty.’

Despite the efforts of this most sober of monarchs, the luck of the Habsburgs ran out two years after his death, when the last emperor was ousted at the end of WWI. Still, it’s largely thanks to this long-lived and prolific dynasty that Austria exists in the shape it does today, and that Vienna’s public buildings make many larger capitals’ look half-hearted.

Chairs and graces
The footstools at the Hofmobiliendepot are not what they seem – many can be opened up to use as spittoons. Not that visitors to this museum off the main shopping strip of Mariahilfer Strasse are encouraged to do so these days. ‘There were spittoons in every room in the early 19th century,’ says museum guide Bruno Greutter. ‘Of course it was not a very hygienic situation.’

The Hofmobiliendepot (Imperial Furniture Depot) has its origins in a right royal dilemma. The Habsburgs may have owned some of Europe’s most spacious residences, but even they had to face the same question many of us do today: where to fit all their stuff. The answer, eventually, was this central depot. Until 15 years ago, it was just that – a storage facility built for a vanished dynasty, with guided tours for the curious.

There are still parts of the collection that have kept the makeshift look, where tables, sofas and cabinets are stacked in a jumble behind grilles, resembling a prison for badly behaved furniture. Today, however, it has developed into a museum of interior fashions, broadened to include later items, and ones that would definitely not have appealed to imperial tastes. Many are grouped by type, making often-surreal assemblies of candlesticks, or indeed footstool-spittoons. Visitors to the collection sometimes slip out of the facial expressions appropriate to museum appreciation, as they find themselves wondering if that cabriole-leg end table would fit anywhere in their house.

The pride of the Hofmobiliendepot is its furniture from the Biedermeier period, roughly 1815 to 1848. Politically it was a conservative age – as Greutter describes it, ‘a time for people to live and love living at home, but not think too much about the system’. Yet in the measured curves of its woodwork there are the hallmarks of great craftsmanship. Even as mass production took over in the 19th century, many Austrians yearned for a return to these artisan traditions, as their contemporaries in Britain did with the Arts and Crafts movement. Thankfully, beautiful design has never died out in Vienna.

Cafe culture
Time eddies at Café Sperl. Billiard tables, newspapers on sticks, the chink of crockery and the burble of conversation are all welcome signs of a lived-in coffee house, in a city that wants more than just a caffeine boost on the go. Sperl’s 1880s stucco ceiling, dark wood fittings and cut-glass mirrors provided the setting for moments of creative reflection by the architect Josef Hoffmann and the composer Franz Lehár more than a century ago, just as they served as the backdrop for a burgeoning romance in the 1995 film Before Sunrise.

Legend says that Vienna’s first kaffeehaus began shortly after one of the tensest times in the city’s history. On 12 September 1683, a 200,000-strong Ottoman army that had laid siege to Vienna was routed, and as the sultan’s forces fled, they left behind some bags containing strange, dried beans. Today, Viennese kaffeehäuser are listed by Unesco as ‘intangible cultural heritage’.

It’s certainly hard to put one’s finger on just what makes Alt Wien such an essential part of the cityscape. This dingy pre-war kaffeehaus, in Vienna’s central old town, is not so genteel as Café Sperl, and it also somehow manages to exist outside the main current of time. Posters for concerts and exhibitions serve instead of wallpaper, and curls of smoke cloud a corner of the front room, for Austria is – for the time being – one of the last holdouts against the indoor smoking ban.

Not that Drago Bijadiga minds this. All part of the culture, he says. In three years as a waiter at Alt Wien, he has come to appreciate the mix of characters who turn up with their coffee orders and occasional updates on their lives. ‘About two-thirds of our guests come here every day,’ says Drago. ‘The atmosphere always depends on the people. I’m like a psychologist – that’s my other job here, but I don’t get paid for it.’ He recommends the einspänner – more or less a double espresso served with whipped cream. In Austria, unlike its neighbour Italy, there’s no prejudice against adding milk after mid-morning.

Coffee is only one side of the kaffeehaus equation – sweet tastes should balance the bitter. Most kaffeehäuser stock, at the very least, the everdependable apple strudel and chocolate Sachertorte. Aida, however, is a cake encyclopedia masquerading as a chain of 1950s-style cafés, where the pink-and-brown colour scheme applies equally to the interior decoration, waitresses’ uniforms and most of the cake selection. Standing at the display counter, weighing up the relative merits of a Biedermeiertorte or an Esterházytorte before the expectant gaze of the cashier, it’s easy to lose composure and rush into an impulse order.

This year’s wine
From the heights of Kahlenberg, the view takes in all of Vienna to the south, and stretches as far as Slovakia to the east. The arc of the Danube recedes towards the horizon. This hilltop was the spot from which the King of Poland led the relief force that broke the Ottoman siege of Vienna in 1683. A short distance from the church that commemorates this event, a path leads down through forest. Before long, it joins a country lane than runs past rows of vines alive with the chirp of crickets. Not many capitals can claim to be their own wine region, but Vienna’s suburbs are a patchwork of vineyards, and are home to one of the city’s most cherished traditions – the heuriger, or wine garden.

A few steps after a road sign announces the edge of Vienna – somewhat arbitrarily, as the surroundings are still open fields – Sirbu discreetly reveals its presence. Some heurige go for a rural look that is somewhat contrived, but here it could not be otherwise. The two-level terrace below the house is lined with long tables, and sheltered by walnut trees and trellises hung with grapevines. From here, the green hills slope away, down to the small suburb of Kahlenbergerdorf beside the Danube.

Ever since an imperial decree of 1784 that relaxed Vienna’s licensing laws, the heuriger’s remit has been to serve very recent own-grown vintages (the name means ‘this year’s one’) and a small selection of food. Some heurige advertise their presence with a busch’n – a small bush hanging over the door, commonly seen in the heuriger-heavy suburb of Grinzing. Many follow eccentric opening times, such as alternate months.

It’s in summer, however, when the heurige are at their most inviting. From mid-April to the end of October, Werner Sirbu is in charge of his namesake heuriger, begun by his Transylvanian-born grandfather in 1952, in what was then his weekend cottage and garden. The three hectares of vineyards at Sirbu are planted with a variety of Austrian and French grape varieties, four-fifths white, one-fifth red. ‘There is a wine called gemischter satz made from five grape varieties,’ says Werner. ‘It’s an old tradition in Vienna that has become popular again in the last five years. Now, all the vintners want to make this, but I prefer the single varieties.’

A carafe of dry Weissburgunder – known outside Austria as pinot blanc – is brought out, soon followed by a platter of peppery ham, smoked pork, cheeses, bread and a paprika-spiced savoury spread called liptauer. The late afternoon light makes the wine seem more golden, and the fizzy water more sparkling. ‘It’s a very special place,’ says Werner. ‘You can only see this in and around Vienna.’

River life
When business and lifestyle magazines compile rankings of the world’s most liveable cities, Vienna invariably finishes near the top. One of the ticks on its scorecard is the easy access its citizens have to natural surroundings. The wooded hills of the Wienerwald to the city’s west are one such draw, giving hikers ample opportunity to undo the work of Vienna’s cake-sellers. And to the east of the capital runs one of Europe’s greatest rivers.

Until it was regulated in the 1870s, the flood-prone Danube split into a tangle of different routes as it passed Vienna. Today, the main course of the river runs in two sweeping man-made channels, split by a 13-mile-long and 200-yard-wide island – the Donauinsel, a favourite with cyclists.

On either side of the modern Danube, two stilled watercourses have been two stilled watercourses have been left as reminders of the river’s more wayward days – the urbanised Donaukanal nearest the city, to the west, and the Alte Donau (Old Danube) to the east. Now effectively an oxbow lake, the Alte Donau has the most natural feel of the Danube’s four arms, with its tree-lined banks and reed beds.

Seemingly distant on the map, but a ten-minute subway ride from the city centre, the Alte Donau draws Viennese who want to forget Vienna for a few hours, in the company of herons wading under the weeping willows and frogs croaking in the rushes. A typical day on the water brings a parade of different craft, from the small boats filling their sails with wind coming down the valley of the Danube, to a man standing proudly upright on his paddling board. Motorboats, meanwhile, cover the greatest distance with the least skill or legwork, even if the choice of engine settings is rudimentary – on or off.

Shore life along the Alte Donau brings many surprises, and not just by the island of Gänsehäufel, whose southeastern side is given over to an FKK (naturist) beach. Outside one of a row of winningly cute lakeside cottages, a shop dummy leans on an upper balcony, dressed in a silver bikini. Even the groups of teens trying to tip their pedalos and ram each other in slow-motion collisions can’t disturb for long the peace of the old river.

Feeling composed
Vienna in the last two decades of the 18th century was one of those places and times in the history of human creativity where suddenly everything seems to have happened at once. Three musical stars, none of them Viennese, got their big break in the city: Joseph Haydn, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven. Haydn was the lynchpin – friend to Mozart and tutor to Beethoven – but all three influenced each other, and went on to influence local boy Franz Schubert in the early 19th century.

The story of how Vienna came to be established as the capital of classical music is part of the mission of the simply named Haus der Musik. Snatches of melodies accompany visitors from room to room in this former princely palace. It was also home to the composer Otto Nicolai, who founded the Vienna Philharmonic in 1842. Despite a smattering of period artefacts (including end-of-term grades from Schubert’s old school, where he seems to have been a bit of a swot), the exhibits tend towards the experimental. One of the installations mimics the sounds we are first exposed to in the womb. Another is a modern update of an 18th-century game: composing a waltz by rolling dice, to mix a set of melodies into one of 1,679,616 combinations.

In the most popular room, a party of children are trying to conduct the Vienna Philharmonic, or at least a computerised version of it. One small girl leads her virtual orchestra in a rendition of The Blue Danube, waving her conductor’s baton rhythmically backwards and forwards, as if casting with a fishing rod. The music swells, and she gets a surprisingly good score. Her classmate steps up, selects the Radetzky March, and cruelly makes the orchestra speed up to a frenetic tempo and then slow down to a crawl. ‘Excuse me – this is useless,’ says the computer when she’s finished. The search for the Mozart of the 21st century must continue.

Oceans in the sky
Compared to many other European cities, Vienna shows fewer obvious scars of the 20th century, in the form of wartime damage and thoughtless reconstruction. This makes the city’s six flaktürme (flak towers) stick out even more than the sore thumbs they already are in a city of so many architectural delights. Built during WWII as combined anti-aircraft gun emplacements and air-raid shelters, these massive reinforced concrete structures are still stubbornly in place, almost impossible to demolish without also taking out most of the surrounding neighbourhoods.

Some, like the round tower that looms above the chestnut- and beech-lined promenades in the Augarten, stand quietly abandoned, as if alien visitors parked their mothership there 70 years ago and then lost the keys. But one at least has been given a pacifist makeover. Beginning in 1957, the 47-metretall flak tower in Esterházy Park has been turned floor by floor into the Haus des Meeres (House of the Sea), bringing the denizens of the world’s oceans to the capital of a landlocked country. Among the angelfish and butterfly fish, giant spider crabs and tiny, pulsing jellyfish, it’s easy to forget the human disasters that spurred the building of this monstrosity.

Since its early days, the aquarium has branched out into other walks of natural life too. Former bunkers now house leafcutter ants, poison-arrow frogs and a striking albino Indian python, which laps water from a small stream. On both sides, tunnels have been cut through the 2½-metre-thick walls to giant glass boxes, where walkways lead through tropical greenery, and glossy starlings flit through the humid air. Diminutive cotton-top tamarins scamper about, mostly ignoring their larger, camera-carrying relatives. A group of the monkeys corner an eastern yellow-billed hornbill on a branch. It opens its bill in threat, but then flaps off. And all the while, beyond the foliage and the windows, the life of a normal Vienna street carries on.

Build outside the box
It’s an apartment block like no other. The coloured walls are an abstract canvas, dotted with outbreaks of decorative tiling. The cobbled pavement outside bulges like a sea swell, or an ill-fitted carpet, and trees burst out from all corners. The Hundertwasserhaus was built in the early 1980s by the artist, architect and all-round dreamer Friedensreich Hundertwasser, yet it seems more like an eccentric wizard has run amok in an anonymous residential quarter, zapping buildings at will.

For all its courtly formality, the world of Viennese architecture has had its share of rebels. In 1897, for instance, a group broke away from the Austrian Artists’ Society to forge a new style, inspired by the Art Nouveau movement, which they called the Vienna Secession. Its influence shines through in the gorgeous paintings of Gustav Klimt, in the Secession Building – the white-and-gold headquarters the movement built at the north end of Linke Wienzeile – and also at nearby Karlsplatz subway station. The two copper-green and marble-white pavilions that stand above it are ornamented with golden sunflowers and arabesques, typical of a style that tried to present to the world a different vision of modernity.

Art Nouveau was a unique and brief moment, already fading before WWI. In 1904, Otto Wagner, who built Karlsplatz station, went on to design the Österreichische Postsparkasse (Austrian Postal Savings Bank). In its white and grey interior, full of light from the glass roof, and given over to the beauty of the pure line, there are the stirrings of Modernism.

It was the drabber descendants of this early Modernism that Hundertwasser wanted to banish: ‘The straight line is godless’ was one of his mottos, displayed in the Kunst Haus Wien – another of his idiosyncratic creations. He even took on a project to redesign the city’s waste-incinerating plant, the Fernwärme Spittelau, incorporating technology to clean its emissions, and lending his distinctive imprint to its corrugated iron and chimney stacks. There can be few cities in the world that would give someone the freedom to create a whimsical waste incinerator. Vienna can take credit for that.

The article 'In tune with Vienna' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Traveller.