The Austrian capital offers convention goers a colorful palette of culture, art and history
Jet lag has me wide awake at 4:30 AM, but for once I’m not annoyed, because this is my opportunity to explore a city that many consider one of the most beautiful and civilized in the world. By 5:30 I’m walking down the Austrian capital’s Ringstrasse towards the Donaukanal, once a broad bend in the Danube but now a regulated water channel that marks the northeast corner of Vienna’s old city center.
I turn left to wander along its banks, lined with alfresco bars and cafés that, pre-dawn, are locked and lifeless, but during summer evenings buzz and bustle with city folk enjoying the balmy weather. The sky lightens as sunrise approaches, revealing artistic, colorful graffiti on the brick walls beside the canal. Early workers cycle past on clearly marked bike lanes and coffee houses are already open for breakfast and doing good business – Vienna’s famed kaffeekultur (coffee culture) is a way of life here.
The streets are now crowded with people going to work and taking kids to school, but there’s not a single raised voice from a peeved child or irate commuter – all is orderly and calm. I emerge onto Sigmund Freud Park opposite the towering neo-Gothic Votive Church, its sharp twin spires piercing the clear blue sky. I follow the tram tracks past an impressive university building to Rathauspark, which sprawls out before the grand City Hall. Built between 1872 and 1883, it has an even more ornate façade than the famed Burgtheater across the road – Europe’s second-oldest theatre and home to the Austrian National Theatre.
Even my accommodation – the Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna – is in a heritage-listed building. Built for the World Exhibition in 1873, it was leased to Kempinski in 2010; its three courtyards were given glass ceilings and have become the refined lobby lounge, Die Küche breakfast café and a multipurpose event space. As I munch on hearty Austrian bread and a sampling from the superb breakfast buffet selection, I contemplate the architectural beauty of the city.
Preserving the Past
The Vienna Historic Preservation Commission was created in 2003, and it designated the Innere Stadt (First District) as the Central Historic District, with a ordinance put in place to stop any modern building or alteration of existing façades. The result is a de facto open-air museum of glorious architectural treasures, from Gothic to Baroque, Renaissance to Neoclassical. It is of course a UNESCO World Heritage site in its entirety. In 2014, 6.2 million people visited Vienna – a lot for a small city of only 1.8 million people – and for most of their sojourn the majority of them stayed within the Ringstraße, a generous boulevard that replaced the old city walls and today forms the First District’s circular border.
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