Hidden Wien

Discovering Vienna’s secret havens of comfort and quiet sophistication

Columns | David Mathews | November 2009

After ten years, the impressions Vienna first made on me have yet to fade. With its classic buildings of uniform height, frequently elaborate facades and everyday grandeur, it resembles nothing so much as fantasy confections of spun sugar. So perhaps it is no coincidence that Vienna is known for these as well – bewitching to look at, and delicious to partake of.

Yet where does one begin?

After a period, the fascination of simply strolling the streets begins to pale, as it is only ever on the surface of things. Surely there must be something inside all these finely-wrought facades, something worth sustaining that is safely tucked away. The hidden cannot help but allure, and all manner of idyllic visions drift past. And of course, a glimpse, however brief, into one of the inner courtyards is all the proof we need, wonderfully constructed and cared-for havens, places of quiet pleasures, privacy and peace.

I have gone in search of these places of comfort and quiet sophistication, and found them in innumerable forms all across the city. To me, these places are the secretive heart of the city. What follows is a brief selection.


Café der Provinz

8., Maria-Treue-Gasse 3

Tucked away in a little lane in the eighth district is a jewel of hominess and good food: the Café der Provinz. Their general policy is to use only organic produce in their delectable wide range of sweet and savory crêpes, juices, wines, and near-bewildering (but always welcome) assortment of teas. This place performs the uncanny act of transporting you to a little town somewhere in the south of France, with an exquisitely refined aesthetic of the lived-in. Almost reverent in its cultivation and appreciation of the well-made and the hand-made, the place is an ode to the beautiful object, from its pleasingly chunky tables (assembled by the owner), spindly chairs, lamps brimming over with character, or the imposingly industrial crêpe plates and espresso machine.

At once elaborate and thrown-together, the congenial atmosphere spawned by this motley assemblage serves to enfold its clientele in cocoons of comfort and privacy, and whether with a friend or a book, once settled in, it is pleasingly hard to leave.



8., Rathaus

Deep in the bowels of the Vienna City Hall, in a maze of staircases and mezzanines, hides a library that will delight anyone who loves books. The first impression is the disconcerting feeling of a beautifully constructed library that seems bigger on the inside than it appears from without. A major library for historical research on the city, it is a working library, free to use, and open to the general public – joining is simply a matter of providing the proper identification. And architecturally, it is also simply a beautiful library – and I say this with full appreciation for the splendors the British Library and the Austrian National Library – especially so since one can do more than simply look and admire. And therein lies the bibliophile’s thrill.

If you ask politely, librarians will allow you to wander along the two levels of galleries lining the upper shelves, up and down a finely-wrought iron staircase, along walkways that flow along the walls, punctuated by little overlooks into the space of the room. Standing high above, looking across a gulf of empty space to a neighboring gallery, you are lifted off the mundane plane of things into a rarefied and timeless world of books and imagination.


Künstlerhaus Cinema

10., Akademiestraße 13

This magnificent venue roars into full grandeur during each year’s Viennale

Film Festival, on through November. Located in the Künstlerhaus Museum next to the Musikverein and a short walk from the Vienna State Opera – it hums along during the remainder of the year in quiet dignity, screening carefully chosen films, always compelling, more often than not refreshingly outside the mainstream.

But the real joy is in the place and the experience of seeing singular films therein: It is one of the several remaining true cinema paradiso, a vast and moodily lit space, with dark wooden panelling, discreetly painted vistas lining the upper walls. While grand, it is not place boisterous; the air is one of stateliness and decades of polish, far removed from the modern multiplex of thoughtless consumption. Regal and cavernous, it possesses the contemplative soul of a palace theatre of generations past, as alive today as ever, where the moving image holds court.

Other articles from this issue