Viennese whirl

Returning after three decades to discover that the Austrian capital deserves its accolades
Cafe Sperl is among Vienna’s many favourite spots where regulars enjoy unhurried leisure time.

I’m writing this from the terrace of Café Korb, one of Vienna’s famous and much-loved coffeehouses. A German writer friend reliably informs me this is where artists and literary types hang out. “Just look at the clientele,” he says, “and then compare it to the café terrace opposite.” I crane my neck and spot an elegant woman with statement earrings reading a book. Two men with grey ponytails, loose linen shirts and bold, plastic-rimmed glasses are engaged in energetic discussion. One looks like a scruffy version of Karl Lagerfeld. Nobody has a laptop. My gaze moves to the neighbouring terrace which my writer friend tells me is a hang-out for wealthy Russians. Four men in suits appear to be having a business meeting next to a heavily made-up woman making selfie pouts into her phone. Coffeehouses in Vienna are seen as an extension of people’s living rooms. You can spend hours there each day with little pressure to move on. Newspapers are laid out on bamboo sticks, regulars have their own tables and outside the obvious tourist hotspots each Kaffeehaus has its own distinct tribe.

Almost every weekend during the summer months there’s a free outdoor concert or festival

I first visited Vienna in 1990. By a huge stroke of luck, I’d been posted to nearby Budapest as a young reporter for the BBC World Service, not knowing that I was about to witness history in the making. The Iron Curtain – a mere 50km from the Austrian border – had come down and Budapest was buzzing with change and revolutionary fervour. I attended endless demos and got drunk in jazz clubs with young political activists. By comparison, Vienna seemed sad and staid. It was full of old people and ghosts. A Habsburg Miss Havisham hanging onto its tattered imperial splendour. The Jewish community who provided Vienna’s artistic and intellectual heartbeat had been destroyed by the Nazis and it was only in the 1980s and ’90s that Austria began to confront its past, following revelations that the President, Kurt Waldheim, had lied about what he’d done during the war (as had many others). The British artist Rachel Whiteread, who was commissioned to make a Holocaust Memorial in Judenplatz around that time, told me she imagined “worms wriggling under every cobblestone”.

Coffeehouses in Vienna are seen as an extension of people’s living rooms

It would be another 30 years before I returned to Vienna. My husband was offered an academic post in the city and asked how I felt about moving back to Central Europe. I jumped at the opportunity. England felt lost, inward-looking and broken by Brexit. I wanted a change of scene. In the Spring of 2022, we packed up our belongings and left London.

The Donauinselfest, held on an island in the Danube every June is the largest free open-air music festival in Europe, attracting 2.5m visits over the course of a long weekend. ANDREAS JAKWERTH (CC BY-SA 2.0)
The Mistfest, or “Rubbish Festival” was attended by over 50,000 visitors this year, mainly families, helping to seal Vienna’s reputation as one of the cleanest cities on earth. COURTESY OF FREIZEITFERIEN.INFO
Cafe Korb is among Vienna’s many favourite spots where regulars enjoy unhurried leisure time.

Vienna has changed dramatically in the intervening years. It’s younger, hipper and more cosmopolitan. There are cycle lanes everywhere and the trams fly rainbow flags. Even the pedestrian crossings are woke: instead of the usual sign of a single man, Vienna has red and green couples, mixed and same-sex, who hold hands. Shopping streets have been pedestrianised and fitted out with inventive street furniture, plants, trees and drinking-water fountains. This was not without controversy, but the city dealt with it by consultation with residents and shopkeepers and in some places held a referendum. A great deal of work has been done by urban planners to make Vienna a 15-minute city where most daily necessities and services can be reached within a quarter of an hour’s walk from your home.

These days the Austrian capital regularly comes top of The Economist magazine’s annual list of the world’s most liveable cities. The score is calculated on multiple factors: healthcare, housing, culture, environment, education, infrastructure, and a low crime rate. I have an annual travel pass which means that for one euro a day I can travel anywhere in the city limits by tram, underground or bus. There’s an incredibly progressive housing policy which goes back 100 years and is founded on the concept that decent housing is a human right and shouldn’t be left up to the market. Today 60 per cent of Viennese live in some kind of affordable housing. This is turn depresses rents in the private sector. Added to that, tenants enjoy high levels of protection against rent rises and evictions. The low rents mean the Viennese have a lot more disposable income to spend in shops and cafes.

When the Habsburg Empire collapsed at the end of World War 1, Vienna became a city state within the new Republic of Austria with its own tax-raising ability. Red Vienna, as it became known, has been a Social Democrat bastion within a largely conservative, Catholic country ever since (apart from seven years under Nazi rule). The Social Democrats keep winning the capital because they continue to deliver on the things people care about and they know how to throw a party. Almost every weekend during the summer months there’s a free outdoor concert or festival. The Donauinselfest, held on an island in the Danube every June is the largest free open-air music festival in Europe, attracting 2.5m visits over the course of a long weekend. The island is also a popular outdoor swimming spot for city dwellers because here they don’t dump sewage in the rivers.

Vienna is one of the cleanest cities on earth and being a rubbish collector is considered a good job with decent pay and benefits. According to the polls, the most popular department of the city government is MA 48, which deals with street cleaning, waste and recycling. The 48-ers in their bright orange uniforms are Vienna’s working-class heroes. They’re considered to be cool, like firemen in New York or pompiers in Paris. Their marketing department runs humorous campaigns with posters featuring named individual rubbish collectors, cartoons about dog shit and cryptic stickers on bins aimed at getting people to recycle more.

The many tasty treats on offer in the city.

Every September they hold a Rubbish festival (Mistfest) with rock bands, food stalls and a flea market. I went out of curiosity and couldn’t believe the scale of it. This year they had over 50,000 visitors, mainly families. Parents and grandparents were enjoying hotdogs and beer while their kids bounced on an inflatable rubbish truck, sold their toys on stalls or peered down microscopes looking at bugs and worms as educators explained how composting works. Meanwhile over at the big stage people were dancing and singing along to a rock band made up of rubbish collectors. I ask one of the organisers how they justify spending so much money on a free festival. “It’s no good telling people they must recycle, you need to make it cool,” he says.

Once you leave the old medieval centre of Vienna it’s striking how much more diverse the population gets. The Mistfest is held in one of the outer neighbourhoods where there is a strong immigrant presence, mainly from the Balkans. In 1995, Austria joined the EU, reuniting the country politically with its former colonies in the Habsburg Empire. Enlargement has shifted the axis of power eastwards within the EU. Vienna finds itself once again at the centre of Europe, a magnet for immigrants from across the continent just as it was in the nineteenth century. Today almost 50 per cent of the population has foreign roots, which means the choice of food is much improved and the Wiener schnitzel monoculture I encountered in the early ’90s has been eroded.

There is a caveat to my rose-tinted view. Despite the clean streets, good housing and excellent infrastructure, the far-right Freedom Party is once again on the rise in Austria, fuelled by fears of immigration, the anti-vax movement and an ambivalent attitude towards the war in Ukraine. They won’t win in Vienna, but they could end up being the largest party in the Austrian Parliament in next year’s General Election – reminding me that worms continue to wriggle beneath the shiny cobblestones.

Journalist and broadcaster Kirsty Lang was a foreign correspondent for the BBC and Sunday Times and presented Radio 4’s Front Row for 20 years. Now the host of BBC’s Round Britain Quiz, she lives between London and Vienna

More Like This

Get a free copy of our print edition

Letter from Elsewhere, Life, October 2023

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.
You need to agree with the terms to proceed

Your email address will not be published. The views expressed in the comments below are not those of Perspective. We encourage healthy debate, but racist, misogynistic, homophobic and other types of hateful comments will not be published.