Seven Days in Vienna

Three-day tourism misses the point. To learn how Vienna really ticks, you need longer

Mark Seow
Sep 27, 2013
© Photo: MuseumsQuartier

Vienna’s past and present: modern art in the ex-imperial stables at MQ (Photo: Photo: MuseumsQuartier)

The night before my flight to Vienna, I sat down to watch Before Sunrise (1995). Despite brutally highlighting the current lacklustre state of my love life, I did enjoy it. Scenes captured Vienna’s beautiful landscape – romance at the Riesenrad, the Danube in the moonlight, seedy bars.

In some ways, the film can even be seen as a précis of the capital and its sights. But what Before Sunrise did not prepare me for, however, was a romance-of-sorts of my own: not with a person, but with a city. 

My first few days in Vienna were peppered with the usual tourist routes: Klimt at the Belvedere, the maze at Schönbrunn, a concert at the Kursalon, coffee at Café Sacher, and so on. Stereotypes of the Viennese were ringing true. Fashion was not a major concern; in fact, people seemed to embrace being "old-fashioned". The Viennese love dogs. Bratwurst: everywhere.

But more importantly, and problematically, everyone seemed fixated upon preserving the image of an "old Vienna", the traditions of a Golden Age long gone. "This is the house Mozart lived in"; "Kafka drank coffee here"; "Freud treated patients in this very room", etc. Verbs were all in the past tense.


Culture-soaked capital

The city boasted its past, but what was it doing now? And where were the locals? The city was full of culture-vultured tourists, only to be greeted by the stares of famous portraits or poses of memorial statues. I was becoming disillusioned with a city that was supposed to be alive with – not burdened by – delicious culture.

But on my fourth day in the capital, I started to realise the source of my disenchantment: The Viennese interact with culture in a far more fundamental way than visiting museums or attending concerts. It is knitted into their very being.

Vienna is a city where art is life. I watched toddlers make their first sandcastles in an art installation (Kagome sandbox, MQ Fürstenhof), children being taught what death is through a Klimt painting (Wien 1900, Leopold Museum), and teenagers drinking smoothies on a Whiteread sculpture (Nameless Library, Judenplatz).

When Karl Kraus wrote that "The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt", he was completely right: Culture is built into the very fabric of the capital. The reason I couldn’t find a "present" culture was because culture was everywhere.

Slowly, Vienna started to make more sense. The grand palaces were becoming more than signs of a past empire, but a way of carving thought into a landscape. And everywhere I looked, it seemed that Vienna was designed to encourage cultural engagement.

You can basically walk through the city by park alone (only a few hops and skips over busy roads are needed). Museums, galleries, concert halls, opera houses, coffeehouses, and libraries face one another, instigating a dialogue that is more than just Kultur.

Furniture in the Universität is fit for discussion: benches are moveable, and deckchairs come in pairs, thereby making chattering gossip or voracious debate a daily pastime. It is a city that urges you to learn, constantly pointing you in different directions, and forcing you to stop, drink coffee, and ponder. Even the traffic lights demand a patience that is unusual.


The past is present

I was mistaken: the Viennese weren’t fixated on their past at all. Sure, they are proud of tradition – any city that can boast so many great minds would be. But they don’t rest on their laurels.

Their interaction with their surroundings is extremely modern and "now" – one only has to visit the MuseumsQuartier during the afternoon or Rathausplatz at sunset to realise this. Their imaginative discourse with the city is a constant reconfiguration of their cultural legacy.

Vienna is a city that not only engages you, but longs for you to engage with it.


Mark Seow studies at the Royal Academy of Music in London. His trip to Vienna in July was generously funded by the Faculty of Music at the University of Cambridge,  as part of his continuing research on Arnold Schoenberg and Johannes Brahms. He has written for numerous publications, including Gramophone, The Inkling and Kettle’s Yard Online.