Sometimes Europe feels too trodden, like the world's culture amusement park. Massive crowds and long lines plague important landmarks and museums, often filled with travelers more focused on snapping the perfect selfie than absorbing what's in front of them.
Vienna is a seamless blend of history and modern life where it's hard to turn a corner without encountering exquisitely carved statues and iconic houses along with some of the world's best restaurants and yet still feel like you're uncovering a secret treasure. I noticed this two summers ago wandering through the blissfully uncrowded cobblestone streets near the historic opera house that lead both to cutting edge museums like the Albertina (which was hosting an exhibit on voyeurism as seen through the lens of Antonioni's influential '60s film "Blow-Up") and the MuseumsQuartier complex as well as the 13th century Hofburg Palace which sits pristinely in the center of the city.
Walking down these stately streets feels simultaneously otherworldly and utterly contemporary. My hotel, an elegantly vamped up Best Western, sat just a short stroll from the Sigmund Freud Museum. Housed on the site of Freud's apartment and office where he hammered out his groundbreaking work for decades until the Nazis forced him to flee, there's a palpable sense of loss that hangs in the thick humid summer air as I walk through the spare rooms with the museum's director. All the most important artifacts like the famed couch are in the London museum. She has no qualms about this and even breaks into tears as she tells me they don't deserve the furniture. The chilling emptiness that couples with the near magical feeling of walking through rooms where modern psychology originated is not just the by-product but the intention of this intimate and thoughtful museum.
A short trip on the U-Bahn to the outskirts of the city reveals Gustav Klimt's villa where he lived from 1911 to his death in 1918. More than just paintings of his many muses, the house has been historically restored down to the color of paint on the walls making it feel like a portal into Klimt's hedonistically rich life.
The Danube river traces through the city with ample walkways and stretches of grassy spots and sandy patches for sunbathing. It hovers around 90 degrees Fahrenheit throughout my five-day trip, but I'm told this is unseasonably warm. The city's jazz fest is in full swing and during one show at the opera house Al Di Meola complains repeatedly about the heat as dutiful stagehands try to reposition a large fan nearby.
I get used to sweating as I travel on unairconditioned trains to unairconditioned restaurants and museums (as is the case throughout Europe in the summer). It's particularly balmy at Schonbrunn Palace (the childhood summer home of Marie Antoinette). After strolling through its massive and ornate grounds, it's easy to see how she'd be at home in Versailles. Walking through the endless maze of rooms, each larger than my whole apartment, I couldn't help but think how awkward it would be to live in spaces so large that would require effort and exercise to travel from one end to the other. As I breeze through the multiple ballrooms and bedrooms the size of Olympic swimming pools, I notice that there aren't that many people here. While every room at Verseilles is packed like a sold out show at the Bowery Ballroom, Schonbrunn feels pleasantly filled without being crowded.
As a New Yorker, I feel a little suspicious when places aren't painfully crowded and I kept wondering if there was some national holiday that cleared the city, but it's just the way of life in Vienna as it is in great Scandinavian cities like Oslo and Stockholm.
If all of Vienna feels a bit like a palace, the Kempinski hotel is the embodiment of royalty. Walking into the marble saturated lobby feels like stepping back to a time when kings had real power. Across the lobby, the Michelin-starred Edvard serves classic dishes like sturgeon with caviar alongside conventional pigeon with bulgur, cherry and peanut. Pig's tail with polenta makes a nice in-between course.
I had one of the best meals in my life at Steirereck. Sitting alone in the minimalist dining room, the experience was almost meditative. Large windows peer out into Stadtpark, which surrounds the pentagonal structure, and the muted grey speckled floor contrasts with an elaborate bread cart that's wheeled by each table. Three kinds of butter accompany the countless choices of loafs but the decisions soon wane as I choose a tasting menu. The first course is a refreshing plate of peas and kohlrabi with rice and daylilies. It comes with a little card that detailed the ingredients, preparation and little facts like how lemon daylilies had been used for millennia in China before being introduced to Europe in the 16th century. Subsequent courses included Chioggia beets with roses, porcini mushrooms, and verbana and a veal 'beusherl' with chive dumplings (chef/owner Heinz Reitbauer's take on an authentic Viennese stew with finely chopped veal hearts and lungs). A pan-fried amur carp showed off the local fish of the region and there was even a piece of Weiner schnitzel. The rest of the day is a haze, but I vaguely remember getting lost along the banks of the Danube and then unsuccessfully trying to find the right U-Bahn line before admitting defeat and hopping in a cab.
Another memorable meal was at Konstantin Filippou's namesake restaurant. Filippou is not surprisingly a protégé of Reitbauer's but brings a modern flair to the elegantly precise world of fine dining with dishes like sweetbread with lobster and melon or escargot with horseradish and beef marrow. The large elevated patio dining on a quiet street makes it ideal for summer as does an excellent selection of white wines, including a local 2013 Gruner Vetliner from Satellit and a 2012 Sancerre grande reserve from Henri Bourgeois. Their website prominently quotes American documentary filmmaker Elinor Burkett, "Be the vinegar in a crowd the still believes in the virtues of honey." This counterculture vibe is felt not through pungent concoctions of flavors but a sense that there are no unbreakable rules.