Discovering Austria’s Vienna

  • Hayden is among the seven Viennese maestros celebrated in the Great Composers exhibition at the Haus der Musik.

    Hayden is among the seven Viennese maestros celebrated in the Great Composers exhibition at the Haus der Musik.

  • Design inspiratin at Lena Hoschek's fashion boutique in the 7th District.

    Design inspiratin at Lena Hoschek's fashion boutique in the 7th District.

  • Twilight in the courtyard of Vienna's MuseumsQuartier.

    Twilight in the courtyard of Vienna's MuseumsQuartier.

  • Guest quarters at the 33-room Hotel Topazz come, quite literally, with window seats.

    Guest quarters at the 33-room Hotel Topazz come, quite literally, with window seats.

  • The Knize tailor shop's Adolf Loos-designed interior.

    The Knize tailor shop's Adolf Loos-designed interior.

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For a study in contrast, stroll the short distance to Haas Haus, a curving, postmodern landmark of steel and mirrored glass that sits right across the square from the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Despite its unmissable facade, only locals seem to know that inside the building—designed in the late 1980s by Pritzker Prize–winning architect Hans Hollein—lies one of Vienna’s most stylish designer bars, Onyx, where Austrian celebrities can be found quaffing cocktails at white-leather banquettes before moving on to the restaurant and its superb sushi. Huge windows looking out to the cathedral’s gargoyles allow you to eyeball the juxtaposition of medieval and modern in a way that’s quintessentially Viennese.

Another ultramodern bar awaits at the Leopold Museum, whose holdings of Austrian art include the largest collection of Egon Schiele paintings and drawings in the world. The on-site Café Leopold is clearly not intimidated by any of this: it’s a sleek contemporary space done up in marble and pink sandstone with chandeliers that look like floating jellyfish and resident DJs who are fond of hip-hop. Yet this sort of contrast is nothing extraordinary in the MuseumsQuartier, or MQ, a museum complex framed by Vienna’s 18th-century royal stables. Here, contemporary architecture—notably the dark, basalt-clad bunker that is the MUMOK (Museum Moderner Kunst)—cuddles up to the voluptuous imperial bling of Baroque facades. On long summer evenings, the central courtyard serves as an open-air salon where young Viennese recline on molded plastic benches painted in cheerful hues of red and yellow.

Just behind the MQ is the 7th District, a lately trendy precinct that is getting a reputation for its fashion boutiques, which range from the edgy, fetish-inspired Tiberius to cattle-horn jeweler Anita Münz and innovative leather-bag designer Ina Kent. To my mind, dirndl designer Lena Hoschek is the most interesting, demonstrating the national knack for simultaneously admiring tradition while recasting it for a contemporary clientele. Her reinterpretations of traditional Austrian dresses, with their pleated skirts and plunging necklines, are so up-to-date they’re worn by the likes of pop singer Katy Perry.

The 7th is also home to one of Vienna’s quirkiest hotels, 25hours. Inspired by the circus, the whimsical decor verges on the surreal at times: expect big-top memorabilia and boldly painted murals of clowns and acrobats by Berlin artist Olaf Hajek.  A relaxed rooftop bar and terrace offers views over Weghuberpark and the city beyond.

This is not the only design hotel changing the once conservative face of Vienna. Tucked into the Innere Stadt, Hotel Topazz has a cylindrical, port-holed facade and mahogany-paneled rooms that reference the Wiener Werkstätte, an Austrian equivalent of the Arts and Crafts movement; lamps with duck legs will make you smile, while the padded oval windowsills provide a grandstand seat over passing pedestrians. Or try the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, designed by famed French architect Jean Nouvel. Set along the banks of the Danube Canal, its 182 pared-down rooms come in white-on-white, black, or—my preference—gray, which also feature sliding window panels that allow me to rearrange my view. But it’s the rooftop restaurant and bar, Le Loft, that’s truly sensational. Video installations in the ceiling by Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist, which include blinking eyeballs, forest scenes, and swimming goldfish, are as mesmerizing by night as the twinkling lights of Vienna. Wunderbar.

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