It’s easy to get caught in the ‘Strauss and strudel’ trap in Vienna, but the image of palatial grandeur that the Austrian capital peddles is only half the story. Dig deeper and you’ll find a raft of social start-ups – from guided walking tours with the homeless to refugee-run hotels – making travel here more meaningful than ever.
It’s a crisp, windswept autumn day and conkers are dropping from the horse chestnut trees in Vienna’s Prater, where avenues are now carpeted with golden leaves that crunch underfoot. On the horizon, the city’s iconic Riesenrad Ferris wheel twirls, as it has done for more than a century.
I turn a corner and the picture immediately changes as I arrive at Magdas (magdas-hotel.at), a retirement home born again as a low-budget boutique hotel, with retro-cool interiors and laudable social spirit. Hailing from 16 different countries, the staff here are almost entirely former refugees and asylum seekers, who have sought a better life here in Vienna. And Vienna welcomed them. Back in 2015 when the hotel opened, locals volunteered time and talents to help out: from knitting lampshades to upcyling furniture or, in the case of the Academy of Fine Arts, donating original works to jazz up the walls.
Downstairs in the café, where people from all walks of life are chatting over brunch, I meet a few of the characters that have shaped this one-of-a-kind social enterprise. One is Ziad, a refugee from Syria. “Magdas has given me a chance and I am grateful,” he confesses, never once breaking eye contact. “I had to flee Syria as it was kill or be killed. I would have been forced to fight. My parents are still in Damascus. I haven’t seen them in years and I don’t know when I ever will. But my wife and children have settled nicely here. Vienna is our new home.”
But big cities can also be lonely for those on the margins of society, even if you’ve spent a lifetime exploring their streets. And it was with this in mind that Hannah Lux co-founded Vollpension (vollpension.wien), several metro stops south of the Prater in Vienna’s 4th district. Close to the hubbub of the famous Naschmarkt food market, the café hides in the lanes of the Freihausviertel, which are lined with indie cafes, edgy design shops and artists’ studios.
Vollpension slots neatly into this relaxed, bohemian scene. In its old-school interior, bare brick walls are plastered with nostalgic photos and heirlooms, and cakes are dished up on mismatched vintage crockery. There are velvet sofas worn threadbare with generations of wiggling bums. It could be your grandma’s living room and, well, in a way it is. Here the smiling faces behind the counter come courtesy of the Omas (grandmas), who are busy baking fruit pies, strudels, cakes and chocolate tortes with dab hands and a dash of love. Comforting wafts of butter and vanilla drift from the kitchen. The place is packed.
“We set up Vollpension to bridge the generational gap, using food as common ground,” says Lux. “A lot of elderly people, in particular women, need a source of income during retirement to stop them from slipping into poverty. The social interaction is important too, as once a partner has passed away, life can get lonely. And, let’s be honest, grandmas bake the best cakes.”
Looking around, everyone seems to be locked deep in conversation, as though the setting has encouraged them to ditch the tech and wholly embrace the languid pace of a bygone era. “We have an Oma here who likes to gather all the smartphones in a box when she begins her shift. She tells customers to talk to each other. And it seems to work,” she laughs.
In my socially focused tour of Vienna so far, a message is becoming apparent: recognition matters. This can be as simple as looking someone in the eye and saying hello to make them feel less anonymous, according to Ingebourg, a guide with Shades (shades-tours.com). Ingebourg is homeless but now can afford a bed for the night thanks to this social set-up, which gives rough sleepers, refugees and former addicts a new start in life as guides to offbeat corners of the city, far removed from the glitz and glamour.
We meet in the grand streets of the first district, or Innere Stadt, but swiftly move on to a graffitied square, where Ingebourg tells her story with touching honesty. “Being a homeless woman is particularly tough because of the extra level of danger,” she admits. “I was terrified when I found myself on the streets and living out of a rucksack.” We reach the peaceful cloisters of a Franciscan monastery, which transforms into a soup kitchen on Fridays. “It’s about more than just a warm meal here,” says Ingebourg. “It’s about being treated like an ordinary human being, about forgetting reality for an hour or so.”
Our walk ends at the Stadtpark, where tourists are taking selfies in front of a golden statue of Strauss. “The homeless that try to sleep on the benches here now get shifted on by the authorities,” says Ingebourg. “But the fact is there simply aren’t enough beds to go around. There’s no easy solution, but Shades brings hope and shows that tourism can be the catalyst for positive change.”
Eugene Quinn is firmly of this belief, too. A Brit by birth, he has adopted Vienna as his home and founded Space and Place (spaceandplace.at), with offbeat walks and events shining an alternative light on the city, such as the Vienna Ugly Tour, ticking off the Austrian capital’s eyesores. “Beautiful can be boring, but ugly never is,” he grins. “And there’s a massive difference between fairytale Vienna and the reality, which is far more interesting.”
I’m asked along to the Coffeehouse Conversations, a monthly gathering at Café Ministerium on the monumental Ringstrasse Boulevard. The aim, Quinn tells me, is to revive the energy and dynamic of late-night debate that raged in Vienna’s coffeehouses a century ago, when they were frequented by the likes of Freud, Klimt and Trotsky. “The Viennese hate small talk, but they are pretty good at big talk,” says Quinn. “So we invite strangers to meet over drinks or dinner, matching young with old, gay with straight, men with women.”
Quinn pairs me off with a Viennese student called Romi, handing us a question menu inspired by Oxford University scholar Theodore Zeldin’s Conversation Dinners. Each ‘course’ of questions gets heavier and more probing in topic, and soon we are spilling the beans about our regrets, hopes, dreams. After two hours, as I step out into the chill night, having shared a little bit of my soul with a stranger, I ponder on how it’s the people that make the place. And that being social really is beneficial – in every possible sense of the word.
MS. CHONNAKARN AKRAPREEDEE
General Manager, Austria and Eastern Europe
Hotel Sacher Vienna
A legacy hotel at the heart of Vienna welcoming notable guests since 1876. The original Sacher Torte, one of Vienna’s cultural and culinary crowning symbols, was created here, where to this day it remains made with chocolate, apricot jam, and whipped cream baked “by hand”.
If you are in Vienna, do spend an afternoon drinking coffee at a traditional Viennese coffeehouse like this one. Order the café mélange and special Sperl wafers available only at this café.
The Guest House Vienna
This is the only place where you can enjoy a delightful breakfast at their Brasserie and Bakery all day from 6:30 a.m. until midnight. Choose from a variety of choices such as eggs benedict or eggs florentine.
ONYX Bar at Do & Co Hotel
Located on the 6th floor of
Do & Co Hotel, this place offers a fantastic 180-degree view of Saint Stephan's Church, making it the perfect place for sunset drinks.
Come here to admire works by world-class artists such as Pablo Picasso, Claude Monet and Gustav Klimt. A current exhibition of Albrecht Dürer's works ends 6 January 2020. Pro tip: Vienna City Cardholders (available for purchase at online at viennacitycard.at) get a discount on the entrance fees.
Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library)
Not only is it the largest library in Austria with more than 12 million items in its range of collections, it is also one of the most beautiful library halls in the country featuring stunning baroque architecture.