Scarcely a week goes by without someone asking, “What is your favorite place in the world?” I don’t care for this question, because I have numerous candidates for the award. Also, I can’t bring myself just to say, “Italy.” Nevertheless, I’ve noticed that one city returns to my thoughts more often than most: Vienna.
Perhaps it is Vienna’s many contradictions that I find so appealing. The former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire still feels imperial, being filled with oversize palaces, huge government buildings and imposing monuments of every variety. Yet it is also cozy, with quiet cafés that invite you to linger over coffee and cake and warm Beisls (casual bistros) that serve some of the world’s best comfort food. In addition, over the past 150 years, Vienna has veered between being a conservative bastion of tradition and a leading center of modern art, design and philosophy.
Vienna has veered between being a conservative bastion of tradition and a leading center of modern art, design and philosophy.
Vienna absorbs tourists better than many places. Visitors divide themselves among the countless attractions, making crowds much more rare than in, say, nearby Prague. Nor is Vienna especially expensive. I compared the rates of two recommended properties, one in Vienna and one in Paris, both members of the same luxury hotel group. In mid-June, a deluxe room in Vienna costs about $365 less per night than a room of exactly the same size in the French capital. The fact that a number of Hideaway Report members had complained about one of our longtime hotel recommendations in Vienna was all the pretext I needed to immerse myself once again in the city’s art, architecture, music, food and wine (picturesque vineyards start in the suburbs).
The 174-room Hotel Bristol opened in 1892 and occupies a peerlessly central location next to the Vienna State Opera House on the Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard tracing the outline of the former city walls. Indeed, the Bristol is close enough to the opera that performers sang from one of its balconies during a celebratory concert in honor of the venue’s 150th anniversary last year. (We watched the concert a few steps away from the hotel’s door while munching on Viennese street sausages topped with sauerkraut and spicy mustard.) Since the Bristol’s opening, it has hosted princes, presidents and kings, and for years, it was the Hideaway Report’s highest-rated hotel in Vienna. I expected our stay to be memorable, and indeed it was.
An expensive car arranged by the Bristol transferred us from the airport to the hotel, where a friendly bellman promptly relieved us of our luggage. We walked through the gleaming vestibule, home to the concierge desk, and entered the glamorous oval art deco lobby. Because we had arrived in the morning, our room wasn’t yet ready. The young man at the front desk called housekeeping to find out when our accommodations would be accessible. I heard him confirm, in German, that the room would be ready in two hours, and yet, inexplicably, he told us, in English, that it would be ready in one. When our room was ready two hours later, he pointed us to the elevator, rather than escorting us up.
We found our own way to a Grand Deluxe Guest room, located on the mezzanine floor overlooking the Ringstrasse (request an opera view instead). One of the more recently renovated accommodations in the hotel, the wood-floored room had an appealing art deco-inspired décor done mostly in white, caramel and black. A two-part chaise longue at the foot of the comfortable bed stood on an Oriental rug and faced a little table topped with flowers, fruit, chocolates and a complimentary bottle of sparkling wine. The bath seemed fresh and came with dual vanities, a separate tub and a white marble-clad shower.
However, the difference between our renovated room and the Bristol’s unrenovated accommodations soon became all too clear. A friend with whom we were traveling had booked one of the Classic Rooms, which had a 19th-century-inspired décor of cream, baby blue and pastel peach. The antique bed, elaborate window treatment and crystal chandelier added a sense of grandeur, but water rings on the table, damaged balcony doors and the shower-tub combination created a poor impression.
An unrenovated Classic Room wouldn’t have been enough for me to stop recommending the Bristol, had the service been worthy of the hotel’s pedigree. Alas, the poor service we received from the front desk on arrival proved to be the rule, not the exception. On another occasion, for example, the front desk refused to take some postcards to be mailed and we were directed to the concierge desk, where a long line had formed.
Nor did service in the sumptuous wood-paneled restaurant impress. This was a great shame, because the art deco space ranks among the most beautiful dining rooms in the world. When we arrived the first morning for breakfast, the hostess told us to choose any table we liked and sent us on our way. No one came to offer coffee or water until we finally waved someone down, and no one explained how breakfast worked. When I asked if we could order à la carte, the waitress replied, “When you don’t like the buffet, we can bring the menu, and then you can choose à la carte.” The buffet was perfectly fine, as long as you aren’t picky about your eggs. We had four days of breakfasts, and at every one, my fried eggs had broken, solid yolks, the result of a screaming-hot griddle. If you’re charging $43 per person for breakfast, doing the eggs as well as any corner diner seems like a minimal requirement.
Alas, the complaints we had received from members seemed to be entirely justified. Overall, we wished we’d been staying at the nearby Hotel Imperial instead, a palatial property that has completed a spectacular renovation of its public areas. We had cocktails in the bar there twice, and on both occasions, we received friendly, efficient service. The three hotels we now recommend in Vienna are Hotel Imperial; the more contemporary Sans Souci, near the MuseumsQuartier; and the Hotel Sacher. (The 143-room Park Hyatt Vienna, set in an ornate former bank building in the heart of the city’s old center, also looks promising, and I plan to pay it a visit next time I’m in Vienna.)
The perfect location; the palpable history of the place; the striking décor of the restaurant; the helpful bell staff and doormen; our room’s well-designed bath.
The sometimes unhelpful front desk; the signs of wear in our friend’s Classic Room; the inattentive breakfast service; the badly cooked eggs.
Smoking is allowed in the hotel’s clubby bar; the Hotel Imperial, a sister property, is a similar but better choice than the Bristol.
When traveling, I love to combine time in a city with a relaxing spell in the countryside. One of the world’s most dramatic wine regions lies just an hour’s drive from Vienna, so on this occasion, we rented a car and headed west, following the course of the Danube River to the Wachau Valley. People often pass through the Wachau on river cruises, but it’s a delightful place in which to linger for a few days. It’s easy to reach; the scenery of rocky bluffs, terraced vineyards and historic riverside towns is sensational; and the underpriced wines are world-class. In addition, the little city of Krems (technically just outside the Wachau) recently completed its Kunstmeile Krems, or “Art Mile,” a set of museums in both historic structures and unabashedly contemporary new buildings.
We made a beeline for Schloss Dürnstein, a grand 47-room hotel on the far end of the touristy but exquisitely pretty town of Dürnstein. Anchored by the sky-blue baroque tower of its abbey, Dürnstein occupies a bluff above the Danube. The picturesque ruins of a medieval castle (once the prison of Richard the Lionheart) still dominate the crest of a rugged hill. And the landscape of town, forest, vineyards and castle rises from the great river like a vision from a fairy tale.
Anchored by the sky-blue baroque tower of its abbey, Dürnstein occupies a bluff above the Danube.
Rather than stay in the main building of Schloss Dürnstein, we had reserved the Villa Schönthal, a stand-alone two-bedroom house a two-minute walk from the hotel’s entrance. Although the villa was completed in 2016, it looks historic, with a classic butter-yellow façade and red-tile roof. The three-story building abuts the bluff, and the exposed granite of the cliffside forms dramatic interior walls in the living-dining room and the bath of the master bedroom. All three floors have mesmerizing Danube views. On the first level is a vestibule, a small bedroom and its shower-only bath. Up the stairs is a spacious and light-filled great room, with a large dining table, kitchen, woodburning fireplace and various comfortable seating options. One more flight of steps up is the attractive master bedroom, the bath of which has a separate shower and tub. But the real glory of Villa Schönthal is its Danube-view garden, which starts with a shaded patio just off the great room. A flagstone path leads through terraces, past an in-ground wine cellar (villa guests can select bottles at will and pay for them at checkout) and on to a gazebo overlooking rocky bluffs plunging into the river. There, we spent many happy hours, sipping coffee or wine and watching cargo ships and pleasure boats glide along the Danube below.
Schloss Dürnstein itself has much to offer guests, not least a lounger-lined outdoor pool and a tranquil Roman-inspired cellar spa with a second pool, steam room, sauna and relaxation area. Off reception is a vaulted library, an expansive main lounge and a welcoming bar, all palatially decorated. I only wish the lighting in these spaces were less harsh. The glaring bulbs are doubtless energy-efficient, but they detract from the ambiance. Lighting aside, it was a pleasure to relax in the bar after dinner, sipping classic cocktails mixed by the charming and smartly dressed bartender. We also enjoyed the well-presented buffet breakfasts each morning, as well as a dinner in the casual Küffer Keller, a grill-themed restaurant located a two-minute walk from the hotel with its own garden patio and cozy cellarlike dining room.
Surprisingly, one of the property’s weakest points proved to be its main restaurant. Since our villa wasn’t yet ready when we arrived, we decided to have lunch at the hotel. A waiter started to lead us to an indoor table. I said, in German, that we would prefer to dine on the panoramic terrace. “Terrace is closed,” he replied. I pointed to the couple dining there. “They are hotel guests,” he retorted. I explained that we were also guests. “Terrace is closed,” he said again, sharply, and led us to his original choice of table. I headed back to the front desk. The delightful young woman there came down with me and arranged for a table on the terrace. The waiter was most displeased, however, and he refused to even make eye contact with us for the remainder of our four-night stay. Two nights later, the menu was the same at dinner as it had been at lunch, and it offered mostly Austrian classics, without the slightest degree of culinary adventure. The service we received at dinner from some staff members was gracious, but from others, it was almost as abrupt as it had been at lunch when we arrived.
The most enjoyable meal of our stay was prepared by our own private Grillkoch (grill chef). The Villa Schönthal has a charcoal grill on its garden patio, and Schloss Dürnstein arranges for a chef to cook dinner at a price of $67 per person. Our chef was a friendly and talented man from Slovakia. In addition to a spread of fresh salads and grilled vegetables, he prepared succulent pork chops, flavorful chicken, garlic-infused shrimp and tender scallops.
Aside from our unfortunate experiences in the main restaurant, we had a splendid time at Schloss Dürnstein’s Villa Schönthal. It was the sort of place I would happily spend an entire summer, if time and funds permitted. The villa is an excellent value for a group of three or four, as long as the wide discrepancy in size between the two bedrooms isn’t a problem. Spending a few days here visiting Wachau Valley wineries, cruising the Danube, cycling along riverside paths and relaxing in the panoramic garden with a bottle of dry Riesling or crisp Grüner Veltliner is a sublime way to conclude an Austrian vacation.
The warm and friendly front desk staff; the main building’s inviting spa, outdoor pool and Danube-view dining terrace; the classic décor; the location on the edge of Dürnstein near restaurants, cafés and wine shops; Villa Schönthal’s magnificent terraced garden overlooking the river; our dinner with the Grillkoch.
The sometimes unfriendly staff of the restaurant and its uninspiring menu; the harsh lighting in the main building’s lounges.
The hotel has bicycles for guest use; Danube cruises depart from a pier a short walk away; tourists like to have lunch (or less frequently, dinner) in the hotel’s restaurant, but the lounges and spa are reserved for guests only; the property opens for the season in late March.