Although Vienna now rules over a country only slightly larger than South Carolina, it still feels like the capital of an empire. The atmosphere is elegant and serene, miraculously unperturbed by the traffic and tourists of the 21st century. This time, I visited in late spring, when the city’s fragrant linden trees were in bloom. But I love autumn, too, when savory game dishes start appearing on restaurant menus, and even winter, when the Christmas market glows beneath the spires of the neo-Gothic City Hall.
In warm weather, the inviting terraces of the city’s many cafés and restaurants draw locals and travelers alike, while the numerous world-class museums prove endlessly diverting regardless of the season. Vienna is also an ideal starting point for a trip through Central Europe, and, on this occasion, I traveled down the Danube to Budapest, pausing in Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia.
In the half-century prior to World War I, Vienna ranked as one of the world’s most exciting cities. Palaces, theaters and grand public buildings replaced the medieval walls, and luminaries such as Klimt, Schiele, Schönberg, Mahler, Freud and Wittgenstein transformed the city’s cultural life. Vienna now has a conservative reputation, but during the time of the Secession, it was a churning center of experimentation and innovative design. However, World War I dissolved the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and World War II left its cities partially in ruins and thousands of its citizens dead or displaced. One of the things I find most fascinating about traveling through the region today is that the tumultuous past — the grandeur of empire, the destruction of war, the depredations of communism, the restoration of free-market democracy — is still clearly woven into the fabric of its cities. History feels electrifyingly immediate.
The Bristol, Sacher and Imperial hotels — all of which I recommend — have long been preeminent in Vienna. But several other five-star options have appeared, aspiring to challenge their status. In the last two years, the city has seen new Ritz-Carlton, Kempinski and Park Hyatt properties open in landmark buildings. However, my preference being for smaller hideaways, I opted to stay at the 63-room Sans Souci, which opened less than two years ago in a central but secluded location behind the Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Initially, the Sans Souci’s website aroused one or two misgivings. Describing the property as a “charismatic luxury hotel,” the home page seemed to be trying to be hip and edgy, and I worried that the staff’s attitude would match. Fortunately, from the moment of our arrival, the service proved to be good-humored and outstandingly helpful. In particular, the concierge, Dora, worked tirelessly to secure reservations for the popular “Gourmet-Abend” dinner held Thursdays in the soaring cupola hall of the Kunsthistorisches Museum. I also liked the design of the hotel, which manages to be opulent, witty, stylish and Viennese all at once. Our bright Junior Suite, the smallest room category I would recommend, successfully combined contemporary, mid-century modern, Wiener Werkstätte and Imperial design elements into a surprisingly cohesive whole. In the living area, an Arco floor lamp illuminated a pearl-gray velvet chaise and Hoffmann-inspired adjustable armchair. A white wingback headboard wrapped around the king bed, an abstract Lichtenstein print hung above a silver baroque-style console table, and an oversize crystal chandelier crowned the spacious composite quartz-tile bath.
Whether staying at the Sans Souci or not, any visitor to Vienna should stop by Le Bar, located just to the right of the small but striking lobby. This jewel box resembles a tiny version of Versailles’ Hall of Mirrors, with low lighting, velvet-upholstered Louis XV-style canopy chairs and a fine selection of Champagne by the glass. I made a point to visit Le Bar each evening after a relaxing swim in the spa’s long lap pool. I did not dine in the hotel’s Secessionist-style restaurant, La Véranda, but I very much enjoyed the beautifully presented breakfast buffet there each morning. The Sans Souci seems targeted toward affluent 30- and 40-somethings, but we felt very welcome and comfortable, and I wouldn’t hesitate to return.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The central yet secluded location; the helpful and down-to-earth staff; the stylish design that does not require any sacrifice of comfort; the long lap pool; the jewel-box bar.
DISLIKE: The vulgar website.
GOOD TO KNOW: In the coed spa, swimsuits are optional in the two saunas and steam room.
Sans Souci 94 Junior Suite, $525; Master Suite, $1,075. Burggasse 2, Vienna, Austria. Tel. (43) 1-522-2520.
Firm traditionalists have no shortage of hotels in Vienna. The Sacher, set behind the opera house in the old quarter, exudes fin-de-siècle Viennese charm, while the nearby Bristol just emerged from a thorough renovation. Its main restaurant, the Bristol Lounge, is one of Vienna’s most beautiful dining rooms. But for palatial grandeur, the 138-room Hotel Imperial has no equal. Set in the 19th-century Ringstrasse palace of Prince Philip of Württemberg, it also recently emerged from an overhaul of its public areas, including its café and breakfast room, redone in a very attractive Secessionist style, and its glittering main bar and lounge, the awkwardly named 1873 — HalleNsalon. This space revels in unabashed opulence, with immense crystal chandeliers, gleaming marble-paneled walls, plush seating and intricate parquet floors. Our Imperial Junior Suite on the third floor was no less regal. Panels of gold silk damask covered the walls decorated with gilt-framed landscape paintings and crystal sconces. Heavy melon-colored drapes shaded windows facing the Ring, and the dainty sofa and inlaid-wood secretary would surely have pleased the Princess of Württemberg. Regrettably, the peach-colored marble bath was rather dated and small, with a disappointing shower-tub combination. Service remains excellent, however, and staffers greeted us by name whenever we entered or left.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The regal atmosphere; the attentive service; the Ringstrasse location.
DISLIKE: The shower-tub combination; the room safe, which was too small for a laptop.
GOOD TO KNOW: Accommodations on the first floor are grandest, but the second and third floors also have high ceilings.
Hotel Imperial 93 Imperial Junior Suite, $800; Elizabeth Suite, $1,075. Kärntner Ring 16, Vienna, Austria. Tel. (43) 1-501-100.
With just 34 rooms, the Palais Coburg Residenz felt much less intimate and personal than the Sans Souci or the Imperial. The most expensive hotel of the three, it occupies a neoclassical palace perched on part of the former city wall. Its garden terrace is a delightful place for breakfast or lunch, and its gourmet restaurant, Silvio Nickol, has an extraordinary wine list and a well-deserved two Michelin stars. But both spaces are accessible to the public, making it unnecessary to subject your pocketbook to a stay. Service ranged from pleasant to forgetful to simply rude. Our promised newspaper didn’t come; the hotel never responded to an e-mail requesting a dinner reservation; and, at breakfast, an overwhelmed waiter snapped when I tried to get his attention with a polite “Excuse me.” Alas, the hotel’s capacity to irritate did not end there. We had to use an electronic key in four separate locations to access our room, and the key did not work on certain locks such as the staircase or the spa (they’re reportedly working out the bugs). Most suites are duplexes, and though ours was quite comfortable, it didn’t make up for the hotel’s other flaws. The Palais Coburg devotes its attention to diplomats and to hosting events. Individual travelers will be happier elsewhere.
AT A GLANCE
LIKE: The location near many top restaurants, cafés and bars; the garden terrace; the superb gourmet restaurant.
DISLIKE: The confusing and inconvenient layout; the occasionally subpar service; the onerous security.
GOOD TO KNOW: The hotel can arrange wine tastings in its impressive cellars for guests and non-guests alike.
Palais Coburg Residenz 89 City Suite, $800; Residenz Suite, $1,025. Coburgbastei 4, Vienna, Austria. Tel. (43) 1-518-180.