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Vienna's Neubau neighborhood offers an eclectic mix off the beaten path

The Neubau neighborhood is an alluring mix of arts and eclectic shops.
The Neubau neighborhood is an alluring mix of arts and eclectic shops. (Jakob Polacsek For The Washington Post)

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By Christina Talcott
Sunday, February 14, 2010

The first time I visited Vienna, 10 years ago, I found it a sterile and stodgy city. So when I went back recently, I was determined to explore beyond the ostentatious imperial buildings downtown and see a real working-class neighborhood. Which is how I stumbled upon the swingers' club next to a homewares shop. And the veil was lifted.

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Vienna's seventh district, known as the Neubau, feels a long way from the Mozart-costumed opera touts in the cobblestone streets, a world apart from the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages near the Hofburg and the crowds that press around the towering St. Stephen's Cathedral in the heart of town. The neighborhood is a haven from umbrella-hoisting tour guides and a slice of the city whose allure lies not in dramatic historic architecture but in the quirky shops and homey cafes that line its streets.

On my recent visit to the Austrian capital, my tour guide and host was a New England-born jazz trombonist who now lives in the Neubau. Lying between the city's historic downtown beltway, the Ringstrasse, and the grittier outer ring called the Gurtel, the district is bounded on the south by the busy shopping street Mariahilferstrasse, where workers toiled in silk factories starting in the 18th century. The influx of laborers necessitated housing, leading to lots of new construction -- or "Neubau" -- in what had once been open farmland beyond the city core.

Now, the area is experiencing a blossoming of artists' studios, clothing and housewares shops, an eclectic blend of international, traditional Viennese and carry-out restaurants, plus music clubs, bars and cafes. The charm is in the mix.

To offer me an overview of his adopted neighborhood, my host took me to the top of Vienna's main public library, which was built in 2003 and straddles the above-ground subway tracks along the Gurtel. Climbing the stairs to the roof, we looked south over billowy white awnings covering a long plaza that stretched toward the massive construction site of the Westbahnhof train station area, part of an extensive citywide train station construction project. To the north lay hillsides ribbed with vineyards, and to the east, the spires of the great downtown churches stabbed the sky.

But our view of the Neubau was partially obstructed by cranes and a giant billboard featuring half-naked women with tiger-stripe body paint playing guitars, drums and horns: The announcement of a new recording studio being built on a nearby corner. The view showed me only a slice of the neighborhood's artsy focus. If I really wanted to see the place, I realized, I'd have to do it on the ground.

Kaiserstrasse, the heart of the West Neubau neighborhood, was a window-shopping pleasure partly because of the sheer incongruity of its offerings. One tiny storefront, at No. 24, was Gegner Gallery, where an installation featured yarn-wrapped, Barbie-size figures dangling from the ceiling on wires like spooky mobiles. Next door, a secondhand clothing store displayed no-nonsense, dowdy shifts in muted prints. A shop called Kaiser Stuck sold plaster plaques covered in cupids, ornate trailing vines and urn-bearing maidens. (I imagined the front hall of my Takoma Park bungalow festooned in grape-cluster cornices -- very Vienna.) On the same block, darkened windows featured posters of smiling, scantily-clad couples and foursomes in the hot tub, in the sauna, at the table clinking glasses: the swingers' club.

My musician friend took me to some of his favorite shops, but those without fashion-savvy hosts aren't out of luck: Since July, a local merchant collective called 7tm has been offering personalized tours of the neighborhood's shops, including those along the Lindgasse, which has been dubbed "Lindgasse Shopping Mile" by the folks in Vienna's tourism office. The tour might focus on women's clothes, accessories (leather handbags at Ina Kent or Sicilian hats at La Coppola Storta) or some of the neighborhood's interesting hybrids, such as hair salon/clothing boutiques Glanz & Gloria and Be a Good Girl. (Not all multi-tasking has to be serious, not when you're combining primping and shopping.)

My host and I stumbled on such gems as Un-Modern, a newly opened shop on the Burggasse. A sign said "Closed," but the woman behind the counter opened the door when she saw me peering through the window. She was waiting for a delivery, so she let us come in and look around. It was Monday, and Mondays are when she sources material for her creations: Recycled plastic bottles become messenger bags (starting at about 25 euros, or about $35); vinyl flooring becomes handbag trim; T-shirts are made of bamboo fibers or recycled T-shirt scraps.

And it's not all clothes and accessories, either. On the Neubaugasse, there's the Jugendstilgalerie Neubau, whose display room is filled with gleaming cherry-wood furniture and accessories in the Jugendstil, or Art Nouveau, style. Luckily, I knew I didn't have enough euros to buy the drool-worthy, curvy wooden magazine rack I saw in the window. (Never mind the impossibility of schlepping it back home.)

My first night in town, dinner was Vienna to the core. At Gastwirtschaft Schilling, a corner bistro-style joint with big round tables and curt but cheerful servers, my friends and I shared a Martinigansl (roasted goose) platter, blood sausage and, of course, a huge plate of Wiener schnitzel -- veal pounded flat and breaded -- with a lovely potato salad on the side. I tried the Sturm -- new white wine, sharp and a little bubbly, akin to Portugal's vinho verde or France's bernache, an early-harvest treat.

Later, my host took me to a cafe called Espresso, where the '50s diner tables were set off by the faux-brick wallpaper on the back wall, a gauzy mural of a Mediterranean scene on another wall, quilted doors to the bathrooms and a set of turntables on a table in the back. The cups of espresso came on tin platters with glasses of water, the way coffee is served all over the city, a gulp of cold water to wash down the strong brew. And the cafe was smoky, as are most restaurants and cafes outside the main tourist areas, where the smoke-free trend has taken hold. Although I appreciate that all that smoke meant I was off the tourist track, I was still grateful that my host had Febreze to get the stench out of my clothes that night.

At the east end of the seventh district lies the multi-building collection of museums, galleries, artist workshops and stores of the celebrated Museums Quartier, a seven-year-old showcase of art old and new. In the summer, the central plaza of the MQ, as it's called, is full of musicians playing and picnickers lounging on the pink comma-shaped benches. But here in the early winter, it was still bustling as it hosted a festival, complete with curling and ice-wall climbing, with the tagline "Alles nur kein Christkindlmarkt" -- "Everything but a Christmas market," a gentle knock on the city's beloved winter tradition.

Artists from the surrounding neighborhood seem drawn to the MQ, with its constant buzz and celebration of what's new and daring in the art world. But the museum complex is still partly shaped by old Vienna: the massive baroque edifice of Hallen E+G, now a performance venue, was formerly the emperor's horse stables, and the MQ itself lies just across the Ringstrasse from Maria-Theresien-Platz, with its twin, imposing Fine Arts and Natural History museums.

In the middle of it all, looking out over the bustling Heldenplatz, or Heroes' Square, and the Volksgarten park beyond, is the memorial statue to Archduchess Maria Theresa (1717-1780), whose reforms to government bureaucracy, education, medicine and civil rights made her a celebrated Enlightenment figure -- never mind that she was religiously intolerant. Although she raised and married off 13 children (including Marie Antoinette), her greatest legacy was her reformist zeal, which influenced later Austrian rulers.

I imagine that she also appreciated artistic and sartorial innovation; after all, her daughter's notorious fashion sense couldn't have come out of nowhere. Maybe if the archduchess could now turn her gaze from her gaudy, oversize palaces, she might find something -- a recycled plastic handbag, a whimsical pair of pumps or even just a juicy roasted goose leg -- that might tickle her fancy in the Neubau.


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