Gemütlichkeit in Vienna

Among the Austrian capital’s coziest venues, we go in search of that intangible sense of well-being that the German language so aptly captures.

What is the feeling of the colour blue? I’m contemplating this question over a frothy café latte in the tiny Blue Bar of Vienna’s Hotel Sacher, where the plush velvet booths are deep navy, the walls a silk brocade of peacock, the marble tables veined cobalt and even the 19th-century damsels in the oil paintings clothed in teal and azure.

The hotel’s long-time former owner, Anna Sacher, understood atmosphere. Blue is the calm of water, of the sky in sunlight. Perhaps because it is the predominant colour of our world, even its coolest shades produce a warm emotion.

Presiding over her elegant hotel, cigar in hand and a cluster of French bulldogs in tow, Sacher not only had exacting standards (a culture that remains firmly intact at Austria’s top hotel nearly 140 years later), she was also able to create spaces that guests could feel instantly at home in. In short, she created gemütlichkeit.

In English it takes a whole sentence to describe what in the German language can be summed up in that one succinct word. Gemütlichkeit conveys the sense of well-being that comes with an atmosphere of cheerfulness, unhurriedness, comfort and coziness. And while the meaning of the word may be abstract, you know it when you feel it, and places either have it or they don’t.

While the meaning may be abstract, you know it when you feel it and places either have it or they don’t.

Vienna in wintertime is the ultimate setting in which to chase this feeling. Not only does the city of palaces, classical music and wood-panelled coffee houses provide the coziest of backdrops, but the Viennese have the gemütlichkeit attitude to match.

“Compared to other German-speaking places, Vienna is slowed down,” my guide, Alexa Brauner, tells me as we stroll the cobblestones on a grey day, wrapped tightly in our coats. “Even the speech here is more relaxed.” One example: the local predilection for using the diminutive suffix “erl,” which makes everything it’s tacked onto sound that much more delightful. “So we won’t say we’re going for kaffee,” says Brauner. “We’ll say we’re going for kaffeetscherl, a little coffee. You can tell right away someone’s from Vienna when you hear that.”

And so, on cue, we head to Café Sperl, the city’s oldest coffee house. There are dozens of cafés in the city, but Sperl is so quintessentially Viennese, it’s often cast to represent the city on film (look for its cameos in Before Sunrise and A Dangerous Method, among other movies). We arrive to find a long, grand room, all double-high arched windows, heavy draperies, twinkling chandeliers and wooden chairs polished to a shine by 135 years of occupants in relaxation mode.

We settle in on a thickly upholstered bench to take in the scene. It’s midday on a weekday and the café is nearly full. From the kitchen, waitresses in starched white shirts endlessly appear with trays of milky coffees and tortes piled high with fresh cream. Elderly men read international newspapers held upright for easy reading on ingenious wooden stands. Two female friends burst into peals of laughter, rousing the sleeping schnauzer under their table. A group of university students rack up on one of the antique billiards tables. It’s a cross-section of the city under one roof.

From the office appears Rainer Staub, whose family has run the coffee house for three generations. He greets us warmly and, when I ask what gives Café Sperl its gemütlichkeit, doesn’t miss a beat: “It’s the living room of the Viennese people. You may be on your own, but you are never alone.”

Prostian memory

I deign to test Staub’s theory that evening when I arrive – with some trepidation – alone at Mayer am Pfarrplatz, in the city’s northern Döbling district. This is the edge of Vienna’s wine-producing region. The fertile slopes of the Nussberg mountain provide the bright whites and mellow reds served at local heurigen – new-wine taverns like this one where grapes collected in the August harvest are released as wines in November and enjoyed throughout the year.

Ducking through the low arch of the front gate, I discover a collection of whitewashed outbuildings surrounding a central courtyard, a hint at Mayer am Pfarrplatz’s 300-year history as an inn – one that counts Beethoven among its past guests. Decorated with pine boughs and fairy lights for Christmas, though it’s still autumn (I’ve been told the Viennese Christmas starts in September and lasts until February), the place exudes a palpable sense of gemütlichkeit. Fire baskets bathe the courtyard in orange light and keep people warm as they line up at a wooden shack selling mugs of steaming glühwein and roasted chestnuts.

Inside the central hall, the heuriger’s original oak wine press dominates the low room. Large groups have crowded around communal tables and the air is filled with joyful voices and clinking glasses. I make myself comfortable at a table opposite an accordionist who stops to take a glug of wine before launching enthusiastically into the next oompah.

On the menu: hearty plates of goose, pork and venison accompanied by fat-roasted potatoes and winter greens. But rather than ordering à la carte, I opt for the more interactive deli-style buffet, where diners select their own house-cured meats, cheeses, salads and rustic breads – the slightly greasy nature of the fare and hands-on approach is the reason why heuriger wine is often served in clear mugs, rather than stemmed glasses.

Restaurant manager Christian Kaufmann assists with the wine selection so I can try a little of each, including a lively dry Sekt, or Austrian sparkling; a Gemischter Satz, a.k.a. a mixture of grape varieties planted and pressed together in the same vineyard; and Sturm (“Storm”), a cloudy, slightly sparkling wine served at the fermentation stage. Amid this sampling and the now raucous clamour of voices, I’ve almost forgotten my earlier shyness at dining solo. As I rise on wobbly legs to meet my cab, the accordionist gives a knowing wink.

In the night gallery

A large part of Vienna’s charm lies in its art and architecture. The city’s works of beauty have been thoughtfully cultivated and shared since the time of the ruling House of Habsburg.

Vienna is the former home of great artists like Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt. The latter’s Kiss, which we’re so used to seeing as prints and on greeting cards, hangs at the Belvedere, alive with his brushstrokes and gold-leaf appliqués. In the same gallery: Schiele’s touching portrait of his wife Edith, painted the year that she died from Spanish flu. His own death followed hers three days later – he was just 28.

The downtown MuseumsQuartier, meanwhile, is a pedestrian district containing more than a dozen galleries in the span of a city block. I venture just outside the complex on a chilly evening to the Kunsthistorisches Museum. It’s 6 p.m. and museum guests are filing out. But for those of us who’ve reserved our personal take on Night at the Museum, the experience is just beginning. Emperor Franz Joseph opened this museum in 1891 as a place to display the Habsburg’s extensive collection of antiquities and European masterworks. In doing so, he created a building as formidable as the objects it would house.

Before I’ve even ascended the marble steps toward the restaurant, I’m arrested by Antonio Canova’s massive sculpture Theseus Slaying the Centaur. Above the staircase, I spot paintings by Klimt. These priceless treasures are just part of the furnishings. My table is waiting and the waiter is quick to proffer a welcoming flute of Pommery. All museum viewing should be like this: a reserved table from which to visit the exhibits at leisure, guided tours with art historians and a stellar menu (oysters, gravlax, roast beef, king prawns). Best of all, no crowds. I sip the champagne and marvel at the marble columns and cherub-strewn dome lit by the pink glow of the setting sun.

Soulful spaces

Adolf Loos was one of the first Modernist architects in Vienna. In the early 1900s, after sojourns in New York and Chicago, he brought a new philosophy to his contrastingly opulent native city, namely “ornamentation is a crime.” With Loos’ world view in mind, I set out for a pre-opera cocktail at a venue that serves as both a living example of the architect’s social commentary and an unlikely masterpiece: Loos American Bar. It’s less than 28 square metres (300 square feet), and my first reaction upon entering the room is to blurt out, “Is this it?” The bartender nods with a slightly exasperated expression.

I order the specialty (Loos Champagne Cocktail) and sit back on the barstool to take it all in – it doesn’t take long. The dark wood panelling, green-leather banquettes and wall panels of backlit onyx lend a comfortable sophistication, while the cigar-smoke-filled air and clatter of cocktail shakers give it life. With five customers, the bar feels full. With 10, it’s positively hopping. This is the essence of gemütlichkeit.

I leave after my cocktail, but not before another set of novices come through the door. “Is this it?” one exclaims. I cast a sidelong glance at the bartender in time to see his jaw subtly tense.

The Vienna State Opera is conveniently only a few blocks from Loos Bar and mere steps from Hotel Sacher – even the city planning has gemütlichkeit! – and so I arrive at my seat with a little time to spare. Music is as much a part of life here as the blue Danube. Mozart, Beethoven, Gluck and Lehár all made Vienna their home; Vivaldi lived in a house that once stood where the Sacher is today. Inside, the theatre is grand, but not cavernous; tall, to accommodate the many levels of private boxes, but not wide. It’s soothing to be in such a storied hall of music. And as the curtain goes up on La Traviata, it’s the scarlet I see most. It’s in the curtains, the wall coverings and the plush velvet seats. And I can’t help but wonder, What is the feeling of red?

Holiday Havens

At Christmastime, Vienna's gemütlichkeit is off the charts. Take it in at these festive markets (considered the city's most intimate) from mid-November through December 24.

  1. Old Viennese market on Freyung

    The Viennese have been holding Christmas markets here since 1772. In the small, beautifully lit square, shop for one-of-a-kind ornaments and handmade gifts to the soundtrack of live carollers.

  2. Christmas market in the Ehrenhof

    The regal Schönbrunn Palace sets the backdrop for this Christmas market that takes visitors back to a time before plastic, when holiday ornaments were made of materials like blown glass, wood and wax.

  3. Christmas market on Karlsplatz

    This market features an extensive children's program (think puppetry, crafts, games and visits from St. Nick) designed to keep kids busy while parents shop and relax over mulled wine and a sausage bun.

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