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Discover the secret history of Vienna


History is everywhere in Vienna – and that includes behind the doors of many of its elegant shops, auction houses and cafés. Stephen Doig explores some of the city’s most fascinating places

Stephen Doig
Stephen Doig,

In Vienna the past makes its presence felt in every corner. The city has been a vibrant epicentre of culture and thinking for centuries, with a sense of history woven into the tapestry of life here: even the shortest of walks will take in something of significance. ‘History is very much a part of daily life here,’ says Gerald Krischek, general manager of the venerable Hotel Bristol, a favourite retreat of the rich and famous throughout its 122-year existence. ‘There are a thousand stories to be told about the most unassuming of shops and restaurants, and the city’s very focused on respecting its past.’

Venturing into the Dorotheum is like stumbling into a particularly opulent wonderland; on either side of the hushed, cavernous hallways, there are rooms filled with precious treasures waiting to be marvelled at. This famed auction house (which also has its own shopping gallery) dates back to 1707 and has long been an important part of local cultural life. Wandering through the warren of palatial spaces, admiring everything from intricately painted headboards that look as if they’ve been spirited from an old Romany wagon to the kind of exquisite glassware and jewellery that would have thrilled Empress Sisi, is an unforgettable experience.

Of course, the grand tradition of coffee houses in Vienna is an essential part of the city’s food history. While many of them lay claim to enthralling histories and inventions of certain tortes, there’s none more picturesque than Demel, founded in 1786. The interior is a rococo extravagance of vaulted ceilings, mirrors and twinkling chandeliers, and patrons are invited to watch the master bakers at work through glass walls as they whip up tortes, cakes and confectionery. Winter is a particularly pleasing time to visit; as well as offering a warm refuge from the cold, the store debuts a series of life-sized themed figures, made entirely in sugar, in its windows.

Despite being in the hubbub of central Vienna, the handsome Wilhelm Jungmann & Neffe store is a place of quiet calm: a temple to sartorial elegance. The wood-panelled walls, ceilings painted by celebrated 19th-century artist Franz Lefler, and richly decorative tapestries give it the feel of a library. The store on Albertinaplatz opened in 1881 – though the company’s history can be traced back to 1836 – conveniently close to many of the official and unofficial haunts of Viennese high society. It was, and still is, entirely devoted to luxurious fabrics and accessories, with towering oak shelves laden with ties, cravats, scarves and gloves in the most beautiful handcrafted cashmeres, wools and silks, as well as bolts of the exquisite materials themselves.

In contrast, Augarten’s flagship store on Spiegelgasse is a thoroughly slick and modern affair – clean lines, mood lighting and so on – but the story behind the label reaches back to 1718. This was the year that Claudius Innocentius du Paquier succeeded in bringing the secret of porcelain-making to Vienna from Meissen, for which the emperor granted him the right to be the city’s sole producer.

Europe’s second porcelain manufactory rapidly became so integral to the fabric of Viennese life that the street on which it used to stand became Porzellangasse, and its elegant products – rococo figurines, neoclassical dinner services, Biedermeier tableware – found their way into palaces, castles and mansions across Europe. Today, the label’s elegant tableware and homeware pieces, from vivid vases to elegant coffee pots – look entirely fitting in a contemporary environment, but with the added draw of being made using centuries of craft experience.

No exploration of old Vienna and the stores that represent it would be complete without a stroll through the beautiful winter markets for which the city is known. When you’ve enjoyed your fill of the one outside the Rathaus, the city’s largest, head to the craft-centric stalls on Freyung square by the Schottenkirche (Scottish Church). Here craftspeople whittle and sculpt hand-made decorations in wood, paint delicate murals on shiny baubles, and so much more. Explore the warren of huts and leave the 21st century on the sidelines for a while.

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