The streets of Franziskanerviertel have stayed essentially untouched since the Middle Ages – narrow and winding with many a hidden courtyard branching off in unexpected places.
Few can imagine living in the Franziskanerviertel at the heart of the 1st district, one of the oldest parts of Vienna. Wedged between Kärntner Straße, Parkring, Singerstraße, and Himmelpfortgasse, the streets have stayed essentially untouched since the Middle Ages – narrow and winding with many a hidden courtyard branching off in unexpected places. In most cities, in fact, no one actually lives in the old town, which is usually a neighborhood of tourists and museums, and maybe a couple of offices. Not here – throughout the day, the neighborhood is busy with locals. Some have inherited an apartment or an old rental contract, or perhaps they can simply afford the €20+ per square meter rent. Either way, they blend into the maze of little streets, full of historic Palais, sharing façades with charming curiosity shops and legendary cafés, hip new bars, convents, even an order of crusader knights.
Only 400 years young
While certainly old, the central Franziskaner Platz is one of the “younger” squares by 1st district standards, carved out in 1624 to provide turning clearance for carriages arriving at the namesake Franziskanerkirche (Franciscan Monastery Church) for weddings – still common in the summer months. Johann Martin Fischer designed the Moses Fountain at the center in 1798 – a life-size statue of the prophet, expropriated from the courtyard of house No. 6. The Renaissance façade of the church dates from 1611, and shelters an undeniably Baroque interior plus some 1,000 worthies buried deep in the catacombs below. Three bells sound in the tower – the newest, the Friedensglocke, or “peace bell” was added in 2011, and is accompanied by the Wöckherlorgel, built in 1642 and the oldest playable organ in Vienna.
When you’ve barely made it, an Austrian will say you have die Kurve gekratzt, (literally “scratched the curve.”) On these narrow streets, it’s easy to imagine a carriage scraping the curb stones as it careens around a corner. Also, check out the house numbers, particularly Ballgasse 8, a rem nant of a “new” numbering system introduced by Empress Maria Theresia in 1770: It had houses categorized by neighborhood with the same initial digit, painted in red above the door.
Living in Miniature – The Franziskanerviertel
Entering Weihburggasse from Kärntner Straße, turn right on Ballgasse. Off the beaten track, this charming cobbled little street is too narrow for traffic and speckled with antique shops and the occasional eatery, like the traditional wine tavern Stadtheuriger Gigerl, a favorite of both tourists and locals; you can sample local wine and listen to live music on Saturdays and Sundays.
On the other side of Blumenstockgasse, you’ll find a decidedly newer but no less popular establishment: The Café Neko, a cat café that opened in 2012. A concept that originated in Japan, it allows non-pet owners to enjoy feline companionship; on afternoons and weekends, it’s full of young families and children, eager to play with the five kitties that are permanent residents of the quirky coffeehouse.
Ballgasse reaches Franziskanerplatz through an archway. To the left, you’ll see Macchiarte, a boutique specializing in artisanal coffee beans, high-end espresso machines and paraphernalia – the perfect place to indulge all your home barista needs. But for now, proceed to Franziskanerplatz proper: At No.1, across from the church, is a proud Biedermeier house with a grand doorway – opera diva Anna Netrebko has a rooftop apartment here, and frequently shares her breathtaking view of the city on Instagram. Between the two, the storied Kleines Café makes up in reputation for what it lacks in space. Designed by Hermann Czech and run by popular character actor Hanno Pöschl, the little café has achieved cult status as a popular hangout for actors, artists and local characters. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy paused there in Before Sunrise, and John Malkovich came here to unwind during the filming of Klimt.
Kleinod and Deutschordenshaus
Cross the square and take a left on Singerstraße back toward Stephansplatz and you’ll find Kleinod, a stunning cocktail bar that has rapidly advanced to a nightlife fixture since opening in 2015. Its name (meaning “treasure” in German) is fitting, with an interior that is somehow both retro and futuristic, industrial and luxurious – like some thing out of Blade Runner. The drinks follow the décor – most are clever twists on classic cocktails, both old and new; and quite rea sonable for the inner city to boot!
Just a few doors down is the Deutschordenshaus, headquarters of The Order of Brothers of the German House of Saint Mary in Jerusalem – better known as the Teutonic Knights.
Originally founded in 1192 as a crusader order in Acre, they played a major role in central and eastern Europe after the fall of the Kingdom of Jerusalem, at one time controlling most of Prussia and the Baltic coast as a monastic state; eventually, they fell under the sway of the Habsburgs, relocating their main branch to Vienna in 1809 – although they had had a presence on Singerstraße since 1204.
Demilitarized for centuries, today they are a purely charitable Catholic religious order, dedicated to their original purpose of maintaining clinics and hospitals, caring for the aged and providing spiritual guidance – much like their brethren the Knights Hospitaller, whose church is on nearby Kärntner Straße. The order’s chapel, archives and treasury, with relics from over 800 years, are open to the public on certain days; they also run a lodge for travelers, and both Mozart and Brahms stayed here for a time.
Coffee and Entertainment in Franziskanerviertel
Take a left down Liliengasse and you’ll see the Eden Bar, an (in)famous night club, cab aret and playground for the city’s high society that has hosted the likes of Liz Taylor, Ella Fitzgerald and Orson Welles while also offering a young pianist named Joe Zawinul one of his first breaks. Currently, it’s closed until further notice – until the pandemic passes. Keep going down Rauhensteingasse though and you can enjoy another storied establishment: Cafe Frauenhuber, Vienna’s oldest continually operated coffeehouse. Operating here since 1824, various other venues preceded it.
In fact, both Mozart and Beethoven performed on the premises: Mozart played his final piano con cert here in 1791. Five years later, Beethoven premiered his Quintet in E-flat for Piano and Winds (op. 16). Nowadays, the establishment is staunchly and comfortably traditionalist, serving classic Viennese coffee and cuisine under its curving arches, replete with dark wood furnishings and red velvet upholstery, roomy enough to sit undisturbed for hours.
Perhaps unsurprisingly for such a historical area, the streets of the Franziskanerviertel are also lined with antique and curiosity shops. At Weihburggasse 16, Antiquariat – Bücher – Kuriositäten von Aichinger, Bernhard und Comp. is nearly as old as the things it sells. Also, tucked in the courtyard behind, you’ll find Die Vermischte Warenhandlung (the Mixed Goods Shop), a charming little boutique that justly dubs itself the best place for “all things beautiful; gift ideas for the clueless.” This is a must!
Ronacher – Franziskanerviertel’s Broadway
Finally, end your tour on Seilerstätte, where the venerable Ronacher and its or Nate façade is hard to miss. Built as a vaudeville music hall in 1886, the variety shows have since been replaced by Broadway-style extravaganzas (usually subtitled in English), making it a major stage for musicals outside of New York and London. Currently (subject to pandemic restrictions), it is staging Cats, although its parent company, the Vereinigte Bühnen Wien, is best known for its original productions like Elisabeth, Tanz der Vampire, Freudiana or Schikaneder.
So don’t make the mistake of thinking downtown is just for tourists and office suites; this very liveable Grätzl is about as central as it gets. Franziskanerviertel – A village in the city, with stories, to tell.