Esterhazypark – In the Shadow of History

Just a block below Mariahilfer Straße, commerce gives way to side streets full of trendy bars, galleries, clubs and restaurants, anchored by a park with a large playground, old trees and a soccer/basketball cage.

This is Esterhazypark: An early target of gentrification, the area attracts an eclectic mix of wealthy urbanites, college students and young creatives, with 51 percent of apartments households of one.

The park itself was originally the garden of the Palais Esterhazy, a palatial estate attributed to Fischer von Erlach (of Karlskirche fame), built back when the area was still mostly vineyards.

Neat rows of chestnut trees still stand testament to its past. Its most prominent owners were the famous Hungarian ducal family, best known as patrons of Josef Haydn.

Although the Palais was torn down in 1970 to make room for a high school, the park stayed, wildly popular with families in this greenery-scarce inner city neighborhood.

Parks and recreation

hausdesmeeres_dreherThe area is shadowed by a Flakturm, a WWII fortified anti-aircraft tower looming above the park. Nearly indestructible, the city was initially stumped about what to do with the concrete fortress. In the end, it became the Haus des Meeres (1) (City Aquarium) in 1957. It also hosts a roof terrace, a terrarium and a rock-climbing wall  Underneath the park is another wartime relic: The former civilian air raid shelter now houses the Torture Museum, operated in cooperation with Amnesty International.

apollo_dreherAcross from the park is the Apollo Kino (2).Originally built in 1904 as a vaudeville stage, it hosted Mata Hari and a still unknown Charlie Chaplin before being converted to the city’s first “talkie” cinema in 1929. The first of many changes, the Apollo is now a multiplex, and one of only two cinemas in Vienna capable of showing the IMAX format – with sneak previews usually in English. Sadly, though, nothing is left of the historical interior.

Rat town boom

To the left of the Apollo, Kaunitzgasse dips sharply down toward the Wienfluss (Vienna River) and Magdalenengrund, a tiny area formerly known as a notorious slum. Nicknamed Ratzenstadl (Rat Barn), sanitary conditions within the tiny, convoluted tenements were so appalling  it became the stuff of folk legend: The Ratcatcher of Magdalenegrund  is a local variant of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. Happily, the rodents have moved on – the last tenement was razed in the 1950s. At the foot of the hill is the charming restaurant Salzberg (3), serving novel takes on Austrian favorites in a modern yet cozy atmosphere.

tag_dreherTwo blocks down, Esterhazygasse beckons, home of the TAG (4) (Theater an der Gumpendorfer Straße), an experimental theater that occasionally hosts English-language fare: This month Jacob Banigan of local improv group The English Lovers will host a solo show. Several bars and eateries have sprung up around it, including the popular Finkh (5), an affordable gourmet built in an old engine workshop.

barflys_dreherFurther up, almost at Mariahilfer Straße is Barfly’s (6) in the Hotel Metternich, an old-school American cocktail bar with a long-standing reputation as one of the best in town.

Dive bars and cobbled streets

Cut across Mariahilfer Straße and you’ll see Café Ritter (7), a coffeehouse and cultural heritage site that hasn’t changed much since opening in 1905. Walking down Schadekgasse to the left will bring you back to the park, with several popular establishments on its north side, like Futuregarden (8), a preferred dive of the aging student crowd. One of the first in the current wave of Berlin-inspired nightlife Lokals, it has the kind of street cred only gained after years of beer spilled on tabletops. Hidden away in a nearby side street is Tanzcafe Jenseits (9),jenseits_dreher formerly a slightly sleazy private club now converted to a campy dance hall, replete with red brocade walls and pictures of old Hollywood stars smiling down at you.

Rounding the northeast corner of the park, the cobbled Barnabitengasse stretches to the baroque Mariahilfer Kirche. Home to many popular restaurants like Pizzeria Frascati and the French bistro Café Pierre (10), which stands out with its quiches, crepes, and other gallic pleasures. Then, near the church you’ll find Comic Treffcomictreff_dreher (11), purveyors of fine sequential art and their excellent selection of imported U.S. titles.

With an unbeatable location and enough restaurants and nightlife to rival even the 1st District, the long history of Esterhazypark and environs seems set to write a new chapter.

 

 

Binu Starnegg
Manila born, Brooklyn bred and a longtime resident of Vienna, Binu Starnegg is currently managing editor for Metropole, where he completes myriad tasks with style and aplomb. Photo: Visual Hub

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