Hard to pin down, but easy to love, this quirky corner of the city has a surprise almost at every turn.
By Dardis McNamee & Rosie Waites
When we moved to the Karmeliterviertel in 2001, friends thought we were mad. “You’re going to live where?” This off-beat neighborhood has long been a slightly suspect potpourri of working-class Austrians and immigrants of every stripe – shop keepers and civil servants, Turkish taxi drivers and Polish construction workers, grey-haired lefties and Hasidic Jews, media types, artists and academics. And a red-light district. Not everybody’s preferred picture of Vienna life.
But we come from New York, we protested! “Ahhhhaaaa…” came the worried reply.
Today, it’s hard to find an apartment in the neighborhood, which over 15 years has morphed into a bobo paradise of energy and activity, with a good mix of traditional shops and trendy cafés, some quirky night life and excellent restaurants at all levels.
A mystifying weave of ancient streets, the Karmeliterviertel is quiet yet centrally located just across the Danube Canal from Schottenring and Schwedenplatz, tucked in between the Nos. 31 and 2 tram lines, the Augarten park and busy Taborstrasse. When the weather’s decent, it’s best explored on foot or by bicycle, as many of the Grätzl’s narrow lanes are one-way. Of the Carmelite convent that once dominated the area, only the church on Taborstraße remains, just a stone’s throw from the open-air Karmelitermarkt.
On a sunny Saturday morning in May, the market was already busy at 8:30 as the first shoppers meandered among the tables inspecting open bins of red and white cabbage, tomatoes, eggplant, garlic and spring onions. Under a striped awning, a 30-something couple with child in tow conferred over bins of fresh breads. A rolling kiosk selling Styrian cheeses, cold cuts and sausages already had a line, while nearby, a portly man in an apron was laying out fresh fish on ice. The sun was already quite strong, bringing out a number of good hats.
By 9:30, our baskets were overflowing, and we headed for Zimmer 37 – Haidacher, on the Leopoldsgasse side, where we could bask on the bench over an excellent coffee. This pleasing offbeat café-restaurant is run by a mother-and-daughter duo, cooking up vegetarian “Five Elements” cuisine, fresh and seasonal. And on a sunny day, it’s a perfect place to sit outside and watch the bustle.
Around the market, café tables were already filling up; after 10:30, it would be hard to find a spot. During the week, it’s quieter, with fewer farm stands. But the food shops – butchers for meat and game, fruit and vegetable sellers, an excellent Feinkost Höttinger, a Turkish deli – and restaurants are always busy, and less touristy than the Naschmarkt. Of note are the Israeli bio-restaurant and wine bar Tewa, the family-run PizzaQuartier, and the new Weinschenke, a specialty burger Lokal, serving vegan to wild boar.
Nearby on Hollandstrasse, you can find top Austrian wines at Vinothek Müller, or by the glass at the ur-gemütlich Café Contor. Also check out the newly opened wine and specialty shop Sussitz on Krummbaumgasse. Further up is the popular Pizza Mari, reputedly the best in Vienna, and then Skopik & Lohn, whose Manhattan-trained Viennese chefs deliver an affordably posh Austrian/international menu that draws the cognoscenti. Inside, a ceiling riot of black scribblings transform the alt Beisl paneling; in summer, sheltered outdoor seating is surrounded by greenery.
From Shtetl to Leopoldstadt
Along the market’s west side is Im Werd, once the center of Vienna’s Jewish ghetto. Emperor Leopold expelled the Jews altogether in 1670, ordered the synagogue to be burned down and built the Leopoldskirche in its place. With liberalization in the 19th century, Jews gradually returned to the Mazzes Insel (island of matzo eaters) until Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938, when the majority were driven out or sent to concentration camps. Most émigrés never returned, and today’s Jewish community from orthodox to reformed is largely from Eastern Europe and Russia supporting six synagogues, several schools and a Rabbinical College.
Im Werd leads onto Schiffamtsgasse, where in a peaceful courtyard, you’ll find the Kunstraum Bernsteiner, a leading gallery whose shows of contemporary Austrian artists resume in the fall with work by Elisabeth Maculan. Up Malzgasse you come to the baroque Augarten Park, the Grätzl’s green oasis, where young families celebrate birthdays next to elaborate flower beds, old men play boules and joggers run down shady avenues of chestnut, and ash, in the shadow of WWII flak towers. Meander on to the TBA21 contemporary art gallery, and the Augarten Palais complex of the famed Augarten Porcelain Factory and showroom, the stylish restaurant Décor, and the Vienna Boys’ Choir, whose stunning concert hall MuTh is shared with the Wiener Kindertheater.
Finally, the Wiener Kriminalmuseum of the Vienna Police chronicles the sordid and scurrilous history of crime in the Habsburg capital from the Middle Ages to the present – Gothic headlines over gory engravings, court-room sketches, photos and blood-soaked clothing, even severed body parts of victims and perpetrators.
It’s evening now, so we headed for Heinz Sommer’s endearingly eccentric Café Sperlhof for an Achterl (1/8 liter) of very drinkable house wine, homemade soups and snacks. Here among the comfy booths and billiard tables, some 900 well-loved board games are piled high, plus daily papers and books to take or trade. You could also wander back toward the Canal to the cozy Jazzcafé ZWE. Or the underground stage at Tachles on Karmeliterplatz, where jazz students and faculty join the mix of this “left-bank” style Kulturcafé.
All in all, bohemia at its best
Places mentioned in this article:
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