High Street High
If elegance and sophistication had an address, Kohlmarkt would be it. Connecting two must-sees, the Hofburg and the Graben, it is home to luxury brands such as Tiffany, Fendi and Gucci, with price tags in storefronts exceeding the average salary. During Advent, seemingly endless strings of Christmas lights beam down like glowing rain, hanging so densely they create a golden ceiling – warm and regal, it transports visitors to worlds of glamour and glitz.
Only going by its current name (“Coal Market,” pointing to a long and sometimes less glamorous history) since the 16th century, Kohlmarkt’s prominence stems from its proximity to the Hofburg, the seat of power of the Holy Roman (and later the Austrian) Empire. As the main drag leading to the palace, many businesses catering to the court settled at this prestigious address – some of the older storefronts still proudly proclaim their former status as imperial suppliers.
The area also attracted the nobility, who built their Stadtpalais (urban estates) in the side streets. The neo-gothic Palais Ferstel is one, also home to the Café Central. Popular among tourists, the Central is famous as Vienna’s 19th century literary hub. Drawn by an extensive selection of foreign newspapers, it counted Stefan Zweig, Sigmund Freud, Franz Kafka, Arthur Schnitzler and even Leon Trotsky as regulars. It still pleases with its old-world interior and signature Wiener Ober, Viennese waiters notorious for their surliness.
Just down Herrengasse you’ll find Café Griensteidl, the Central’s predecessor as a meeting point of Vienna’s intelligentsia. Also popular with actors and politicians from the nearby parliament and Burgtheater, it once held the nickname Café Größenwahn (Café Megalomania), thanks to famous patrons like Karl Kraus, Arnold Schoenberg, Theodor Herzl and Hugo von Hoffmannsthal. If only for its two-hundred-year-old legacy, the Griensteidl remains one of Vienna’s must-see Kaffeehäuser.
Matters of taste
The area’s history goes back much further: In the middle of Michaelerplatz across from the Griensteidl, exposed Roman ruins excavated in the early 1990s can be seen – remnants of the city’s ancient history as a legion outpost. On the other side of the square is a more recent gem: the Looshaus. Built in the early 20th century, it caused a major scandal: Its no-frills architecture clashed heavily with the ornament-laden aesthetics of the Habsburg empire – in front of the Hofburg, no less. Now owned by a bank, the stylish edifice is an iconic example of Viennese modernism.
The picturesque Michaelerkirche rounds out the square; built in the 13th century with many later additions, it’s one of Vienna’s oldest churches and was the local parish for the august inhabitants of the palace in times past.
Now at the entrance to Kohlmarkt, you will find yourself almost directly in front of one of the street’s purveyors of more attainable luxuries: Demel, the former court confectioner. Founded in 1789, the pastry shop and chocolaterie has served high society ever since, still offering violet-flavored ice cream in honor of their notoriously sweet-toothed patron, Empress Elisabeth of Austria (Sisi).
Further along stands another emporium of epicurean delight: Julius Meinl am Graben. The last remaining store of a major upmarket supermarket chain, it is a household name for the affluent foodie, boasting the largest delicatessen in town and a highly-rated gourmet restaurant: an impressive turnaround for the formerly struggling company.
Ancient dives & gilded futures
Next door to Meinl, the Goldenes Quartier (Golden Quarter) isn’t faring quite as well. Touted as a prestige project a few years ago, not enough customers find their way to the dormant collection of luxury flagship stores, despite best efforts and an appealing location – quite unlike the ever-bustling Schwarze Kameel across the street, where finding a table can be tricky. A culinary evergreen catering to the business crowd and discerning locals and visitors, it will celebrate its 400th birthday in 2018.
On side streets of the winding, narrow Naglergasse you’ll find two cherished, down-to-earth dives that have thus far resisted assimilation into this exclusive and luxurious neighborhood: easily overlooked, Bockshorn, Vienna’s oldest Irish pub, is also the smallest, with every square inch decorated with insular drinking memorabilia. And finally, the Esterhazykeller: according to lore, it has been in business since the second Turkish siege in 1683, when it fortified the city’s defenders with free wine. Today, its deep cellars provide an excellent respite after a brisk walk in the chill December air.
With such an abundance of history and luxury, it’s hard to tell which gives Kohlmarkt greater value.