Spittelberg hosts one of the city’s loveliest Christmas markets, a favorite with the locals who come for the specialty foods and handicrafts – and happily, it’s harder for tourists to find.

Newcomers never really believe it when people say Wien is a’ Dorf, “Vienna is a village”. How many villages have a world-class subway system, an international airport, or rank first amongst the world’s most livable cities?

That is, until they see Spittelberg. Here, among the narrow cobblestone lanes, the small craft shops, rambling local cafes, and specialty food markets, you indeed feel as if you’ve left the metropolis for the countryside. The almost rural feeling of this neighborhood takes you back to a time when Spittelberg overlooked Vienna from a bucolic hillside dominated by the Bürgerspital, the Citizens’ Hospital, a long-gone infirmary that gave the area its name.

By the 18th century, Spittelberg’s pastures had given way to cheap housing inhabited by shady characters drawn by the low rent. Among its dark alleys and musty basements was a well-known underworld of prostitutes and gamblers and the well-dressed visitors who patronized them. In fact, a plaque commemorates the spot where, in 1778, the Emperor Josef II himself was thrown out of a tavern at Gutenberggasse 13, today the Gasthaus Witwe Bolte. As the city expanded, seedy Spittelberg was gradually tamed (the last red lights went out after WWI), but its reputation persisted, so that it was passed over for development, ironically preserving its simple Biedermeier elegance.

Today, the former slum is a gentrified UNESCO world heritage site, retaining its small town feeling despite a century of urban expansion. Bordered east and west by the MuseumsQuartier and Stiftgasse, and by Burggasse and Siebensterngasse to the north and south, the pedestrian nexus of Spittelbergasse and Gutenberggasse lies at its heart, where most of the action is. In and around these streets is one of Vienna’s most picturesque Christmas markets, a favorite of the locals and, happily, harder for tourists to find. And as in the bad old days, the Weihnachtsmarkt am Spittelberg invites street musicians, jugglers and actors to add to the revelry: a French lute player in Medieval garb joins an English recorder consort, while further down the lane you may glimpse a puppeteer half hidden behind a throng of children and parents.

Vienna’s Montmatre

Music still fills the air on Spittelberg, as a pianist practices Chopin from a second floor window near the corner of Gutenberg- and Burggasse, and singers rehearse for a late December concert. The Theater am Spittelberg, a former Pawlatschentheater (open-air folk theatre) hosts concerts, plays and other events, as it has since the early 20th century. The nearby Amerlinghaus, a cooperative cultural center that opened in 1975, also offers a varied program of “critical thinking” and social integration.

And along the hillside, farm buildings from the 17th century remain scattered throughout; Vienna’s smallest house is here, today barely more than a façade facing Burggasse and part of the traditional clock and jewelry shop Schmollgruber.

Other highlights include Norbert Ullrich’s Naturkost of organic regional foods. “Here everybody knows us,” he says. “This is like a small town – with all its advantages… and disadvantages.” He grins.  Across the way, Jan and Tamara Brabenec of Atelier Jan have been manufacturing and selling leather goods for over 40 years. “My workshop is here, in the shop,” Tamara says, cleaning her tools to close up for the day. “It cannot get any more local than that.”

Also a recent fashion celebrity has moved in nearby: Lena Hoschek, Austria’s renowned purveyor of contemporary Dirndls and ‘40s retro pin-up fashion, has recently opened her first-ever shop just around the corner on Gutenberggasse.

The dimly-lit streets are welcoming as evening falls, and it’s easy to turn into a doorway to have a beer, or two, at the Witwe Bolte.  Or, a short way down the hill, atop the old city wall overlooking the Museumsquartier, the Glacis Beisl offers upmarket Austrian staples and seasonal meals in a pleasing traditional Gastgarten (open air seating) or in the pleasant, modernist tavern inside.

Or you might prefer the lively Bukowski Pub, smoke-filled and guilt free.

Then as night settles, you head home, footsteps ringing out on Spittelberg’s narrow lanes, where passers-by share a greeting like old friends.