Simon Sebag Montefiore: Why winter is the perfect time to visit Vienna

The historian recommends eating in a restaurant that Stalin frequented and visiting the homeless hostel where Hitler lived in his 20s


I first travelled to Vienna about ten years ago to receive a book prize and absolutely fell in love with the Austrian capital. It’s got an amazing history; you can trace the origins of both world wars to the city, in part, but it was also the home of Mahler, Mozart, Freud and Klimt, whose contributions to modern civilization still resonate today. And it’s still very atmospheric, retaining that feeling of intrigue familiar from Orson Welles running around the streets in The Third Man.


Perfect palaces

You’ve got to see the Hapsburg palaces: the Hofburg, which was the Austrian royal family’s seat of power and started life as a medieval fortress, and the Schönbrunn, rebuilt by the last Hapsburg ruler, Archduchess Maria Theresa, which I think is much more charming. But the two greatest buildings aren’t Hapsburg at all – they’re the Winter and Summer Palaces of Prince Eugene. He was an amazing character and a revered warlord in Europe in the early 18th century. His Summer Palace, the Belvedere, is incredibly elegant and my favourite place in Vienna.

The Lower Belvedere Palace

See the kiss

The Belvedere has lots of paintings from Klimt and Schiele – my favourite painting in Vienna is probably everyone else’s favourite too, but The Kiss by Klimt is so sensual. People should also read the great books of modern Vienna: Joseph Roth’s Radetsky March, about the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Robert Musil’s masterpiece, The Man Without Qualities, and the stories of Arthur Schnitzler. And do visit Sigmund Freud’s apartments to see his famous possessions: the cigars, the couch, the books.

Soak up Mozart

You have to be organised to get tickets for the big venues, but there are some held back for sale on the day. For the series, we attended a concert at the conservatory at the Schönbrunn, where Mozart played for Emperor Joseph II. An expert on the musician showed us how he brought Ottoman, German and Italian music together in his compositions. I stayed in the Sacher Hotel during filming, which is next to the Opera House, where they perform opera into the street. I could open the French windows in my room and listen to Aida and Carmen. I never made it to one of the famous Vienna balls, although we did film couples waltzing to Strauss. I left the dancing to the professionals!

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Eat like Stalin

My favourite restaurant is the Café Central. Trotsky, Hitler, Stalin, Tito, Freud… everybody went there and it’s unchanged from that era. The food is pretty meaty, very Germanic, with lots of sausages and dumplings. Not everyone’s into that, but in the winter months the menu comes into its own.

Café Central at Christmas time

Totally tort

Sachertorte – Vienna’s famous chocolate and apricot cake, first created for Prince Metternich in 1832 – is essential. Take your torte with coffee or a glass of wine after dinner, but I always have it with a whisky, whatever the time of day…

Shop in the Christmas markets

The Christmas markets are terribly atmospheric – it’s a lovely, romantic time of year to visit. The Naschmarkt on the River Wien has lots of food but is also a flea market. You can get wonderful stuff there, including these little statues of Franz Joseph. Everyone in the city is obsessed with him – he was called the Eternal Emperor because he ruled from 1848 to 1916. Getting a statue of him is a tradition.

Run in the park

Vienna has huge expanses of green space, like the Prater Park, where I went running every day during filming. Mayerling is also a perfect day trip. It’s just outside the city and there’s beautiful countryside, great restaurants and a monastery, where Crown Prince Rudolf famously killed himself in a pact with his lover in 1889.

Hitler’s hostel

You have to have a mixture of palaces and penury, so I would recommend visiting the homeless men’s hostel where Hitler stayed for three years in his early 20s, as a penniless artist. It’s on the Meldemannstrasse and is now an old people’s home, oddly enough. You should also take a look at the Pension Schönbrunn, where Stalin stayed for a few weeks in 1913. Everyone should see these places because the 20th century was made by these two men.

Vienna: Empire, Dynasty and Dream begins on Thursday 8th December, 9pm, BBC4

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