Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.
Michael Moser is a legend in Viennese hospitality..
As one who, for 31 years, served as the head concierge at the Hotel Imperial, a five-star property with neo-Renaissance architecture located on Vienna’s circular Ringstrasse, he’s seen it all.
His face-to-face interactions with A-list guests runs the gamut from pop singers, including Madonna, the late Michael Jackson and Lady Gaga, to political leaders, such as Bill Clinton, to kings and queens from around world.
He's got signatures to prove it.
“Allow me to get the guest book,” Moser told us as we sat eating crisp wiener schnitzel at the Café Imperial, an upscale eatery in the hotel where a confection known as imperial cake – a marzipan and chocolate torte – is a speciality.
The former concierge (who now serves as the Imperial’s archivist) was giving us a look-see around the hotel – a grand dame of a building, and one of several hotels PAX visited on a tour of the city last August – and sharing stories.
Like the time Madonna set up residency in a sprawling suite during one of her world tours. The prestigious quarters the Material Girl slept in – which we popped our heads into – is the type of suite majestic dreams are made of.
READ MORE: “Vienna is open & ready”: Vienna Tourist Board hosts industry at Ritz-Carlton T.O., unveils booking incentive
There’s a reason the Imperial Hotel has attracted bold-faced names throughout its near 150-year history.
The classic building – first built as a private palace in 1863, then converted into a hotel for the Vienna World's Fair ten years later – is rich with gold-plated walls, antique furnishings, chandeliers, marble bathrooms and bespoke service.
Setting foot in the Imperial’s lobby is a lesson in extravagance and exclusivity. But it’s a collection of books containing scribbles and hand-written notes by famous names that wrap it all together in a nicely-tied golden bow.
The guest book. True to his word, Moser, who’d disappeared for a brief moment, returned to us holding a short stack of books in his arms, full of autographs left behind by some of the Imperial’s most notable guests.
As he tilted the books in our direction, proudly and carefully flipping pages, he revealed one star-studded name after another.
Billy Joel. Tina Turner…socialites, royal families. The books are thick with fame.
This all made for great lunchtime chitchat, but in the end, it was Moser himself who proved to be the Imperial’s most famous name of all.
Staff smile and wave in his presence, returning guests know him by name.
Moser, as the long-time eyes and ears of the Imperial, and keeper of its history, was living proof that Vienna was more than imperial palaces, museums and coffee shops. Vienna's magic is shaped by people.
Into the heart of Europe
With a global reputation for pastries, coffeehouses and classical music – Vienna was home to some of the most influential composures of the late 18th century – Austria’s capital on the Danube River is a hub of enjoyable experiences thanks to centuries of creativity and artisanship.
The city, located in the heart of Europe, is steeped in traditions, like the Vienna waltz – which still infuses local dancehalls today during ball season from January to March.
And modern-day romanticism. One of the more moving moments of our visit was watching a violinist perform for pedestrians on the street late at night, and seeing happy tears swell up in people’s eyes.
READ MORE: Touring the reopened Sigmund Freud Museum, virtually, with the Vienna Tourist Board
Vienna, a year-round destination, has some 900 public parks and gardens (53 per cent of the city’s surface area is green) 200 castles and palaces, more than 100 museums, dozens of theatres and opera houses and more than 1,660 km of cycling routes.
The city’s myriad coffeehouses, said to be extensions of Viennese living rooms, serve the frothy “melange,” a delectable wake-up drink that’s equal halves steamed milk and rich-tasting coffee.
If Vienna had a taste, it would be a melange…with rich cake or apple strudel on the side.
From the Naschmarkt to the Danube Canal to St. Stephen’s Cathedral to the MuseumsQuartier to Schönbrunn Palace to wintertime Christmas markets, there’s a treasure chest of local experiences to unlock.
But as Elke Bachner, head of market management for Canada, the U.S. and Great Britain at the Vienna Tourist Board, told us: “Visiting Vienna is more than iconic landmarks, green landscape and unrivalled art and music.”
“It’s also about a community of Viennese artisans, accessible to all visitors, that continue to honour the traditional methods of trade and handmade crafts that are the fabric of our culture,” she said.
If only the cobblestone streets of Vienna could talk.
An artistic and intellectual legacy shaped by notable residents who once lived there, including Mozart, Beethoven, Sigmund Freud, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt, hums through the city’s old-world Baroque, Rococo, Gothic, Renaissance and Modernist architecture.
Some of history’s greatest minds called Vienna home, and that creative energy lives on to this day, as we learned at J & L Lobmeyr, a glassware company and high-end retail store on the Kärntner Straße, a popular and central street in Vienna.
The three-floor shop, founded in 1823 by Josef Lobmeyr, sells shimmering chandeliers and handcrafted tableware – it is still family owned to this day, representing six generations of glassmaking traditions.
Owner Andreas Rath himself met us on arrival to show us around his elegant business (which could easily double as a museum), sharing Josef Hoffmann-designed glassware and opulent chandeliers that have been meticulously constructed using age-old techniques passed on over time.
Over two centuries, Lobmeyr has supplied chandeliers to the Habsburg monarchy’s Schönbrunn Palace, the Lincoln Center (home to the Metropolitan Opera in New York City), the Kennedy Center, the Vienna State Opera, and many luxury hotels.
Viennese craftsmanship plays an important part in the city's heritage.
We visited Jarosinski & Vaugoin, Vienna's oldest silversmith company, founded in 1847 by Carl Vaugoin, an ancestor of the smartly-dressed Jean-Paul Vaugoin, today’s owner.
As Vaugoin guided us around his store and workshop – a back room of hammering, sanding and polishing tools and wooden work benches – we were immersed into a rich world of sterling silver flatware that are still produced by hand.
With cutlery patterns ranging from the Baroque period to Art Nouveau, the silversmith’s products have graced the dinner tables of royal families for decades – William and Kate, notably, are clients – and even reach royal homes in Arabia and Malaysia.
Vaugoin’s company is a shining (silver) example of Vienna’s entrepreneurial side – a spirit that extends to local tourism, hospitality and attractions as well.
Life is a rollercoaster
Take Stefan Sittler-Koidl, whose day job involves dreaming up concepts for new rollercoasters at a famous Vienna amusement park.
As President of the Prater Association, Sittler-Koidl oversees Vienna’s Wurstelprater, or simply "Prater,” a lush park in Leopoldstadt full of roller coasters, haunted houses, bumper cars, carousels, drop rides and other attractions – notably the Wiener Riesenrad, an historic Ferris wheel, originally built in 1897, that offers soaring views of the city.
The park’s origins date back more than 250 years, and today, Sittler-Koidl’s family, with roots in Prater dating back to 1921, owns more than a dozen rides, including a mind-blowing indoor rollercoaster, and a bar that serves organic food and drinks.
The Prater, at night, is a kaleidoscope of colours, and Sittler-Koidl’s passion for playtime reminded us that travel is supposed to be fun – especially when upside down, scaling a vertical loop, in a lightning-fast rollercoaster cart.
A classical music capital
But if there’s one thing Vienna always circles back to, it’s music.
Vienna is the “capital of classical music” for the many opera houses and concert venues that were built there in the 18th century, and early 1900s, to accommodate the influx of musical talent.
Barbara Ludwig is a Beethoven enthusiast who conceptualized a hotel in honour of the musical genius and Vienna’s creative side.
(Beethoven lived and died in Vienna, and it was where he wrote many compositions, including Für Elise).
Hotel Beethoven, a boutique hotel near the bohemian Naschmarkt, minutes away from the Vienna Opera House and other touristic sites, unveiled freshly-renovated rooms right before the pandemic hit in 2020 (which also happened to be Beethoven 250th anniversary year).
Each of the hotel’s six floors are decorated to reflect elements of Viennese life, from famous theatres to coffeehouse literati to strong women in history to, yes, Beethoven as well.
“I wanted to tell stories about Vienna,” said Barbara, the hotel’s co-owner and managing director, explaining her hotel’s imaginative design.
(Fittingly, Barbara’s last name, Ludwig, by coincidence, was also Beethoven’s first name).
The 47-room hotel is full of elegant Biedermeier furniture – a period in Central Europe from 1815 and 1848 when society grew fonder of the arts – and whimsical collectables plucked directly from Barbara’s parents’ house, giving the hotel a residential feel.
Trendy LVDWIG Bar, on the main floor, is an it-spot for signature cocktails. But the centrepiece at Hotel Beethoven is the Papageno Lounge, one floor up, where a Bösendorfer grand piano sits (it belonged to Barbara’s mother, who was a talented pianist).
Here, guests of the hotel, every Saturday and Sunday evening, are invited to enjoy an intimate Viennese-style concert performed by a local pianist and cellist over a glass of champagne.
“We have a very laid-back mentality,” Barbara said, reflecting on Vienna's way of life. “We love to celebrate, to sit together, meet with friends. We love food and drinks. We love to laugh.”
It’s the simple pleasures in life that have the deepest impact.
Maybe, just maybe, Vienna is the home away from home you didn’t know you needed.
Vienna up close
Hotels in Vienna have a wonderful way of presenting style, class and elements reflective of the destination.
The Hotel Bristol, adjacent to the Vienna State Opera, is an iconic Baroque hotel that opened in 1892. With a central address, it offers both modernly-renovated units, as well as classic rooms that resemble turn-of-the-century apartments.
The main restaurant, Bristol Lounge, offers all-day Viennese cuisine in a stylish setting. The décor, here, was actually inspired by the dining room on the Titanic.
The upscale Ritz-Carlton Vienna may break away from Vienna’s imperial vibe with a home-like environment, but it’s still aware of its surroundings.
The luxurious hotel incorporates Viennese art and names suites after popular landmarks, such as the “Albertina Suite” – a nod to Vienna’s Albertina museums.
The Albertina Modern, for one, is a new-ish location for modern and contemporary works by envelope pushers, such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein and, most recently, Ai Weiwei.
“Instead of going out into the world to see Vienna, we've brought the essence of what Vienna is to you in a place that you can feel absolutely relaxed in,” Reece Vanasse, director of leisure sales at the Ritz-Carlton Vienna, told PAX during a visit to Toronto in September.
The family-run Holiday Inn Vienna City serves local wines and features a lush courtyard garden – a nod to Vienna’s greenness. It, too, is close to points of interest. The Freihausviertel Quarter, known for its restaurants, bars and designer shops, is within walking distance.
Meanwhile, the Rosewood Vienna is a new kid on the block. Opening Aug. 1 with 71 residential-style rooms and 28 suites – including four signature suites – in the city’s First District, the elegant hotel, once a 19th-century neoclassical bank, is an interpretation of Viennese culture through a contemporary lens.
The art-filled and warm lobby, with sit-down check-in, feels like stepping into a friend’s luxurious apartment.
Part of the building’s transformation included the addition of Neue Hoheit (New Highness), a bright and bold brasserie on the sixth floor, and seventh-floor rooftop cocktail bar, where dreamy city views blend harmoniously with gardens, box hedges and topiary.
Vienna has around 700 hectares of vineyards and 140 winegrowers within 20 minutes of the city centre.
Some of the most celebrated local wines can be found at the Mayer am Pfarrplatz winery, which has been in operation since 1683.
From “Mayer’s meat loaf” to schnitzel to a classic Heuriger buffet, dinner and lunch is served. The terrace is also beside the Beethoven house/museum.
While Vienna has about 100 museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, built in 1891, is a standout.
With opulent halls and staircases that incorporate murals, marble, stucco ornamentation, and gold-leaf touches, the destination holds some of Europe’s finest treasures and art pieces, from Raphael’s "Madonna in the Meadow” to the largest Bruegel collection in the world.
The museum’s café, located in a dome hall, is an incredible spot to stop and sip a melange.
The Belvedere is a complex of two Baroque palaces (the Upper and Lower Belvedere), the Orangery, and the Palace Stables.
With tiered fountains, landscaped grounds, sculptures, and wrought iron gates, the Belvedere was once a summer home for Prince Eugene of Savoy. Today it houses some of Austria's most important art collections, including valuable works by Gustav Klimt – most famously, “The Kiss.”
The Belvedere, with majestic spaces, is also a prime spot for weddings.
Artissimi Tours and Travel offers bespoke tours and experiences in Vienna with flexible guides and customization at the forefront. “The mission is to get people inspired,” said Elisabeth Wolf, Artissimi’s managing owner who comes from the international five-star hotel and tourism sector.
Artissimi strives to “open doors that are usually closed,” Wolf told PAX. Which doesn’t necessarily mean expensive. For example: Wolf once struck up a relationship with a pair of local craftsmen who make the Viennese five-string double bass, a rare instrument, produced by few in the world.
She not only organized a tour of their workshop, but capped off the experience with a visit to Haydnhaus, a house-turned-museum of composer Joseph Haydn, and concert that incorporated the double bass. “I like the idea of doing something obvious and not so obvious,” Wolf told PAX.
Artissimi works with travel advisors and also creates cultural programming for groups of up to 100.
Incentive for travel agents
Air Canada offers direct service to Vienna from Toronto while Austrian Airlines, as part of an Atlantic joint venture, operates direct flights from Montreal.
Travel agents can register bookings to Vienna for a chance to win two Business Class tickets courtesy of Air Canada and the Vienna Tourist Board.
The incentive is valid for bookings made between Sept. 5 – Dec. 31, 2022 and for travel between the same window. Email firstname.lastname@example.org to request a registration booking form.
The winner will be contacted the week of Jan. 9, 2023.
Don't miss a single travel story: subscribe to PAX today! Click here to follow PAX on Facebook.