Uncovering Vienna’s exciting contemporary art scene in three days

Vienna may be more famous for opera, philharmonic orchestras and Old Masters, but the Austrian capital is also home to a thriving contemporary art scene.

On the streets and in the outdoor courtyards, amid the Baroque-era statues and ornate Gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral, are multimedia installations made using artificial intelligence and colourful graffiti covering entire buildings by South American and Austrian artists.

There’s a real focus on diversity and female empowerment within this artistic landscape, which is also preoccupied with a sense of responsibility for the planet, a far cry from the intricate, labour-intensive and expensive works more commonly associated with the country’s classical oeuvre.

Here’s how to scratch the surface of it all in just three days.

Day one: MuseumsQuartier and Belvedere 21

First, get a Vienna Pass, which starts at €87 ($95) and is available as a one, two, three and six-day pass, allowing you free entry into more than 70 sights around the city, including its museums.

No trip to Vienna should go without a visit to the city’s MuseumsQuartier, one of the largest contemporary cultural districts in the world, located in Museumsplatz.

The historical architecture was designed by Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach as the imperial court stables. Today, it’s home to 60 cultural institutions spread over 90,000 square metres, with small passageways that feature public artworks, mini galleries, restaurants and shops, all spanning myriad disciplines from fine art to fashion and theatre to dance.

One of the best places to stop is at mumok, one of the largest museums of modern and contemporary art in central Europe, home to 10,000 artworks, including those by Andy Warhol, Picasso and Roy Lichtenstein, among many others. But this is temporarily closed for refurbishment until June.

The area is also home to Kunsthalle Wien, the city’s exhibition centre, for international contemporary art and discourse, with a particular focus on social and political context. Elsewhere, the Leopold Collection holds one of the most significant collections of Austrian art in the world, including more than 200 works by Expressionist painter Egon Schiele.

All this intellectualism will no doubt work up an appetite, so it’s worth popping in to Kaan, which serves home-made Levantine cuisine within a Turkish-inspired setting in the museums quarter. Two French architects worked in partnership with Turkish artist Asiye Kolbai-Kafalier, who lives in Vienna, to create the eye-catching patterned tiles that evoke a traditional Istanbul cafe.

Leave a little time in your day to also check out Belvedere 21, a post war-era building in modernist style that was constructed by architect Karl Schwanzer as the Austrian pavilion for Belgium’s World Expo in 1958. It’s now located in the gardens of Belvedere Palace, a 20-minute tram journey from Museumsplatz.

Within three gallery floors, exhibitions of Austrian art from the 20th and 21st centuries are displayed. Until March, this includes an impressive retrospective of Renate Bertlmann, a pioneer of the Austrian feminist avant-garde, to mark her 80th birthday.

These exhibitions are often presented alongside an educational programme, performances and discussions with the artists. At the facility, there is also a well-preserved 1950s cinema, a learning centre and sculpture garden, plus an art library.

Round off a busy day at stylish venue Lucy Bar, inside Belvedere 21, which serves a mix of international and Austrian dishes, alongside a range of drinks.

Day two: Museum of Applied Arts and Eschenbachgasse

Start with a coffee at Cafe Pruckel, once a famous hangout for Vienna’s artists. This traditional Viennese coffee house has been welcoming customers since 1903 and has plenty of brews, home-made pastries and authentic cuisine on the menu.

It is also conveniently located across the road from the Museum of Applied Arts, or Mak, which was the first museum on the Ringstrasse, Vienna’s circular grand boulevard that serves as a ring road for the historic Innere Stadt district.

The Renaissance-style building was completed by architect Heinrich von Ferstel in 1871 and modelled on London’s Victoria & Albert Museum, which had been founded over a decade earlier (then the South Kensington Museum). Today its large halls and themed exhibitions bring together applied arts, design, architecture and contemporary art.

Several fascinating temporary exhibitions are planned for this year. From May to August, for example, London art collective Troika will present a solo exhibition that focuses on multi-layered forms of non-human intelligence in an installation that features digital animation and 3D-printed sculptures made from digital twins. These are designed to raise questions about how living creatures can adapt to climate change.

For lunch, book a table at Mak’s Salonplafond, a modern museum restaurant in a grand setting known for its inventive reimagining of Austrian cuisine using global inspiration. This includes a flavoursome hazelnut-celeriac soup with salted caramel and pickled celeriac or a grilled catfish with potato-ricotta pudding.

Walk off this feast by wandering down Eschenbachgasse, about 12 minutes by tram from Mak, where some of Vienna’s most famous art galleries sit side by side, including Martin Janda, Krobath and Meyer Kainer. There is also Steinek, founded in 1982 and owned by French gallerist Silvia Steinek, who once represented Bertlmann and other pioneers.

Each of these galleries, all founded in the 1980s and 1990s, champion today’s young and up-and-coming talents, as well as pay homage to the old guard.

Steinek’s current exhibition, Stucked In, running until March, is of the powerful mixed-media works by Iranian artist Soli Kiani, who lives in Vienna.

Galerie Martin Janda has Shadow Architectures, the latest exhibition by Danish artist Jakob Kolding, who explores contemporary urban space through collage and large-format graphic prints, touching on a number of 20th-century architects and architecture with a Viennese or Austrian connection.

From Eschenbachgasse, it’s a 13-minute walk via Museumsplatz to Tian Bistro am Spittelberg, the casual venue from Michelin-starred restaurant Tian. It is world-renowned for its creative vegetarian cuisine made from ingredients predominantly sourced from small organic farms in the region.

Tian Bistro serves a multi-course tasting menu that will inspire you to photograph every beautifully presented, delicately flavoured dish.

Day three: Street art, the Albertina Modern and Heidi Horten Collection

Get up early to meet with Rebel Tours, owned by Austrian-Brazilian siblings Basti and Gabi, who create unique city tours, including a two-hour street art tour. Wander the streets of Vienna, learning more about the annual Calle Libre festival, the first of its kind in the city, which has since 2014 invited graffiti and mural artists from all over the world to paint the walls of Vienna.

Along the way, see works by French artists Mantra and Kashink, Colombian talent Stinkfish and Austria-based pioneers such as Frau Isa, Golif and Tabby, who has been hailed as the next Banksy.

After the tour, grab a bite-to-go from one of the 100-plus branches of bakery Ankerbrot, which since 1891 has been serving up freshly baked bread and pastries to the residents of Vienna.

Head to Karlsplatz, one of the city’s most frequented town squares, where the Albertina Modern opened in 2020 as one of the continent’s largest museums for modern art, with a collection of more than 60,000 works by 5,000 artists. It’s a sister to the centuries-old Albertina museum.

The restored, neoclassical building of Albertina Modern dates back to 1865, but houses an exciting calendar of temporary contemporary exhibitions, including one coming up in mid-February called The Beauty of Diversity.

“For nearly three centuries, the Albertina acquired, collected and exhibited works by white men, from Leonardo Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Raphael to Durer, Rembrandt and Rubens,” reads the exhibition statement. “The historical collections of the Albertina Museum offer an impression that is deeply one-sided and that characterised the overall artistic canon for centuries.”

The curators are looking to rectify this with a major exhibition that reflects the diversity of today, presenting works by female artists and people of colour, as well as lesser-known talents.

There is also a retrospective of pop art master Lichtenstein coming up, as the world marks what would have been his 100th birthday.

Another anticipated exhibition on the agenda will see Romanian painter Adrian Ghenie transform the works of the late Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele. About one quarter of Schiele’s paintings are missing and these lost images now exist only as shadowy photographs, known here as Shadow Paintings, to which Ghenie will give new dimension.

A nine-minute walk from the Albertina Modern, and on the doorstep of the Albertina, is the Heidi Horten Collection, which in 2022 put Heidi Goess-Horten’s incredible art collection permanently on display to the public for the first time. Housed in a renovated inner-city palace address, the selection spans Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, Warhol, Lichtenstein and more.

A mere two-minute walk away is the world-renowned, five-star Hotel Sacher, on Philharmoniker Street, where everyone from John F Kennedy to Queen Elizabeth II and Justin Bieber have stayed since it opened in 1876.

The property is home to several restaurants, but perhaps none more famous than Cafe Sacher, a veteran of traditional Viennese coffee house culture, which has been on Unesco’s list of Intangible Cultural Heritage since 2011. Here, visitors can indulge in a slice of original sacher-torte, a delicious chocolate cake recipe from the 1800s that is perhaps one of Austria’s most famous inventions.

Updated: January 25, 2024, 9:55 AM

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