My first visit to Vienna was under less than ideal circumstances. It was 1995, and after studying at a summer program at Cambridge University in England, my friend with whom I was going to backpack around Europe cut his stay short and flew home, leaving me with my train pass and some half-baked plans for a month on the continent.
I had been primed to travel in the classic student style, armed with a shoestring budget, a list of hostels in various capitals, and my first real attempt at growing a beard, which was coming in meagerly. I wasn't opposed to traveling alone, and having just turned 21, I was feeling liberated, even if that milestone was looked upon as rather quaint by Europeans who at age 16 had grown accustomed to ordering a beer without even a sideways glance from a bartender.
Nevertheless, I was a little frightened by the prospect of finding my own lodging in Prague when I didn't even know the Czech word for "hello" or negotiating train travel in France when I could barely read a timetable in English. I had spent summers abroad before, but never entirely on my own. My plans were all pretty flexible, so I agreed to meet an ex-girlfriend in Austria. I suspect she may have been hoping to rekindle something (I was at least a year from coming out), as Vienna, an Old World romantic city, was high on her list of destinations. But that trip was kind of a bust.
The rain was incessant, and the temperature was unseasonably cold for late summer. The Viennese people I encountered were either made grumpy by the inclement weather or determined to live up to a tired stereotype about their haughtiness. In either case, I was overwhelmed by the deluge and underwhelmed by the attitude. So after only one day running from cathedrals to cafés, we called it quits. The highlights were some amazing gulaschsuppe (beef and paprika stew) and mélange (half coffee, half milk), and a ride on the Riesenrad (the giant Ferris wheel that makes appearances in The Third Man and Scorpio). After that we departed for a warmer location.
Sixteen years later, my second visit changed my mind so thoroughly about the city and its people that I returned a third time just seven months later. I encountered a city determined to maintain its rich cultural heritage all the while forging the foundation for a modern European center, fostering young artists, and rolling out the red carpet for tourists, especially LGBT visitors.
The occasion for my visit in early spring 2011 was the culmination of the ball season, Vienna's grand tradition of glorious formal waltzes, where tails and tiaras are de rigueur. There are dozens of such balls thrown by all manner of groups: The Vienna Philharmonic hosts one, the professional organization of pharmacists hosts one — and naturally, the gays throw a few. And each year, the most formal and the queerest of the season's events share a calendar date.
The Opera Ball, held at the magnificent Vienna State Opera, is the undisputed pinnacle of the ball season, and European cultural icons, high society, and international heads of state are likely to be found there. The formal dress code is strictly enforced, and rigorous tryouts are required for anyone wishing to take part in the traditional polonaise dance that opens nearly every ball in Vienna. It's stately but, I'm told, stuffy.
The annual Rosenball ("Rose Ball," pcitured above), on the other hand, is a massive queer party. The 2011 event was its 20th anniversary, and the dress code was more of an anything-goes affair — specifically, anything fabulous goes. Dressed in everything from tuxes to drag to wild, glittery, and outrageously skimpy costumes, guests are everything but casual.
The event simultaneously mocks and takes part in the notable elements of the ball tradition. The setting, the Palais Auersperg, a baroque palace completed in 1710, is suitably grand. But the evening opens with a comic drag polonaise, revelers dance under laser lights to thumping disco instead of Strauss, and DJs and house divas take the place of orchestral accompaniment. And you can bet this is the only ball where the dancers on the stage are hunky go-go guys. After 1 a.m., I noticed a trickle of more formally attired guests arriving; having sampled the more staid traditions of the Opera Ball, these folks were ready to get a little sweaty dancing with the flamboyant crowd at the Rosenball.
After enough gin-and-tonics to reinforce my courage and bolster my rusty German, I spoke to a handsome Austrian who was stationed at the main dance floor bar while his female friend tried to get the attention of the straight, shirtless bartender. His first sly glances across the bar belied the beaming smile I'd soon discover, and I was quickly disabused of the notion of any Viennese arrogance. (Truth be told, whatever was true of that reputation has since faded. I found the Viennese to be as friendly as people in many European cities, and far friendlier than those in many other places I've visited.)
The event went into the wee hours and included a very late after-party. Night owls never fear: You'll have options until dawn.
The other LGBT events of the season include the more ceremonial Regenbogenball ("Rainbow Ball"), where formal attire is required, even if one is cross-dressing. The traditional waltz is the order of the day, and event proceeds go to the Homosexual Initiative Vienna. The Mauerblümechenball ("Wallflower Ball") is free and informal, and has a more ironic dress code of nerdy cardigans and horn-rimmed glasses, as exemplified by the organizers' professed love of beige.
Though outside the ball season, the Life Ball (in May) is another gay-popular event, and one of the best-known AIDS events in the world, drawing celebrity entertainers and guests. Revelers get a discounted ticket if they dress in the costume described in the party's "Style Bible," and shirtless men often get a discount on their entry ticket sometime after 2 a.m.
After a long night out, some hearty food was in order. Vienna's cuisine is a blend of traditional and modern, a mix emblematic of the entire city. Meeting over a meal is key to gay life in Vienna, and while a true bon vivant might have known this, it had to be pointed out to me that Viennese cuisine is the only cuisine in the world to be named after a city. It's often to be found in a classic beisl, like a bistro, with dark wood paneling, a bar, and simple tables and chairs. Schnitzel (veal or pork pounded flat, breaded, and fried), pastries, soup with pancake strips, and goulash constitute the basis of menus.
Motto is a chic, gay-owned restaurant, with decor drenched in purple and black, with pops of orange and teal. As a fashion student, Helmut Lang once served patrons there. The floor-to-ceiling-mirrored bathroom is a somewhat pleasantly overwhelming sight to behold. The menu offers elegant presentations of classic Austrian dishes like tafelspitz (simmered tri-tip with root vegetables) and schinkenfleckerl (noodle casserole). Meals here often start with an Aperol spritz, a champagne cocktail spiked with an Italian aperitif that turns the drink a vivid orange. The restaurant's sister location, Motto am Fluss has a restaurant and café right over the Danube Canal and draws an urbane young crowd for beer, cocktails, and dinner.
Ein Wiener Salon (pictured above) is an intimate and upscale restaurant, dominated by a portrait of Empress Maria Theresa — though her face has cheekily been replaced by the gay owner's, taking any remnants of fuss out of the decorous atmosphere. The tasting menu is seasonal, and a meal often ends with regional schnapps.
Schon-Schön is a hybrid of a most unusual kind: a restaurant, fashion boutique, and hair salon. The menu is limited to two or three daily specials, and the fresh fare is served at a large stark-white communal table. While the food is good, the draw for the hipper-than-thou crowd is undoubtedly the atmosphere.
The Palmenhaus (Palmenhaus.at) was the ideal setting for a pre-Rosenball dinner, and the night I was there the dining hall was filled with men in tuxedos and women in glittering cocktail dresses and wraps. While architecture lovers are drawn to the 1901 art nouveau greenhouse, it's the osso buco that brings in the foodies.
My new Austrian friend with the killer smile took me to a Saturday brunch at Deli in the Naschmarkt, the large outdoor market along the Vienna River. Dotted with fishmongers, cheese and produce stands, bakeries, and restaurants of every stripe, Naschmarkt is a must-see, a prime people-watching spot on the very busy Saturdays. It's frustratingly closed on Sundays. Deli is crowded but friendly, and my brunch of lamb chops and mélange was accompanied by a DJ's breakbeats.
Much of Viennese social life takes place in cafés. Coffee isn't unique to Vienna, of course, but nowhere have I seen such attention paid to a cup, in classic 19th-century and art nouveau settings. Cafés come in a few varieties, and it pays to know the difference. A Café-Konditorei also serves pastries and sweets; a Café-Restaurant serves food, sometimes remarkably good food — not just something to soak up the caffeine; a Nacht-Café is a bar. I find the experience of coming in from the cold, peeling off layers of jackets and sweaters, sitting down on a red velvet banquette to a cup of einspänner (espresso with whipped cream) and a slice of Sachertorte (chocolate cake with apricot jam filling) served on a silver tray to be a lush experience. And it's the perfect remedy for a sightseer's aching feet.
Also near the Naschtmarkt is the official center of LGBT life, the Rosa Lila Villa, the gay and lesbian center. It's a good place to pick up the local gay publications and take a look at fliers for club nights, parties, and other, more earnest gatherings. It's also a good spot for women to find events, because offerings for gay men outnumber those for lesbians.
Nightlife often begins with a coffee, beer, or cocktail at Café Savoy, a café in the grand, traditional Viennese style. From Café Savoy, many head to Village Bar, a small but reliable video bar, or Felixx an ambient cocktail lounge with theme nights. Pitbull is a monthly party for bears and admirers. Younger gays often head to the boisterous Mango Bar, which shares its website with dance club Why Not. Another large dance club with weekly parties is Heaven Vienna.
The Frauencafé is a trans-friendly women's bar founded by a feminist collective in 1977 and open on weekends, and Marea Alta is a lesbian bar furnished in a flea market style, offering performances, parties, and DJs.
Vienna may be a refined and sophisticated city, but that doesn't mean there's no place for some less genteel action. Fetish and cruising bars with darkrooms include Eagle Bar, Sling, and others. The city isn't squeamish about sex-positive venues, so lists of bars with darkrooms, sex shops, gay cinemas, and bathhouses are easy to find on gay city maps and at GayNet.at.
Art abounds, but for one-stop shopping the Museumsquartier has no rival. One of the largest complexes for modern art and culture in the world, it contains the Leopold Museum (which displays the works of Austrian modernists Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt), the MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna), and the contemporary dance space Tanzquartier, and it hosts numerous festivals. But art is everywhere, from imperial public works to modern pieces. Even my hotel, the new Levante Parliament, incorporates a gallery exhibiting glasswork by Romanian artist Ioan Nemtoi.
Vienna is also a centrally located starting point for day-tripping. On a weeklong trip in the autumn of 2011, my Austrian beau and I visited Bratislava, Slovakia, just a 45-minute drive away; the picturesque Austrian cities of Salzburg and Graz, and Hungarian metropolis Budapest, which shares Vienna's imperial heritage, are all just two hours' drive. While I wouldn't suggest one needs a local paramour to properly see the sights, if you're looking for one, this romantic capital is a capital place to look.
Originally published on Advocate.com January 11, 2012