Accepting the proposition that taste is “aesthetic judgments made in a social setting” (as well as the reaction to one of the five senses as performed by all the little buds on the tongue), one might well wonder if there is a single place on the earth where the greatest concentration of tastefulness might be located. Plenty of places present themselves: such famous cities as Paris, which most everyone has an impression of as (if nothing else) a pretty place, whether they’ve been there or not; also in the running would be places without such highly-esteemed and widespread reputations but instead rank due to personal connections of select individuals. Among all such famous and not-famous places, a strong contender is Vienna.
The general impression of Vienna’s central districts is characterized by a great nineteenth-century ring encircling a medieval core with Baroque interjections throughout. Vienna modernized beginning in the 1860s on the pattern of the great boulevards of Paris. But here the pupil has outstripped the teacher. Whereas much of Paris’ medieval fabric was ripped to shreds by Baron Haussmann’s boulevards that crisscrossed through the city, in Vienna the Ringstrasse was built on the ruins of its fortification walls, surrounding its medieval district rather than slicing through it. Also, whereas Paris’ streets allow no room for disagreement about what’s important in the city plan—one is forever walking straight into a prominent historical monument or symbol of authority—the nature of Vienna’s Ring is more inclusive. Traversing this faceted, angled street (not a complete ring, it is a chunky U-shape whose ends are connected by the “Danube Canal”), the view changes constantly, so that pedestrians view Vienna’s great monuments of culture, government and education at shifting and skewed angles. These symbols of authority, then, are not the emphasis of the street but rather are players that support the importance of the street, which is the territory of all. For being an imperial capital with all the trappings and trimmings, Vienna nurtures a sense of belonging to the place—even for an outsider—rather than appears to want to put someone in her place.
Other great European cities can offer a similar (or maybe even greater) degree of wonderfulness in terms of their riches in art and architecture, historical importance, as well as musical and culinary offerings. But many of them—the most popular tourist destinations in Italy come immediately to mind—have ceased to be living cities. They are outdoor museums populated by people from other places. Vienna certainly has a healthy tourist trade, but the city absorbs its visitors and makes them part of the broader population of Viennese who also frequent the parks, galleries and cafés.
Variety abounds. Vienna’s architecture is consistent in its high quality rather than a single overriding style. Certainly, the periods of greatest strength for the city and its empire/nation are evident through the concentration of Gothic, Baroque, nineteenth-century, fin de siècle and early twentieth century buildings. At least through the period of early Modernism, new styles were pursued in a way that rarely damaged the environment as a whole. For all the efforts made by later Modernists to claim Adolf Loos as a radical designer who prefigured the Bauhaus, one look at the famous Goldman & Salatsch Building reveals a great concern for scale and materials that make this building fit into its prestigious site on the Michaelerplatz and so near the Hofburg. Secessionists and Jugundstil architects like Josef Maria Olbrich and Otto Wagner were even better. They all added harmoniously to a city which is distinct and visually engaging at every turn; it is hard to imagine anyone not finding some building to love in Vienna.
Much of the credit for the aesthetic strength of the city goes to its most elite residents for several centuries: the Hapsburgs. Vienna is proof-positive of the fact that, although empires are not good for things like social justice, they are great for things like urban planning, architectural symbolism and art collections. An interest in latter actually focuses this search for the Tastiest Place in the World to a smaller scale: it’s not just Vienna, but a building in Vienna, and beyond that, one room.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum was opened in the late nineteenth century to make the gigantic collection of art amassed by the Habsburgs through their centuries of power available to public view. Across an expansive park of green, the museum’s twin, the Naturhistorisches Museum houses extensive collections in natural history. Together, they are a university of human achievement: what we have discovered, what we have imagined.
Numbers of other museums and galleries in Vienna house more recent art—art that was made for consumption of regular (non-royal people). The Kunsthistorisches Museum is, in its way, more profound, for when he opened it, Franz Joseph I opened a collection of art made for elites to a broader public. Seeing Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele at the Belvedere is wonderful, but it’s not the same experience or achievement as opening an exquisite imperial collection to the unwashed masses, dramatically broadening the social setting for interactions with art. Thanks to the modernizing Habsburgs, we can see this:
. . . and this. . .
. . . and this. . .
. . . and this. . .
. . . and this. . .
. . . and a lot more before our eyes fall out of our heads, exhausted from the sheer wonderfulness of it all.
The overwhelming richness of the collections is bound to give even the sturdiest gallery-goer a bit of museum coma, but fear not: the museum offers excellent therapy in the form of a café, one of Vienna’s great cultural legacies. The café is situated in the front and center of the building, beneath the great octagonal dome. Domes have always been profound symbols in architecture: the vault of Jupiter’s Heaven, the symbol of Paradise with Christ. In Vienna? The dome at the Kunsthistorisches Museum enshrines the sacred liturgy of devouring coffee and cakes.
What the Austrians lack in savory fare they more than make up for with their gifts of cakes to the Western world. Paris gets a lot of credit for cafés and pastries, but it was the Viennese who learned how to brew beans from the Turks and then spread that major event in western civilization through Europe; likewise, it was the Viennese who taught the French how to bake—thus the preference les pâtisseries Viennoise in the City of Light. Heck, it was a Viennese baker who invented the croissant! Fact.
If the pastry is the queen of the culinary world, Vienna is her natural capital and the café is her throne. The art museum’s café is one of hundreds of such institutions throughout the city—each with its own décor, history, sensibility and vibe. For a few Euros, anyone can have access to a corner of this one small yet vital and magnificent manifestation of what makes the whole of the city so great: the rich heritage of an imperial capital opened for the enjoyment of the many. The setting, the visual qualities and certainly the edible delights conjoin to make a seat in a Viennese café the tastiest place in the world.