Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Vienna: 'The Seattle Of The 19th Century'

Chris Yunker/Flickr
St. Stephen's Cathedral sits in the middle of Vienna. Its bells can regularly be heard across the city.

It’s known for its coffee culture. Many famous musicians got their start here. And you don’t have to travel too far out of town to get into the mountains.

We’re not talking about Seattle, but rather Vienna, the largest city in Austria.

Music and Coffee

At the center of town is St. Stephen’s, a soaring gothic Cathedral. Mozart was married here. Vivaldi’s funeral took place here, too. Ludwig von Beethoven is purported to have realized the extent of his deafness when he looked up at the St. Stephen’s steeple and noticed birds flying away, but realized he could not hear the bells that frightened them.

KPLU travel expert Matthew Brumley notes that Vienna was also home to Mahler, Haydn and Strauss. There are deep classical music roots in this city.

Today, the bells at St. Stephen’s are perhaps the loudest and most noticeable music in Vienna, pealing out over the rooftops from the center of town. Take a listen:

But Vienna’s classical music scene remains rich. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra has been playing here for 170 years. And you can visit the Vienna State Opera, whose season runs from October through June. 

Credit Paula Soler-Moya/Flickr
Cafe Central, in the middle of the city, boasts huge arches and is a popular Vienna coffee house.

Brumley calls Vienna “the Seattle of the 19th century,” not only for its music scene but also for its coffee culture. Coffeehouses in Vienna were integral to city life, and still are. For writers of the day, they were places to work and even live. Some used coffeehouses as their primary addresses. For others, they served as living rooms of sorts. People would spend hours there, saving on the need to heat their homes while also interacting with their neighbors.  

Their popularity dipped in the middle of the 20th century, but many are still going strong. Brumley says you shouldn’t miss the Café Central.It’s located in the middle of the city (as its name might suggest) and boasts warm light under beautiful gothic arches.

Architecture And War

Austria lost everything in World War I. By 1918, the Austro-Hungarian Empire had broken apart. Vienna was its capital, and it still has an imperial feel, Brumley says.

Austria was annexed by the Nazis during World War II, and it paid the price. The damage leveled in Vienna is evident in its varied architecture.

“When you’re walking down the street, you’ll see one modern building next to a Baroque building, next to a Rococo building, next to a neoclassical building,” Brumley said. “What that shows, and what that reveals is the damage that occurred here during World War II.”

Many still remember seeing the city rebuilt from its smoldering war wounds. Brumley says he was talking to a 93-year-old man who told him about seeing the city leveled.

“He got a little teary when he was telling the story,” Brumley said. “There are still people here today who remember the 1940s and carry that memory with them.”

 Vienna Today

Credit Miroslav Petrasko/Flickr
More than 1.7 million people live in Vienna.

Modern Vienna is thriving. More than 1.7 million people live here. It’s where 17th century Europe meets the 21st century, and where east meets west. Brumley says the city is culturally different than its neighbors to the west.

“If you speak to someone in the German world and you say ‘Austria,’ often times they’ll roll their eyes and think that the Austrians are stuck in the time of Mozart,” Brumley said, adding that it goes the other way, too. “The Germans, for the Austrians, are a little bit wacky, a little bit free-thinking.”

Getting There

If you’re going, go soon, Brumley said. Soon, the Christmas markets will open, with streets full of people selling pastries and hot spiced wine.

There are no direct flights from Sea-Tac Airport, but you can get there with just a stop or two on several major carriers, including British Airlines. The closest direct flight from Sea-Tac is a Lufthansa route to Frankfurt, Germany.


Matthew Brumley is the founder of Earthbound Expeditions, which organizes group travel to destinations around the world for various clients, including KPLU. "Going Places" is our new travel segment exploring all aspects of getting from Point A to Point B. Have a travel hangup or a tip? Let us know in the comments.

Ed Ronco is a former KNKX producer and reporter and hosted All Things Considered for seven years.