Vienna’s Old University Quarter: A Neighborhood Guide
A tradition of temptation.
In medieval Vienna, the hilly streets of the northeast quarter – encompassed by Rotenturmstraße, Fleischmarkt, Stubenring and the Wollzeile – was home to Vienna’s Old University, and the pleasure establishments that catered to idle scholars. Wealthy gentlemen and rowdy students alike would frequent the many inns and go to the Badestuben (bath houses) to stew. This had little to do with cleanliness. Not only would men and women “bathe” together in wooden tubs, the bath maids, also called Reiberinnen (literally, “rubbing women”) were not there just to scrub.
Travel books and even many locals make the mistake of lumping Vienna’s Inner City neighborhoods into one category. But the stately courtyards of the Hofburg bear little resemblance to the tucked-away streets behind the old Stock Exchange by Schottenring, or the casual feel of Rudolfspark. And our current neighborhood, the Old University Quarter around Doktor Ignaz-Seipel-Platz, has been discreetly dedicated to debauchery for ages.
Atop the mountain
From Schwedenplatz, you climb miniscule Laurenzerberg toward Fleischmarkt, passing snack and curiosity shops, a butcher and the Canadian Embassy, eventually reaching Fleischmarkt, the “Meat Market.” At the top is a delicious new Japanese sandwich shop: Onisando serves katsu-sando, toast with crunchy breaded pork, beef, fish or eggplant, the perfect fuel for our walk. Straight ahead, a small alley harbors the Theater Drachengasse, a charming little stage that hosts English-language productions regularly, like the local English Lovers’ next show, Hey … wtf@¢k ?!, premiering on March 25.
Turn left onto Postgasse and back down the hill to find The Beauty Bar, a stylish salon that welcomes walk-ins for manicures, pedicures, and most other urban spa treatments. Just around the corner, star chef Konstantin Filippou cooks up fresh and international dishes, inspired by ingredients and spices from his Greek heritage.
Partygoers will certainly know the Alte Post, (old post office) now a well-loved event location. Every Friday and Saturday since last fall, Die Markterei takes over, a full-day market with stands during the day and delicious food and dancing in the evening.
But by far the most impressive building in sight is the ornate Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church on Fleischmarkt. The details on the warm facade are just the tip of the iceberg: Wait until you get inside. From there, meander onto Schönlaterngasse for a series of adorable little bars and restaurants: One is the down-and-out Wunderbar, which is great for romantic cuddling or a late-night Absacker (nightcap) with friends. It’s not classy, but has a certain faded glory.
All in a row
Continuing south, Wollzeile (roughly: Wool Row) beckons, it has been a commercial center for centuries. Among the more -famous shops are: Morawa booksellers with its large international selection; Café Diglas, which counted Franz Lehár among its regulars; and Schönbichler Tea Merchants, whose premises have changed little since opening in 1870.
Night crawlers will likely know the not-so-secret-anymore hot-spot Club X, where they serve exceptional steaks and killer espressotinis. You need a key to get in (or know someone with a key), but even that isn’t a guarantee they’ll let you stay: They famously kicked out two Freedom Party politicians, most recently FPÖ Vice Mayor Johann Gudenus, this January. Apparently, being right-wing is unclubbable.
Another nearby favorite is the Kaffee Alt Wien on Bäckerstraße, a pleasingly crowded and casual meeting place. Established by Leopold Hawelka and his wife Josephine a day after their wedding in 1936, it preceded their famous flagship Café Hawelka (on Dorotheergasse, off Graben). Gottfried Helnwein staged a notable happening there in the ’70s, giving the elegantly dingy day-and-night café an artsy, bohemian reputation.
Further towards Lugeck, Kussmaul serves pricey grub for design-conscious epicurians. And you’ll almost miss Weinorgel, a true hole-in-the-wall of a wine bar, with standing room only and peanut shells on the stone floor. Priceless.
Behind the Bäckerstraße arcade is another local favorite: Café Engländer, a mainstay of the theater and comedy crowd. With the legendary Kabarett Simpl (which celebrated its centennial in 2013) just around the corner, a visit might include a wine-infused run-in with resident funny men, or perhaps more “serious” thespians in town for a show.
The debauchery continues on the edges of the Grätzl, in places like the strip joint Beverly Hills and brothel Babylon, where angels fear to tread. But even residents or guests at the elegant Palais Coburg don’t complain. The Old Uni tradition prescribes discretion in these matters, and who’s to argue with tradition?