Franziskanerviertel – Little City Downtown
(Viennese dialect) a neighbourhood in Vienna contained by subjective boundaries and a coherent identity
The Kleines Café has cult status, a favourite of artists, actors and intellectuals | Photo: David Reali
Few can imagine living in the Franziskanerviertel at the heart of the 1st District, one of the oldest Grätzln in Vienna. It’s flanked east-west by Kärntner Straße and the Parkring, and north-south by Singerstraße and Himmelpfortgasse – the streets have stayed essentially untouched since the Middle Ages. In most cities, no one lives in the old town – a neighbourhood of tourists and museums. Not here. The area is busy with locals throughout the day. Some have inherited an apartment or an old rental contract, or they can simply afford the easily €20 per square metre rent. Either way, they blend into the maze of little streets, full of historic palais, sharing façades with charming curiosity shops and legendary cafés, Vienna’s hippest jazz club, and the lush green of the Stadtpark. Plus a high-end strip joint and a notorious brothel. Go figure.
St. Francis, Moses and “scratching the curb”
However old, Franziskanerplatz is one of the “younger” squares by 1st District standards, carved out in 1624 to provide turning clearance for the carriages arriving at the church for weddings – still frequent in the summer months. The Moses Fountain at the centre was designed by Johann Martin Fischer in 1798 – a life-size statue of the prophet, expropriated from the courtyard of house No. 6.
The Renaissance façade of the Franciscan Church, dating from 1611, shelters an undeniably Baroque interior plus some 1,000 worthies buried deep in the catacombs below. Three bells sound in the tower – the newest, the Friedensglocke, or “peace bell” was added in 2011, and is accompanied by the Wöckherlorgel, the oldest organ in Vienna.
When it’s time to “hit the road,” an Austrian will talk about “die Kurve kratzen”, (literally “scratching the curve”). On these narrow streets, it’s easy to imagine a carriage scraping the curb-stone as it careens around a corner. Also, check out the house numbers, particularly Ballgasse 8, a remnant of the “new” system of Empress Maria Theresa. Initiated in 1770, houses were categorised by neighbourhood with the same initial digit, painted in red above the door.
Living in miniature
Entering Weihburggasse from Kärtner Straße, turn right on Ballgasse. Off the beaten track, this charming little street is speckled with antique shops and the occasional eatery, like the Stadtheuriger Gigerl, a favourite of both tourists and locals; you can sample local wine and listen to live music on Saturdays and Sundays.
Follow your nose to the Schokoladen Werkstatt, where a cup of thick hot chocolate costs only €1.80, a sweet temptation. Another gem on this dwarf of a street is Ristorante Zimolo, a prime place for tummy-warming cucina italiana and great for a date or a business dinner. Although prices are quite 1st District, the delicious clam pasta will only set you back €11.
Ballgasse reaches Franziskanerplatz though an archway. At No.1, across from the church, is a proud Wohnhaus with a grand doorway, home to opera diva Anna Netrebko. Between the two, the Kleines Café makes up in reputation for what it lacks in space. Designed by Hermann Czech and run by actor Hanno Pöschl, the little café has achieved cult status as a popular hangout for actors, artists and local characters. Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy paused there in Before Sunrise, and John Malkovich came here to wind down during the filming of Klimt.
Shopping and Leisure
Thankfully, the Mozartkugel and Sissi merchandise stay within the confines of Graben and Kärntner Straße. Here’s where the real finds are hidden. At Weihburggasse 16, an old bookshop is the doorway to endless browsing. Antiquariat – Bücher – Kuriositäten von Aichinger, Bernhard und Comp. is nearly as antique as the things it sells. Also, tucked in the courtyard behind, you’ll find Die Vermischte Warenhandlung (the Mixed Goods Shop), which justly dubs itself the best place for “all things beautiful; gift ideas for the clueless.” This is a must!
A bit further down the street you’ll find Barbara’s, a wine bar and gallery. The purely Austrian wine list is extensive and affordable, ranging from €13 to €22 per bottle. The proprietor Barbara Kronenfels loves to speak English and holds a monthly English Night, directed at Austrians, but native speakers are welcome.
Ringwards, passing the discreetly mirrored walls of the strip club Beverly Hills, you’ll approach the green lung of the Stadtpark. If you live here, this is where you walk your dog or take the kids on weekends. In addition to a duck-filled pond and a statue of Johann Strauss, this legendary park even has a jungle gym and basketball courts. You’ll also find restaurants like the famed Meierei (and the 5-star Steirereck upstairs), boasting 120 international cheeses and a slick décor.
Back across the Ring, down Liebenberggasse to Spiegelgasse, past the notorious brothel -Babylon, you’ll find Riemergasse. Just outside our Grätzl, Porgy & Bess is the hippest jazz club in Vienna, featuring local singer-songwriters plus international fusion and world music.
So don’t make the mistake of thinking downtown is just for tourists and office suites; this very liveable Viertel is about as central as it gets. A village in the city.
Schokoladen Werkstatt: Ballgasse 4
(01) 513 39 31
Ristorante Zimolo: Ballgasse 5
(01) 512 99 82
Kleines Café: Franziskanerplatz 3
No phone number or e-mail
Die Vermischte Warenhandlung: Weihburggasse 16
(01) 512 88 53
Barbara’s: Weihburggasse 18–20
Meierei: Am Heumarkt 2A, A-1030 Wien
(01) 713 31 68
Porgy & Bess: Riemergasse 11
(01) 512 88 11