Josephstadt – Romancing the Eighth

Grätzl - (Viennese dialect) a neighbourhood in Vienna contained by subjective boundaries and a coherent identity

Diners at Café der Provinz on Maria-Treu-Gasse enjoy peaceful Josefstadt | Photo: Lauren Brassaw

Josefstadt is where old Vienna is hiding. While the 1st District is filling up with tourism, shopping, dining and expensive apartments only diplomats and Eastern European millionaires can afford, old Vienna is retreating into its 8th District. Located between the City Hall, Parliament, the University and Burgtheater on the inner side and the 16th district with its headscarves and kebab shops and on the outer, Vienna’s smallest but most densely populated district has become the “Burg” of the Viennese Bürgertum (bourgeoisie).

There are gentleman in Loden coats and feathered hats walking their dachshunds, spacious old cafés, blocks of “Greisler” (tiny local stores) and courtyard Heuriger (traditional wine-taverns) – all wedged in and around the tall, elegant and perfectly renovated apartment buildings in the early 19th century Wilhelminen style and a baroque surprise here and there.

You will see elderly Viennese ladies in their fur coats, coiffed hair and black patent shoes mingling in front of “Theater an der Josefstadt”, the oldest theatre in Vienna, on Josefstädterstraße, district’s main street, just across from the apartment of Austrian president Heinz Fischer. He feels so at home in the Josefstadt that he refused to move to the presidential residence in Hohe Warte. But the only sign of the august presence is the photo of him and his wife, signed with a “thank you”, hanging over the meat counter in the supermarket next door. The president is low key, just like his district.

You will have to read between the lines here, absorb the atmosphere, imagine a fireplace burning in an Altbauwohnung (old apartment) and try to hear Hans Moser’s singing voice in the hum of the district. But start with the following:

On late afternoons, sit on a bench in Schönborn Park, just behind the baroque Palais Schönborn, where the ethnographical museum is located, and watch low sunlight creating shadows among old Viennese houses. Schönborn is a lovely little baroque palace filled to the brim with old antiques (they have a whole Tyrolean wooden living room), old skis and other things that have witnessed centuries of life in this country. The museum feels forgotten, as if you have just discovered it and hesitate to tell anyone else, lest it be spoiled. Visit on snowy afternoons, when it is dark and cold outside, and you can look out of the window into that beautiful park covered in snow.

Walk up Laudongasse: Between Florianigasse and Lederergasse you will find Melkerhof, a huge apartment complex from the Gründerzeit (19th century). From the outside, this is a typical old Viennese building, perfectly renovated with its original yellow color. Its big green wooden doors are normally locked. But if you’re lucky and someone is just entering or forgot to lock the doors, you will enter a courtyard of enchantment. The buzz of the city will disappear in its three inner yards protected by facades hanging with ivy. Old pebbles on the ground soften your step. Find the yard closer to Laudongasse with its beautiful roses, benches, a fountain and a wall plaque describing the history of the Melkerhof.

In the evenings, walk down Lenaugasse, quiet and empty and filled with warm light from gas lanterns in the Viennese version of a Parisian twilight. Then walk further up the Florianigasse and peek into its many restaurants. Here you will hear Vienna breathing in its most intimate and fullest senses.

Gastronomically, Josefstadt will offer you excellent traditional treats and novelties. Café Hummel and Café Eiles are two of the finest of Vienna’s legendary coffee houses. For a younger version, not by age but by style and menu, visit Café Florianihof on Florianigasse. Through its large windows you will see the pretty Amtshaus, where many Viennese couples, and all foreign couples, are married before the Standesbeamter – who among all in the Viennese civil service seems to truly love his job. The same cannot be said for the organist who manages to play only one of his three tunes while sleeping off the night before.

The Josefstadt has plenty of original Viennese food to offer: Schnattl, Fromme Helene, Blauensteiner, Piaristenkeller, although watch out, this last tends to be touristy. On warm evening enjoy a glass of wine or dinner in front of Piaristenkirche “Maria Treu”, a beautiful baroque church – either pizza from Sessante, Austrian food from Maria Treu Café or from Piaristenkeller. This is a rare atmosphere for Vienna – a true Italian piazza.

There are two secret gardens in Josefstadt. One is the “Weinstube” in Piaristengasse, which has managed to stay undiscovered by being marked only with a green lantern on its façade. On summer afternoons, the tiny but extremely romantic garden (including a wooden pavilion) will be filled with local artists and intellectuals. The menu is simple, the best of home cooking. For more choice, go to “Zum narrischen Kastanienbaum” in Strozzigasse – located below a “Burschenschaftler-Bude”, a fraternity house. So on a Friday evening, you can have a romantic date under the huge chestnut tree, with the soundtrack of jolly fraternity members singing and slamming their mugs against the table. Memorable and bizarre.

Because of its closeness to the university, fraternities are Josefstadt’s secret ingredient. Their headquarters are not easy to identify, except for “Gothia” in Schlößelgasse, which has a German flag hanging from its façade, or “Teutonia” in Strozzigasse, which has been attacked with paint balls. But if you live in Josefstadt, you will meet “brothers” in their uniforms, most of them young and confused, going to their meetings. A great touch to the authentic atmosphere.

As a contrast, and a balance, there are many true bohemians living in Josefstadt. The district has its share of cabarets, jazz clubs, and tiny theaters, most important of which is the English Theater on Josefsgasse. Students mingling around the university have inherited apartments in the Josefstadt and now share with other students. This wave of young locals has brought a surprise to the old establishment: as “Altbürgertumlich” as it is, Josefstadt became the second district that voted for a Green district government. But apart for a few bicycle routes, not much has changed.

And it shouldn’t.

 

Josephstadt GrätzlRestaurant Schnattl

Langegasse 40
(01) 405 3400
Mon-Fri 18:00-24:00
www.schnattl.com

Weinstube Josefstadt
Piaristengasse 27
(01) 406 4628
Mon-Fri 18:00-23:00

Zum narrischen Kastanienbaum
Strozzigasse 36
(01) 405 0388
Mon-Fri 11:00-24:00
Sat & Sun 16:00-24:00
www.kastanienbaum.net

Café Florianihof
Florianigasse 45
(01) 402 48 42
Mon-Fri 8:00-24:00
Sat & Sun  10:00-20:00
www.florianihof.at

Österreichisches Museum für Volkskunde
Laudongasse 15-19
(01) 4068 9050
Tue-Sun 10:00-17:00
www.volkskundemuseum.at

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