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Viennese whirl

Christmas is the perfect time of year to enjoy a visit to Austria's glorious capital

An edited version appeared in Australian Doctor on 9th December 2011

Flakes of snow fall in lilting drifts around our heads and pile gently on the cobble-stoned streets while the sweet scent of candied fruits mingles with the rich, nutty smell of roasted chestnuts and the heady spiciness of hot glühwein, or mulled wine. We're loitering with intent at the towering, gothic-style City Hall in the Austrian capital of Vienna, where the atmospheric, open-air Christkindlmarkts (Christmas markets), have been in full swing since mid November.

Despite the subzero temperatures and an average of just two hours of sunshine per day at this time of year, they've been a must-do during the festive season as far back as the Middle Ages. Locals come here to socialise, enjoy the festively adorned trees and fairytale displays, shop for Christmas gifts, and indulge in seasonal treats like the aforementioned glühwein, which does much to keep us warm from the inside out.

Vienna, or Wien, as the locals call it, boasts the most green spaces per capita of any city in the world, and is one of just a handful of with a bevy of vineyards (more than 600 hectares worth) within its urban boundaries. Consider this alongside its status as as a UNESCO world heritage site and reputation as a destination for lovers of secessionist and high art par excellence, and it's no wonder Vienna consistently ranks as one of the world’s most liveable cities in various indexes of cultural and economic esteem.

In summer, temperatures average out at around 24 degrees, and public leisure time centres around the River Danube, a vibrant deep blue vein running through the city. During the daytime, its banks teem with people getting about on foot and bicycle. They come here to canoe, and swim, and simply soak up the sunshine. At night, it pulsates with the energy of beach bars and restaurants. But in the depths of winter the mighty Danube freezes over and becomes one of several spots where the hardy locals (all 2.4 million of them, it seems sometimes) glide and pirouette on the ice.

This all sounds awfully outdoorsy to an Australian who is more used to beaches and barbecues at Christmas, and it's a relief to discover December is the perfect time to while away the hours inside one of Vienna's dozens of renowned galleries.

One frosty afternoon, we visit the renowned Museums Quartier in the city's seventh district, Neubau. One of the largest art and museum complexes in the world, the Quartier opened in 2001 and boasts nine permanent museums and exhibition and event halls, an urban living space, and an ever-changing array of initiatives from architecture, music and fashion to theater, dance and digital culture.

We head for the Leopold Museum which houses an enviable collection of 19th and 20th century art assembled over five decades by its benefactor, Dr Rudolf Leopold. This light and airy museum displays valuable handicrafts and furnishings, African and Oceanic sculptures, and classic modernist, art nouveau and expressionist masterpieces.

Another day, we take a tram to The Belvedere in the third district, Landstrasse, south-east of the city centre. The former summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, today the Belvedere is an extensive museum and contemporary art complex set in a majestic Baroque park landscape. We marvel at its opulence, and ooh and ahh over the most famous work of the city's most famous son: Gustav Klimt's The Kiss. Later, we discover that The Kiss never leaves Vienna, and who can blame it? This grand old city is European living at its best, any time of year.

Factfile

Getting there: Several airlines offer flights from Australia to Vienna via London, Munich or Frankfurt. Otherwise, travel from other destinations in Europe by air, train or bus is readily available.

Staying there: Reside in sustainable comfort at the zero-energy Hotel Stadthalle (rooms from €118/night for two, www.hotelstadthalle.at/en), or stay in the heart of the art district, Spittelberg, at wine-themed Hotel Rathaus Wein & Design (rooms from €160/night for two, www.hotel-rathaus-wien.at), or the classically romantic Hotel Altstadt (rooms from €139/night for two, www.hotel-altstadt-vienna.com)

Practicalities: The currency in Vienna is the Euro; money machines are located around the city. Credit card is accepted in most places. December 8th, 25th and 26th and January 1st and 6th are public holidays in Vienna, and banks and public institutions are closed.
Special events: Fans of Gustavo Klimt will particularly enjoy visiting Vienna in 2012, when the city celebrates the 150th anniversary of his birth with more commemorative events than there are colours in a painter's palette.

More information: www.wien.info, www.mqw.at, www.belvedere.at, www.leopoldmuseum.org, www.klimt2012.info