Vienna, city of music. Home to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, and Mahler. Vienna, a showcase of architectural styles from the soaring Gothic-era Stephansdom to the Baroque opulence of the Karlskirche, and from elegant Ringstrasse historicism to the fin-de-siècle modernism of Otto Wagner. Vienna’s pastries rival those of Paris, as does its coffeehouse culture. Chocolate? Plenty of that, too.
But Vienna, city of beer? Not since the nineteenth century, nascent interest in craft beer notwithstanding.
Nothing says summer more than the crunch of gravel underfoot and the shade overhead as I carry my stein of beer back to my spot under the leafy canopy of the chestnut grove. I’ve repeated the ritual for years now. The cool breeze, the buzz of conversation, the heavy clink of beer mugs, the solid and slightly awkward metal chairs or benches bedecked with wooden slats, the chestnut blossoms covering the tables in late spring and early summer, the plates of sausage, pork knuckle, and sauerkraut –– it’s a scene that never loses its charm.
Even if the glory days of Vienna lager are a thing of the past, Vienna can still lay claim to a rich but understated beer garden tradition. Here’s the first of four shaded oases sure to inspire visitors and locals alike out to check out different parts of the city.
A few steps from the iconic Riesenrad (giant Ferris wheel), and tucked between the lively commotion of the Würstel Prater amusement park and the stately tree-lined Hauptallee, the Schweizerhaus serves up its beer with a shot of Viennese history on the side. If you visit before the Schweizerhaus closes for the season on 31 October, you’ll be able to raise a stein to Joseph II, the reform-minded Habsburg monarch who opened up the imperial hunting grounds to the general public. Since his proclamation 250 years ago, the broad natural expanse on the edge of the city has become tightly woven into the cultural fabric of the city.
The Prater has been many things to many people over the ages –– meadows, woodlands, amusement park, den of iniquity. Some commentators have even gone so far as to claim that the Prater is an “anarchic space” in which different levels of society could mix and mingle more or less unconstrained by the social norms operative in the city. Countless Austrian literary figures have written fondly of the Prater, and even Goethe, who never visited Vienna, was aware of its reputation. The Prater has also appeared in motion pictures, perhaps most indelibly in the 1949 classic, The Third Man, featuring a diabolical Orson Welles on the run from Joseph Cotten and a Vienna laid low by the war.
Food and drink has long been a highlight of a visit to the Prater. Early on, lemonade stands, snack booths, guest houses, and coffee houses emerged as fixtures along the Hauptallee. Taverns soon followed, including the storied Schweizerhaus.
The Schweizerhaus opened in 1868, and is one of the few great Prater drinking establishments to have survived both world wars. Nowadays the Schweizerhaus exudes tradition, but at one time it stood at the forefront of innovation. Following the example of tavern owners in Munich and the United States, the proprietors had a giant ice cellar installed. “Thanks to this,” wrote one contemporary enthusiast, “patrons can now […] enjoy every glass of Pils or Schwechater beer fresh from the ice cellar while they must be content with lukewarm refreshment at best in many Prater restaurants, especially at the height of summer” (Hachleitner, 2014, 132). When the owner passed away unexpectedly in 1920, Johann Kolarik, a butcher and Prater regular, stepped in. Kolarik switched to Czech Budweiser and introduced a meat dish that soon became synonymous with the Schweizerhaus: the Schweizerhaus Stelze, or roasted pork knuckle.
The establishment remains in the Kolarik family to this day, and now has space for 1700 lucky imbibers in the shaded garden. Keep an eye out for the signs on the lampposts that divide the beer garden into Vienna’s twenty-three districts. You’ll find me in the 9th District enjoying my Budweiser.
Check back soon for the second installment covering the remaining beer gardens.
Bernhard Hachleitner, The Prater Book (Vienna: Bohmann Verlag, 2014).
For a brief history of how the beer garden came into being, see Tempest’s In the Cool Shade of the Beer Garden.
*If you’re visiting Vienna this summer and want to learn more about the cultural history of the Prater, don’t miss the Wien Museum’s informative and entertaining exhibition, Meet Me at the Prater! Viennese Pleasures since 1766.
With the exception of the placard for the Wien Museum’s Prater exhibition, all images by F.D. Hofer.
© 2016 F.D. Hofer and A Tempest in a Tankard. All rights reserved.