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A Hop Through Hip Vienna
Paris has the Latin Quarter, London has Notting Hill, and the bohemian district in Vienna is the Freihaus sector, Vienna's trendiest neighborhood.
Freihaus, in the 17th century, within what is now the 4th District (Wieden), provided free housing to the city's poor, hence its name "Freihaus" or Free House. Destroyed in the Turkish siege of 1683, the complex was rebuilt on a much larger scale, becoming arguably the largest housing project in Europe at the time. It was a city within a city, including shops and the old Theater auf der Wieden, in which Mozart's The Magic Flute premiered. A slow decline followed, spanning Franz Josef's reign from the mid-19th century to the early 20th century, with some of the area razed to the ground before World War I. During World War II, bombing raids practically finished it off.
But then in the late 1990s a group of savvy local merchants revitalized the area, opening funky art galleries, antiques shops, espresso bars, trendy restaurants, and fashion boutiques. Freihaus is small, stretching from Karlsplatz to Kettenbrückengasse, which encompasses part of the Naschmarkt, the city's largest open-air market. Two of the best streets are Operngasse and Schleifmühlgasse.
What do you do with four immense gasometers more than 100 years old? Turn them into a cool, urban complex combining living and shopping, that's what. Looming large on the Vienna horizon, the Gasometer (www.gasometer.org) has generated a lot of publicity. Just to give an idea of their size, Vienna's giant Ferris wheel (the Riesenrad) at the Prater Amusement Park would fit easily inside each one. Top architects were hired to accomplish the sleek and modern interior renovations, creating more than 600 modern apartments and a huge shopping mall with movie theaters and restaurants. It's in Simmering, Vienna's 11th District, and is eight minutes from the heart of the city on the U3 subway.
A visit to Vienna during the summer months would not be complete without a few hours spent on the Donauinsel (Danube Island), more popularly known as the Copa Kagrana. ("Kagrana" is taken from the name of the nearby local area known as Kagran.) It was originally built as a safeguard against flooding, but now this 13-square-mi island is where the Viennese head for bicycling, skateboarding, jogging, swimming, or just a leisurely stroll and dinner by the water. There are dozens of stalls and restaurants, offering grilled steaks, fried chicken, or freshly caught fish to go along with a mug of ice-cold draft beer or Austrian wine. Every year, 2 million visitors converge on the island for three days in June for an admission-free summer festival, the Donaufest (www.donauinselfest.at). The Copa Kagrana can be reached by subway: either the U1 to Donauinsel or the U6 to Handelskai.
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