The idea to assemble a list of my favorite books set in/about Vienna developed organically from the weekly Wednesday book recommendation I put up on our social media channels. Initially, as part of the #dailydreamtravel, these photos were rather unexpressive. In time, I realized that I quite enjoy putting together meaningful settings for my book pictures and even walking around Vienna and taking photos of books across the city. Thus, this list of my favorite books set in/about Vienna is as much a photo essay as it is a reading recommendation.
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Books set in/about Vienna – the videos we make
While we do struggle to keep this list of books set in/about Vienna as updated as possible, sometimes we are faster at that on our social media channels than here. To this end, follow us on Facebook and Instagram for weekly book recommendations and live videos from Vienna, telling you about our most recent readings.
Below a live video where I talk about Vienna with locals and Thomas Bernhard’s Old Masters. And one more tip – the next videos will be about Robert Seethaler’s The Tobacconist and Hitler’s Vienna by Brigitte Hamann.
If you’d like to join our live discussion talking about these books, let us know in the comments!
Books set in/about Vienna – novels and memoirs
Night Falls on the City, by Sarah Gainam
It was a windy, leaden, mid-autumn evening on the Kärntner Strasse. I was just killing time until an opera performance and decided to browse again through the English section of the Frick bookstore.
What is nowadays a rather kitschy souvenir shop on Vienna’s main pedestrian artery, used to be this cozy bookshop with a couch and big windows overlooking the street. That is how I came across Night Falls on the City, my absolute favorite novel on Vienna, which I pretty much finished in one sitting.
It tells the story of a famous Viennese actress, Julia Homburg, who is forced to conceal her politician Jewish husband as soon as German troops enter Austria in World War II. The consequences of this double life on all those involved are tremendous, while the city itself and the transformations it undergoes take central stage every so often, mirroring the dissonances that arise in the Viennese society.
The Only Woman in the Room, by Marie Benedict
A recent addition, The Only Woman in the Room is a page-turner that details the incredible life of actress and inventor Hedy Lamarr, who grew up and made her stage debut in early 1930’s Vienna.
The World of Yesterday, by Stefan Zweig
The best autobiography I have read, The World of Yesterday was sent to the publisher a few days before the author took his own life. It is a first-hand portrait of Vienna and the Austrian society during the late years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and a grim, unforgiving account of the world between the two world wars.
Besides a unique perspective, Stefan Zweig’s famous memoir also allows an honest, uncensored look in the workings of his great mind and is a portrait of the intellectual life of the period, as Zweig mentions his encounters and friendships with Romain Rolland, Sigmund Freud, and Richard Strauss among many others. A masterpiece that should be mandatory reading for anyone trying to understand the history of the last century.
1913: The Year Before the Storm, by Stefan Illies
Another one of my purchases from the Frick bookstore on Kärntner Strasse, the account of Stefan Illies reads like a juicy, historically accurate gossip column of what was going on right before the start of World War I. An amazing perspective to complement Stefan Zweig’s!
1913 is the year when Henry Ford introduces the automated production line, Proust starts his masterpiece, Chaplin signs his first contract, and the art scene encounters Stravinski and Picasso. Thomas Mann, Matisse, Rodin, Hitler, Alma Mahler, Kokoschka, Stalin, Tito, Rilke and their roundabouts in the year before the storm take in turn central stage in this account of Europe on the brink of disaster.
Although it only covers Vienna in one chapter, Charles Emmerson’s masterpiece on the same topic 1913 – The World before the Great War is a more in-depth work on the topic.
The Radetzky March, by Joseph Roth
A remarkable chronicle of the decaying Austro-Hungarian Empire can be found in Joseph Roth’s most famous novel, The Radetzky March.
It traces the history of the Trotta family across three generations, each equally intertwined with the fate and mentalities of said empire. Be it ennoblement, civil service, or an outdated legacy, everybody’s personal focus grows in the shadow of history while the music of Johann Strauss provides the background.
A feat of modern literature, this work puts its author on equal footing with Thomas Mann, Marcel Proust, and James Joyce. Its sequel The Emperor’s Tomb continues the story up to the annexation of Austria by Hitler’s Germany.
To complete the list on the topic, Brigitte Hamann‘s historical inquiry into what turned an unexceptional young man into the tyrant Adolf Hitler looks at his formative years in Vienna. Hitler’s Vienna describes the dark, conservative, and prejudiced facets of fin de siècle Vienna.
The Piano Teacher, by Elfriede Jelinek
Elfriede Jelinek was awarded in 2004 the Nobel Prize for literature, The Piano Teacher is her most famous novel.
Erika Kohut is in her late thirties and teaches at the Vienna Conservatory, while still sharing an apartment and a dysfunctional relationship with her mother. Alongside other episodes from her past, the interaction with her mother is responsible for Erika’s violent, obsessive, and self-mutilating personality.
When her student Walter Klemmer enters the equation tensions built up to the point of all-encompassing self-destruction.
Honorary mention – The Vienna Melody, by Ernst Lothar
It does not happen often that I struggle to finish one of the books set in/about Vienna, but it just so happen to be the case with Ernst Lothar’s novel. Incredibly well researched and commendable for the depth of its characters, this novel does lack a certain pace of action to keep the reader engaged to the end.
One of the few Vienna readings I picked up during the March 2020 lockdown (see full article here), this novel describes how historic events affect generations of the Alt family living at 10 Seilerstatte in Vienna’s inner first district. An accurate history and character lesson for those looking to become familiar with Viennese events and mentalities from the last century.
Books set in/about Vienna – books about music in Vienna
Why Mahler, by Norman Lebrecht
Like every excellent biography, this work is the product of longstanding passion and research. It follows the composer’s every single footstep, and while fantastically well researched, it is a very entertaining and captivating read. How does music change our lives? And why does Mahler have so much to say to us through his modern, ahead-of-his-time works? I could not put this book down and if you decide to read it in Vienna, the city will offer you ample locations to fully appreciate it!
The Last Waltz, the Strauss Dynasty and Vienna, by John Suchet
No list of books set in/about Vienna is complete without a stop at the Strauss dynasty.
The Blue Danube, Tales from the Vienna Woods, Voices of Spring, The Radetzky March – pieces of music that are synonymous with Vienna, so much so that they are played by all major airlines even before you land in Austria’s capital.
John Suchet, UK journalist mostly known for his work on Beethoven, has put together this amazing family chronicle of two Viennese generations that have produced so many musical masterpieces. A gripping account of family dramas, tensions, jealousies, triumphs, feuds, and disasters, the story also reveals a lot about the turbulent times and society in which these famous works were composed.
Music and Musicians in Vienna, by Richard Rickett
This pocket-sized book is the type of treasure you find if you browse long enough through Arcadia, the music/paper/book shop found in the building of the Vienna State Opera. It is ideal for carrying around to be read in the city’s most famous coffee houses and parks, so much so that I lend it to almost every personalized itinerary guest that visits Vienna for a few days.
Within 150 pages, the author explains why Vienna has been the capital of classical music for the past two hundred years, how this tradition came about and was maintained, and how composers influenced each other and the city they all ended up calling home. It is a well researched, fantastically asserted work, easy to read, and aimed at the non-specialist reader.
The Triumph of Music, by Tim Blanning
Although not strictly on the list of books set in/about Vienna, this highly enjoyable chronicle is an ambitious feat that tries to explain music as a phenomenon and a part of our daily lives. It covers a wide breadth of time and genres, from Mozart and Haydn to jazz, hip hop, MTV, and modern technology and explains how the musicians’ role in society evolved from mere court servants to today’s influencers. Finally, in the last chapter, Tim Blanning discusses music in relation to nationalism, race, and sex and the trends they follow in our modern world.
As it is one of the books I purchased and read in Vienna, it is for me a reading that will forever be linked with the city I now call home.
Books set in/about Vienna – the city takes central stage
Weird Vienna, by Harald Havas
Another pocket-sized masterpiece, this book reminds us that Vienna is one of the cities most easily misunderstood. Beyond the glamour, music, elegance, and pastries, Austria’s capital enjoys a healthy dose of sarcasm, a quirky sense of humor, an appetite for the macabre and gossip, and it embraces weirds and weirdos with pleasure.
It takes a trained local’s eye to spot all these aspects and bring them to light in an entertaining and funny rundown of Vienna’s moonlighting personality.
Another one of the books that my personalized itineraries customers devour in one sitting in Vienna’s parks.
Vienna, A Cultural History, by Nicholas Parsons
If you are as serious as I was in my first years here to understand the paradox that is Vienna, look no further than this comprehensive portrait.
From explaining the Viennese sense of humor and attitude towards life to a rundown of the most famous works of local dialect and a historical overview, Nicholas Parsons clarifies how a world metropolis with an amazing history can sometimes feel like a claustrophobic village.
I would have never felt at home in Vienna had I not read this book. Enough said.
Only in Vienna, by Duncan J.D. Smith
Only in Vienna will forever hold a special place in my heart, as it was my first encounter with the city off the beaten path. I purchased it from the bookshop of the Belvedere Palace a couple of months into my time here and diligently uncovered every delightful hidden gem outlined. Mysterious courtyards, forgotten cemeteries, the world’s first croissant, the Holy Grail, everything you need to fall in love with Vienna if you are not the touristy type.
Since the first version of this article on books set in/about Vienna I have been in contact with the author himself and learned so much from him about travel writing and cultural travel in general.
Nowadays, if in search for that feeling from the beginning, when I was relentlessly going through books set in/about Vienna, I usually attend a Secret Vienna Tour or let myself be challenged by a novel Viennese neighborhood. Of course, all this accumulated knowledge and experience is yours to take advantage of by letting us put together a personalized Viennese itinerary for your stay in the city. You know where that contact button is!
Fin-De-Siecle Vienna: Politics and Culture, by Carl E. Schorske
This pivotal book won the Pulitzer Prize for the extraordinary way in which it explains how out of political turmoil and social chaos, modernity was born in Vienna. Klimt, Kokoschka, Schiele, Mahler, Freud, Wittgenstein, and many others have given the city its unmistakable aspect and personality – an absolute must on any list of books set in/about Vienna.
For more readings on the topic, check out:
A Nervous Splendor: Vienna 1888-1889, by Frederic Morton
The Pornographer of Vienna, by Lewis Crofts
A Short History of Art in Vienna, by Martina Pippal
Martina Pippal, who teaches art history at the University of Vienna, has put together this concise, friendly, beautifully illustrated overview of the many art forms and manifestations that the city has witnessed over time.
Every time I purchase an art history book I wonder if I manage to read it through, as chronology is the enemy of enthusiasm in this instance. This was not the case with this little fellow here, who has accompanied me in numerous discovery expeditions across the city and is one of my best companions when it comes to Vienna.
Books set in/about Vienna – the story goes on
I belong to Vienna, by Anna Goldenberg
The appearance of a new addition to the best books set in/about Vienna is always a cherished event. This recent family memoir by Anna Goldenberg is the quintessential expression of the fact that, in what Vienna is concerned, the story goes on. Written and extraordinarily well researched by the author, who is herself a returned Viennese, the book mainly tells the story of her grandparents. Victims of the Nazi regime, they flee to the US only to return to Vienna later on.
Answering questions such as the nature of life in Vienna during WW II and how family, greater history, and a city can shape personalities and destinies, this book is at the same time an outstanding reportage, a family story, and a personal essay. UNPUTDOWNABLE!
There are numerous other books set in/about Vienna, from the famous The Third Man and Tante Jolesch, to journeys into the human psyche like Waiting for Sunrise and When Nietzsche Wept. While most of them have reached my attention at one point or the other, they have not always kept it for long enough to make it on my list above. This is purely a matter of personal taste, thus shall you be interested in a genre not covered in my article, drop me a comment or an e-mail and I will try to put together some recommendations for you! Happy reading and see you in Vienna!