VIENNA, Austria — A friend describes standing outside this city's prestigious Elmayer Dance School and watching as a young man, pierced and tattooed, wearing combat boots and sporting a multicolored Mohawk, got off a motorcycle and reached for something in his backpack.
He fished out nothing more menacing than a pair of dancing shoes. According to my friend, his whole demeanor changed, from a hulking Easy Rider into a high stepper worthy of Fred Astaire. Welcome to Vienna, a city where music is always in the air and dancing is an advanced form of walking.
I was in Vienna to attend the annual Coffee-house Owners' Ball at the Hofburg Palace, one of about 450 such balls that are sprinkled throughout the season. In preparation, a dancing class had been arranged for me at the Thomas Kraml dance school, where I would bone up on my Viennese waltz and learn the intricate steps of the quadrille, a staple at every ball.
I quickly realized that my cotillion days were far behind me, a fact that was underscored the night of the ball. Arriving at the palace in a horse-drawn carriage and walking the red carpet to the Grand Ballroom, I watched the opening ceremony in fascination — a coterie of young debs in white gowns gliding with their partners to the strains of The Blue Danube Waltz. It was beautiful.
It was less lovely when the guests took the floor. It was easy to tell the Viennese from the visitors, especially during the quadrille. Viennese couples moved gracefully down the line like Prince Charming and Cinderella; most visitors, including me, resembled Granny Clampett waltzing with Mr. Bean.
No matter. It was all in fun, and at the conclusion of the midnight and 2 a.m. quadrilles, Viennese and visitors alike collapsed in laughter.
A city of music
Few cities in the world are defined as much by their music as Vienna. Think Haydn, the "father of string quartets"; Schubert and his piano sonatas; and of course, Johann Strauss Jr., the "Waltz King."
One of the most thrilling and expensive evenings (tickets can be as much as $300) for any visitor to Vienna is a night at the opera. Dating to the mid-19th century, the imposing opera house was commissioned as the Vienna Court Opera, and its gilded ceilings and marble staircase were palatial enough for any royal court.
With the collapse of the Habsburg monarchy after World War I and its replacement by Austria's First Republic, or Republik Österreich, the name changed to Vienna State Opera, or Wiener Staatsoper, but the lavish trappings remained. Before taking your seat, check out the colorful murals depicting Mozart's opera The Magic Flute; at intermission, join locals for champagne on the sweeping terrace.
Since you've already dented the credit card for opera tickets, you might as well go all the way. Across the street, between the Opera House and Albertina Museum, the Hotel Sacher is the grande dame of Vienna hotels.
Run by three generations of the Sacher family, the hotel has hosted illustrious guests ranging from President John F. Kennedy to Queen Elizabeth II. Enjoy a post-opera drink in the atmospheric Blue Bar, or order the confection created in the hotel café: Sacher torte, a dark chocolate cake drizzled with whipped cream.
If you're on a more modest budget, join locals in what has become a pre-opera tradition: a quick bite at the Bitzinger sausage stand, just outside the Opera House.
In Vienna, even the horses dance to classical music, as witness the famous Lipizzaner stallions. These magnificent horses, bred from Spanish, Arab and Italian lines, date to the 16th century when the Habsburgs imported them for use in the Spanish Riding School.
If you can't get to a performance, watch the stallions in a morning workout at the Winter Riding School, part of the Imperial Palace complex. Under gleaming chandeliers and to the strains of Mozart, they perform their famous dressage movements, known as "airs above the ground," making them appear as if they are indeed dancing.
A city of coffee
Vienna is also the coffeehouse capital of the world, and I don't mean Starbucks. The first coffeehouse opened in 1685, and today, some 850 are spread throughout the city. About 150 retain the classic tradition: black-clad waiters, marble-topped tables and wood floors. There is even an official day dedicated to the noble coffee bean: Oct. 1.
The coffeehouse is to Vienna what the pub is to Britain and the sidewalk café to France: a place for idling away large chunks of time philosophizing, gossiping, reading the newspaper or playing chess. There are coffeehouses patronized by various city constituencies: city workers congregate at the Café Ministerium; artists and students prefer Café Prückel, while politicians opt for the legendary Café Landtmann, Sigmund Freud's favorite hangout.
I had a chance to communicate with the ghost of Freud during an evening at Café Landtmann. Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations, the brainchild of an Austrian living in London and a Brit living in Vienna, bring together locals and visitors for an evening of discussion.
A visitor is paired with a local, and along with the actual menu, they are provided with a menu of questions designed to get the intellectual juices flowing. My conversational partner and I never got into the id, ego and superego, but we did enjoy a lively chat.
One last note: If you want to drink coffee the way the Viennese do, skip the macchiato and try the Wiener eiskaffee, cold coffee with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream, or better yet, the flaker, strong black coffee with a shot of rum.
I have always considered Vienna the most imperial city in Europe, no small feat on a continent loaded with imperial cities. However, according to international consulting firm Mercer, it's not just imperial, it's eminently livable.
Every year the firm rates 223 cities worldwide in categories ranging from political climate to public transportation, and for the past two years, Vienna has come out on top.
I don't think they need to do all that work. How can a city so besotted with dancing and coffee come out anywhere but on top?