I reckon you can learn a lot about a city by the way that it shops – which is why I always head straight to the market, to get a feel for the place.
It’s where you’re going to find out what the locals eat, what they wear day to day, and what they put in their houses. And the stalls and stallholders, together with the noise and clamour, are going to tell you a whole lot more about the local or national character than any guidebook.
Vienna’s Naschmarkt – a genuine puzzle
So I’m going to tell you right now that Vienna’s Naschmarkt – the biggest market in the city – is a genuine puzzle.
I explain why below, but if you want an immediate flavour of the Naschmarkt, check out the video, which I filmed in a day and night spent at the market.
In Barcelona, the elegantly beautiful stalls of the Boqueria market reflect the Catalan love of design and style; in Bangkok’s Chinatown, the almost frenzied bustle combined with a manic insistence on the freshest of produce – yes, those half-filleted fish are still alive – tells you all you need to know about daily life in a Thai city.
So in Vienna – grandiose, baroque, elegant Vienna – you expect order, calm and gentility, and what you get is the curious Naschmarkt – street food, gourmet stalls, hippy-dippy clothes and souvenirs by day, and an entirely surprising bar and restaurant scene by night.
Naschmarkt started out as a dairy market in the 1780s, but has since morphed into the biggest general market in town, with a full mile of stalls between Karlsplatz and Kettenbruckengasse – both handily on the U4 metro line, so you can get off at one and walk through to the other.
Antique dealers and antelope heads
The clothes stalls at the far end are the first puzzle. Tie-dye wraps, knock-off soccer shirts, cheap shoes, hippy jewellery, slogan T-shirts – all standard market stuff, except no one wears things like this in staid old Vienna. On Saturdays, there’s a flea market where antique dealers mix it with people who have emptied the contents of granny’s attic in the vain hope someone wants to buy a stuffed antelope head.
Further up, you’re into the food stalls, which is where the Naschmarkt really starts to make no sense. There’s fruit and veg, some butchers and bakers, and a couple of high-end delis, but they are outgunned by the huge array of street food stalls and snack joints selling Asian, Italian, North African and Middle Eastern snacks and produce – which of course is fantastic, but entirely unlike the rest of Vienna, where basically paprika is the only spice in town.
The restaurants and bars, too, look elsewhere for inspiration – open all day, but also buzzing at night, when the lights come on and the open window seats and outdoor tables are filled with drinkers and diners.
More Asian night market than European street market
It’s more Asian night market than central European street market, and the food is really good – Austrian, Italian, Turkish, and Middle Eastern, but also with excellent Southeast Asian choices, including some amazing noodle bars.
It was ‘Li’s Cooking’ for us, with massive bowls of noodle soup, and then glasses of prosecco and DJ sets in the bar along the alley. Even just writing that doesn’t make it sound like you’re in Vienna at all.
We loved it!
We never really got to the bottom of why the Naschmarkt is like it is – or perhaps why the rest of Vienna isn’t more like the Naschmarkt.
What we did realise quickly was that we loved it – and came back every day for lunch, dinner and drinks in one of Europe’s most surprising markets.
Vienna Info’s website tells you a bit more about the market and how to get there.
Naschmarkt by superscheeli, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Vienna market Naschmarkt by Su-May, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Naschmarkt by Markus Tacker, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0
Flohmarkt am Wiener Naschmarkt by Marco Verch, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Naschmarkt by Cha gia Jose, via Flickr, CC BY 2.0
Wombar Naschmarkt Jaegerbombs by Wombats City Hostels, via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Naschmarkt, Vienna, by Patrick Freitag, via Flickr, CC BY-ND 2.0