Travel

For Live Music in Vienna, Head Under the Tracks

In the Gürtel, nobody can hear you scream (in a good way).

brandstaetter images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
brandstaetter images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
brandstaetter images/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

What do you do when you wanna rock, but your neighbours upstairs would prefer you… not? If you’re Othmar Bajlicz, music lover, former Austrian footballer, and founder of Vienna music venue Chelsea, you don’t venture to the other side of the tracks-you go underneath them.

Specifically, you move your popular club from a residential building in District 8 into the arches of a viaduct in Vienna’s Gürtel, defined by the massive arterial ring-road separating the city’s inner districts from the suburbs (gürtel is German for belt). Here, tucked under the U6 U-Bahn and flanked by heavy traffic, no one complains about the noise. No one can even hear you. The trains chugging overhead are not only unbothered by the amplified bass, on occasion they get into it, rattling some beer glasses of their own.

While in hindsight Chelsea’s current location is ideal for a rambunctious music venue, it took some time to get there-including a lawsuit, and, over three decades ago when the Gürtel was a less than desirable area, a bit of courage. But in Bajlicz, Chelsea had an owner who was all in. Retired from soccer at the ripe age of 30, he set his sights on music, and opened the first iteration of Chelsea in 1986. He had a vision, and the club filled a much-needed niche. Vienna’s live music scene was sparse and homogeneous, and there was often a cover price. In a city devoid of places where music lovers, writers, and editors could simply congregate, Chelsea promised to be their Cheers.

Chelsea
Chelsea
Chelsea

Bajlicz booked both DJs and bands, and served some Anglophilic offerings on tap. (Though it’s often associated with the British football team, it was in fact named after the London neighbourhood where punk was born.) A music magazine was created in conjunction with the space. The original Chelsea hosted bands with amazing names like Pungent Stench and Fetish 69, and once it gained international notoriety, attracted the likes of Die Toten Hosen and a little up-and-coming outfit called Soundgarden.

But not everyone was so enthusiastic about its arrival. “People lived in the building,” says Bajlicz. “We had problems with the neighbours about the noise, especially with the live music.” Because of complaints, concerts were whittled down to once a week. After a court case, the space eventually closed and the team was forced to relocate.

At the same time, Vienna’s administration was trying to clean up a rundown area that had become the city’s red light district. They offered Bajilcz an open-ended tenancy agreement in exchange for a space nobody else wanted. In 1995, the second incarnation of Chelsea opened its doors in the Gürtel, and quickly picked up where it left off. It also kickstarted a trend, becoming the first of many bars and venues to move into the once disparaged area, forming what today is widely considered one of Vienna’s most vibrant, thriving nightlife areas: a true metropolitan success story. The arches under the viaduct became so popular that they later attracted another set of arches: a pair of golden ones, attached to a bi-level McDonald’s, which comes in pretty handy after a night out.

Courtesy of WienTourismus/Christian Stemper
Courtesy of WienTourismus/Christian Stemper
Courtesy of WienTourismus/Christian Stemper

Think of Vienna as a cell. In the nucleus is the old medieval city, once a camp for the Roman Empire, later the centre of the European universe under the Austrian Habsburgs. Here you’ll find your (multiple) museums, your classical music venues, and your Spanish Riding School. There’s high-end shopping streets and, in the winter, a host of traditional Christmas markets. It’s the country’s administrative, political, and economic centre, with buildings like the Austrian Treasury and the gorgeous St. Stephen’s Cathedral open for perusal. Once walled in, this historical core-the Innere Stadt, or District 1 of Vienna’s 23 geographical designations-is where tourists are most likely to gravitate. And it’s easy to know its limits: where the old town walls once stood is now the famous Ringstraße, or ring road.

There was once another fortified wall sectioning off sections of the city. While the Ringstraße created an inner pocket for the church and the ruling class, its prominent boulevard a stage for powerful actors, a concentric outer wall held the businesses, suburbs, and proletariat. After it was demolished, in 1873 its site became the Wiener Gürtelstraße-colloquially, the Gürtel- a major thoroughfare utilized by the backbone of the city.In the late 1800s, an almost fully elevated railway was added to the Gürtel to shuttle even more bodies to and from the city’s industrial ring. The powers that be opted to model the tracks after a Roman viaduct, both functionally and aesthetically. From the beginning, they envisioned leasing the arched spaces below, which ranged from one to three floors depending on height fluctuation, out to local businesses. Leading Viennese architect Otto Wagner-a founder of the Secession Movement-was enlisted to execute the vision; he designed the semicircular openings with transparent enclosures for passersby to peer directly into the commerce.

As planned, shops and other businesses moved into the ground floor lots and the area thrived. But then came WWII, when many of the glass facades were shattered or sealed in for cover. The viaduct started to resemble a wall, once again creating a partition in the city. As merchants left, less and less people came around. At the same time, automobile culture exploded, and the Gürtel was widened to eight busy lanes to accommodate the influx of cars. In their wake came rampant exhaust pollution and noise, abandoned storefronts, and social degradation-an unattractive landscape for anyone looking for a smogless, chaste urban adventure. But perfect for a red light district. And also music venues. And the eventual attempt to turn the area around.

Courtesy of Chelsea
Courtesy of Chelsea
Courtesy of Chelsea

Which brings us to Chelsea. To be clear, prostitution is legal in Austria (for the most part), but while there’s no official red light district, sex work establishments are concentrated in certain areas, including within the northern Gürtel. In this particular strip, however, it’s all about the music.

You’d be forgiven for not knowing what you might encounter behind Chelsea’s doors. Unlike many of its neighbours, with their arched facades once again featuring transparent glass-all the better to lure you in by what’s inside-from its exterior, Chelsea is a mystery, save for the countless music posters taped to the windows. And stepping inside doesn’t really clear things up, either. You’re greeted by a bar brimming with booze and slapped with stickers. On a mounted television, a soccer game plays unceremoniously. There’s sports paraphernalia scattered about-miniature team pendants, vintage photos of matches.

Turning left, the space is awash in red light, sectioned off by looming brick arches. The second room holds another bar, this one with an adjoining dance floor; it’s so early in the evening when I visit, there’s just one patron inside, nursing a beer. The interior deepens through another arch, then another, capped with a stage. Bajlicz explains the design’s eclecticism: “Our main goal is music-live gigs, DJs, and indie disco on weekends. We are music aficionados.”

And he’s not kidding. They throw about 200 concerts each year, typically favouring Britpop and punk. But just like Bajlicz, the venue also has a sporty side. “We also show football games from all the main European Leagues,” he adds. “English Premier League, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga, German Bundesliga, and Austrian Bundesliga.” If none of that appeals, there’s also pop culture-themed pub trivia.

Loop Wien
Loop Wien
Loop Wien

When the weather’s nice, outdoor tables allow crowds to spill onto the street, butting up against the several other venues that have set up shop since Chelsea proved the area viable. There’s the relaxed Loop, with free admission, music, schnitzel, and cocktails, and rhiz, its glass doors broadcasting electronica aspirations to the street. B72 is a bi-level live music hotpot, hosting budding alternative acts and the occasional emo night.

Each new arched doorway provides another opportunity for a good night out. The modern Halbestadt Bar has consistently been called out as one of the best places in town to enjoy a tipple. There’s Coco Bar, a music venue where you can also catch a football game, dance clubs like [kju:], the world music-heavy Fanialive, and the Loft, which ranges from raucous parties to sedate poetry nights. The Kramladen does a little bit of everything, including comedy nights, while Café Carina’s free offerings run the gamut from rock to open mics. Want food? Just a few steps from Chelsea sits the sleek gastropub Gürtelbräu, its brick arches and soft lighting making it a choice date night destination.

And just a few blocks away, past some greenery, you’ll find what is possibly the most aesthetic McDonald’s you’ve ever seen. You could have a pretty good time there too-it, like all Austrian McDonald’s franchises, serves beer alongside delicious-looking pastries. Not that Bajlicz would know. “I was not surprised when the McDonald’s moved in,” he says. “But I don’t go there.”

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Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. She did go in the McDonald’s, but did not order anything.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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