On an airport runway in Vienna on a bright July day in 2010, the United States and Russia conducted the first major prisoner exchange between the countries since 1986. The U.S. handed over 10 members of a Russian spy ring who had been caught working to infiltrate America as “sleeper agents.” The exchange included Anna Chapman, who gained notoriety after her arrest not so much for the quality of her espionage (or lack thereof) as much as for her flaming red hair. In return, Russia released four Russian prisoners who had been jailed because of their contacts with the West.
Chapman notwithstanding, the prisoner exchange was the not-quite-the- middle-of-a-dark-and-misty-night handover between armed people in trench coats we have come to expect from Cold War epics. But that day, Vienna lived up to its reputation as the Spy Capital of the World.
Vienna has a long history with spying. Between World War I and II, Vienna became a European hub for espionage activities. The Third Reich later gathered much of its intelligence on southern and eastern Europe in Vienna. By the time the Cold War began, Vienna was considered an excellent place to collect intelligence because of the high number of refugees living there who were desperate to earn a living, even if that meant selling information to foreign intelligence services. With that reputation, Vienna served as the setting for the 1949 Orson Welles spy thriller The Third Man, one of the most famous pieces of British film noir.
A former chief in the Austrian intelligence service once told the Telegraph that more than 7,000 spies operated in Vienna, a city of nearly 1.8 million people. It’s “a nice place for spies to live and bring their families,” he added. Although there are many reasons to visit Vienna for tourists and spies alike, Austria’s famous chocolate cake (sachertorte) and the city’s perfectly preserved Habsburg palaces are not the reason intelligence services still flock to the city.
Austria has some of the most relaxed laws on spying of any country in the world and those laws have not been updated since the Austro-Hungarian empire fell, even with two world wars and the Cold War since then. In fact, the only spying activities that are illegal in the country are the kind that directly target Austria. Vienna also hosts one of four headquarters of the United Nations and is home to about 40 other important international organizations that have delegations from all over the world, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE). With approximately 320 bilateral and multilateral diplomatic representations operating in Vienna, nearly 4,000 diplomats, and more than 6,000 international officials, Vienna is brimming with information foreign intelligence services want to collect.
But it is in wandering the streets of Vienna that you really start to see why the city lives up to its cloak and dagger history. Vienna’s famous coffee houses have played an important role as meeting places for writers, musicians, artists and philosophers throughout history. At Café Central in the heart of Vienna, you can dine on Apfelstrudel in the same place where Leo Trostky and Sigmund Freud sat. You can also take advantage of the seemingly endless coffeehouse chatter to meet your sources under the radar and to mask any clandestine conversations you need to have.
Tourists flock to Vienna’s Ring Road (Ringstraße), a road that replaced the city’s Medieval walls in the mid-19th century and now circles some of the city’s most historic sights. Crowds can be annoying for tourists, but not for anyone looking to blend in or conduct business without being noticed; they will be drawn to busy places like Stephansplatz with St. Stephen’s towering cathedral and hundreds of stores in the pedestrian shopping area. The row of world class art galleries in the MuseumsQuartier also draw crowds. If you think you have someone following you and you need to lose them, the best place to go is somewhere with a crowd.
Vienna is broken into 23 different districts, but the city’s well-ordered and reliable public transportation system makes it easy for tourists looking to move around. It is also helpful for anyone looking to make a quick getaway. The street trams known as the Straßenbahn, the metro system called the U-Bahn, and the city buses make it easy to hop on and off around the city and they are all largely wheelchair accessible. If you need to get out of the country, Vienna’s central location in Europe and the S-Bahn train (Schnellbahn) make it easy; you can get to Bratislava in one hour, Budapest in less than three hours, or Prague or Munich in four.
If you are more inclined to reenact famous spy movie scenes than do the actual spying, Vienna is still full of opportunities. You can recreate one of the most famous scenes from The Third Man by riding the same exact Ferris wheel shown in the movie when Orson Welles is confronted about staging his own death. At 212 feet tall, the Wiener Risenrad in Prater amusement park in Vienna’s Leopoldstadt district remains one of the oldest and tallest Ferris wheels still in use in the world.
The Vienna State Opera house was the setting for one of the best fight scenes in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation. The opera house opened in 1869 and is home to one of the most world renowned opera companies. Visitors can take a backstage tour of the magnificent building and, as one of the busiest opera houses in the world, can easily catch a performance. While you might even be lucky enough to watch the same show playing during Cruise’s fight scene, Turandot, opera house staff are likely to frown upon attempts to reenact the scene by climbing into the rafters or sparring on top of moving lighting above the stage mid-performance.
Whether you are coming to Vienna as a tourist or a spy, don’t forget to pack your trench coat.