Vienna now stands at the crossroads of Europe, just as it did in the heyday of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. During the Cold War, the government pretended to maintain a neutrality it did not possess, as Austrian leaders feared the return of the Russians, who left peacefully in 1955. But, since the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Austria has been moving toward greater cooperation and unity with the Western powers -- that is, until the millennium when an estrangement between Austria and its EU neighbors moved dangerously close to the brink and made world headlines.
Politics aside, a slight downward drift in tourism is blamed on the daunting prices in Austria. As a cafe owner told us, "We must change our attitudes from complacency and haughtiness to service with a smile. We're going to have to not only improve service but drop prices to bring the world back to our door."
In 1998, continuing the effort to lay the past to rest, Austrian officials agreed to return to their rightful owners art confiscated by the Nazis. By 2008, this effort continued. The Austrian minister of culture, Elisabeth Gehrer, said she wanted to correct what she termed "immoral decisions" made at the end of World War II. This bold move sent reverberations throughout the museum world of Europe and the U.S.
As a center of European culture, Vienna has more than 100 art museums, attracting eight million visitors annually. In 2001 Vienna was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, ranking third in the world in terms of quality of life.
By 2008 16 percent of Vienna's residents claim some place other than Austria as their birthplace. Immigrants are mostly from Turkey, the former Yugoslavia, Poland, and even Germany. An example of the many social democratic policies of the Austrian government is low-cost residential estates called Gemeindebauten.
As a world capital, Vienna rivals Geneva in being the seat of a number of United Nations offices and various international institutions, including the all-important Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries known as OPEC. Vienna is also the seat of a number of charitable organizations, including SOS Children's Villages, founded in 1949. Today this organization serves 132 countries and territories worldwide.