People don’t think to visit Vienna as often as it deserves. Once we got there, I realised that the culture and famous residents of Vienna had been peppering my life since childhood and that I should have wanted to make this one of my first European destination. As a child, I was fascinated by the story of Marie Antoinette which was the beginning of my long-standing interest in European history. Through ballet and later, flute lessons, I became into contact with more icons of Austria and particularly Vienna; Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, Strauss and Schubert. There is more to Vienna than royalty, music and opera however; schnitzel anyone?
Richard and I embarked on our first trip of 2016 to Vienna and were surprised by how much we liked the city. That’s not to say we expected to dislike it, but we were both taken aback by how quickly we developed an affection for it. Even in the bitter cold with frozen faces and extremities, we liked it enough to consider returning. Recent snowfall left piles of white fluff around the city and deep fog made me feel like I was walking in a romantic fairy tale.
With a population of 1.7 million friendly people, Vienna is nicely populated to ensure isolation is kept at bay but also that crowds are not an issue. The core city centre area is small which makes getting around very easy, especially through the use of the U-Bahn (underground rail). The added bonus was that public transport was reasonably priced. We purchased 48 hour travel cards for €18.90, giving us unlimited travel on the entire Vienna public transport network. Possibly in summer this wouldn’t be necessary for a short stay given that all the major attractions are close together and could be easily walked. But the winter chill makes a travel card an excellent idea!
The best attraction we saw was the Natural History museum. It is situated in a beautiful building opposite Museum Quarter.
The entry fee is completely worth it – this was the best museum we have ever been to. The exhibits were expansive, thorough, interactive and incredibly interesting. The first area we walked through took us on a journey from the big bang, through the formation of the Earth, the beginnings of life, the shaping of the planet and finally to Earth as we know it today. It was so great to see both adults and children equally entertained with the balance of information, colourful displays and a tangible timeline of globes running through the centre of the exhibit showing the Earth at different stages of development. We had time to walk through about half of the museum including an extensive display of minerals and the most impressive collection of taxidermy animals I have ever seen. We were quite pleased to see individual displays for the humble Kiwi and Kakapo. Highly recommended!
When you visit Vienna, you are faced with a number of clichés and other inescapable tourist magnets. What I found is that for the most part, that is totally okay and I would encourage any first time visitor to embrace it all!
The architecture in Vienna is predominantly baroque and Romanesque. The streets are lined with beautiful classicist buildings that are very pleasing to look at. In shopping or tourist-dominated areas, the buildings at ground level are full of retail chain stores, fast food and countless souvenir stores. It is an odd but not unusual positioning of modern consumerism against a history of artistic appreciation. In every souvenir store and in fact, also in a grocery store we went to, there are Mozart chocolates on sale. They are so prevalent they have their own name, Mozartkugel. To be specific, they are spheres of marzipan and nougat covered in dark chocolate, wrapped in gold foil adorned with an iconic portrait of Mozart. If you didn’t know that Mozart had some kind of connection with Vienna before you went there, you could not possibly leave without having gained that knowledge. Aside from chocolates, you will hear snippets of Mozart’s music in stores and tourist attractions. There are endless musical shows of varying size from operas to chamber quartets. Most promise at least one slice of Mozart in their program to entice you. Mozart saturation levels were one of my first observations in Vienna but I must admit that we did not buy any Mozartkugel or attend any musical shows over the weekend we were there. This was more due to poor planning rather than a rejection of Vienna’s rich musical scene.
Good old crumbed, fried meat; so common that we barely stop to think about where it comes from. We tried the infamous wiener schnitzel for lunch at Glacis Beisl and thoroughly enjoyed it. This traditional schnitzel is made of veal and garnished with lemon, served with a potato salad. It was neither too oily nor dry so was an absolute pleasure to eat. At the same lunch, we also had dumplings filled with cheese and potato. It was an excellent, hearty meal to warm us up (because it was pretty darn cold all weekend!)
Austro-Hungarian Empire and Empress Sisi
Vienna was once the seat of the impressive Austro-Hungarian Empire which existed from 1867 to 1918 and contained some 52.8 million subjects. If you want a palace experience in Vienna, there are several options within close proximity of one another; the monarchs lived predominantly at Hofburg palace during the winter and then migrated to the other side of the city for summer at Schönbrunn Palace. There is also Belvedere Palace which we did not get around to visiting. The two main royal residences were enough to satisfy my love of palaces for one weekend.
The most well-known residents of the palaces are Emperor Frans Joseph and his wife, Empress Elisabeth. Their story was echoed across tours in both locations; Frans Joseph was an incredibly diligent and pious man, waking at 3:30am each morning to serve his kingdom all day and living in a room with simple furnishings. He was meant to marry Elisabeth’s older sister but found Elisabeth herself so irresistibly beautiful that he said he must have her as his wife. They were soon betrothed and married. The quiet and shy teenage girl suddenly found herself the centre of attention as the Empress of a sprawling empire. The Empress, affectionately known as Sisi, rejected the strict confines of court life and felt immense pressure under the spotlight. Eventually she withdrew from public life and spent very little time in Austria. From the sounds of it, she suffered from anxiety and some kind of eating disorder along with an insatiable desire to travel – perhaps to get away? It wasn’t until she was assassinated in Geneva that she gained the image of a misunderstood but kind hearted Empress who was much loved by both her husband and her people. There followed an explosion of love for the Empress resulting in monuments to her throughout the lands and even today, a portion of the museum area is dedicated to her story.
Hofburg Palace stands in the centre of bustling city life, still gleaming and looking impressive even in foggy grey weather.
The first half of the museum is dedicated to the most elaborate display of royal serve ware I have ever come across. It sounds like it might be boring but in reality, it was a wonder to see all the kit required to feed the rulers of the day. The exhibition also makes you appreciate the level of craftsmanship that existed in Vienna and across Europe. A love of silver, gilded bronze, the finest craftsmanship and extravagance prevailed throughout the generations of table ware.
Curiously, there is apparently a special strictly Viennese way of presenting napkins. The design allows for two alcoves in the napkin where bread rolls are placed. This is still used in state dinners today and the method is a closely guarded secret!
Schönbrunn palace is slightly removed from the city centre and has the air of a grand palace comparable to Madrid’s. The entrance is flanked by two large pillars featuring golden eagles on top – the double eagles of the royal house.
Walking through into the large square, you cannot help but feel tiny in comparison to the palace and wonder (again) at how a place with 1441 rooms could feel like “home”.
Photography was not allowed inside which is a shame but I would encourage anyone in the area to check it out. The interior heavily featured red and blue damask walls, white panelling with gold ornamentation and a remarkable heating system. In both palaces, hot air was channelled through a series of tubes which were kept in the walls to prevent the rooms becoming dirty. In each room was a ceramic stove which was sealed but captured the hot air and warmed the area. A pretty neat and tidy arrangement.
Behind the palace was a truly expansive garden area which includes the world’s first zoo! Walkways, fountains, mazes and the Gloriette monument reside in an area approximately 1km long and 1.2km wide. Together the palace and gardens are a UNESCO World Heritage Site – how amazing that everyday Viennese people now use this area for recreation. Winter makes it appear a little barren but the area is still impressive in all its frostiness.
The Hapsburg empire popularised the iconic apple strudel which is now associated with Austria. While at Schönbrunn Palace we went to see a strudel demonstration. To my surprise, I learned that traditional strudel has wafer thin pastry rather than the thick puff-pastry I was used to. Once we knew that, it was easy to see that strudel of the Austro-Hungarian Empire traces its roots to Eastern desserts such as baklava.
Our apple strudel was fantastic; thin, crisp pastry bulging with delicious apple and cinnamon filling.
Strudel was on offer in basically all cafes and many restaurants also served it as a standard dessert. I think most people will have heard of strudel and have tried it before but just like schnitzel, we don’t often stop to think about where it comes from. It was a nice extra in our trip to be able to see how it is made properly in the court bakery.
Our weekend in Vienna was unexpectedly dominated by food and the final specialty we tried was the Sacher Torte. If I am honest, I didn’t know about this until just before our trip but I now advertise it to all of you because it’s totally worth checking out. Sacher Torte is another dessert which is served at many cafes around Vienna but really, you need to have it at its birthplace – Hotel Sacher.
Franz Sacher served this cake in 1832 to Prince Wenzel von Metternich and since then, it has become a national delicacy with its own National Sachertorte Day (5th December). “How amazing can a cake be?” I hear you asking. Richard and I had the same question when we arrived at Café Sacher to discover a queue of people outside. Fortunately we were taken in immediately since we were just two people. Soon we were served slices of Sacher Torte with unsweetened whipped cream and tea, leading me to understand that a cake can be pretty darn amazing. The dense chocolate cake is coated in a thin layer of apricot jam before being smothered in dark chocolate icing; such a simple but magical combination! The recipe for the Sacher Torte is a well-guarded secret but we were informed that it is the perfect combination of three types of chocolate which produces a uniquely delightful cake. I am super glad we made time for this!
Vienna feels like the perfect mix of the arts, science, good food, beautiful surroundings and lovely people. Somehow they have managed to retain a grand sense of history without being out-dated and old fashioned. It is this eclectic mix of traditional and modern in all aspects of life that is so appealing to me. There are things we didn’t get around to doing during our short stay in Vienna and it is definitely on the list of places to experience again in summer weather.
The most quirky observation was a fun trio of piano accordions wearing internet-worthy horse masks. Gotta love it!
We were quick out of the gate with travel in 2016 and have already returned from our second trip to Reykjavik – look out for the blog post soon!