In a former incarnation my husband must have been a courtier in the palace of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph. How else can I explain his never-ending passion for visiting Vienna? Whenever I propose a trip to Italy, he counters with Vienna. If I suggest travel to China, he brings up; yes you guessed it, Vienna. Needless to say, over the years I have gotten to know Vienna and Austria very well.
That being said, I must admit that over those years I have begun to understand the powerful attraction. Vienna is beautiful, elegant, aristocratic and cultured. It has palaces, gardens, music, museums, elegant cafes and wonderful food. Austria with its endless stunning views of mountains, valleys and lakes can inspire even the tone deaf to sing like Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music.”
But, as Maria sang to her young charges, “Let’s start at the very beginning…” a good place to start would be Vienna. The exact spot in Vienna to begin our tour would be the very heart of the city -- the Gothic Stephansdom Cathedral, Vienna’s most prominent landmark, the “Steffl” as the Viennese lovingly call it. It was built three times, the first time in 1137, only to be destroyed 100 years later. The second time was in 1205 in the Romanesque style. The cathedral in its current style was built in 1304 with a tower that is one of the highest church towers in the world. The good news is that from the top you can see stunning views of the city’s rooftops. The bad news is that you have to climb 343 steps to get there.
The cathedral square, known as the Stephansplatz, is always teeming with people and entertainers. Among those milling around are young people dressed in period costumes trying to sell you tickets to classical music concert. Even though they are geared towards tourists and play popular classical fare, I have found them to be mostly high quality performances by professional musicians in beautiful venues throughout the city. On the northern side of the cathedral, there is a line of horse-drawn carriages with their drivers elegantly dressed with top hats, who will take you on a leisurely, old-fashioned city tour.
One of the most elegant shopping streets, in a city full of them, is the Kartner Strasse, a pedestrian-only avenue that runs from the Cathedral to the Opern Ring, the wide road built at the time of Emperor Frantz Josef, that circles the entire inner city. Vienna is a compact city and most of the sights are concentrated within a small area. However, the city boasts such an astonishing array of monuments, museums, palaces and parks that it is almost impossible to take it all in on a first visit.
It is also impossible to discuss Vienna without reverting to talk to food. Right at the Stephansplatz there are two places worthy of mention. If you have a sweet tooth, the place to go is Café Aida, right where the famous pedestrian street Karntner Strasse begins. Go to the second floor, get a table that faces the square where you can look at the street performers and watch the crowds milling around the cathedral. At Aida, you can get the best Trueffel-Torte in town with a satisfying chocolate taste that is not too sweet. Another thing to order is a cheese dumpling called Topfengolatsche, small, hot and delicious. If you are at the square around lunchtime, you must head to the Figlmuller restaurant, world famous for the enormous size of its Wiener Schnitzel. Figlmuller is a short, two-block walk from the cathedral on Wollzeile 5. The schnitzel is pounded thin, golden fried and is so large that it overflows the plate. It is served with a Gemischter Salat, (mixed salad) and Rosti, incredibly delicious, fried, grated potatoes.
After lunch you could walk your way up Kartner Strasse looking at all the elegant shop windows. There are several cafes along the way if you are still feeling hungry (not likely after the schnitzel.) One I especially like is the Gerstner Café, founded in 1847, which has one of the best fruit Strudel in town. A delicious chocolate concoction known as the “house cake” is irresistible.
As you stroll up Kartner Strasse, take a look at the sidewalk for names of famous musicians, conductors and composers who worked in Vienna. Vienna is a city intrinsically linked to classical music. On the sidewalk you will see names of classical music superstars such as Mozart, Beethoven, Hayden, Schubert, Johan Strauss, Brahms and Mahler, just to name a few. By the time you get to the top of the street, to Vienna’s beautiful State Opera House, you will be inspired to take a tour.
Opened in 1869 with a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, the stunning Neo-Renaissance-style building seats 2,880 people. One would think that with that many seats, it wouldn’t be a problem to obtain tickets. Think again. I usually check on the internet ahead of a Vienna jaunt and order tickets to one of the operas. It is possible to get cheap-standing room tickets a few hours before the performance. It is an incredible feeling to dress elegantly and walk up the grand marble staircase decorated with frescoes, mirrors and chandeliers to the auditorium. Arrive early and you can get Champaign in the splendid Tea Salon and look at the smartly dressed Viennese. Afterwards you might want to cross the street to the famous Sacher Hotel for their equally famous (but overrated) Sacher Torte. The highlight of Vienna’s social calendar is the world famous Opera Ball, held annually close to New Year’s Eve. The seats in the auditorium are dismantled to make way for a dance floor.
On one of our visits to Vienna I bought tickets to an equally elegant ball, but not at the State Opera building. It took place at another famous Viennese landmark, the Hofburg Palace, the Imperial home of the Hapsburg monarchs until 1918. You can just imagine the feeling of dressing up in a ball gown, my husband in a tuxedo, and dancing the Waltz in a ballroom fit for an emperor. It was a once in a lifetime experience. The Hofburg is much more than a palace. It is actually an enormous lavish complex of gardens, museums, theaters, chapels, the Austrian National library and Imperial apartments. The Palace Chapel is the place where the world-famous Vienna Boys’ Choir performs on Sundays. It is important to reserve ahead. Nearby is the Spanish Riding School where the gorgeous white Lippizaner stallions display their talents dancing to classical music in an opulent 18th century riding ring, painted while and lit by sparkling crystal chandeliers. The Imperial Apartments are preserved exactly as they were in the day of Emperor Franz Joseph and his beautiful wife Elisabeth, also lovingly known by Austrians as Sissi.
Almost opposite the Hofburg Palace, on the other side of the Ringstrasse is the best museum in Vienna, which is not to be missed. The Kunsthistorisches Museum houses the imperial collections assembled over centuries by the Habsburgs, all enthusiastic collectors. The picture gallery at the museum has one of the best collections of Old Masters in the world, including the best collection of Bruegels assembled under one roof. The museum has a very elegant, if expensive, café-restaurant, where you can feel like pampered royalty. Another famous café not too far away is Demel, which supplied the monarchs with cakes during the imperial times. The hot chocolate here is made out of real melted chocolate.
There are two places outside the inner ring of the city that are worth a visit, even if you have just a short time in Vienna. The first is the Belvedere Palace and its outstanding art collection. It was built as a summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy, the brilliant military commander who helped the Habsburgs defeat the Turks in 1683. The reward money he received for his services helped Prince Eugene built one of the most ambitious projects ever undertaken by a private individual. Situated on a sloping hill, the Belvedere was outside of Vienna at the time it was built. If the Habsburgs were envious of Eugene’s luxurious palace, they did not have to wait to long until it fell into their possession. The art collection here is different from the one in the Kunsthistorische Museum. Here you will see modern works such as The Kiss, by Gustav Klimt, works by Egon Schiele, Van Gogh, Monet and others.
The other Viennese monument outside the city center worth seeing is the Schonbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Habsburgs, built between 1696 and 1713. There are two tickets you can buy depending on the number of sights you want to visit. Here, you can learn a lot about the Empress Maria Theresa since much of the palace as it appears today was created during her reign. Each room in the palace seems more opulent than the one you just visited. One of my favorites is the Blue Chinese Salon with blue wallpaper and a collection of blue and white Chinese porcelain vases. It was in this room that the Austrian monarchy ended in 1018 when the last emperor, Karl I, renounced his claim to the throne.