Many people want to see and experience Europe and all its cultural offerings, but the size and shear volume of destinations can make this a daunting trip financially as well as logistically. Luckily, I offer a solution to this travel dilemma: visit the beautiful and culturally rich Vienna, the heart of the previous Austro-Hungarian Empire, an Old World power.
Vienna as a destination is often overlooked, abandoned for more trendy but pricey locations like Paris, Venice, and London. But this is a grave mistake! The Austrian capital gleams alongside the shining waters of the Danube River, about an hour’s drive from the UNESCO Heritage wine region, the Wachau Valley, also recognized for producing delicious apricots of continental fame. In the city center, ‘Jugendstil,’ or art nouveau, architecture abounds, bathed in various shades of exquisite marble and graced with ornately scrolled ironwork signs and balconies. In the picturesque distance, the forested hills are considered the green lungs of Vienna, aptly named der Wienerwald. Historic preservation here has been elevated to an art, and throughout the city one can endlessly discover tales of the Imperial era. Near the main palace rests a recently uncovered Roman ruin, and quietly remembering the second world war are ruins of bombing lingering behind the summer palace. Music and art are celebrated in both new and old style here in the heart of Old Europe, with classical concerts offered most evenings and a continually packed State Opera House. Last but certainly not least, traditional Austrian cuisine comprises hearty fare, sure to please travelers from all over the globe. For those more interested in finer foods, the Viennese coffeehouse culture, renowned patisseries and sophisticated desserts continue to satisfy connoisseurs with the most discriminating palates.
Ruled for generations by the prestigious Hapsburg family, Austria boasts a fantastic collection of antiques and Crown Jewels. The Imperial Palace (Hofburg) still rests comfortably enthroned in the heart of the Old City, nonchalantly looking out upon the ornate City Hall (Rathaus) and the great spire of St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephensdom) alike. The Spanish Riding School continues to reside within the palace, and performances in the Winter Arena offer particular grandeur as spectators take in the elegant, flying white horse under huge dazzling Swarovski chandeliers dripping with Austrian crystal. The Lippizaner horses have been trained in the same tradition for over 400 years and can be appreciated by luxury and budget travelers alike, as affordable standing tickets are available for purchase in addition to general admission and deluxe box seats. Across the entryway, the palace houses the Sissi Museum, a wealth of restored staterooms, Imperial silver, crystal and fine china, as well as a stunning display of the empress’ state gowns. Sissi, or the Empress Elisabeth, was a Bavarian princess married at a rather young age to Franz Josef, heir to the Empire and son of the formidable and beloved empress, Maria Theresia. Sissi became a romantic obsession of the people, despite being destined to a melancholy life she remains the Austrian version of Princess Diana.
Behind the main entrance, through the Swiss Gate one can find the well stocked Treasury. My personal recommendation, particularly if time is short, is to forego the Sissi in favor of a later visit to the staterooms of the summer palace, Schoenbrunn. But before departing from the splendor of the Hofburg, don’t miss the Crown Jewels. In addition to the emperor’s robes and Austrian treasury, this collection displays the jewels of the Holy Roman Empire in a tasteful and historically relevant manner, alongside an interesting sampling of medieval armament.
Dominating the Viennese Skyline, Stephensdom commands appreciation from almost every viewpoint. Construction of the existing Gothic and Romanesque cathedral began in the 14th century and the 446ft high South tower was completed in 1433. Inside, a massive organ graces the mezzanine and should not be missed. An elevator is available to escort paying guests to the top of the tower, nicknamed ‘Steffl.’ Perhaps a better vantage though, can be enjoyed at Sky Bar, directly facing the elaborately mosaic tiled roof of the cathedral.
The Rathaus is another architectural feature of the downtown area, and features a small but lovely park plaza immediately in front of the mainentrance. Festivals and other community events are frequently hosted here, the most famous of which is the fairytale Christmas Market. Across the Ring Street, Cafe Landtmann continues to enjoy its status as king of the Viennese coffee houses, where apple strudel and a repertoire of coffees are always top quality.
After a short repast, the architectural sights wait for no man, and one would be remiss if one did not include Hundertwasserhaus or Fernwaerme (the city incinerator) on the tour. Hundertwasser’s works are fanciful and creative, in principle somewhat similar to the esteemed Gaudi of Barcelona. In quiet pride along the Danube Canal, Rossauer Barracks display precise and beautiful brickwork, while Votivechirche graces the cityscape with eloquent, lace-like dual cathedral towers.
Music remains in the forefront of Viennese culture and must not be overlooked when visiting this sophisticated metropolis. For classical enthusiasts, options abound, but I must advise to beware the tourist trap. Saturday matinees by the Vienna Philharmonic are frequented by locals and well worth the time, especially since these events are often hosted in the State Opera house or the Imperial Music Chamber. The State Opera house of Vienna is one of the foremost opera houses in the world, both architecturally as well as from an interior design standpoint – whether by attending an event or taking an inside tour this building deserves an intimate look. The famous operas themselves are often sold out well in advance, but decent tickets can sometimes be found in person, night of. Ballet performances are also frequently on offer here, and display a lovely compliment to the graceful architecture and elegant appointments.
Another classical venue, Karlskirche plays stage to Mozart, Strauss, and Verdi on evenings late in the week. These concerts do not include a full orchestra but are larger than the touristy Mozart String Quartet and include an inside pass to the hauntingly beautiful Church of St. Charles, which is not only exquisite as an evening lit interior but also an acoustic marvel. For the more modern music lover, look to the local daily paper for updates regarding the inundation of live music played daily and nightly throughout this music obsessed city, but be prepared to make tough decisions, as several good opportunities are likely to present themselves with overlapping timeframes. For example, every summer the island in the Danube River becomes an outdoor live music world, where more than 10 stages offer concurrent bookings for several days on end.
Of Viennese fame, Egon Schiele and Gustav Klimt decorate the entire city as tourist trinkets and scarves, but can be seen in person as part of the Belvedere Collection. In person, Klimt cannot disappoint with his abundant use of gold leaf, and Schiele’s contorted characters never fail to inspire reflection. However, I recommend another work of art on display in the gorgeous upper Belvedere palace, grandly situated in its palatial garden: upstairs in the renowned Marble Hall is a breathtaking view of the city of Vienna. In my humble opinion, the Marble Hall of the Belvedere rivals the gauche Hall of Mirrors in Versailles, although understated by comparison. But the view, the view upstages the art hanging on these illustrious walls and makes a visit to this museum an absolute must.