Where to Go in Europe: Vienna, Austria

Vienna, the capital city of Austria, is known as the City of Music. More composers called Vienna home than any other city in Europe. For lovers of classical music, Vienna is the Jewel in the Crown.  But Vienna, or Wien (in German), is so much more than that.  If you’re a fan of history, art, architecture, museums, palaces, statues, scenic parks and scenery in general, Vienna has everything you could possible imagine. The famous Lippizaner stallions are trained in Vienna at the Spanish Riding School so taking in a performance should rank high on your list of things to do.

Photo credit: www.vienna-concert.com
No photos are allowed during the performance. Photo credit: www.vienna-concert.com

Getting Around

If you’re coming in from the airport and staying in or near the Innere Stadt (Old Town), consider taking the City Airport Train (CAT) that will have you there in about 16 minutes.

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The cost at our time of travel was about 17 Euros per person—less than half of what a taxi would cost. If you need door to door service though, taxis are readily available and cost about 40 Euros to the Innere Stadt. If you’re worried about lugging your bags around train stations and down streets to your hotel, consider opting for the 40 minute cab ride.

The metro system is an easy and affordable way to navigate your way around Vienna. Get to know it; it’ll save you precious travel dollars.

Once you’re settled, you might want to buy a ticket for the Hop On Hop Off bus; it’s always a good way to get a feel of the city. You can rest your weary bones, see the main attractions, get off where you like, explore, and then get back on the bus to take you back to your starting point. Headsets are available and provide translation into several languages.

Click here for more information about transportation in and around Vienna.

Sightseeing

Get your camera ready, and head to the Innere Stadt which was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Sight in 2001.  St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom), in the heart of it all, is the city’s most recognized symbol. 

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Stephansdom photo from Wikipedia

You’ll find horse-drawn carriages (fiakers) for hire here. A 40-60 minute tour through this area costs about 80 Euros. Other fiaker stands can be found at Heldenplatz, Albertinaplatz, Petersplatz and Burgtheater.

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The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper)
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Outside the Prunksaal der Österreichischen Nationalbibliothek (Austrian National Library)
Inside the National Library
Inside the National Library

 

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Michaelerplatz Fountain in Hofburg Quarter
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Monument Against War and Fascism at Albertinaplatz

Vienna has a thing about morbidity. A tour through the Imperial Crypt beneath the Capuchin Church is fascinating. The bones of 145 Habsburg royalty are housed here along with urns containing hearts and remains of other emperors and empresses.

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If ghoulish oddities is your thing, check out the Undertaker’s Museum (Bestattungsmuseum), where coffins and mortuary science are front and centre, or the Crime Museum (Kriminalmuseum) showcasing Vienna’s most sensational crimes, from the Middle Ages to the present. If you have a strong stomach, check out the Pathologisch-Anatomisches Museum’s collection of medical horrors.

Hungry?

Food

Be prepared to eat Wiener Schnitzel, and lots of it. Vienna, to the locals, is called Wien and pronounced ‘Veen’. Schnitzel means veal cutlet, therefore the term Wiener Schnitzel means Viennese style veal cutlet. It is offered at a multitude of restaurants and ranges in price from about 11 Euros to 25 Euros depending on where you dine. Out of several schnitzel experiences, two that stood out were at the legendary Café Landtmann, and Plachutta’s Gasthaus off the Kärntner Strasse.

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Photo: Landtmann’s website
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Schnitzel at Cafe Landtmann

Plachutta, like many Viennese restaurants, offers heated outdoor seating. So, even in the chilly months, you can dine outside.

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Wiener Schnitzel at Plachutta’s

A schnitzel tip: standard portions are huge so you might want to share. A few places offer half portions, but the standard serving is either one large piece that covers the plate, or two smaller pieces (that still cover the plate). Also, the potatoes are just as important as the meat. Potatoes will come as a side and are prepared in different ways. The potato ‘salad’ at Plachutta’s was the best potato side dish out of all the ones we tried. The type of potato used is a waxy variety, and at Plachutta’s, came dressed with a light, buttery lemon sauce.

Sausage is also something that you should get your fill of—and beer, of course. There is no shortage of beer halls and gasthauses where you can get a fix, even at midnight.

Sausage, beer and sauerkraut: a midnight fix at Stadtbrauerei Schwarzenberg
Sausage, beer and sauerkraut: a midnight fix at Stadtbrauerei Schwarzenberg

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Some sausages are better than others. I might pass on Stadtbraueriei Schwarzenberg if I ever returned—mind you, their beer was pretty good—but I would most definitely return to Schöne Perle, a bistro in the Karmeliter district. The sausage and schnitzel here are worth seeking out.

Local specialties: bratwurst, sauerkraut, potatoes, Wiener Schnitzel at Schoenperle (Beautiful Pearl) in the Karmeliter district.
Local specialties: bratwurst, sauerkraut, potatoes, Wiener Schnitzel at Schöne Perle (Beautiful Pearl) in the Karmeliter district.

If good food is a big part of your travel plans, Vienna will not disappoint. Even their hot dog stands go above and beyond what North Americans are used to. In Vienna, wurstel (sausage) stands are everywhere. Find one and go for a  cheese infused, pork/beef sausage called a Käsekrainer. These stands offer beer as well (of course!), so pick up a brew and a sausage, sit for a while on a park bench and watch the world go by.

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Vienna is famous for their Sacher torte and apple strudel. Although we didn’t dig in to the torte, we had our fair share of apple strudel. The Café Central, where Freud, Lenin, Trotsky and Hitler once sat to dine, offers exquisite pastries, heavenly coffee and hearty lunch fare.

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The Café Central opened in 1876
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Plum cheesecake and coffee

Perhaps the best thing we ate in Vienna was the deep-fried pork knuckle at—believe it or not— the amusement park called the Prater.  You don’t usually go to an amusement park for good food, but trust me on this one: seek out the Schweizerhaus near the park entry and order the deep-fried pork knuckle. It is a hunk of pig the size of your head and was close to the best thing I’ve eaten anywhere in Europe.

Pig Knuckle at Schweizerhaus
Pig Knuckle at Schweizerhaus

Korean-born Sohyi Kim’s first restaurant, Kim Kocht, catapulted this diminutive, soft-spoken and outrageously talented chef into the spotlight. TV shows, cookbooks, and celebrity appearances followed, but now Sohyi is longing for the simpler more intimate times where the only thing focused upon is the food. Her new restaurant, simply called, Kim, is small, and elegant but relaxed. Each dish features exquisitely layered flavours of culinary art created with her signature Asian/Austrian touch.

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Markets

There are three markets to take note of: the Naschmarkt, the Karmelitermarkt and the Brunnenmarkt.

We were able to take in the first two. The Naschmarkt, open every day but Sunday,  is the mother of all markets spanning a distance of 1.5 kilometres. On Saturday, the market includes antique and flea market vendors (their hours: 6:30-4:30 p.m.).

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Expect body-to-body traffic. This is one of the best markets I’ve ever been to. Foods from several cultures can be tasted; scores of restaurants and bars provide respite, and the photo ops are endless. You’ll explode Instagram.

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The Karmelitermarkt is smaller than Naschmarkt and we caught only the tail end of it on Saturday. The food, though, looked fantastic.

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Click here for more information of Vienna’s markets.

Movies

Actually, one movie: The Third Man. This classic noir film was shot in Vienna in 1949 and has held its place for decades as one of the greatest films ever made. The movie plays Tuesday and Wednesday afternoons at the Burg Kino and it’s a pretty cool experience to sit in an old-time theater watching Orson Welles and the cast running through the very streets that you probably strolled down that day. After the movie, take a tour of the Third Man Museum, located near the Naschmarkt.

Music

“Every night in Vienna around 10,000 music fans are treated to live classical music, something that is simply unheard of in any other city in the world. Each year the Vienna concert schedule includes more than 15,000 events of various sizes and genres.” — www.wien.info

That’s about all you need to know. Pick a venue, and go. Vienna was home to some of the greatest composers in history: Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms, Strauss, Schubert, Haydn, and the list goes on. Listening to their music being performed in a grand room or an intimate setting is absolutely magical. We took in a performance at the beautiful Wiener Konzerthaus and were treated not only to symphonic pieces, but to opera and ballet as well. For those of you scared by opera, don’t be; the acts were short and the songs, familiar. In fact, it’s a very good introduction to a genre that most people find intimidating (me included). Don’t worry about dressing up, casual wear will be fine. Who packs a tuxedo when they travel, anyway?

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Vienna, also called The City of Dreams (thanks to the world’s first psycho-anaylst, Sigmund Freud, calling Wien his home), is a place to explore, to embrace, and to dream. It is romantic, intriguing, and charming, and a city I’d happily explore in more depth. One week was not enough.

One last traveling tip: get to know some key German words. Although most people in Vienna tourist areas speak English, it’s always best to start off with a simple guten morgen (good morning), guten tag (good day) or bitte (please), out of respect. Your accent will at least break the ice and bring a smile to their face.

Danke (thank you) for reading!