After a short 2-1/2 hour ride on a modern, comfortable train (Austria 1, Croatia 0, per their respective train games), we arrived in a cold and grey Vienna. Though it would threaten to rain every day, it never actually would. With the temperature hardly topping 50° throughout our entire stay, we longed for the warm Budapest sun. My good friend Abby recently wrote in her own travel blog that “Comparison is the thief of joy.” Coming from Budapest, where we had such an incredible experience, it was always going to be difficult for Vienna to stand tall on its own. But when traveling, especially seeing so many different places in such quick succession as we are doing, you must try to wipe yesterday from your mind. Take each day as it comes, and experience each new city in a vacuum all its own.
We stayed further out from the city centre than we normally have so far. I didn’t miss the mark with the location, but starting with Vienna especially the prices for lodging are now starting to rise on us, and concessions need to be made for the sake of preserving the almighty dollar. We stayed in a truly residential part of town for a change, but still just a couple blocks away from two different tram lines heading in towards District I, the epicenter of the city’s museums and major tourist sites. Peter, our AirBNB host, greeted us at his apartment to welcome us to his home, and his city. It was a nice personal touch that would set the tone for our time in Vienna.
That first night, we ate what ended up being an early dinner ($6 for two large chow mein, served by a German-speaking Vietnamese man, in Little Istanbul), and stayed in. We’d have plenty of time to spend our days in town, but it was a welcome change of pace here to enjoy quiet evenings in a true living room. Rather than the staged company-hosted apartments that saturate today’s listings, this stay harkened back to the original concept that drove AirBNB’s creation; it genuinely was Peter’s home, filled with all the accompanying personal touches that come with it. Our days meanwhile were spent visiting the landmarks of the Imperial City.
If you were to guess that the Historic Centre of Vienna (Old Town) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, then you’d be correct! “The capital of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, this historic centre is rich in architectural ensembles … including Baroque castles and gardens, as well as the late-19th-century Ringstrasse lined with grand buildings, monuments and parks.”
Isabel is a massive fan of libraries, and eagerly wanted to visit the Austrian National Library. I obliged, not knowing just how mightily impressive a spectacle the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek was going to be. The State Hall, or Prunksaal, is as impressive an interior as you’ll come across. High ceilings covered in elaborate frescoes, pillars and sculptures are everywhere you look. Floor to ceiling shelves contain leather-bound books and manuscripts in dead languages from many centuries ago. Giant maps from when new continents were still being discovered, including one referred to as “America’s baptismal certificate.” This was the first map to refer to the new continent as America. Many texts date back to the transition from the oral tradition to the written word. Both its housing and its contents were mightily impressive, centuries of global enlightenment preserved and encased in hallowed ground. Per Wikipedia, “Altogether, the Austrian National Library has more than seven million objects, of which approximately three million are printed.”
The library routinely displays manuscripts and artifacts from its extensive collection. One artifact is a legal document dating back to 27 AD! It is a contract for a loan between two Roman soldiers stationed in Alexandria. It infuriated Isabel that we witnessed two young women spending their entire time doing a photo shoot when a 2,000 year-old-document was steps away from them! The other artifact described the mythical origins of Emperor Maximilian. Essentially, to underpin the house of Habsburg’s sovereignty claims, it was advantageous to the ruling family to establish a link to the great ruling families of the past. This didn’t always work out as well so when attempts failed, they just made up the family tree!
Besides book and libraries, Isabel also loves topics related to death so next on the Isabel Takes Vienna Tour is the crypt under St. Stephens! Beneath the floors of the beautiful church lies the remains of over 11,000 bodies. In addition, there are also over 60 jars of imperial intestines resting in the ducal crypt. Fun fact of the day: when the Plague hit Vienna, the city was suddenly faced with a massive body count. To make more room, prisoners were sent down to the pits to clean the bones, break them, and neatly stack them so more could fit. Cool! Our guide was a nice man with an amazing accent, he sounded a little like Christopher Waltz in any Nazi role. He spoke in German and English, a soothing yet threatening sing-song of words, perfect for a crypt tour. Luckily for you we weren’t allowed to take photos so picture skulls! More skulls! And bones! And darkness! You get the idea.
The Isabel Death Tour didn’t stop there, she found another crypt to visit. The Habsburg Imperial Crypt houses 12 emperors, 18 empresses, and 113 other members of the Habsburg family. All of the caskets range in style but most are heavy in the Baroque style. We saw caskets with flowers and other gifts left behind by visitors. The attention to detail is incredible!
Another famous dead person in Vienna is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and there was no shortage of Mozart-related activities. The Mozarthaus is a museum located in the largest of his dozen or so former residences during his time in Vienna, and was also where he and his family called home for the longest duration. They boast artifacts such as sheet music, portraits, instruments and outfits. There were several multimedia displays, including a multi-screen video presentation of different performances from around the world of The Marriage of Figaro, Mozart’s famous opera. The ticket includes an audioguide that played a selection of his work, as the narrator told of his rise to prominence and fame, as well as highlighting his penchant for squandering money as soon as he earned it.
I should have everything that is good, genuine and beautiful!Mozart
After the museum, it was time for the true Mozart experience: his music! One of the cooler things we’ve done on this trip, we took in a performance in the crypt underneath St. Peter’s Church. We sat front row as two talented Japanese musicians performed three pieces over the better part of an hour. While one lady expertly played the violin in the foreground, the pianist was positioned behind her. The two women played off each other brilliantly, a testament to Mozart’s genius. Sadly, we have no photos of this (sitting three feet away in the front row, it seemed too awkward to pull out our phone to snap photos during their performance).
No trip is complete without a visit to an obscure museum and this time we did not mess around. The Criminal Museum is far enough off the radar that 85% of the signs were in German only. It’s a collection of crime, punishment and murder from the Middle Ages right up to the present day.
Through the help of Google Translate, we were able to learn about counterfeiting money, poisoning, cold-blooded murder and more! One woman, known as “The Frenchwoman” would walk around Vienna selling baked goods. Little did Mrs. Smith Down the Street know, but that baked good was full of poison! Oddly enough, her goal wasn’t to kill, just to maim so she could rob the homes. The most interesting part was visually witnessing the advancement of criminology and police forensics in Vienna, eventually leading to the creation of Interpol!
[Warning: Nerd Rant Alert] When the exhibit reached the mid-19th century, the ongoings highlighted in the year 1848 immediately stood out to me. Flashing before my eyes was:
- Ban Jelačić had abolished serfdom, declaring all people equal as he united the hills of Kaptol and Gradec as one. Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, was born. The year was 1848.
- During the Dohány Street Synagogue tour, the Jewish people embraced their national sense of pride after a failed, yet ultimately successful in the long run, revolution. The year was 1848.
- Now in Vienna, I’m reading about the Revolution of 1848 in the Austrian Empire.
This pattern confirmed that my previous suspicions were correct! Far from being a history buff (high school world history class would be so much more interesting today), I was curious what major singular event took place that each of these countries today boast their own versions of revolution dating back to the very same year; a coincidence it cannot be. It turns out (after a quick Wikipedia search) that there were actually a series of political upheavals throughout Europe that year, affecting over 50 countries despite no significant coordination or cooperation among their respective revolutionaries. After the initial revolution began with France in February of that year, widespread dissatisfaction by the large working class led to the removal of old monarchical structures across the continent, remaining the most widespread revolutionary wave in European history. With their roots in the Habsburg Monarchy, a part of the Holy Roman Empire, no wonder all these different nations were affected. You can read all about it here. [Okay, Nerd Rant over]
Other highlights of Vienna include its disparate art museums, which can be grouped by Mark the Art Critic into two categories: Art is Cool and Art is Dumb.
Under Art is Cool is the Albertina Museum, a great museum for newbies due to its wide collection. It exhibits paintings, drawings, prints, photography, architecture, and sculpture. The marketing department is genius because all of the Albertina banners around the city feature Warhol and Picasso which is why we chose to visit. I (Isabel) don’t love Warhol but again, he’s great for art newbies because his work is appealing and identifiable. We discovered quite quickly upon entry that the museum only has one Warhol and just a few Picasso shoved in with a bunch of Klimt and Chagalls. Despite the slight false advertising, we still managed to find some gems.
Under Art is Dumb is the Belvedere Palace. Not to be confused with my parent’s humble abode, Belvedere Palace was built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy (so it’s more like the Tahoe house). The gardens are supposedly spectacular but since we’re still in the cold months, everything had been cut down. Besides the gardens, people visit Belvedere Palace for one reason:
to eat all the food out of my parent’s fridge
Vienna is all about Klimt, Klimt, Klimt. For those of you unfamiliar, Gustav Klimt was an Austrian symbolist painter and one of the most prominent members of the Vienna Secession movement. If you still aren’t familiar, I promise, you know his stuff.
I actually prefer his portrait work more so than his LSD patchwork aesthetic that he’s known for. But Klimt isn’t the reason why Art is Dumb. Lower Belvedere (yes, the palace is so large that there is an upper and a lower portion), features temporary exhibits and this is why Art is Dumb. It was a bizarre curation of pieces dedicated to the human head. For cardigan-wearing, chin-rubbing art enthusiasts, this was a decent curation, but for art novices, it was not good. It’s contemporary art by unknown artists shown with little context.
Belvedere Palace was also a “lesson learned” moment for us. The tickets were a bit pricey, our experience wasn’t the best, it was stupid crowded, and the gardens were meh. But no harm no foul, the best way to solve a so-so museum experience is to eat your feelings!
As we generally seem to do, we managed to eat fairly well in Vienna (We don’t even notice it ourselves until we have to write about it). We found the best way to lunch while sightseeing was a visit to the nearest Würstelstand. For those of you who think this shouldn’t constitute a travel meal highlight, I am here to tell you that a hotdog isn’t just a hotdog when it’s a würst (it’s actually the best). One night after a subpar outing for dinner, Isabel reflected that the best meal of the day was the bratwürst she had for lunch. So the next day, we made it a point to seek out another. These stands will have a handful of different types of sausages on the grille. After placing your order, they circumcise a giant loaf of bread (snip the tip) then spear it on a spike, thereby carving out a tunnel in the center to perfectly house the würst of your choice, along with ketchup and/or mustard, of course. Pictured below, a massive sausage in a baguette.
We also enjoyed a breakfast in the word-famous Cafe Central, which opened back in 1876. Located in the very heart of Vienna, it quickly became the key meeting place of the intellectual elite, including the likes of Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky. Its stunning interior boasts swooping marble arches, and they serve up some delicious treats, too.
Our last day in Vienna, Isabel looked up a spot for early dinner on her phone. “Ooh, Let’s go to Figlmüller, they’re supposed to have good schnitzel.” When we saw the old-school sign hanging over the line waiting outside for a table, we knew we weren’t just at any old restaurant. The “Home of the Schnitzel” has been open since 1905, right behind St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Known for their larger-than-plate schnitzel, Isabel calmly convinced me to share one, rather than each of us getting our own (we also ordered a salad! all on our own!). Their house specialty measures roughly 30 inches in diameter. Wafer thin with the perfect amount of crispy, the Figlmüller pork schnitzel is cooked to absolute perfection. Traditionally, Wiener Schnitzel is made with veal, but we opted for their classic house specialty made with pork. #weonabudget
Despite all of the good food options in Vienna, I could never find what my heart truly desired – a cup of coffee. If you have a splash of milk, fine, if not, that’s also fine. I just want a cup of coffee. I don’t want foamed milk, steamed milk, milk with a splash of espresso, or espresso watered down with water. I just want a regular cup of coffee. Impossible to get. We spent too much time locating a Starbucks in the city center. The whole experience felt like this.
Overall, Vienna was great, but not spectacular. It’s very similar to Budapest in many ways; they have overlapping histories so the architecture, food and sites are similar. It was interesting to discuss historical situations with each other and try to derive some differences between the two cities. Hungary’s history as we mentioned, was always a little rough and involved a lot of foreign invasions. Hence the fortresses in Budapest. Vienna on the other hand, were the invaders, and were able to live a life of luxury and bliss, hence the beautiful but useless Belvedere Palace. One portion of Belvedere was built specifically for pomp and grandeur! Also, Budapest, like parts of Croatia, have much more flair and fantasy tied to their history; Zagreb’s beginnings supposedly start with a girl and a well while Budapest’s start involved two brothers hunting a mystical deer. Vienna was the home to the Habsburg family so the city became it’s rich-people playground: palaces, operas, music, and libraries.
Not to seem down on Vienna, because it is a beautiful city with tons to offer, but try as we might, we had a hard time not comparing it to Budapest, and it wasn’t just the weather dampening the mood a bit. Hard to put into words exactly, Vienna simply lacked that je ne sais quoi, something Budapest had in abundance. So if you found yourself here looking for Vienna recommendations, at the tippy top of my list would be to go to Budapest (#2 – that schnitzel from Figlmüller).