I had a fantastic time in Vienna last weekend. It’s been a place I’ve wanted to visit for ages – I even mentioned this in a Bucket List blog post back in 2012, but it’s taken me four years to realise the dream. In the end it came about because my daughter was heading there for a work conference (she’s an academic) and invited me to spend the preceding weekend with her in the Airbnb she’d booked for her stay. I wrote a daily journal for the blog while there, but here’s my roundup of what’s great about Vienna and what to do there. Necessarily, it’s only a first glimpse at all Vienna has to offer. A weekend really isn’t nearly enough time to fit in even a large part of what one might want to do. But at least it’s a start and of course I’m really hoping it won’t be too long before I go back to do more.
Vienna, Austria’s capital, has much to offer historically, artistically, intellectually and culturally. In 2001 its old centre became a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Vienna was the seat of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Habsburg dynasty and is full of vast imperial palaces that you can visit. Its architecture is impressive and bold, slightly pompous, more a symbol of its power, I think, than buildings designed for beauty. It’s a fairly small capital city and thus easily manageable for a weekend – although there’s so much to do you might well want to be there longer! This is the home of Sigmund Freud so one could say it’s where psychotherapy was born; composers such as Beethoven and Mozart lived here, and of course Strauss – all those Viennese waltzes we know so well. There’s a rich history of art too. Vienna’s most famous artist is Gustav Klimt and seeing his famous, ‘The Kiss’, painting is almost mandatory. But Egon Schiele and others lived and worked here too. Intellectuals, writers and political giants came too, like Trotsky and Lenin. Even Hitler hung out here.
Where to stay
Nicola and I stayed in an Airbnb near the university, in the north west corner of the city (in Kochgasse), so that it was convenient for her work. It might have looked a bit far from the old city centre on the map but in reality it wasn’t far at all – maybe 20 minutes easy walk – and it was nice to be in a quieter, more residential area, away from the crowds. Vienna is quite a small city and you can easily get round it on foot, so in a way, where you choose to stay – geographically – doesn’t matter too much. There are trams and a metro but we didn’t feel a need to use them at any time.
Steeped in tradition, Viennese coffee houses are an institution and it’s almost mandatory to seek them out while in the city. Coffee has played an important part in the story of Vienna since it arrived with the Turks in the late 17th century. But the coffee houses are about more than just being a good place to go for coffee and something to eat, they were once important venues for intellectuals and artists and writers of all kinds. These are places where important issues were debated.
Visiting a traditional coffee house was one of the things I was particularly looking forward to on my trip. Inevitably, being there for just a weekend meant I could only visit a few so I sought out the most famous. Of the ones I went to, Landtmann was my favourite (photo above). There was a calm, elegant feel to it, wonderful food, great coffee and friendly service. It was everything I hoped a Viennese coffee house would be. Of course one can’t go to Vienna and not go to the Sacher Hotel for their Sachertorte.
It’s an institution in itself. Such places are too often touristy and impersonal, making you feel unwelcome. The Sacher Hotel wasn’t like this at all; it was a real pleasure to find such warmth in our welcome and the food was great too – not only the famous cake but a very good lunch as well. We also like Cafe Sperl a lot; rather more faded glamour but again wonderfully friendly service and a nice coffee and cake.
I went into Café Central on the last morning.
It was very grand and is one of the most famous. Trotsky apparently liked to play chess here. I had a Melange that was OK but not great; a nice brioche. But the service wasn’t friendly, very offhand; it wasn’t a place I wanted to hang out.
The standard white coffee in Vienna is a Melange. It’s similar to an Italian cappuccino (as in one you’d have in Italy – the real thing!). It’s always served in a smallish cup and has a thin layer of foam on top. Choosing a size of cup is not an option. I drank mostly Melange during the day and espresso in the evening. But Viennese coffee houses pride themselves on a large range of coffees. In Cafe Sperl we were given a little booklet explaining them all. Bear in mind that if you order a cappuccino it may come with the addition of whipped cream. All the cafés served coffee with a glass of water, which is a great idea that I liked a lot.
Cakes are the thing – along with the coffee of course – in Vienna. And you can’t possibly visit the city without trying some of the famous Sachertorte at the Sacher Hotel (above). It was invented in 1632 by Franz Sacher for Prince Wenzel von Metternich. I had another Sachertorte on my last afternoon at Landtmann, which I slightly preferred – a bit moister and less apricot jam. The day before I’d had an apple strudel at Landtmann – said to bake the original. It was certainly wonderful and, like the Sachertorte, one of Vienna’s most famous cakes. It usually comes with vanilla cream (custard), whipped cream or just plain. Landtmann’s was fabulous: just as I believe a good apple strudel to be – not too sweet, the apple retaining a slight bite and noticeable layers of it, a hint of cinnamon and a fantastically light strudel pastry.
There are other famous cakes like cheese strudel, gugelhupf, stollen, linzertorte and Mozart torte. Clearly I need to go back to try more!
Veinnese food is – unsurprisingly – similar to German and that means lots of meat. When I say lots of meat, I mean lots of meat. And few vegetables. The Wiener Schnitzel – veal coated in breadcrumbs and fried – that I had on my last evening came in two pieces. It was delicious – light but crisp batter and perfectly cooked veal, but I couldn’t finish it. It explained why we often saw two people order one to share. Another famous dish is Goulash – perhaps because of Vienna’s proximity to Hungary?
I had a small size goulash for lunch in Kaffe alt Wien. This was very much a bar but a good place for lunch.
I had no interest in trying Beuschel, a stew of veal lungs and heart – but its popularity gives you a good impression of what you’ll find.
Their salads were unusual for this Londoner. The potato salad is hot potato marinated in beef stock with vinegar and sugar, so it goes gloopy from the heat of the stock mixing with the starch of the potato. Chopped red onion is also added. To me it didn’t taste good and was far too sweet. Their green salads were invariably swimming in a large amount of dressing – but that seemed normal, so obviously how the Viennese like them.
Biesln (a biesl) are popular places to eat. They’re similar to gastro pubs – informal but offering good quality food. I ate in a couple – Amerlingbeisl and Glacis Beisl. I wasn’t hugely impressed by the first but we had a very good meal on the last evening at Glacis Beisl. You need to book – the first night we went it was full so we booked for our last night.
We found a great crêperie on the last day for lunch. Cafe der Provinz, near the university.
We could see the crêpes being freshly made, they had great fillings, and it was almost like being in Normandy. The night before we’d had fantastic organic burgers at die Burgermacher.
Another great non-Austrian find was an Italian gelateria, Gelateria La Romana, on my first afternoon, purely by chance. It was really fantastic gelato, but I didn’t manage to make my way back there again.
Places to Visit
There’s so much to see that we could only ‘do’ a small proportion of what there is to choose from. We liked St Stephen’s Cathedral, right in the heart of the Old Town. Going to the Belvedere to see the Klimts was a great trip in itself because of looking round the palace, walking through its gardens, and enjoying a wonderful view across the city from a high vantage point.
We liked the art at the Albertina, much more central and near the Sacher Hotel.
The famous Vienna Riding School is right in the heart of the city near the cathedral. There are tours available – but not on Monday when I went there!
There’s so much else to do – concerts, opera, Viennese waltzes. Sigmund Freud has a whole museum to himself. There’s a lot of open greenery in Vienna; lots of nice parks and places to sit and take shade from the sun or have a rest. And although I didn’t do it, lots of people choose to take a leisurely ride in a horse-drawn carriage to view the city.
The Danube runs through the city and is of course one of the world’s most famous rivers. Unfortunately the bit I came to when I made my way across the city wasn’t very pretty or romantic – so maybe you need to go out of the city a little more.
The biggest market is the Naschmarkt which dates back to 1786. There’s a daily market but an additional flea market on Saturdays. There’s a good selection of stalls for street food so a good place for lunch. And of course this means sausages too – wurst is found everywhere!
Vienna’s alternative side
I was surprised by the number of vegetarian and vegan shops and restaurants we saw. And there was lots of alternative therapies on offer too. In this respect it reminded me a little of Amsterdam. It seemed slightly at odds with the traditional heavy food and beer houses typical of Austria. But certainly welcome.
Vienna is a wonderful place to visit and offers such a fantastic variety of things to do. You can do a lot in a weekend but really you’ll only touch the surface. I flew there direct from London Heathrow with British Airways. The airport is some way out. Our Airbnb arranged a taxi at a good rate (€27 rather than €50 or more at airport). It takes at least half an hour but more at busy times – maybe up to an hour. There are train connections too.
One of the nicest things was finding how friendly the locals were – nearly everywhere we went we were greeted with smiles and helpfulness. In July it was very hot – 35C on my last day! But of course in the winter it’s very cold and a popular time to go is at Christmas for their famous Christmas market.
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