I’ve been to Vienna once before in 2004. I remember it as charming, with beautiful architecture, wide streets, and outdoor cafes. In the past 11 years, the tourist areas seem to have become more crowded and designer stores now line the streets instead of cafes, but the architecture remains.
Day 1 – Friday, May 8, 2015 (Liberation Day – European Holiday)
We arrived in Vienna by train at 2:30pm. We knew that we needed to take the number 5 streetcar, called a tram, to our Airbnb rental unit. We had no problems getting there. Not much later we set out in search of lunch. We decided to start walking towards the town center and look for a restaurant along the way. Near our apartment we passed a few small cafes, but as soon as we reached the ring road there was a much larger selection of dining options and many restaurants with outdoor seating.
We ate at Mediterranean Schubert after we saw their schnitzel lunch special. The meals we got were huge and consisted of a giant slice of pork schnitzel, a salad, and potatoes. It was good and filling. A nice way to start our trip in Vienna.
We had no plans beyond eating, and so we allowed ourselves to wander into the city enjoying the sunny day and the beautiful architecture. It wasn’t long until we made our way to Stephansdom at the heart of the city. The stunning Gothic church is surrounded by pedestrian streets, cafes, and lots and lots of people.
One thing we noticed right away about Vienna was the large number of public activities organized in the green areas of the city. It was nice to stumble on events at most of the parks we walked passed. We were walking towards the Danube when we came across Stadtpark. We could see from the outside of the park that many tents were set up within, so we took a detour through the Stadtpark. The park was hosting Genuss Festival, a 3 day event where breweries, wineries, olive oil producers, cheese-makers and more offer samples of their products. Atlas we were still full from lunch so we didn’t sample much (Jon had one beer) but made a note to return.
Next we headed towards the Hofburg Palace. On the way we passed several small parks full of picnickers. When we got to the Hogburg Palace, we found its large green yard set with a stage and many people gathered in the grass. A band was starting to play, but ended each song after 30 seconds. We found that an hour later, at 7:30, there was going to be a free concert for the May 8th holiday, Liberation Day. We took advantage of the hour to walk around the other nearby museums and we returned to watch the free concert. It was chilly, and before the music started there were numerous speeches made, all in German. Finally the band began. It was beautiful music and a cool atmosphere with many generations of people sitting on the grass with snacks and drinks. Unfortunately, we were neither dressed for the evening weather nor had we brought anything to sip on. After the second song we walked back to our apartment and put on some warmer clothes.
Although we were tired and about done for the day, we did go back outside one more time. We wanted to buy some food for breakfast. We found a few grocery stores, but either due to the holiday or the late hour, they were closed. Instead we got sausages from a street vender and went home to bed.
Day 2 – Saturday, May 9, 2015
Our tiredness the night before prevented us from having planned out what to do Saturday. We took a cue from the Lonely Planet guidebook and headed back into the city center. Along the way we stopped at Cafe Central for coffee. Jon had read about Cafe Central, which has a history of famous guests and is known for its opulent interior.
We continued on to the city center. This time we dressed appropriately to enter the Stephansdom (free). The inside was even more amazing than its Gothic exterior. High dark vaulted ceilings and columns define the space. We happened to arrive during a mass and so the area we could walk through was restricted. For a fee you can climb the tower or tour the catacombs, but those activities were also suspended due to the mass.
Continuing to follow Lonely Planet, we walked next to the Hofbburg Palace. Outside of the palace is an excavated area of historic roman ruins. The palace is adorned with statues which I found interesting and was able to identify as the feats of Hercules. The palace is now comprised of several museums; the Spanish riding school, Sisi museum, Papyrus Museum, and more. We weren’t sure where to enter to learn about the castle itself, so we left.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum (14.00E) was our big activity for the day. The museum, which houses fine arts, is considered one of the best in Europe and maybe we should have been more prepared for it. The building is beautiful even without the artwork. Inside many different collections are housed. We started to walk through, but only got into the first room before deciding that we needed to buy audio guides (4.00E). We spent well over an hour in the Egyptian exhibit, the first exhibit we entered. From there we wandered into the Greek and Roman exhibits. Upstairs were paintings by Peter Paul Rubens, religious themed and baroque in style. The Peter Paul Rubens gallery connected to other Flemish and Baroque paintings and eventually to Italian. It was hard to tell where one exhibit ended and the next began. We were there for hours and I’m sure we barely scratched the surface of what we could have learned.
Hungry for lunch, we made a brief stop at the Museumsquartier. Unfortunately, it was starting to rain so the Museumsquartier wasn’t as busy as we had been led to expect. We turned around and went back to the city center to eat at Plachutta. We had read about Plachutta for their traditional boiled beef. We each had Tafelspitz for one of the most unique meals we’d eaten in Eastern Europe. The meal consisted of a large pot of beef broth with vegetables. First we each poured a cup of the broth with vegetables to eat as soup. When we had finished, bone marrow and the tafelspitz steaks (rump roast) were pulled from the pot and put onto our plates. Along with the steaks, we were given shredded potatoes, applesauce infused with horseradish, and chive sour cream.
We returned to the apartment to relax. Since it was still early and a Saturday night, we wanted to do something rather than stay in. We ventured out, but not far, as we ended up at Cafe Zeit, a local bar next door. We both ordered drinks and played some of their many board games (but couldn’t figure out the ones in German). The bartender (most likely the owner) was very nice and brought us free pretzels and even shots on the house.
Day 3 – Sunday, May 10, 2015 (Mother’s Day)
One of the most popular attractions in Vienna is the Schonbrunn Palace even though it isn’t located in the city center. Luckily, it is on a metro line. From our apartment we had to transfer metro lines once, but the ride wasn’t bad and we never had to wait long for a train. The palace is directly across from the metro, but its a short walk (7 minutes) until you get to the entrance to the palace grounds. Depending on what you want to do, you can stroll the gardens for free or buy one of several packaged tours of the palace. We opted for the Imperial Tour (E12.90), which is the least expensive. It included walking through 22 palace rooms and an audioguide. For slightly more money there is a 40 room tour. Combination passes are also available which include a palace tour and entrance to several specialty gardens on the property and/or museums housing other Hapsburg treasures.
The tour was interesting, but like many of the historical landmarks we visit, we would have benefited more known we already known more about the events and people discussed. In this case it was confusing to known which Hapsburgs were contemporaries of each other while living in the Schonbrunn.
After our tour we walked around the gardens. My first impression was slight disappointment to see dandelions and white blossomed weeds disrupting what should have been green areas of grass. It was also upsetting that preparations for a special event had the entire palace grounds divided by construction fences and interrupted by scaffolding for lighting. We walked up the steep hill to the Gloriette and then came back down through the many gardens. As we left the main promenade the gardens got more enjoyable with their hidden corners and fountains.
When we couldn’t wait much longer for lunch, we left and took the metro across Vienna to Stadtpark to revisit the Genuss Festival. This time, we sat by a pond in the park and enjoyed a plate of salami on toast, an egg sandwich, and currywurst. We also had a sangria-like wine with strawberries and Jon got the Ottarking Dunkel they had been out of during our first visit.
For the evening we wanted to try a heurigen, or wine tavern. Heurigens are located in the Vienna suburbs which meant we took a tram car to the end of its line at Nussdorf. From there we walked to several heurigen which I had found online. The first one, Schuebel Auer was closed on Sundays! Luckily I had also heard of the one next door, Kierlinger. Kierlinger didn’t look like much from the street, but the door led down a hidden street to a small restaurant with a huge beer garden. We had been worried about a crowd, but the heurigen was empty. We ordered some house wines and sat there. The good news is that it was cheap, but bad news is that the wines weren’t great and the atmosphere was sleepy and wasn’t what we had expected. Instead of staying for food, we decided to continue down the road.
No longer worried about the crowds, we went to Mayer am Pfarrplatz. Mayer am Pfarrplatz is popular because of a former famous resident, Beethoven. We enjoyed Mayer am Pfarrplatz much more. It was more crowded than the last heuigran, but didn’t feel overly crowded. We were able to get a table outside in the courtyard which is overhung with grapevines. A small duo, consisting of an accordionist and guitarist, were playing music during our entire stay.
There was an ala carte menu, but heuigrans traditionally have buffets, so that’s how we ate. Jon went up to the deli style cases and brought back pork with sauerkraut, cheese, bread, and hummus spread. It was a great meal in a pleasant settling. Although it was early, we decided to make our way home on the metros before it got dark and chilly. That night we called our amazing mothers to wish them a Happy Mother’s Day.
Day 4 – Monday, May 11, 2015
On our last full day in Vienna, we went to check out Therme Wien, a thermal pool and sauna complex located outside of the Vienna city center. Getting there involved metro and then taking a bus to the end of the line.
The complex gave us ‘watches’ to let us enter areas of the spa. The watches recorded what we did and then we paid on the way out. The spa itself is in a very nice facility, although I don’t think we bought into the whole ‘the building is like a stream and each area is a stone in that stream’ architecture. From the basement locker room we emerged into the Thermal Landscape (spa) zone 2. There were indoor and outdoor pools, both heated. They had jets and bubbles at various locations that would go on and off. We also found a lap pool where we did a little swimming.
Our favorite ‘stone’ was the Adventure Stone. The adventure stone was mostly splash pools that cater to, and were full of, children. However, there was also a diving pool and some waterslides. The two indoor tube slides were surprisingly fun. The higher and small of the slides had lights (which reminded me of space mountain) on the way down and was the best waterslide I’ve been on in years.
Jon went to check out the sauna (an additional fee) while I visited the pools in Thermal Landscape zone 1. Every time I’d settle down by a massage jet, it would turn off minutes later and I’d move to a pool where they had come on. When Jon rejoined me, I took him to see some of the pools I explored on my own. At 2pm, we got ready to leave knowing that the price goes up by the minute after the first three hours.
Even though we were hungry, we took the bus and metro all the way back to our neighborhood before stopping for lunch at a small cafe. We ordered too much food, french onion soup, goulash, a sandwich, fried cheese, and crepes, but none of it was very good.
At 5pm we went out again to the Staatsoper (Opera). Vienna opera has a tradition of selling standing room tickets. To this day the standing room tickets only cost 3 or 4 euros (depending on the section you ask to stand in). The tickets go on sale 80 minutes before the show. We arrived 85 minutes before the show and thought the line was short, until we found out it already went inside the building. 5 minutes later the line had doubled. We were able to get tickets, and then had to wait in another line to enter the section (no assigned seats). When we got to the section everyone rushed for a standing location. You can leave your location if you have a scarf to tie to the railing marking it as taken.
The opera was Don Pasquele, a comedy, modernized to be set in a more contemporary time. Don Pasquele wants to force his nephew to marry an arranged bride, when the nephew refuses Don Pasquele (age 70) declares he will marry the bride instead. The nephew’s friends trick Don Pasquele into a false marriage and make his life miserable. Eventually, to end the false marriage, Don Pasquele consents to let the nephew marry the women of his choosing. It was tiring to stand, but we made it through. Each person also had a monitor which translates the singing into either English or German but required a lot of looking up and down.
Day 5 – Tuesday, May 12, 2015
Our train to Prague wasn’t until the early afternoon, so we hunkered down in our Airbnb apartment until we were kicked out by the cleaning service. Having all our luggage, we decided to make our way to the train station and spend another 2 hours at the Starbucks on our computers before departing.
Please see our follow up post, Vienna; Travel Insight for information on visas for Americans, transportation in Vienna, restaurants recommendations and more.