VIENNA: A lot like Germany, only fancier
The second part of my fall break adventures with my parents brought us to Vienna, a gleaming Austrian city known as a bastion for culture and the arts. Previously, the only other time I had been to Austria was a day trip we made to Salzburg two years ago when my parents visited me during my study abroad. Thus, I was excited to make a proper visit to the country, as well as be somewhere where my language skills can actually be of use -- my Czech was not exactly up to snuff.
We arrived in Vienna in the afternoon on a Friday and navigated to the apartment we were renting, located in the Breitenfeld neighborhood, to the west of the ring that surrounds the city's Innenstadt. The location was great, as it put us outside the hustle and bustle of the city center but, thanks to excellent public transportation, we could get into the city in just about 10 minutes.
Both times I have been to Austria now, I have been extremely lucky with the weather. I visited Salzburg in April when it was a beautiful sunny day and about 70 degrees out. This time, we were there in October, but the weather was no less perfect and the temperatures just as agreeable. Basically, I have never seen Austria looking anything other than perfect, so I feel a little spoiled at this point.
The city is beautiful -- everyone knows that. Even if you've never been to Vienna, just hearing the name conjures up images of crisp, white classical buildings, pleasant public parks, and opulent opera houses. That said, if I could change one thing about the trip my parents and I took, I would have skipped Vienna and spent more time in Prague and Budapest (blog post on Budapest to follow). Which is not to say that we didn't enjoy Vienna -- not at all true. But, like the title implies, I don't know that there was anything particularly special about Vienna. I don't know if this sentence is going to sound arrogant or jaded, but Vienna just sort of felt like any other nice European capital. Pretty buildings, random interesting statues to look at, a big fancy church, etc. All of that makes for a worthwhile trip, don't get me wrong, but in the context of our additional trips to Prague and Budapest, Vienna just didn't fit in. Prague and Budapest were departures from the ordinary because of their ties to Eastern Europe and their political histories in relation to the Soviet Union -- they looked and felt distinctively different from things we had seen and done before. I would have liked to have spent more time exploring these two cities and diving into their unique histories. I'm not denying that Vienna is worth a visit; I'm more saying for the specific trip we were making, it was the odd city out.
That said, we had a great time in Vienna and saw a lot of interesting and wonderful things. We didn't do much the first night beyond exploring our neighborhood since we were pretty worn out still from Prague, but once we were revived the next day, we headed into the inner city. Our first stop was the Naschmarkt, an open-air food market just south of the main ring. It was fun to walk around and see the different foods and spices for sale, but there weren't as many ready-made items as we were hoping. It was either stands selling fresh fruit, vegetables or meat, or sit-down restaurants. We were sort of hoping for an in-between, i.e. stands where we could purchase and take away ready-to-eat food, but there weren't many options of this type.
After the Naschmarkt (and stopping elsewhere to get some food since we weren't quite sated yet), we went into the Kaisergruft, which is basically the official crypt of the Hapsburg family since the 1600s. The crypt is located underneath the Capuchin Church and Monastery, and the monks there still tend to the crypt today. I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this -- it sounded cool on the surface since the Hapsburgs have been such a powerful family in the course of European history, but from the outside the church looked strangely modern and unimpressive. You would have thought the resting place of such a famous family would be a little more... splendid.
Anywho, we decided to go for it, paid the money to a very uninterested monk and headed down into the crypt. Overall, it was cool, but not quite as cool as I had hoped. Similar to my dismay with the appearance of the church, this wasn't any sort of spooky underground cavern. It was a fairly normal and modern-looking underground space with adequate lighting, good ventilation and relatively orderly arranged caskets (or sarcophagi? not really sure what the distinction between the two is). In this case, the experience really is just the caskets themselves and the associated history, not the space. I also would have liked it if there had been more information -- for many of the people buried there, there were small placards giving you information about their life (only in German, though), but I think it would have been nice if there was more of an effort to put things into a historical context and to weave individual stories together.
All of that said, there was still something undeniably cool about seeing the final resting places of so many important historical figures that I remember learning about in my high school European history class. People like Maria Theresia; her father, Charles VI; and Franz II, the last Holy Roman Emperor, were all buried there. The most recent addition to the crypt is the body of Otto von Hapsburg, who was the last prince of Austria-Hungary. He died in 2011, and I distinctly remember that happening because I was in Germany at the time, and such news is much bigger here than it would be in the US.
After the crypt, we worked our way to St. Stephan's Cathedral, Vienna's flagship church. If you've already seen a lot of pretty churches in Europe, this one is generally no different from the rest -- it's big and pretty and old and looks like a church (although the colorful tiled roof is pretty snazzy). I think they were setting up for some sort of service when we were there, so we weren't able to walk around the main part, just the periphery. Afterwards we also popped our heads into St. Peters Church, a nearby Baroque church. It's much smaller but has a lushly ornate interior. We didn't stay long because an organ concert was going on while we were there.
Our last main stop that day was the Hofburg Palace, the current official residence of Austria's president and the former home of many of Austria's (and Europe's) rulers, including the Hapsburgs. We didn't go inside, just walked around the exterior, since we already knew we wanted to do a tour of the Schönbrunn Palace, the other major palace in Vienna (what a problem, so many palaces in one city to choose from). The one thing I would have liked to have done, however, was see a performance at the Spanish Riding School, which is part of the palace. The tickets are a little expensive (min. 23EUR for a standing room ticket for a proper performance; 14EUR to watch a practice session) and considering I probably would have been the only person in our group that really wanted to do it, it didn't seem worth the money. We did get to peer through plexiglass at some of the famous Lipizzaner horses in their stalls, at least.
The next day, our main target was the Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Hapsburg family (the Hofburg Palace being their winter residence). From what I've heard, the two palaces are fairly similar inside so there's not much point in touring both, unless you're really into palaces or something like that. Schönbrunn seemed like a better option to me since it also has beautifully spacious gardens to explore. We arrived in the late morning and bought our tickets -- we had to wait in line to purchase them, but it wasn't too bad. We did a little exploring of the grounds to kill time before the start time of our tour, then headed in.
The palace grounds are large enough that you don't feel overcrowded despite the fact that there are thousands of people visiting at the same time as you. Inside the palace was a different story. We were herded into groups and sent through security, then to the audioguide station. Once you're in, you're free to explore the rooms at your own pace, but it became clear to us that we needed to be strategic about how long we spent in one place. When we first started, we were bunched up with a large guided tour group, which meant it was extremely hard to even just find somewhere to stand in the room so you could listen to everything the audioguide had to say -- nevermind that you probably couldn't see any of the finer details the guide was pointing out since there were too many people. We picked up our pace to get ahead of the group, and the crowds were more manageable, but then we never quite let ourselves dawdle, for fear of the tour groups catching up with us and ruining everything again.
Basically, I enjoyed getting to see the inside of the palace, since there are so many rooms that are rich in both beauty and history, but I think the palace would be absolutely unbearable with the hordes of tourists that descend upon it in the height of summer. The crowds inside during a Sunday in October were about all I could take.
After touring the palace, we enjoyed an overpriced lunch at the palace cafe and then spent some time strolling the expansive gardens. Touring the palace was cool, but the gardens were probably my favorite part. I'm always a sucker for big, well-maintained parks, and getting to see the grounds in the midst of fall was an extra treat. This has been my first fall in Europe, and so far I'm a big fan.
After Schönbrunn, we headed out to Heiligenstadt, which is to the north of the inner city. Our mission there was to find a Heuriger, a sort of Austrian wine garden. We found one we liked, Weingut Mayer am Pfarrplatz. It was very traditional-looking, with a cute/cozy indoor area and an outdoor courtyard with intertwining grape vines lacing overhead. There were no available tables inside, so we had to sit in the cool fall air, but some glasses of white wine helped stave off the cold. It was clear that a Sunday night in October was not the best time to take in the spirit of the Austrian Heurigen (known for live music and a general atmosphere of conviviality), but it was a pleasant detour.
Our last day, Monday, gave us the chance to walk around the city a little more, taking in some of the sights we had missed earlier and enjoying the fabulous weather we had been blessed with. As we were walking, we noticed a strong military presence in the city, especially around the Hofburg Palace, which had several military helicopters sitting on the lawn in front of it. I asked a soldier who was standing around what it was all about -- turns out, it was in preparation for Austria's national holiday, which was on October 26. I felt like a bit of a dumb tourist then, visiting a country and not even knowing that it's biggest national celebration was coming up. Oops.
The last thing we did in Vienna was probably my favorite thing we did the entire trip -- we went to see an opera performance. However, we were not able to get tickets at the main opera house, the Staatsoper. Instead, we saw a performance of Die Fledermaus (technically an operetta, whatever the hell that is) at the Volksoper, a less grand but still major opera house in Vienna. I had only "seen" one opera before this, and I say "seen" because it was in Budapest two years ago, and my friend and I bought the cheapest tickets possible, which meant we could only see about 40 percent of the stage. Additionally, the opera (Tosca) was performed in Italian and subtitled in Hungarian, so I really have no idea what happened in that opera (we read the wikipedia page after the show and were amazed at all the plot details we missed).
So, I treated this as my first proper opera experience. Though the Volksoper may be lacking in grandeur compared to the Staatsoper, the show itself lacked nothing. I didn't read much about the piece beforehand, so I was surprised that an opera with such a brooding name ("The Bat") could end up being so funny. But it was an extremely light, energetic and entertaining show, and both my parents and I had an excellent time. The only downside was that although there were English subtitles, they didn't always fully translate what was going on. Often, they would only give a general explanation of what was happening in a scene and not translate specific jokes -- there was a clear divide between what the German-speaking audience was laughing at and what the others were laughing at (one memorable exchange involved a character talking about how poor he is -- when asked where was employed, he answered, "the Vienna Volksoper," which elicited an immediate outpouring of sympathy from the other character; this went on for a few minutes and caused a lot of laughter among the audience, much to the confusion of my non-German-speaking parents).
After that, it was time to pack our bags and prepare for the final stop on our journey, Budapest. Vienna was an enjoyable city to visit, and beyond generally feeling like it was the odd city out in our overall trip, the perfect weather and beautiful sights certainly made up for this. Like I mentioned in the title, Vienna doesn't necessarily feel terribly different from much of Germany, so if you want a cleaner break from the familiar, it might not be a bold enough choice. But, if you already know you like Germany and are just looking for a sort of "Germany plus" experience, give Vienna a shot. Alternatively, if you like to go somewhere where it never rains, also go to Vienna, since based on my two trips to Austria the weather is 70 degrees and sunny every single day.