When I had the opportunity to join friends on a short trip to Vienna a year ago, I didn’t hesitate. Of course I wanted to go. I had heard so much about this tradition-rich city that I wanted to see and experience it myself.
Vienna is the capital of Austria, and the country’s largest city with about 1.7 million inhabitants. Located in eastern Austria, it is close to the borders of the Czech Republic, Slovakia and Hungary. Even though Austria itself is a small country, its capital (the ninth most populous city in the European Union) has a lot to offer. I almost don’t know where to start the account of our trip.
What struck me most, when first walking through the city center, was the stunning architecture and the beautiful old buildings. These imposing structures have their roots in Celtic and Roman settlements, which later developed into an awe-inspiring medieval and baroque city. Its historic city center certainly was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for a reason.
I would highly recommend that you visit Vienna in the summer to enjoy the wide and beautiful parks and all the impressive sites in the sun. However, a winter trip can be just as enjoyable if you can endure those Viennese winters, famous for their strong winds and severe temperatures. We visited the city in early January, when it was still freezing cold and snowy, but we were able to make the most of our journey. It’s not that bad, though, wandering through the streets of wintery Vienna with snowflakes hurtling through the air and wonderful Christmas lights guiding your way. After strolling around, you can warm up in one of Vienna’s various cafés or restaurants and have a Wiener Melange (German for “Viennese blend”), a piece of Vienna’s most famous chocolate cake “Sacher Torte,” or a Palatschinke (a thin Austrian crêpe-like variety of pancake). Café Sacher is especially worth a visit. This traditional and exquisite café is home to Sacher Torte and its recipe is still a well-kept secret. You might have to wait in line a few minutes but it is definitely worth your patience. If you are more into savory food, try a freshly made Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded and deep-fried piece of veal, which is Austria’s national dish and belongs to the best known specialty of the Viennese cuisine.
Because of our limited time, we decided on visiting the Hofburg Palace, which includes the Imperial Apartments, The Sisi Museum, and The Imperial Silver Collection. This extensive Palace used to be the center of the Monarchy of Austria, and was the home of Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria and his wife, Empress Elizabeth, nicknamed Sisi. Most people, including me, are interested in her world. Exploring these imposing rooms — equipped with her beautiful antique furniture, some original gowns, her jewelry, and paperwork — and imagining that this is the place where she used to live, love, and rule, brought her back to life for a short glimpse. And it got even better. The Imperial Silver Collection with all the glamorous centerpieces, expensive china, and the magnificent linen, was just astonishing. If you have a little more time, go and also see the Habsburg’s Imperial Furniture Collection, which is one of the world’s largest, presenting treasures from over three centuries.
Since we had visited the Hofburg Palace, the winter residence of Sisi and her husband, we also wanted to see their incredible summer residence, Schönbrunn Palace. Austria’s most-visited site is part of the World Cultural Heritage and consists of a Palace and huge beautiful gardens where you can find mazes and labyrinths. If you are traveling with children, you could visit the Schönbrunn Children’s Museum, which offers lots of children’s and family activities.
Vienna’s landmark, the Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) is located in the city center and is one of the tallest churches in the world. The gothic cathedral was first built in 1147 AD and is Austria’s number one pride. We didn’t go inside because it was already too late in the evening, but looking at it from outside was still overwhelmingly impressive. Around Stephansplatz, which surrounds the church, you will find numerous traditional horse-drawn carriages, which are called “Fiaker.” Don’t miss out taking a romantic sightseeing tour with one of those! You can actually do that all year around, because in winter they wrap you up with blankets to keep you warm.
The Fiakers are also a wonderful way to get around the Ringstrasse, which is a circular road that surrounds the Altstadt (historic city) of Vienna. This 5.3-kilometer-long boulevard and its historical buildings were constructed between 1860 and 1890, to replace the city walls. Each of the numerous jaw-dropping buildings is more beautiful than the next, and the architecture styles range from Neo-Renaissance to New Baroque to Flemish Gothic. Among others, you need to see the Museum of Fine Arts, The National History Museum, and the Parliament. Also pretty impressive is the Vienna State Opera.
Speaking of opera, did you know that Vienna played a central role in Europe in terms of classical music in the late 18th century? The First Viennese School was a group of talented composers of classical music, such as Ludwig van Beethoven, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, and Franz Schubert. They belong to the world’s most famous composers of classical music, and the legacy of their works is still vivid in Vienna. The city’s State Opera is a world-renowned opera house with an impressive repertoire of famous ballets, operas, and classical concerts.
In case the show you wanted to see is already sold out, you can get tickets for less famous, but still incredibly good concerts or shows in different establishments. We were lucky to get tickets for a small classical concert with a mixed variety of musical pieces, performed by a group of four wonderfully talented musicians and two great singers. The concert was held in a side wing of the Schönbrunn Palace, which was the perfect setting to listen to good classical music. The room, with its ornamented walls and the ornate chandeliers hanging from the ceiling, combined with the beautiful old-fashioned interior design, carried our minds back in time to Mozart, Sisi and the life of the Habsburgs. We agreed that if you visit Vienna, a classical concert or a ballet is a must-see.
Another must-do, while you’re in the city with the highest quality of living in the world (designated by the consulting company Mercer), is spending some time at the Wiener Prater, which is an extensive public park with an amusement park at one corner. The Prater is most famous for its Riesenrad, a 212-foot-high Ferris wheel at the entrance of the park. We enjoyed the incredible view over the whole city from up above in one of Vienna’s most famous tourist attractions.
If you are a lover of impressive buildings with artsy ornamentation and sprawling designs, and if you enjoy classical music, operas and ballet, Vienna is your place to be.