I definitely have to say that Vienna is on my top-three list for favorite European cities. From its neo-classical, Imperial-era architecture, its immaculately clean streets and its beautiful gardens, to its friendly people, charming atmosphere and the countless horse-drawn carriages trotting their way through the cobbled streets; suffice it to say that Vienna has charm to the maximum.
We rented an apartment for our four night stay in Vienna and we could not have been more pleased with it. The place was really nice, amazingly located and the owners were great. They even gave us a bottle of wine and a Lindt, Chocolate Easter Bunny as welcome gifts. After dropping off our bags at the apartment and getting settled, we went for a quick grocery run that stocked our little, European-apartment kitchen for our stay and headed out for a walk through Vienna’s streets.
Since we were in Vienna for Easter weekend, most of the tours were not running (Europeans take their holidays very seriously and most everything closes), so we decided to do one of our trusty Rick Steve’s audio tours of the Inner Stadt in order to get oriented for the days to come. A few of the sites we visited were Hofburg, the Royal Palace, which was more than royal and sat, imposingly, at the heart of the city; MuseumsQuatrier, the area where Vienna’s most important musems are located; Wiener Staatsoper, the Opera House, a beautiful building where some of the world’s best opera takes place; Stephansdom, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with its tiled roof and intricate gothic towers that define Vienna’s skyline; and the Rathaus or Town Hall, one of the most impressive structures in Vienna and a place where I would not mind going to work everyday as Mayor of Vienna (maybe one day).
I was excited for Easter Sunday, our second day in Vienna. Not because it is a holiday and I get the Monday off work (oh wait, that is every Monday for me for the past nine months…), but because it was the only scheduled performance of the Spanish Riding School at Hofburg (Royal Palace) during our stay in Vienna and our attendance was a mandatory. For those of you who are not familiar with it, the Spanish Riding School is a 400-year old institution where riders and the famous Lipizzan horses are paired together to perform classical dressage moves, jumps and what amounts to horse ballet. In short, this is a horse-lovers dream.
As we got to the ticket booth, I was given the devastating news that tickets were sold out. As I sadly walked away from the ticket counter, I decided that if I could not see the performance at least I would get tickets to one of the regular, Monday training sessions, so we looped back to the ticket counter to buy tickets for the next day. As the first ticket booth lady was bad luck, I decided to go with the one beside her and to my amazing luck as soon as I got to the front of the line a couple of tickets were rereleased (apparently someone did not show up to claim their reserved tickets)! As my ticket lady was telling me that she had two tickets, I overheard another ticket lady talking to another couple about these “just rereleased” tickets so with no hesitation I blurted out “YES!”
I could barely contain my excitement as we were ushered to our seats, triumphantly past the other couple whose hymning and hawing allowed me to snag the tickets, as we had no idea of where the seats we just bought actually were, but the seats turned out to be pretty good, and offered a great vantage point of the whole riding arena. Needless to say, the 90-minute performance was magical, the horses were beautiful, powerful and moved with impeccable precision, charm, power and elegance. I was a very lucky and happy girl.
Now that we had crossed the Spanish Riding School’s performance off our Viennese cultural list, the next logical thing to do was attend the opera. After finding all the performances for our visit in Vienna to be sold out, we read that it was possible to get some very cheap, standing-room only tickets, which the Opera House made available for sale 90 minutes before the performance started. So we showed up 90-minutes before, lined up with the other culture lovers on a budget, and after a steady trudge forward for 20 minutes, we snagged some pretty sweet tickets for only three Euros each; now that is the type of opera I can get excited for! We calmly and orderly followed the crowd in and ended up waiting on the stairs up to the balcony for another 10 minutes until the attendant opened the door, the calm and orderly broke down, and the mad dash was on to get the best spots. Greg and I were kind of lost as to where to go so we followed the crowds, while jockeying with surprisingly quick and agile older types, and got some prime spots with a pretty good view. But with about 40-minutes left before the performance, the ushers told us to reserve our spots with a scarf (oh how European) on the leaning-railing if you wanted to go walk around for a bit.
Once the performance started, it was three hours of beautiful, powerful orchestral music, impressive voices and a very complicated story that had both Greg and I a bit clueless as to what was happening on stage, despite the fact that we had devices on the railing that translated the performance into English. Even after we looked up the performance after the show, which was Wagner’s Parsifal by the way, neither of us are very certain if that is what we actually saw. Nevertheless, the opera in Vienna was a must; and even though it is not something we would choose to do every week (or month, or even year), we both felt our cultural knowledge was expanded by this experience.
A very important part of experiencing any city is to go where the locals go, be it cafes, restaurants or bars. In Vienna we went to the popular Café Hawelka. Attended by locals, the café’s atmosphere is dark, with several wood tables, old looking booths and velvet couches all crammed together and an array of daily newspapers sitting at the entrance for everyone to enjoy. There were no menus and the waiters left you alone until you raised your hand to catch their attention (that included for taking your order too). We waited for five minutes until we got the idea of how the place operated. Since no menu was given we just went with what we saw at the tables around us, which included some Viennese coffee (black with whip cream on top) and both a chocolate cake and apple strudel that seemed to be on everyone’s table. We enjoyed our coffee and sweets and had a long, uninterrupted (the positives of the European waiter system finally made sense) fun conversation for a relaxing couple of hours, all to the delightful background of people-watching.
On our last day in Vienna we took another guided audio tour, but this time aboard a tram that circled the Inner Stadt (the downtown historic core where most tourist attractions are). We had to change trams in the middle of the tour which happened to be at Schwedenplatz next to the Danube River that was pleasant enough to watch flow by for a bit. As recommended by the tour, we went for ice cream at Eissalon am Schwedenplatz, a local joint which had the most expansive selection of ice cream combinations that I had ever seen. The ice cream was pretty good, and the portions where huge! We definitely felt the sugar rush (and eventual crash a few hours later) too. The second part of the tour took us back to the Opera House where we walked around for a few more hours before calling it a day and heading back to our cozy apartment.
The next morning we left bright and early to catch our train to our next Austrian destination – Salzburg.