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Wedged between the crossroads of western and Eastern Europe, 2,500 year-old Vienna is quintessential Austria. With seemingly ever-present music in the air, world class food and drink, a thriving cultural scene, and a rich imperial past, it’s no wonder Austria’s capital often tops quality-of-life surveys as the world’s most livable city. In the days before such surveys, residents Johann Strauss, Mozart, Haydn, Schubert, and Sigmund Freud happily knew Vienna well and today the glittering city of the waltz and the Habsburgs is an excellent vacation pick year-round.
5…Take a regal stroll through history
Surrounded by bustling Ring boulevard, the heart of Vienna’s central Innere Stadt district is best explored on foot. Soak up the city’s stately ambiance with a walk from the Staatsoper (Opera) along the Kärntner Strasse, the longest street in the Altstadt (Old Town). If your feet tire out, hop on tram #1 or #2 for a 45-minute ride past major sights like the Rathaus (Town Hall) and the Burgtheater (the Austrian National Theater.) The route is even more striking at night when the city is aglow. Vienna’s top-notch transportation system is a cinch to navigate. A 72-hour Wien-Karte (Vienna Pass) for 18.50 euros offers unlimited public transportation with over 200 sightseeing discounts and is a good value for energetic visitors.
At Stephansplatz square, peek inside massive 12th century Stephansdom (St. Stephan’s Cathedral), affectionately nicknamed Steffl by the Viennese. Covered with 230,000 colored roof tiles, St. Stephan’s probably is the city’s most recognizable landmark. (www.stephanskirche.at) Can you spot the “O5” scratched in the stones near the cathedral entrance? During World War II, the abbreviation was the secret sign of the Austrian anti-Nazi resistance movement. For a short workout and a sweeping view of Vienna on a clear day, climb the 340 spiral steps of the South Tower.
Make your way to the Hofburg (Court Palace – tram stop Heldenplatz), for seven centuries the imperial winter residence of the mighty Habsburg Empire. (www.hofburg-wien.at) Inside the palace, visit the Kaiserappartements (Imperial Apartments). They were the private living quarters of Emperor Franz Josef and his beautiful yet lonely wife, the iconic Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”). The Hofburg also houses the Austrian National Library, the Spanish Riding School, and performance hall of the Vienna Boys’ Choir.
A UNESCO World Heritage site and one of the most visited attractions in Austria, Schönbrunn Palace (www.schoenbrunn.at) is the sumptuous former summer Habsburg palace. (Take U-Bahn #4 ) Napoleon was so taken with the 1,500-room imperial residence on the outskirts of town that he made Schönbrunn his official headquarters after conquering Vienna. Maria Theresia’s Millions Room, the Hall of Mirrors, and the Imperial Gardens are standout attractions here.
4…Watch leaping Royal Lipizzaner stallions
Lovingly trained at the Spanische Reitschule, the sleek steeds call the Stallburg Palace Stables home. It’s said the graceful stallions are the world’s finest show horses and their expert riders the best equestrian performers on the planet. One look at their intricate choreographed moves, and you’ll probably agree. Be sure to make your reservations at least two months beforehand. (www.srs.at).
A less expensive way to see the stallions and their riders in action is to attend one of the Tuesday through Sunday two-hour morning training sessions set to music. Tickets can be purchased from the Spanish Riding School online for 12 euros each.
3…Listen to the heavenly sounds of the Vienna Boys’ Choir
The celebrated Vienna Boys’ Choir, founded by Emperor Maximilian I six years after Columbus landed in America, is made up not only of Austrian boys but also young singers from as far away as Japan and the United States. Buy advance tickets (5 euros and up) for Sunday 9:15 a.m. Haydn and Mozart Mass performances in the Hofburgkapelle September through June. If by chance the Vienna Boys’ Choir is not in town during your visit, make a beeline for 14th century gothic Augustinerkirche (St. Augustine’s Church). During 11 a.m. Sunday High Mass, you’ll be rewarded with the vocals of the superb church choir and the music of a fine orchestra.
From opera or orchestral music to jazz and ballet, music flourishes in Vienna. Treat yourself to an opera night at the great Staatsoper (www.staatsper.at), a Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Musikverein (www.a-wgm.com), or one of many other performances at local venues.
2…Go marathon museum-hopping
In a city packed with over 100 museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum of Fine Arts has long been a star. (www.khm.at) The huge building is just across from the Hofburg Palace. Thanks to vast Habsburg art acquisitions amassed from centuries of empire building, the museum boasts the fourth largest art collection in the world. Must-see collections include ancient Greek and Egyptian art (don’t overlook the Egyptian burial chamber), as well as paintings from European masters such as Bruegel, Dürer, Raphael, and Titian. Also worth a look are the museum’s extensive armory collection and the ancient musical instrument exhibits, proudly displaying Mozart’s piano and Beethoven’s harpsichord.
With your back to the Hofburg as you stand near the Museum of Fine Arts, you’ll meet the newest kid on the block: the MuseumsQuartier, located at the Messepalast. This Trade Fair Palace was originally part of the former imperial barracks. The “M.Q.” (www.mqw.at) is an enormous set of buildings picked in 2001 as the site of Vienna’s contemporary art center. It’s now one of the ten largest art complexes in the world. An architecture center, a children’s museum, the Austrian Tobacco Museum, and the Leopold and Moderner Kunst (Modern Art) Museums with works by Schiele, Klimt, Picasso, Dali, and Warhol are the MuseumsQuartier ‘s biggest draws.
If you’re up for more touring, consider the Albertina (www.albertina.at), home to the world-famous graphic arts collection. Because of its mammoth archive of more than 1.5 million pieces, the museum showcases small portions of its collections through temporary exhibitions. Sigmund Freud fans might want to make the pilgrimage to the doctor’s former second floor apartment at Berggasse 19. (TakeU-Bahn #2 to Schottentor). The Freud Museum (www.freud-museum.at) is an odd mix of old photographs, clothing, personal documents (including a circumcision certificate), and furniture.
1…Enjoy a leisurely coffee, legendary pastry, and the best people-watching in Vienna
With coffee prepared in two dozen or more ways at many of Vienna’s time-honored cafes, you’ll almost certainly be overwhelmed by where to go and what to sip. A good bet is the ever-popular Wiener Mélange, a traditional cup of creamy coffee served with steamed foamy milk and a glass of water on the side. When in Vienna, a cup of joe is not complete unless accompanied by traditional pastry or tempting piece of cake.
Café Demel (www.demel.at) and rival Hotel Sacher Restaurant (www.sacher.com) offer “high profile” tastes of Vienna’s coffeehouse and dessert culture. Though they’re still debating who was first to create the original recipe for the sinful chocolate Sachertorte, both serve up rich coffee to a steady stream of loyal patrons and happy visitors. Along with a smooth Viennese coffee, peruse a complimentary newspaper as you rub elbows with Austrian politicians, chatty office workers, or the occasional celebrity. For a coffeehouse under the tourist radar, try Cafe Frauenhuber, claiming to be Vienna’s oldest coffeehouse and Mozart’s hangout to boot.
After a long coffeehouse break, you might feel a hankering for a snack or meal. During the winter holiday season, the lively Rathaus (Town Hall) Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market) is the perfect place to grab an inexpensive bite. Munch on an oversized Wurst in a crusty Semmel roll or Bratkartoffel (baked potato) and Gulasch soup. Then wash it all down with a cup of mulled wine or spiced hot punch. If you’d rather feast on fresh cheeses, breads, produce, or to-go Asian, Turkish,Mid-eastern, or organic local food back in your hotel room, wander over to the 16th century Naschmarkt, Vienna’s oldest food market.
For heartier appetites, head to the Grinzing district to sample new wines (Heurigen) and down-home country buffets. Taverns serving the new wines customarily hang a pine branch over their doors. Later work off those calories with a brisk walk or jog around the Prater, Vienna’s favorite amusement park since 1766. Cap off the night with a spin on the Riesenrad, the city’s giant ferris wheel.