Open the Map and find a small country surrounded by Germany, the Czech Republic and Hungary in mid-eastern Europe. This country is Austria and its capital is Vienna. When I was twelve years old, I spent Thanksgiving week in Austria and Hungary. One of our stops for several days was in Vienna, or Wien as it is known to its residents. Did you know every time you eat a hot dog, the name wiener means “from Vienna”? We arrived in Vienna after several days in small and charming Salzburg. By contrast, Vienna was large and bustling. It reminded me of Paris with its ornate architecture, grand streets and fashionable cafes and shops. We lodged at Le Meridien, right on the Ringstrasse, or historical city center. The hotel is very modern which is not my mother’s taste, but it is very nice and perfectly located for sightseeing on foot. For travelers preferring an old world feel, the Sacher, famous for its Sacher Torte, is just the spot. We lunched at the Sacher and discovered the torte is a bit overrated!
Vienna boasts a population of 2 million citizens. Celts first settled here on the banks of the Danube River in 500 B.C. More recently, in 1440, it became the home of the Hapsburg Dynasty that would rule Austria and Hungary for almost 500 years until Franz Josef died without a son in 1916 at the age of 93. Vienna was home to Beethoven, Mozart, Sigmund Freud and Gustav Klimt.
There are many must-see places to tour when in Vienna. One of them is the world famous Spanish Riding School where you can see the white Lipizzaner stallions that seem to dance inside the arena in Hofburg Palace. The school has been there for 450 years. We saw the morning exercises from the viewing gallery for a small fee. If you are a true horse lover, a more expensive ticket gets you a thorough tour including the stables.
Another must-see is the beautiful and immense Shonbrunn Palace, the rococo styled summer home of the Hapsburgs. It was built in 1638 and was the site of the first zoo in the world. Its present façade was the remodel that took place in 1740 under the direction of Empress Maria Teresa. Schonbrunn rivals Versailles in every way and for tourists is better in one way: most of the rooms are open for touring unlike Versailles which most rooms are closed to the public. At the end of the magnificent gardens overlooking a series of fountains is a beautiful structure named the Gloriette. We lunched there, as it is now a restaurant, with spectacular views of the palace. It was quite a hike to get there so you will arrive hungry.
The Vienna Opera House was just across from our hotel. It is a grand building and story has it the emperor would command his army to go stand inside it for several hours to warm it up before he and his family attended a performance. That’s one way to save on a heating bill.
We visited the Natural History Museum which is in a large complex that includes several national museums. Its most famous artifact is the tiny Venus of Willendorf, a carved fertility statue that is 30,000 years old. It is about as large as a thumb and displayed in its own little room. There’s a modern, big replica in the museum’s entrance courtesy of American artist Jeff Koons, famous for his stainless steel balloon animals.
If you love art or simply just appreciate it, no visit to Vienna is complete without seeing the Belvedere. The Belvedere is a Baroque palace built in 1716 for Prince Eugene of Savoy for his defeat of the Ottoman Empire. It is now an art museum with ornate gardens and an orangery. It has many famous works of art by Monet and Van Gogh but the Belvedere is where you go to see the works of Gustav Klimt. The Kiss hangs there and it made me feel very special to stand directly in front of this stirring masterpiece. I was surprised at how versatile Klimt was. There was a very large painting of a woman in a black dress and whether far away or up close, it looked like a photograph.
You won’t want to miss St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It is a gothic church first constructed in 1160. Its spires and colorful tiled roof are a Vienna landmark. It has a very long and interesting history, surviving fires and wars throughout the centuries. Mozart was married here and most of the Hapsburg’s funerals were held here.
The Christmas Markets were already up by late November. We visited the large one at Schonbrunn Palace where vendors and craftsmen sold all kinds of ornaments, jewelry and snow globes, which were invented in Vienna.
Visitors to Vienna must take a carriage ride through the Ringstrasse. The proud driver will point out places of interest as you listen to the charm of the clip clop of the horses walking on the granite cobblestones.
As well, visitors should enjoy the local dishes like wiener schnitzel and apple streudel. Enjoy your streudel at one of the many famous coffee houses. We dined at Café Central where the old Victorian décor seemed untouched by time.
Our family took a day trip out of Vienna to the infamous Mayerling. This former hunting lodge in the Vienna Woods is the tragic site of a murder suicide that set in motion the events of World War I and ended the nearly 500 year reign of the Hapsburgs. Books and movies abound about the “Mayerling Incident”. Emperor Franz Josef had a son, the Crown Prince Rudolf, who died at the hunting lodge of an apparent murder-suicide with his 17 year old lover, Mary Vetsera. Their bodies were discovered on January 30, 1889. Rudolf was married but did not have a son so Franz Josef was without a direct heir. Rudolf’s death meant Franz Josef’s nephew the Archduke Franz Ferdinand would succeed the throne. But the Archduke and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914. With this assassination came the end of the Hapsburgs. This event was also the beginning of WWI in Europe. The drive into the Vienna Woods was truly beautiful. The lodge is now a church and an alter is built on the site of the deaths. It is a pretty place but otherwise unremarkable to look at. It is only when you consider what took place there and its consequences to Europe is it a place of importance. On the way back to Vienna, we stopped to go in the Seegrotte, an underground lake, and take a quick boat ride in one of the flooded caverns. The Germans used the underground area to attempt to make the first jets in secret.
The people speak German in Vienna and the currency is the euro. I enjoyed traveling to Austria in November. Though cold, everything was accessible, the Christmas Markets were open and the crowds of tourists were thin. I am 16 now but still vividly remember my time in Vibrant Vienna when I was 12. So Open the Map! Find Vienna and enjoy this special and unique city where composers were inspired, famous ponies dance and emperors ruled Eastern Europe for five centuries.