For visitors with a thicker wallet or sore feet, a horse and carriage ride is an attractive alternative to walking.
Story and photos by Alison Gardner, Editor, Travel with a Challenge
I had planned to spend two days in Vienna before visiting some national parks in eastern Austria. At the last minute, the nature days were cancelled, leaving me resigned to five days around the capital before my international flight. I am not much of a city holiday person, two days will usually do just fine, but this relaxed city of music, history, coffeehouses and desserts created a convert.
Vienna is an expensive European city and certainly more costly than the Austrian countryside, so I made it my challenge to find memorable things to enjoy for more than double the days I had planned. Here are ten tips that allowed me to have my Viennese sacher torte and that famous coffee too! First stop was the Vienna Tourist Board office, www.vienna.info, in the Albertinaplatz (First District) to find out what special events were happening during my stay (including open air, free ones).
I bought a three-day Vienna Card for €18.50, about US$23. This provided me with three days of free tram, bus and underground train travel around the city and discounts to dozens of the best public attractions, cafes, restaurants, shops and wine taverns in the city. The card is also available at major hotels. Many attractions offer a substantial senior discount, with a passport being sufficient to prove age.
Stunning buildings from the Austro-Hungarian Empire era make excellent museums today.
1. With my Vienna Card in hand, I first oriented myself by riding the circular tram system around the entire Ringstrasse Boulevard twice, completely navigating the edge of the city’s historic core to make sure I knew where everything was located. Ultra-modern digitalized signs at each tram stop announce the exact minute every numbered tram will stop. Rest assured you may set your watch by its arrival! My Tourist Board map readily identified dozens of museums, churches, palaces and concert halls with elegantly-maintained facades that recall the grand scale and flamboyant design demanded of empire days gone by.
2.Vienna has more than 120 museums, almost all with an entry fee. However, on Sundays, the 20 museums run by the city itself have free entry. Other museums combine their entry fee, with one ticket for two to four related museum collections (not always in the same place). Among my favorites was the three-storey Clock Museum in one of Vienna’s oldest buildings at Schulhof 2. There were miniature masterpieces, elaborately-decorated Rococo grandfather clocks seven feet tall, and large framed oil paintings with tiny working time-pieces built right into a church steeple or city hall building.
Ornate seven-foot grandfather clocks at the intriguing Clock Museum.
3. The Spanish Riding School in the Hapsburg Winter Palace sells tickets for performances of the famous white horses and for the morning exercise and training sessions. Performance tickets range from €165 to €18 (for standing room); reservations well in advance are essential. For a taste of the show at a fraction of the price and open seating too, attend a two-hour morning exercise and training session instead, with antique ballroom-style chandeliers and musical accompaniment included.
While most of the Lipizanners are four-legged pros going through their routines with predictable precision, there are some entertaining moments with the teenage horses who have yet to get the choreography quite right. Training session tickets are €12 or €9 for seniors over 60, no reservations, Tuesday to Saturday 10 to 12 noon.
4. Hundertwasser Village and Hundertwasserhaus in the Third District offer a whimsical, unique contrast to the precise, monumental architecture on a grand scale that defines most of old Vienna. Opened in 1985 and owned by the city, the 52-unit residential building and village mini-mall across the street attract a lot of visitors with cameras who come to stare in amazement at the brilliantly-painted buildings with trees (oxygen sources) sprouting out of them, apparently making a statement about nature living in harmony with a manmade world.
Across the street in the two floors of shops with equally quirky exterior and interior design, it is impossible not to smile while browsing the over-stuffed hole-in-the-wall shops and contemplating the architect’s sense of humour while perched on a stool nursing a cappuccino!
The playful architecture of Hundertwasserhaus.
5. Schönbrunn Palace, the 300-year-old Hapsburg Summer Palace, is equivalent to visiting Versailles or Windsor Castle. One adult ticket (starting at €9.50 including an excellent hand-held audio guide) gets you half a day cruising the fabulous reconstructions and furnished rooms of this UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site designated as such in 1996.
There are also outdoor concerts, the world’s oldest zoo, enormous gardens, a puppet theatre and collections of ceremonial carriages. For children there is a hands-on museum program where they can dress up as royalty and learn fan language! How cool is that? From the city, getting to the palace takes 30 minutes or less by tram or bus.
Schonbrunn Palace and its extensive grounds, a small part shown above, rival France’s Versailles Palace.
6. Forget Starbucks, though there are a dismaying number of outlets in the city. Ranging from elegant and pricey to humble and homey, traditional coffeehouses are a cultural experience that must be sampled and savoured fully while in Vienna. Often they don’t look impressive but, if you linger for an hour, you soon detect the character and history.
Dozens of newspapers are laid out invitingly near the entrance providing the cue that “drink and go” meets with disapproval; in fact, you will need to request the bill at least twice before the waiter of any reputable coffeehouse takes your exit seriously. Two of my favorites are Zum Schwarzen Kamel at Bognergasse 5, dating from 1618 (also a favorite of the composer, Beethoven), and Café Korb at Brandstatte 9, an artists’ hangout with a hundred years of history. There is a comprehensive coffeehouse brochure at the Tourist Board office.
A street table at Beethoven’s favorite coffee house, Zum Schwarzen Kameel.
7. St. Stephen’s Cathedral has been the heart of Vienna since the 12th century, with the present building a dominant cultural and religious feature of the city since the 14th century. You cannot miss it either by sight or sound as you head toward the center of the Ringstrasse. For those who are happy with heights, the outside perimeter of the North Tower offers wonderful views of the old city, all the better appreciated after you have visited some of the medieval streets and landmark buildings. Inside the Cathedral, there is an alcove where you pay €6 to take an elevator to the top. Open seven days from 8:30 a.m. Closing time varies from 5 p.m. to 6 p.m., depending on the season.
The panoramic view from St. Stephen’s Cathedral North Tower is worth an elevator ride to the top.
8. On several pedestrian-only streets and squares inside the Ringstrasse, there are accomplished individual musicians, mini-orchestras and choral groups playing or singing for donations and sometimes to sell their CDs. These are not the sort of musical moments where you hardly break stride as you flip a coin in the hat, but rather they are mini-concerts that brighten even a gray-sky day. Streetside café tables are usually within handy proximity, making a glass of Austrian wine or beer the ideal excuse to spin out the occasion.
A visiting Romanian youth orchestra serenades on a pedestrian street before their concert hall performance.
9. There are organ recitals by Karl Riedl at St Peter’s Church on the Petersplatz, Saturday and Sunday evenings at 8 p.m. In its own right, this is a gem of Baroque architecture abundantly decorated with frescoes and vivid stain glass. Better yet, it is an acoustically-perfect venue for a varied program ranging from hum-along hymns and Bach or Mozart pieces to late 20th century composers and pop songs. Contributions are by donation.
10. If feet and brain are growing tired from the density of Vienna’s activities and sensations and there are still a few spare Euros in your pocket, pay a visit to an historic gem of a movie theater, Artis International, at Schultergasse 5, tucked into a narrow side street near the center of the Ringstrasse. First-run movies are in English on all six screens. Even the most dedicated explorer will welcome a bit of downtime in their home town tongue!
One of many spacious pedestrian streets inside the Ringstrasse.
Also in our Travel with a Challenge article collection, we invite you to check out how you may spend a day getting acquainted with the ever-colorful classical composer, Mozart, one of Vienna’s favorite sons.
Alison Gardner is a travel journalist, magazine editor, guidebook author, and consultant. She specializes in researching vacations throughout the world, suitable for people over 50 and for women of all ages. She is also the publisher and editor of the globally-respected Travel with a Challenge web magazine, www.travelwithachallenge.com.