Winter in ViennaDecember
Elegance, opulence, classical music, incredible museums, and decadent coffee and dessert culture
Duration: Five days
The gilded jewel of the Hapsburg Empire, Vienna is a city enthralled with it’s past. Grand palaces and museums abound. Forget Paris with it’s starving artists, and can-can dancers, Vienna is the most glamorous city in Europe, and amazingly, it won’t cost you much to experience a bit of the gilded, good life. For a few euros you can sit in any number of historic cafes, sipping a frothy, whip cream bedecked coffee while imperious waiters with bowties amble around the marble table tops. In Vienna, belle epoque opulence is the norm. I saw more fur coats here than I’ve ever seen (it does get absolutely freezing in the winter months with harsh wind whipping through the city). Even the art is gilded in Vienna, with no shortage of gleaming, golden Klimts scattered in museums throughout the city. Ideally you would spend more than just a weekend as this city is unbelievably rich with several world class museums and palaces to visit. In between sight seeing, you’ll want to spend time sitting in coffee houses, reading the free newspapers, and people watching in surroundings that are remarkably unchanged since the turn of the century when writers, philosophers, and artists occupied the same banquettes. No visit to Vienna is complete without a classical music concert, although some of the cafes even provide live pianist accompaniment to go with your Franziskaner.
- Art 100% 100%
- Food 70% 70%
- Ease of Transportation 90% 90%
- Affordability 90% 90%
Vienna is one of my favorite art cities in the world. In terms of museums, my personal ‘must do’ list includes the Leopold for it’s unparalleled collection of Schiele paintings (if you don’t love Schiele, perhaps this isn’t a must do for you, but I love his sad, sinuous figures rife with humanity in all their awkward poses). The Belvedere Palace is a must do to see Klimt’s ‘The Kiss’, as well as my personal favorite Judith and the Head of Holofernes’, among other incredible Klimt portraits, and other Austrian artists. When we visited, the Orangerie also hosted a Schiele exhibition that, supplemented with the Albertina meant we saw the majority of his oeuvre in two days. The Kunsthistoriches (‘kunst’ meaning art, you’ll see this word a lot in Vienna), houses the state’s collection of unbelievable works ranging from Vermeer to Rembrandt, to Breugal, to Egyptian antiquities. The building itself is spectacular with gilded ornate murals and grandeur, and I found that despite it’s imposing size from the outside, it’s actually well organized and much more manageable than expected. And if you have time, the Albertina also has a ‘best of’ survey of 20th century art.
The 25 minute tourist tram around the Ringstrasse (literally ‘ring road’ a circular road that navigates around the central attractions of Vienna) is informative and a good way to get your bearings when you first arrive. I would try to buy tickets to this in advance.
Vienna is wonderfully organized for visitors to walk from highlight to highlight, which is exactly what we did. Start up at the museum quartier at the Leopold Museum, then continue down the grand promenade with the Kunsthistoriche on one side, the Museum of Natural History on the other, and an enormous statue of Empress Maria Theresa (aka Marie Antoinette’s mother) in the middle. I’ll spare the cliches about ‘girl power’ but Maria Theresa wielded ubelievable control over a far reaching empire that she expanded through strategic military and marital initiatives throughout her reign. I wish I’d read more about her before visiting, but this statue gives a sense of the only female ruler of the Habsburg Empire lording over Vienna, the crown jewel in an empire that included much of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Italy, among others. (It’s not all rosy, she had a pretty abhorrent record when it comes to the treatment of Jews and Protestants, so take all this Empress talk with a grain of salt).
From the Kunsthistoriche, you can continue down to the Heldenplatz and the Hofburg Palace where the National Library and the famous Spanish Horses are housed. The library’s State Hall is the main attraction; an incredible space for book lovers (skip it if an old library filled floor to ceiling with old, bound books isn’t your thing). We waited in line for 45 minutes to get inside, which I’m glad we did because I really did want to see it, but it went against all of my personal principles on preparation and avoiding lines, so plan ahead better than me and try to get tickets in advance here.
The Spanish Riding School is a unique experience unlike anything I’d seen before, so plan ahead for tickets to this as well if you want to catch the dressage performance. Famous Lippizaner horses (a particular breed originaing from Spain, hence the name of the school) have been consistenly bred and trained here since the early 18th century, and the show is an amazing combination of Austrian cultural pride, beautiful music, and ‘horse ballet’ as it’s been described. The white horses high step and perform agile feats with formal riders in full regalia. It’s quite a sight to behold, though tickets aren’t cheap.
Best Food & Drink
Austrian food can be quite heavy, though in the cold winter months, goulash and beef broth soup suddenly hit the spot (it sound weird I know, but the beef broth consommé with ‘pancake’ is a Viennese classic that you should absolutely try). Most noteworthy though, are the coffee houses all throughout the city, each boasting their unique history and list of famous, loyal patrons. Some are more known for coffee and dessert, others are a perfect place for an afternoon or evening meal. Try to go to as many as possible during your time in Vienna to experience the range of styles, and figure out your own favorite. Our Airbnb was near Cafe Sperl, so this became our daily breakfast stop, which was good enough that we kept going back every morning of the trip. There were plenty of seats so we always could always get a table with comfortable upholstered banquettes, there is a wide selection of free newspapers spread out over a pool table (this is a standard requirement of the most traditional coffee houses). The eggs and pastries were delicious here as was the coffee. And there was a nice mix of locals who clearly come in all the time. In the afternoons, with energy flagging, we stopped by a number of others. Our favourites were: Café Diglas which has excellent soups, goulash, and a heaving pastry case with a selection of fresh cakes briskly sliced up by the presiding waiter. In the evenings, there’s live piano music. Café Hawelka looks as it must have 100 years ago when writers and philosophers filled it’s banquettes debating, reading, and writing over cheap cups of coffee in comfort (we didn’t eat here and it seemed as though people really came for drinks only). Café Bräunerhof has imperious waiters literary street cred, and lastly Café Prückel has a sort of 1950s feeling but is popular with locals, has comfortable plush booth seating (if you can manage to snag one), and a wide selection of pastries in a slightly shabby case. Sacher torte is the most famous of the many dessert options in Vienna, and while you can get it at a few cafés around town, we went straight to the source at Café Sacher. It’s a predictable tourist sh*& show, and the line is particularly cruel as frigid December air whips around you, but my mom wanted to try the OG of Vienna desserts and who was I to deny her. The torte is underwhelming, particularly if you’re picturing fudgy richness based on it’s appearance. For all that rich chocoloate appearance, there’s a lot of apricot and sponge cake that dilutes the taste (in my chocoholic view). There are far more charming cafes in Vienna that serve a range of desserts, so I’d recommend you skip Café Sacher, unless you aren’t pressed for time and are really making the rounds.
One important note on cafés in Vienna, MOST ARE CASH ONLY. This caused a minor meltdown on our trip, which you can avoid by being suitably prepared. There’s nothing worse than travelling from one pastry case to the next, developing hanger and frustration because you’re inadequately prepared.
Aside from coffee houses, there were a few other noteworthy places worth visiting. For unparalleled views of the city, make a reservation for brunch or drinks (or just blague your way in, which is what we did) to Das Loft at the SO Vienna. This sleek, rooftop restaurant has unbelievable views over the entire expanse of Vienna with St. Stephen’s in the middle distance, and an interesting crowd for people watching. We just had drinks, but the weekend brunch did seem to be quite popular.
We returned to Café Amacord a few times for a relaxed, local ambience and classic Austrian dishes (wiener schniztel and goulash).
Weibel’s Wirtshaus was the best Viennese meal we had on our trip and nice for a slightly more formal night out. Austrian classics are served up in a cozy, but refined atmosphere, and they have an enormous catalogue of Austrian wines to accompany your meal.
Final notes on Airbnbs in Vienna
Two of my best Airbnb experiences in all of Europe took place in Vienna. Thanks to government rent control regulations, and a shrinking population in the city (according to one of our uber drivers), there are some large, beautiful apartments available for not very much money. My first Airbnb was a gorgeous 2 bedroom turn of the century dream with enormous windows, high ceilings, original parquet floors, and a floorplan that would be considered a mansion in Paris. Did I mention it was €110 a night and comfortably slept 4-6? Here The second Airbnb was a spacious, renovated 1 bedroom, with a living room that was double the size of most studio apartments (complete with a second bed, effectively making this a two bedroom-esque rental). With five windows overlooking a park, we were comfortable here and inquiring about the ins and outs of local rent control law, imagining a future living in Vienna in splendor for half our rent at home here.
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