A few weeks ago, I wrote about my impending whirlwind trip to Vienna. I’m back (obviously). The visit was a bit frenetic. We had a short amount of time and a busy schedule. All in all, you could say the experience was the travel equivalent of a tasting menu.
Vienna is as beautiful as all the travel books say and even though the city was grayed by cold unpleasant weather, its gorgeous historic architecture and easy navigation made it memorable.
Below are some of the things that struck my fancy and other things that were so-so, plus some suggestions to consider if you’re heading to Vienna any time soon. And, of course, lots of photos!
Unexpected tasty treats!
Before my trip, I’d heard a lot about the sausages in Vienna but I really didn’t give them much thought. Then I tried one. Yum! I went back, twice.
My guilty pleasure was the Käsekrainer, a large, ridiculously phallic sausage with cheese served in an equally large, warm, crusty baguette. (If you’re not into the carbs you can order the Käsekrainer cut into bites on a plate). I paired it with spicy mustard and washed it down with an ice-cold beer and it was the perfect nosh after a rigorous morning of turbo sightseeing.
There are sausage stands all over Vienna (how do we not have these in the States?), but the one I went to was the Bitzinger Wurstelstand in front of the Albertina, part of Hofburg Palace, kitty corner from the Vienna State Opera. It’s a great, central location to people watch and take a break.
Around the corner is the Sacher hotel, known for its world-famous Sacher Torte.
As I was preparing for the trip, I asked people for recommendations of where to go, what to eat, etc., and nine out of ten people told me not to miss the Sacher Torte. Tourists flock to it. It’s a thing. My opinion: It’s OK, you can skip it.
It’s very tasty, don’t get me wrong. But is it worth standing in a long line of tourists to try it? Nope. If you fear a raging case of F.O.M.O (Fear of Missing Out for those who are acronym challenged), there’s a separate entrance to the restaurant’s smoking section—which is really cute by the way—about 20 feet from the main door on the left. My fellow travelers and I decided we’d rather risk a smoke-filled room than stand in the queue that had formed out front.
As an alternative, I highly recommend the cheesecake at Distrikt (a chic and popular restaurant) in the Ritz Carlton. The general manager boasted at dinner one night that it would be one of the best cheesecakes I would ever eat. I was dubious. I’m from New York—cheesecake central—but he was right. So right. It was creamy and delicious with just the right amount of tang and the graham cracker crust was divine. I’m salivating as I write this. Best of all, no lines.
Cathedrals and Catacombs
I’m a big fan of cathedrals and St. Stephen’s is very impressive. Originally built in 1147 (it was almost destroyed in World War II but rebuilt within seven years), the cathedral is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Vienna, so be ready for crowds. (I was there midday, I’m sure it’s better early in the morning.) You can explore the main nave, climb the 334 steps to the top of the south tower where I’m told there are spectacular views of the city ( I passed on the workout) or take a tiny elevator (if you’re claustrophobic may want to pass on this option) to a viewing area on the north tower which also has some pretty views.
The catacomb tour with its coffins, interned bishops, 56 urns filled with Habsburg intestines, thousands of bones and other historical artifacts, in addition to the tour guide’s delightfully creepy stories, are worth the hour of your time and the €5,00 (Approximately $5.50). I really wanted to take photos but the powers that be wouldn’t allow it.
P.S. If you’re concerned that your little kids might get bored at St. Stephens you’re in luck, on the plaza there’s a wonderful antique-looking carousel that’s sure to please. UPDATE: I’ve learned that the carousel is not permanently outside of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It’s there typically during festivals (there was one the day I was there, May 5) and during the holiday season.
I also recommend putting Votive Church on your list. We ran across it while exploring the Ringstrasse, the famous circular boulevard along which countless historic buildings are found including Hofsburg Palace, the Museum Quarter, the Parliament building and City Hall. It’s neo-Gothic design was consecrated in 1879 on the same day that Emperor Franz Joseph married his Empress Elisabeth.
We didn’t stay long—we were making our way to St. Stephen’s and under the gun to make the catacombs tour—but it was utterly breathtaking. (Be sure to check out the “Antwerp Altar,” it’s spectacular). The church was practically empty, which I loved. St. Stephen’s was packed with people but in Votive I was able to revel in its beauty in quiet serenity.
On my last day, the weather perked up and by late afternoon the sun peeked out from behind the dark clouds that shrouded Vienna during my stay. Harald Kalasek, a local photographer with an unusual past (his many chapters includes years as a fire-eater / juggler in a circus; helping Russian Jews immigrate to Israel and other countries; leading tours as a guide in Salzburg, Prague and Budapest, and an owner of a bottle closure company), was kind enough to show me around town for a little night photography.
Our first stop was sunset at the New Danube (a channel created to ease flooding in bad weather) and the 13-mile Danube island, where the locals like to eat, drink and play. You can rent boats, picnic, lie on a beach, hike, ride bicycles, bask in the beautiful scenery, and dine in one of the many cafés that line the shore. There’s also water and climbing parks.
The best part: it’s easy get to. Take the U-bahn (subway) line U1 (red line) to the Alte Donau stop or the U6 (brown line) to Neue Donau. You’ll be there in 10-15 minutes from the city center. Piece of cake.
The night we went it was relatively quiet. The temperature was still nippy, though you could sense that better days were on the horizon, and only a couple of cafés had opened for the season. Despite the low-key vibe, it was easy to see that once summer hit it would be filled to the brim with people and laughter.
On the way back into the city, we stopped at the Wurstelprater amusement park to shoot the Ferris wheel. It had all the rides one expects of a good amusement park and it’s a perfect place to spend time if you’re in to that kind of thing or have kids in tow. If not, there wasn’t anything uniquely Viennese that stood out as a must-see. If you have limited time, I would pass.
A few suggestions
- If you’re headed to Vienna, love photography and would like Harald to show you around while regaling you with his unique life story and historical Viennese tidbits, he runs a photo tour. You can reach him here.
- Depending on how much you plan on sightseeing, it might be worthwhile to invest in one of two options (You can buy the following online, at a hotel or various locations throughout Vienna. Follow the links for exact locations.)
- A Vienna Card ( you can get on in a 48 or 72 hour denomination) It’s a single card that enables you to have unlimited use of the U-Bahn (subway), trams and buses around the city, as well as more than 210 discounts at museums, sights, theaters and concerts, in shops and cafés. The cost is either € 21,90 (~ $24.00) for a 48 hour card or 72 hours for €24,90 (~$26.00). Each card entitles one child up to the age of 15 to travel with you free on Vienna public transportation.
- The Vienna Pass is more expensive and ranges from €59,00 to €114,00 ( ~$65.00 – $127.00), depending on how many days the pass is valid for, but gets you in to over 60 attractions, including the hop-on, hop-off buses, compared to just discounts with the Card, and it doesn’t include public transportation, though you can add that feature if you want. The Pass becomes cost-effective if your itinerary will take you to four or more attractions.
- Check out the 450 year-old Spanish Riding School, named after the famed Lippizan horses originally imported from Spain. On the weekends (be sure to check the online schedule as there are breaks throughout the year) they have spectacular presentations showcasing the best in traditional horsemanship. During the week you can see the horses trained during their morning exercises but the pomp and circumstance of the shows is much more exciting.
- In April, May and June, grab a KäseKrainer and watch selected operas and ballet performances (their free!) simulcast on giant LCD screens in front of the Vienna State Opera.
What want to do on my next visit
- I don’t know when I’ll be back in Vienna but when I do I’m going to take a Hot Rod City Tour. Every day I saw people zooming around in these teeny-weeny cars and it wasn’t until I returned home that I learned it was a tour (I thought it was some hot rod club or something). Besides being utterly adorable, it looks like so much fun and a great way to get an overview of the city.
I was a guest of Austrian Air, The Ritz Carlton Hotel and the Vienna Tourist Board but my coverage was not guaranteed and the words are my own.