LUXURIES OF VIENNA (PT I)
After an exhilarating first night alone in Vienna, I feel confident. In 3 days, you can see everything, with some careful planning & map-reading. I’ve even included pit-stops at virtually every traditional coffee house in the city! Well, I am visiting Vienna to eat and drink my way through.
What really makes my journey super-special are the little gems I discover and learn, through sheer curiosity and effort. You’ll find Insider tips to gain the best view points, ensure you better appreciate a sight and tips to be that little bit different. Here are my top tips for Day 1 in Vienna:
1.HOTEL IMPERIAL & CAFÉ IMPERIAL
As a female travelling alone, security is of paramount consideration. This, in addition to being a traditionalist at heart, means I favour intimate classic luxury hotels. The luxury part…well, any other type just won’t do! Luckily, Vienna poses difficult decision-making through its extent of offerings in this category, boasting some of the grandest historic hotels. The Hotel Bristol, Sacher and Imperial are renowned as the ‘three grandes dames’.
With an exclusive Butler service, who’ll even accompany guests on day trips, and a guest-list of royalty & dignitaries taking up an entire wall in the historic Hall of Fame, Hotel Imperial is my choice. I like the fact that it’s grand yet boutique. And my suite is perfect for space, seclusion and privacy. Occupying its own block, the Hotel is at the forefront of security, which goes hand in hand with its timeless tradition of hosting the Kings & Queens of most world countries, including Queen Elizabeth II, Muammar Gaddafi and Bill Clinton as well as Rock-star legends such as Billy Joel, Prince and Rod Stewart. The traditional concierge means I need not look far for interesting nuggets of history, advice or tickets to sell-out events. It’s also a very central base to explore the beautiful city, just a minute’s walk form the legendary Staatsoper Opera Theatre.
Influential arts icons are likely to be seen penning music, songs and novels in the legendary ‘Café Imperial,’ whilst sipping a Melange coffee and delighting in the infamous Imperial Torte, of milk chocolate, wafer, almond pastry, marzipan and cacao cream! As I do, just that, I bump into Riccardo Muti, Music Director of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra.
2. KARLSKIRCHE or ST CHARLES’ CHURCH http://www.karlskirche.at
A dominant landmark South of the Ringstrasse, so much so that it’s one of the first buildings I gravitate towards. Take the glass elevator into its domes, where one final push is required up narrow disconcerting steps to dizzying heights; not only for the view, but for the ceiling emblazoned in frescoes of heaven, angels and cherubs. In a 3-D effect, it’s hard to keep your balance as your neck cricks upwards in awe at the soft pastel palette of heavenly paintings. The history of this Church is as heart-warming as its interiors and frescoes.
Emperor Charles VI vowed to build a Church dedicated to his namesake if the plague that hit Vienna in 1713, would leave. His namesake, St Charles Borromeo, was a bishop in 16th century Italy, who ministered to Milanese plague victims and became renowned for it. The plague did leave Vienna. So the Emperor ordered construction using the Baroque master Johann Bernard Fischer von Erlach. I see his works all over Vienna, each uniquely impressive.
A very typically vintage-looking coffee house with chandeliers and wood. I treat myself to the house Apple Strudel and ‘Alte Heisse Schokolade’. The hot chocolate comes with cinnamon, nutmeg & Chantilly cream; the warm Strudel filled with nuts, raisins, cinnamon and custard! It’s so warming on a cold winter’s day, truly the perfect pit-stop to refuel between sights. By evening it turns into a Concert Coffee House. Head here by 7pm to be serenaded by a piano and singer or classical quartet; a soothing way to end a busy day.
3. STEPHANSDOM or ST STEPHEN’S CATHEDRAL
Arguably the most iconic and visible building in Vienna. Its North & South Towers dominate the skyline, always striking, against icy blue skies by day or an inky black night sky.
As I approach it, it’s impossible not to snap away furiously with the camera. Every angle tells a new story. Inside, beware the flood of tourists! It can be difficult to find a peaceful spot. I take the lift to the North Tower, to a view en pleine air.
TIP TO GIRLS: At this height on a blustery day, avoid Marilyn Monroe moments by dressing appropriately!
The view takes in the colourful and ornately patterned roof of the Cathedral and far beyond. Peer down the side of the Cathedral to the impressive Romanesque façade of the cathedral in intricate detailed carvings. It’s astonishing, the forethought that would have gone into the creation in the 11th Century.
Huge tip here Do not miss the Domschatz Treasury exhibition. Entrance is by the exit and easy to miss. Most tourists walk past. I pay 4E to a tourist-free vantage point with the most extraordinary view from a height next to the Organ pipes. It’s as though I’ve been let in on a secret up here, as hordes of crowds amass below. From here, it’s easier to appreciate the stunning design of the ceiling arches and sense of magnitude of 18 altars inside the main atrium.
Bordering Stephensplatz, this is Vienna’s oldest coffee house, since 1824… and stepping inside feels it! It is extremely traditional with narrow cabins carved into the walls and cosy seating areas. The café has chronicled the history of the building and traced it back to being a bath house in the 1300s. Later it became a barber-surgeon offering an entire gamut from shaving & haircuts to massages and surgical procedures! In the 1700s, most impressively, Mozart and Beethoven entertained Society here, with now infamous performances.
I order a classic hot chocolate ‘mit Schlagobers’ – with cream, whilst basking in the history of my surroundings.
Foodie paradise: Eat your way around the globe in this incredibly fresh and flavoursome market where everything can be found. The market occupies a central kilometre of road and is an endless mecca of delectable delicacies. It’s come a long way since starting life selling milk bottles in the 16th Century.
If you love Lebanese / Middle Eastern / North African cuisine, eat a ‘Dr Falafel’ mezze platter or Falafel wrap with a polystyrene cup of Gluhwein steaming against the bitter cold frosty air. Over a chat with the owner, I learn that he’s from Turkey but has lived in Vienna for more than a decade.
Insider tip for foodies
Don’t let greed get the better of you. The market is huge and the deeper I venture, the more mouth-watering the food becomes. So hold your hunger until you’ve had a good look for a truly satisfying experience. Needless to say, I do the opposite with eyes bigger than my stomach, to then be stuck exploring the rest wishing I hadn’t been so greedy so early on! Coffee shops and stalls galore here so need to look any firther. But should you wish…
Located opposite Nachmarkt on Karlsplatz. With beginnings in 1899 and original interior designed by the infamous Adolf Loos, this café was a meeting point for painters, writers and composers such as Gustav Klimt, Karl Kraus and Alben Berg. It’s quite open-plan so don’t expect cosy boudoirs but it is steeped in history. Ideal for an Espresso after indulging in Naschmarkt.
5. ‘STAATSOPER’ or THE STATE OPERA
A gloriously grand building that virtually occupies its own neighbourhood in Vienna. I can’t help but stop and stare every time I walk by. Perhaps it’s better to just sit across the road and gaze at it for half an hour. By day or lit up by night, the Neo-Renaissance style mid-19th century colossus is attention-grabbing for all the right reasons.
If, like me, you’re a regular at theatres (just a fortnight prior I attended Swan Lake, by the Chinese National Ballet, in Geneva, Switzerland) or simply don’t want to pay a small fortune, you can get in for cheap. Standing ‘seats’ sell for as little as 3E which is fantastic is you’ve little time in Vienna and just want to catch the first hour of a performance and admire the interiors. Or you can actually grab a last-minute seat. Queue up outside the ticket office first thing on the day before the performance to pick up bargain seats from 30E!
Café Sacher is a meeting point for society in Austria today. If you’re curious about the legendary Sacher Torte (cake) made within the Sacher’s own bakery, this is the place to try it. I, however, decide to try Hotel Sacher in a slightly different light…by night at the bar. (Read final paragraph)
5. BELVEDERE PALACE
This 17th Century historic Palace complex is split into a Lower & Upper Palace, both baroque. It served as Prince Eugene of Savoy’s summer residence. I find the Upper palace most appealing. Housing a wide collection of classic and modern Austrian art dating back to the Middle Ages, works by Gustav Klimt are currently a major attraction. It’s the largest of his collections in the world. You’ll know when you get to the highlight pieces, The Kiss and Judith, as there are swarms of people around. I wait patiently to appreciate these highlights. The Upper Palace also features a prominent works by the French Impressionists, who left an inimitable mark on art history.
Lower Belvedere houses Prince Eugene’s living quarters and staterooms with the Hall of Grotesques, Marble Gallery and Golden Room. These are very popular too and can become crowded.
In both palaces, it’s easy to get caught up in the artwork. But do not forget to look up at the ceilings. The frescoes and interiors of the stately rooms are feats of art in themselves and help me appreciate the Palace from a different perspective. The pretty views from the Upper Palace windows across the gardens, sculptures and fountains deserve some admiration. www.belvedere.at
This is the National Theatre of Austria: Tour the inside to marvel at the beauty and lavishness of the interiors. The frescoes, chandeliers and lighting are sumptuously lavish. The interior is an artwork gem and is very fitting for some of the best theatrical performances in the city.
1. If you wander in alone, don’t assume any part is off limits. Large heavy doors seem closed at first. But as I try, each one opens and I find my way into the heart of the theatre, with a view form the wings. It’s empty when I visit which makes the grandness seem even more overwhelming.
2. Take a peek outside through the large bay windows in the corridors. They showcase picture-postcard views of Rathaus (the City Hall building) and Rathauspark.
From here, ‘Rathaus’ is across the park, a 2 minute walk away. It is another landmark building. But I appreciate it better by night. (See post: ONE NIGHT IN VIENNA)
In a prime location at the foot of the Burgtheater lies this renowned coffee house. From the outside, it looks modern with a conservatory extension overlooking the Burg Theatre and Rathaus and park.
But step inside, to enter another era in its long cabin-style original coffee house. Of course, you’ll have to walk right past the patisserie counter, which catches me out every time! I come here three times in total during my Vienna trip and it becomes a firm favourite. The brunch and lunch menus are fantastic with fresh seasonal offerings. I opt for the ‘Salmon variation’ with Crayfish. But the highlight for me is the Landtmann ‘Maria Theresia’ coffee.
Fresh double espresso with orange liqueur, topped with Chantilly cream and orange zest shavings. This coffee is heaven in a tall glass. I sit here admiring the misty Rathauspark with old street lighting, watching the Burg Theatre light up as it gets dark and watching the world pass by.
7. CHURCH OF THE MINORITES
This is my favourite Church in Vienna. It’s spectacular in its simplicity; a 14th century French Gothic style building in the Altstadt. Compared to the overt and highly decorated Baroque and Gothic city Churches, this simplicity is stand-out. I visit on a public holiday when it’s completely empty.
Inside, my attention flits to this replica of The Last Supper. It’s a vivid mosaic depiction created by a Roman artist in the early 1800s.
2 fantastic (if I do says so, myself) tips here: 1. As you enter the church, turn to face the back. There’s a large mosaic stained-glass window at the top. As an art-form, the colours and paintings are exquisite.
2. Walk to the back of the Church past the High Altar. To its left, you’ll notice a small wooden door. It may appear closed but push it open. This is the Chapel. It will, likely, be empty. If it is, you’re in luck. Now look up at the breath-taking tall stained glass window here. The chapel is a gem; perfectly brilliant and radiant.
As the late afternoon spectrum of colourful light floods in through the window, I find it incredibly peaceful and moving. I stay a while, taking it all in.
Dating back to 1939, this coffee house was as legendary for its coffee as it was for its owners. Leopold and Josefine Hawelka lived vicariously through the café. Again, a meeting spot for writers, critics and artists, the society heights of the café were reached in the 60s and 70s. Mr Hawelka could be seen on summer days sitting at the entrance greeting guests until recently. The couple were the life and soul of Cafe Hawelka. Josefine passed away in 2005 and Leopold in 2011.
Here, I order a Melange coffee. Akin to a Cappuccino, it’s made with milder coffee and uses milk. This is a coffee I get quite used to, given the similarities to coffees I drink at home. If you visit during the day, though, fully expect to wait for a table. Around lunchtime onwards the queue backs out of the door and remains that way until late night.
8. SACHER HOTEL BLAUES BAR
For the most luxurious way to end the day, I head straight to the most fashionable and society-filled spot in town. The infamous Sacher hotel’s ‘Blaues Bar’ or Blue bar is the place to be seen. Intimate, luxuriant and opulent; I sip on a few glasses of champagne and order the renowned Sacher Torte. The chocolate beauty, with a thin layer of Apricot Jam according to a recipe dating back to the 1830s, is still made at Sacher’s own bakery and makes the perfect accompaniment to French vintage Champagne or even Bloody Marys!
NEXT: Vienna’s main sights in the Hofburg Palace complex and some real traditional Viennese coffee shops highlights! Also the back streets of Vienna: full of character, curios and contradictions…
- ONE NIGHT IN VIENNA: 1st time solo female travel Austria (ani-shah.com)
- Traditional Concierge: luxury or necessity in the classic deluxe hotel market? (ani-shah.com)
- Walked the streets & tasted the local fare – Vienna, Austria (travelpod.com)
- Popular Escondido coffee house closes (utsandiego.com)
- Vienna celebrates music (theepochtimes.com)