Vienna – what did I miss?

vienna- neuer markt statue and yellow towerInside knowledge. It’s not as important in some places. Paris, for example, is hard not to enjoy, as are Tuscany, and sunny happy places like Byron Bay. Travel is easy where the sights and culture of destinations reveal themselves spontaneously. But there are other places where what lies on the surface is only a fraction of what is available underneath – in Bologna, for example, Melbourne, Dubai. And my latest to add to the list, Vienna. I needed a stop-over on my way to Dubrovnik this year – a difficult place to reach directly from Dubai – and rather than flying Al Italia or Air Croatia from Rome, I opted for Vienna (and the better reputed Austrian Airlines). When friends and acquaintances discovered I was going to Vienna, they generally erupted in glee. “I LOVE Vienna!” they would tell me. “Ooh the music!”, “Deliciously old-fashioned!”, fun, beautiful, genuine, they would say. They had lived there, studying, working, spent two months shacked up with a ski instructor in the off-season. One would say they built me up.

I found a pretty and clean city. Crisp and pristine. And might I say, just a little bit boring.

vienna-st stephens rooftop

But of course, I understand that I just didn’t “get” it. You see, what can be seen on the surface of Vienna is a little too squeaky. No grit, no grunge, no dirty culture, no swindlers and petty cons, beggars, or trashy locals, rudeness, swearing, fetish shops in inappropriate places, or drunks on the streets at 11am. It’s just too perfect.

I’m a bit hard to please, aren’t I? One would think that the lack of all those things would make for a perfect holiday, but for me, it feels like I’m living in a cardboard cut-out. It’s all a bit Truman-Show-esque.

vienna-fiacre driverI do like Vienna. I just don’t love it. When I was in my twenties I worked for a half-Austrian man named Dan Murphy (yes, I know, a very Austrian sounding name). He was a little the same. He was charming but hard, quaint but conservative. A man of cut crystal. Many of the Austrian wines share these characteristics – they are elegant, but also austere, sweet-smelling and full of promises, but oh, so dry.

Maybe its because the Lipizzaners were on holidays. In a princess fairy town like Vienna, it seems criminal not to see the pretty dancing horsies. My children were very disappointed. Instead we delved into the equine by taking a fiacre around the main sights. The price is fixed. No bargaining, no rip-offs. (€40 or €65 depending on time). It’s worth it – so much more ethereal than a double-decker bus tour. True to Vienna form, the streets are un-befouled with manure because each carriage is fixed with a poop-catchment. The kids marveled at the ingenious contraption, until it was splattered with olive-coloured farmyard excrement.

The food was no great disappointment, and in fact, Wiener Schnitzel lived up to its rap. I finally figured it out, and thanks to the paper-thin piece I indulged in with artisanal sienna-hued ale at the oldest pub in Vienna (Griechenbeisl on fleischmarkt), I will forever-more cook a good one myself (recipe here). Café Le Bol, opposite our hotel was another treasure – they do a superb breakfast, complete with a glass of Prosecco, much to Hambone’s delight. Judging by the crowds we saw lining up to eat at lunch and dinner, this little French eatery is a known gem.

vienna- cafe central cakes

The cakes were by and large as I had hoped, except for Sachertorte. Foodiva had tweeted her love of this famous chocolate-orange cake to me, which I later sampled at the pretty Café Mozart. It was dry, completely forgettable. The cakes and pastries at Café Central more than made up for that unfortunate tasting. Famous for it’s ballroom-like arched interior and previous patrons such as Trotsky and Lenin, but not resting merely on reputation. It is eerily silent – the only sounds are muffled whispers and the tap of the waiter’s leather-soled shoes on the marble floor. The booths are warmly circular, and it’s easy to imagine plotting a revolution in whispers in a cozy corner. The patisserie is marvelous. Brioche filled with light custard as soft as a cloud, vanilla sponge-cake with rose petals bejeweled with a single drop of dew-like toffee, perfection, perfection, perfection. Considering the quality and experience, it’s wonderfully inexpensive. The Vienna coffee I’m still trying to understand – a non-blending blend of hot hot coffee with an iceberg of whipped cream – hot chocolate was often much better, smooth and bitter-sweet, rich and warm enough to fight those winter drafts upsetting our summer vacation.

vienna-cafe central exteriorWe tried to eat at Braunerhof, Thomas Bernhard’s preferred kaffeehäus. But an angry little man who looked exactly like Freud slapped down menus as if he was spanking bottoms while sneering at our children. We escaped while he was not looking and went back to the hotel, veering through the food store (Billa Corso Herrnhuterhaus) beneath Pension Nueur Markt for some gourmet take-out. It’s a Viennese version of a Galeries Lafayette food-hall, but cheaper, and with a superb wine collection downstairs, extensive deli and grocery, plenty of tasty prepared food and three levels of architecturally intelligent space.

The gardens and Palaces are stunning, but after being subject to an obscene number of international ornate interiors as a child, I have made a promise to myself that I will not do that to my children, at least until they are old enough to appreciate the material wealth and architectural splendor left by people who died hundreds of years ago. We tried to be a little more child-friendly and have a picnic beside the roses in Volksgarten instead. It rained. We tried again. It rained again. Maybe I should blame the weather – it was summer, but never got over 22°C.

For another outside trip, we took a train to the Alte Donau, where the tourist information had suggested we could hire a boat and putt-putt on a waterway beautiful enough to have a waltz named after it. Under a cloudy sky, the Danube is not blue, but a bleak mirror of the heavens. The area is also drear – no signs from the railway station, just bitumen paths and graffiti leading to a back road with no pavement. If not for the iPhone map, we would have been convinced we were in the wrong place. The waterway itself was not lined with elegant manors or castles like the Loire or Dordogne, but instead with eclectic and ramshackle boat houses. Not ugly, but no better than taking a canoe on Melbourne’s Yarra River. It rained.

vienna- garden chairs

We stayed at the Ambassador Hotel. This, I can rave about. It’s position close to St Stevens (and pretty much everything else in Old Vienna) is alone enough to take you there, but the rooms are enormous and carefully furnished with what appears to be keepsakes from Mozart’s attic. We took connecting rooms but could easily have fit the four of us in the one. It’s a tripadvisor favourite, usually a fairly good guide.

vienna-street artistBut what does the location mean when the city itself is hibernating? Where were the music, the life, the people? I’m sure they were there, just not where I stumbled around, and certainly not where the tourist information desk sent us. Since going, I have remained troubled. I have asked many people what they loved so much about Vienna, and I can’t help but think they are talking about a different place. So all I can assume is that there is a Vienna existing in a parallel dimension that cannot be accessed in three days on foot. 

Please comment – let me know where I SHOULD have gone, what I SHOULD have done. I’d truly love to be enlightened. Or, maybe you can share some inside knowledge on other locations…?
 

vienna- welcome street art vienna-street musos vienna-spanish riding school vienna-mother teresa portrait st stephens vienna-Greichenbeisl interior vienna- fiacre drivers vienna-wineglass on window vienna-st stephens rooftop

16 Comments

  1. I spent a couple of days in Vienna on a dreary conference. On our night out we went to a restaurant that presented beautifully wrapped (they looked like after-dinner mints) condoms with the coffee. Quite unexpected (and this was about two decades ago) – so maybe there is another side.

  2. Nice pics :)And Sally…haha that sounds funny! I once accepted what I thought were sweets from a stand at a university fair in UK…not realizing they were, in fact, condoms. I returned them pretty quickly haha.

  3. Maybe they were mint-flavoured condoms?(tee hee hee hee!)

  4. Sarah, what fantastic pictures! Vienna is one of those cities that are purely magical to me, I love it. My husband never did, and we can never meet in our opinions about this city, but I do agree there lots more than meets the eye there!enjoyed it thoroughly :))

  5. Lovely pictures! Vienna is a beautiful place!

  6. I was so sad to read that Vienna was not all you wanted it to be. My family which includes our 10 year old son were there this summer and it was magical. We spent a full 8 days in the city and still didn't get to see everything we wanted.We did do the "touristy" things, however, the amount of history in the city was even fascinating to our son, who whispered to me at one point on a tour of the Schonnbrun Palace that "Mozart played in this room mom!"From a culinary standpoint I was also not wow'ed by the Sachertorte, but eating it with the coffee at the Hotel itself I think is more about the experience.The best place to get food in the city, is outside in the innerstadt at the Naschmarkt where there is a culinary mecca of middle-eastern cuisine and where the Viennese spend their lunch time. There is EVERYTHING at this place, high end restaurants to holes in the wall.If you do get to go back you have to check out Urbanek, a closet size deli that specializes in local meat, cheese and wine. Ask the guys there to make you a plate and I PROMISE you will not be disappointed. It's located at the end of the Naschmarkt closest to the Innerstadt.We all agreed we would go back in a heartbeat. I would even go so far as to say we could live there.Vienna is one of the greatest trips I have taken in my life. I hope if you do go back it will be that way for you next time as well.

  7. Gorgeous photos! I think your response to Vienna is similar to mine, albeit mine was twenty or so years ago. I spent the summer studying drinking — erm, German! really! — and at some point I mentioned the same things you're referring to, the seeming…quiet of such a historic place. The person I was speaking with told me that (at least at the time) upwards of 75% of Vienna was over age 65. He said, It's a very AGED city. I suspect I missed out on some opportunities, don't get me wrong, but overall it did seem rather staid underneath all the gilding and overt and fascinating reek of history. (Which appealed not at all to me 20 years ago — instead we went most weekends to Italy *g*)Sorry, that went a bit long. Back to ogling the Schnitzel!

  8. thanks guys – Wow – Not so Vanilla – thanks! I did read about the market upon my return, and kicked myself because I didn't make it. Great tips!

  9. Oh no shame about the sacher torte 🙁 I am heading to Vienna this weekend, so I hope Hotel Sacher's is as divine as I remember it. Looking forward to Christmas markets galore.

  10. Hello Sarah, so funny to read this post about Vienna (I was actually checking out your site because I too write about life, food, travel from Dubai). Anyway, my husband and I spent six days in Vienna over New Year and I thought that perhaps there was something wrong with me that I didn't love it as I thought I would (or should!). It just felt flat to me. No sparkle. No life. No vitality. Obviously others do find that sparkle there but I've now ticked Vienna off my list and feel no compulsion to ever return. Having said that about the city we did enjoy a couple of wonderful meals. Every Wiener Schnitzel we ate was delicious. And we had a fantastic 7 course degustation (with matched wines) at Steirereck. Another wonderful restaurant a bit further out of town is Martin Stein (I've written up a tripadvisor review on this one because it doesn't have the same profile as Steirereck).Anyway, I'm so happy to read of the Dubai based adventures of another Melbourne girl! Fabulous! Keep up the good work.

  11. I think you needed to get outside the centre, beyond the Ring. Up towards the Prater amusement park there are sex shops aplenty – or so I saw from a taxi… The whole Museum Quarter is waking up. Neighbourhood bars and small restaurants that don't reach out to the massive influx of tourists are full of friendly people happy to chat. And don't forget the small villages on the outskirts with their wineries and traditional eating places. I think you should give it another chance.

  12. I think you're right Dave – look how long it took me to get to know Paris! And I am more of a country girl at heart. An old work acquaintance of mine, Patrick Walsh visited the vineyards in the area, and became so taken with them he started a business importing Austrian wine to Australia. (cellarhand.com.au)I'm sure I make it back. And eat my hat.

  13. Just stumbled across your site whilst looking for a schnitzel recipe – but what you wrote about Vienna struck such a chord. We were there in 2009 and it just seemed so tidy at the expense of character. It felt a bit like being in a historical and architectural theme park. I like my cities with a bit more grime and chaos, it would seem – give me Warsaw or Istanbul any day…

  14. I'am forwarding this to my husband. I'am sure he will be shocked. We went there for our honeymoon and he loved it so much that he took me (this time along with our son) for three days. I loved Austria mainly because it was my first time in Europe ever. But I definitely didn't want to go again. We did visit Salzburg and I would say Salzburg beats Vienna anytime. xxNeelu

  15. I just came across your site and I read this sad post about Vienna. I lived in Germany for two years while my dad was in the army and Vienna is at the top of my favorite places to visit. It did help that my parents had been there before, but Austria is such a beautiful place. I recommend going to Salzburg and do a tour through the mines. It is more kid friendly than anything in Vienna, I was 16 when I went there. I appreciated much more than my 9 year old brother.

    • Hi Courntey, I know – I really must have just not

        got

      the place. I’m sure there was much more to it, and perhaps with some more time I would have found something to love. I did think it was a very beautiful city. Perhaps I may try visiting again without kids. I did love Innsbruck though, and have not been to Salzburg, so I’m sure I’ll be in Austria again soon.

Some other suggestions or opinion to add? Please comment