Vienna, Austria • July 2016 • Length of Read: 10 Minutes
The following extract has been adapted from my self-published paperback travel book, We Ordered A Panda: Tales of City-Hopping Around Europe. If you enjoy this post, then please visit my online bookshop for more details.
Shaking off two large hangovers, the result of a night spent adhering to Vienna’s absurd drinking traditions, Lara and I met Lukas for a leisurely Saturday brunch at the Zweitbester Café in the Austrian capital’s 4th District. My old flat-mate had offered to act as a local tour guide for the weekend, and taking his self-appointed role very seriously, came strolling round the corner with a guidebook in hand; a proposed agenda for the day already mapped out in his head.
As I tucked into a lovely dish of eggs benedict, Lukas suggested that we first take a stroll into the Innere Stadt of Vienna, where the majority of sites and attractions are situated. Enclosed by a ring-road, one could briskly walk across the diameter of this 1st District in about 20 minutes, but the number of fascinating buildings and places within this map-dot means that it will more likely take you in the region of 4 hours to complete the trip. Between getting purposefully lost in the maze of back-alley cobbles; to the premium pedestrianised fashion avenues; to the museums, monuments, and cafes, this area is a cultural hub that showcases a well-preserved timeline of the city’s development and influences over the centuries.
The Habsburg Monarchy has been the most consistently influential power in the region since the signing of the Treaty of Vienna in 1515. Through marriage, this dynasty ruled a vast portion of Europe within the Holy Roman Empire, with the head of the Austrian branch of the House of Habsburg acting as Emperor. Vienna was their capital from 1526-1806, aside from a brief 28 year ousting to Prague, and their Swiss origins, at the turn of the 17th Century. Knowingly over-simplifying proceedings, and at the risk of deploring my own ignorance, there appears to be three prominent figures from this long line of descendants who have shaped the landscape more than any others, both politically and physically: Franz Joseph I; his wife, Empress Elizabeth (i.e. Sissi); and Rudolph IV. Okay, enough of the history lesson.
Think of Franz Joseph as the star of the show for our little journey, with Sissi as his leading lady. Both are buried in the Imperial Crypt, along with 145 members of their ancestry, and for €5.50 you can wander between the exorbitant sarcophagi and pay tribute to the deceased. As we would find out, this unusual price seemed to be the going rate of entry for nearly every tourist attraction in the city. The pair have been placed side-by-side in death, and the numerous fresh bouquets of flowers and token gestures littered around their headstone plaques signified how adored they still are, a whole century after their passing. Rudolph IV on the other hand, who lived a full 500 years before this power couple, is buried in a different crypt under St Stephen’s Cathedral. Now we have some background, let the tour truly commence…
Of Vienna’s top-5 architectural behemoths, the Cathedral stands out like a dagger in the heart of the city. The construction of this was initiated by Rudolph IV, but will sadly never be completed. One of the Cathedral’s two towers stands stump-like in contrast to its grandiose sibling, but that takes nothing away from the beauty and scale of this medieval place of worship.
After wandering through the catacombs of this structure, a well-to-do tour guide spitting facts at us for €5.50, we decided it might be a good idea to get some sunlight. Meandering around the tourist precinct we stumbled across a philosophy-centric book shop, before Lukas navigated us in the direction of his favourite hang-out, Klein’s Café. My other ex-flatmate Steffi joined us, having taken her 92 year-old grandmother out for a birthday lunch, and re-fueling with some Austrian sausage we caught up on the prior evening’s escapades. 'Now this is acting like locals', I thought to myself.
“Have you guys thought about going to the Vienna State Opera this weekend?” she asked, still giggling from my admission that the Dutch girl from the night before might have been more interested in her than myself.
“We were thinking about it, but it seems rather expensive for something we probably wouldn’t enjoy.”
“It’s only expensive for those who don’t know a few local tricks,” she grinned in response. “Let’s go and see if we can sneak in the back door.”
We headed down the street and past Hotel Sacher, the residence where the world famous Sacher Torte chocolate cake was born. Seffi explained that when tours of the Opera hall are in progress, or a concert is taking place, the outside doors to the building are all unlocked so that the staff members can move freely throughout. This means that you just have to time your entrance as being directly after one of these instances has gotten underway, and you are free to wander around the entire place. Sure, you’re not going to get front row seats for a five hour Mozart symphony, but you will be able to take in the atmosphere without spending the €50 entrance fee.
Unfortunately for us, Steffi’s timing was slightly awry, and when we eventually arrived the final tours had finished for the day. Unperturbed by this, or the rain which had started to beat down, she decided instead to take us to the Hofburg Palace. This would have been Franz and Sissi’s winter home, with their summer home being the enormous Schönbrunn Palace to the West of the city. Schönbrunn has over 1,400 rooms, and was where Franz Joseph was both brought into the world, and taken from it. Lara and I explored the mesmerising grounds of this estate the following day, the vastness of them allowing for ample peace and quiet, despite the thousands of tourists filtering through the grand entrance way that makes it the most visited attraction in the whole of Vienna.
As with the Opera, Steffi was convinced that if she tried enough of Hofburg Palace’s external door handles we would be able to get access to the Marble Hall and gold-tinted corridors. Alas, this was to no avail. Then it was the turn of the library enclosed within the University of Vienna to have its doors rattled, an establishment also founded under the guidance of Rudolph IV, followed by the storm gate of a house where Mozart once resided. The initial professionalism of Lukas’ tour guiding abilities was being shunned by this girl’s desire to break-and-enter into every building of prominence in her hometown. The only advice I can offer from our efforts however, is that cat burglars should consider pulling off jobs elsewhere. Apparently the Viennese people like to keep their properties rather tightly secure.
Hofburg has two primary gardens, and re-tracing our steps towards Café Landtmann, where we planned to get an early evening coffee and rest our weary legs, Steffi gave us the option of walking though one or the other.
“Volksgarten is the larger of the two, and is the one used by the more common people,” she half-joked. “Burggarten has a lovely little lake, and is where the more middle/upper class people tend to hang out. Each weekday morning, the horses from the Palace’s Spanish Riding School parade around this garden in a public display. Which one would you prefer?”
“The commoners' plot of dirt would be better suited to us," I acknowledged, glancing at Lukas who nodded in agreement.
We strode past a gallery, where a model of a naked man hunched over in a stranded rowing boat left us bewildered and confused. Contemporary art has always been a mysterious beast to me. I remember vising the Tate Modern in London once upon a time, and struggling to figure out whether the mop and bucket lying in the corner of one of the rooms was some form of creative statement, or simply the cleaner having failed to tidy up.
After some delicious cakes, served by waistcoat and bow-tied waiters, Lara and I bid farewell with a massive thanks to Steffi and Lukas. The pair had been the best aides we could have hoped for, and although orthodox in their actions could definitely have pulled off the guise of proper tour guides. Lukas was able to regurgitate facts and dates like he’d been studying for an exam, and Steffi added some personal flair to the proceedings that only someone who'd spent their whole life in the city could have. I just had one small peeve...
As we headed back towards the apartment, Lara noticed a tacky souvenir shop with a postcard reel outside. Twirling it round whilst looking for something suitable to send to our Russian friend Ksenia, she noticed one that had a close-up image of a bustling Klein’s Café. Our lunchtime pit stop, which Lukas had ensured was known only to the locals, appeared to be one of the trademark eateries in the whole city. I guess we'd been no more than typical tourists after all.