Vienna to most is synonymous with the fine arts – whether you prefer architecture, dance, opera, classical music, paintings and so on, you will find something that moves you in this beautiful Austrian capital.
Considering that great artists like composers Mozart and Strauss and the painter Klimt all fine-tuned their crafts here, you can see and hear their work and others at various museums and palaces around the city. And even though Vienna has enough museums to keep a visitor busy for weeks, just being among the modern Viennese people one can sense the city’s affinity for indulgence, beauty and culture.
I’ve always been fascinated with Empress Maria Theresa who ruled the Austrian-Hungarian empire for 40 years and was the mother of the famous French Queen, Marie Antoinette. In fact, the Royal Habsburgs ruled one-third of Europe, and were at one point the center of the Holy Roman Empire, from the first emperor (Rudolf 1 in 1273) to the last (Karl 1 in 1918).
Vienna is a glorious mix of great architecture left over from this ruling dynasty and modern structures. To get a sense of the downtown area, I start my day with a tour around the Ringstrasse – the grand boulevard that encircles the medieval city center. This boulevard used to be a great wall that protected the city and was removed in the late 19th century when at that time a splendid collection of buildings was added. During the drive I’m able to spot the Riesenrad, the world’s oldest and most iconic Ferris wheel built for the city of Vienna in 1897 and a close replica to the original build by George Washington Gale Ferris in 1893 for the World’s Fair in Chicago. The Ferris wheel is still operational today for those who want to enjoy views of the city by day or night. We also drive past the beautiful Vienna Opera house and I vow to see an Opera in that beautiful building upon my next visit to the city.
After my ride around the Ringstrasse, I get out and walk the pedestrian only boulevard toward St. Stephen’s Cathedral, located in the heart of the city center. I’m enthralled by the beautiful architecture and the cleanliness of the city. The walkway is filled with upscale shops and beautiful boutiques and I stop into the famous Austrian made Swarovski Crystal flagship store to purchase a memento.
As I stroll, I can see St. Stephen’s beautiful spire at the end of the street grow larger as I approach. This Gothic masterpiece is one of the most famous structures in Vienna and dates back to 1147. Inside the Cathedral it’s amazing to imagine something so majestic being built more than 850 years ago.
I leave the Cathedral and it’s a quick walk over to Hofburg Palace, which was the Imperial family’s winter residence during their reign. Hofburg Palace is a magnificent structure that sits impressive among the beautiful and diverse architecture of the city. If weather permits, a stroll through the palace’s gardens are a must do as well.
All this sightseeing has left me with an appetite so I head over to one of the city’s oldest and most beautiful hotels, the Hotel Sacher. This hotel is famous for inventing the original recipe of the Sacher torte – a rich chocolate cake that is decadent and divine with a cup of coffee during the day or a glass of champagne in the evening. The hotel is family owned (they also have a property in Salzburg) and they keep the recipe for this world-renowned torte in a vault for safekeeping. The torte does not disappoint and I’m revived and ready for more touring.
I head about 45 minutes out of town to Schönbrunn, the imperial family’s summer palace that was built by the grandfather of Empress Maria Theresa to resemble the glory of Versailles. The royal family used this palace up until the end of the dynasty in 1918 and it is one of the most important cultural monuments in Austria (and was designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1996). Today, it is part museum and part private apartments. The opulent palace rooms, the beautiful formal gardens and the astonishing collection of period furniture provide a wonderful look into the life of the ruling families that inhabited its halls for many centuries.
Since it’s early December, outside Schönbrunn is a beautiful Christmas market. While there are many Christmas markets scattered around Vienna, everyone that's familiar with the city promises that this one at the palace will provide more upscale and higher quality goods than others. I enjoy sipping my amaretto spiced punch while strolling the booths of homemade soaps, ornaments, wooden toys and other specialty items made in Austria. It is evening now and the Christmas lights and decorations around the palace are spectacular.
I’m off now to a performance of Mozart and Strauss – one cannot be in Vienna without experiencing some kind of performance. After the mesmerizing music, I enjoy a nightcap at the Hotel Bristol in its wood paneled bar.
I must leave Vienna wishing I had more time to see Klimt’s The Kiss and visit the Spanish Riding School and spend more time strolling the beautiful café’s and stores. That’s the thing about Vienna…it is a sophisticated and intoxicating city that all who visit will leave wanting more.