vienna, austria

We arrived in Vienna by way of Bratislava, Slovakia not because we wanted to make our trip more complicated, but because the cheapest flight on Ryanair we could get from Berlin was to Brussels, and we’d already been there, and the next cheapest flight was to Bratislava. To be honest, we’d never heard of Bratislava before, so we looked it up on Google maps, saw it wasn’t far from Budapest or Prague, but oh wait, what was that really close there when we zoomed in? Vienna? Yes, Vienna is only about an hour away by train, or an hour and a half by bus, so we decided to book a flight to Bratislava, and spend Christmas in Vienna. We knew nothing about Bratislava, and very little more about Vienna, beyond that we’d actually heard of it before. I think I expected it to have mountains and snow and to personify the picture of “Austria in the winter” that I had in my head. Of course, while it is indeed very much in Austria, Vienna isn’t famous for mountains or for snow, and it turns out that I had a lot to learn about the capital of the country.

We arrived quite late, due to our very delayed flight, but we made it to our Airbnb without any trouble and were pleased to find that it was even more delightful than the pictures online made it seem! This is oftentimes not the case, especially when you have a less than ideal host (as we did – the place was great, the host, not so much), but we settled in and prepared for our first day.

Thursday, Christmas Eve, was our first full day in Vienna, and we began at Stephansdom (it's German name), or St. Stephen's Cathedral.  St. Stephen's was built in the 1100's, and is unique because of its multi-colored tile roof.  We weren't able to get a good picture of it because there was scaffolding up on the sides, which made for challenging photo-ops, but it really is quite unusual for a cathedral roof.  I don't think we've seen anything like it before!  We timed our visit there to coincide with their English tours of the cathedral, but alas, they were cancelled that day, we assume due to Christmas Eve.

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From there we decided to try out some Viennese specialties, apple strudel and Sachertorte, as well as a long-time institution of Vienna, Demel.  Serving pastries and coffee to the people of Vienna (and her tourists) since 1786, Demel is a picture of elegance with marble tables and chandeliers . We got lucky and didn’t have to wait very long for a table, and we also got one right by the window into the bakery, so we got to watch what little action was taking place on Christmas Eve. Both treats were quite delicious, and the atmosphere was very nice as well. Demel has mixed reviews online, but we didn’t have any issues with the service. People also said that the food there is much more expensive than other places in town, but we found that things like Sachertorte and apple strudel were pretty much the same no matter where you went, even at Demel. So if you’re thinking you really want to experience Demel because it’s in every guidebook and it’s really famous, I’d say go for it, because there’s really no reason not to. But if there’s a huge line and you don’t really care where you get your apple strudel, then don’t – the atmosphere isn’t that special, and our Sachertorte wasn’t that different there compared to when we had it somewhere else.

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Sufficiently full of tasty treats for the morning, we walked a short distance to the Hofburg Palace and toured the Silver Collection, the Sisi Museum, and the Imperial Apartments.   We started off seeing room after room of plates, silverware, serving dishes, fine china, and the like. Danny was a real trooper because it was seemingly endless at points – if you’ve been there, yes, we took the long tour – but I think we’d both agree that while there were some really beautiful and interesting things, it was a bit of a marathon to get through until we made it to the Sisi Museum.  I guess we got off easy though - only 7,000 of the 150,000 total items that are a part of the silver collection are actually on display for visitors to view!  The Sisi Museum was recently reopened after renovations and includes many personal items belonging to Empress Elisabeth.  It was perhaps the most engaging part of the Hofburg Palace, and the most interesting too as neither one of us knew much about Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi, as she is frequently called.  Hofburg was the home of the Habsburgs for over 600 years, and in the Imperial Apartments we got to see a bit of what that looked like.  It was, of course, opulent and impressive.  From the 18th century on, it was used only as a winter residence - on Christmas we went to see their summer home.

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Lunch was at the Vienna Magic of Advent Christmas Market. The market was in the shadow of the Rathaus town hall, which was just gorgeous and deserves a visit. We tried to go in, but, Christmas Eve, you know. I had a currywurst (I just couldn’t quit!) and Danny had some manner of sausage done up in a fancy bun at the market. I’d try to explain it to you, but it would be so confusing, that it’s just not worth it, so here’s a picture of the spikes they put the buns on to put a hole in the middle of them to create a hole for the sausages. Then they can put the sausage and whatever sauces you desire inside! Make sense?  (photo below may help...)

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We walked along the Ring Road after lunch, looking at and reading about a bunch of different buildings from the outside while slowly making our way back to our Airbnb. The Austrian Parliament, the Vienna State Opera, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Fine Arts Museum), and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum), all such grand buildings.

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We scoped out places to eat breakfast the next morning since we were becoming doubtful that any grocery stores would be open and it seemed we would have two options – Starbucks, which opened at 6:30am, and Cinnabon, which opened at 10:00am. We hoped to be at our attraction for the day by 9:30am, so Cinnabon was probably out, unfortunately. We really didn’t want it to come to this, but...Christmas morning breakfast may have been spent at the most touristy and American place in town.

But back to Christmas Eve. We found a place on the main tourist drag that was open and reasonable (out of about two or three choices), so we ordered our traditional pizza and calzone dinner, and enjoyed!  So if you're ever in Vienna when seemingly everything else is closed, check out Soprano.  It'll do the trick.

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We got to Skype with our parents a bit on Christmas Eve, which was really special, especially since we didn’t get to physically be with any family aside from each other this year.

Christmas day began at Starbucks, that glorious American institution that no matter where you are in the world, when you walk inside, it's impossible to say exactly where you are.  We each had a blueberry muffin and another treat (cinnamon roll for Danny, bagel with cream cheese for me), because for as long as I can remember, my mom has been making blueberry coffee cake on Christmas morning.

After our slightly disappointing treats, we went to Schönbrunn Palace to begin our Christmas festivities.  Schönbrunn was built in 1699 and has 1,441 rooms, although only about 40 are open to the public today.  It's Austria's most visited site, and even though I haven't seen much of the country, I'm not surprised.  We've been a few places that claim to rival Versailles, but this is the only one that we think truly does.  Schönbrunn Palace is largely in its original condition, and it is really impressive.  It has gardens which have been open to the public since 1779 (far before the palace itself), including the Tiergarten Schönbrunn, or the Vienna Zoo.

After we visited the palace (no photos allowed of the interior, sorry!), we had lunch at the Christmas market set up in front before we walked around back to get to the zoo.  We had the tastiest bread bowls of potato soup.  I know we look really cheery and it looks really sunny in these pictures, but it was really cold!  I think it was hovering around freezing the entire time we were in Vienna.  Not unbearable, of course, but when you're walking around for 8-10 hours a day, and your primary mode of transportation is foot, it's cold!

And then, we were onto the zoo!  Ever since I found out that the Vienna Zoo had pandas, I was really excited to visit.  Not just because I like pandas (although I do), but because most zoos that have pandas are really good zoos.  Nonetheless, I didn't have too high of expectations for the Vienna Zoo, because I'd also read that it's the oldest zoo in the world.  Perhaps I was thinking some of the exhibits and cages would be 1752 originals, but that was not the case.  The zoo was classic and beautiful (have you ever heard a zoo described like that before?!) and it fit right in with Schönbrunn Palace - not to mention the wide array of animals.

A few highlights were seeing reindeer among Christmas trees (freshly returned from delivering presents to boys and girls all over the world!), the pinkest flamingoes we've ever set eyes upon, two pandas eating bamboo all day long, a polar bear dragging his Christmas tree around his exhibit, and Danny's Christmas miracle.  Let me explain that last one.  Not long after we arrived, we walked by a cafe with outdoor tables, with dirty plates and cups on one of them.  Danny noticed that one plate had a totally untouched waffle on it, so after debating back and forth on what he should do, when a server came out to clear the table, he took a leap and asked her if could have it.  She said yes, and even said she'd bring him some silverware!

We had so much fun, and stayed until the zoo was closing, about four hours.  It was getting dark when we left, but we wanted to see a little bit of the grounds surrounding Schönbrunn, so we walked around a little bit to reach the Gloriette (an 18th century arch on top of a hill that today has a cafe overlooking the gardens and palace).  It was foggy and although we weren't able to see the palace from there (usually it offers a great view), it was pretty magical.

Once back in Vienna (Schönbrunn is kind of on the outskirts of town), we went back to Soprano for dinner after finding that nothing else was open.  This time, Danny had the Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad and I had spaghetti.  We played Spot It while we waited for our food to come (the service was pretty slow the night before) and even got really fancy and had Sachertorte for dessert.

That evening, we did some planning for the next day and for Rome, because believe it or not, our time in Vienna was already about over.  In the morning, we packed up, stored our suitcases in a storage room our host has for guests, and headed to the Wombat Hostel, the meeting point for the free walking tour we found for that morning.  The walking tour was good - great information, entertaining guide, all that good stuff - but the best news was that we were able to purchase the breakfast buffet at the hostel before the tour started for 4.50 euros.  Really good news because everything was closed for the third day straight - no grocery stores and we weren't interested in another Starbucks breakfast!  We had already walked by most of the places the tour took us, but we didn't know most of the information, so we were glad we did it, as we usually are with those sorts of things.

After a quick lunch of bagel sandwiches at a cafe, we went to the Kunsthistorisches Museum, or the Fine Arts Museum.  We started in the Egypt area, which was neat, but lately, we've seen a decent amount of Egypt paraphernalia.  It seems like the majority of European museums have a collection of their country's "explorations"of Egypt...

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We also enjoyed the Greek and Roman sculptures, but what we were really after was the picture gallery.  Titian, Tintoretto, Rubens, Van Dyck, Dürer - they were the foundation of the collection, which was later rounded out with some Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Velázquez.  So, not too shabby.

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On our way out of the museum, we went through the museum cafe, and noticed that it is gorgeous.  Seriously, a work of art itself.  If you're at the Kunsthistorisches Museum and you need a bit of rejuvenation, you should consider resting your weary legs in there.  (Side note: I thought that the cafe at the Victoria & Albert in London couldn't be rivaled, but alas.  There is fierce competition out there in art museum world.)  Take a look...

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After the museum, we grabbed our bags, made our way to the bus station, rode back to Bratislava, and flew to Rome!  It was a late flight, but right on time.

When we first made plans to go to Vienna, I was excited.  I didn't know what there was to see there - not one single thing.  As I mentioned at the beginning, I pictured mountains and snow and, well, like I said, I obviously knew nothing (accurate) about Vienna.  However, once I started doing some research, I was like, "Oh but there's actually nothing famous there..."  (Embarrassing but true.)

Turns out Vienna is full of beautiful architecture.  Really.  Like I honestly don't know if we ever saw a building that wasn't worthy of photographing.  It's one of the only cities I think I've been to that can just be described as totally gorgeous and not because of the nature surrounding it but because of the city itself.  The buildings are just so pretty.  Whenever we told people (in Madrid) that we were going to Vienna for Christmas their automatic response was, "Oh, it's beautiful!"  So it's not just me.

Besides that, Vienna was kind of cold!  And, to be honest, I think it's kind of hard to go somewhere over Christmas.  Most everywhere (except for some touristy restaurants and museums/palaces/etc.) closed by 2pm on Christmas Eve, and was still closed by the time we left around 6pm on December 26th.  We had no idea this was going to be the case, or we would have planned ahead so that it wouldn't have really affected us.  I tried to do research on this online, I asked our Airbnb host if things would be open and she said yes, and I had no reason to believe that everything except for very few places (those catering to tourists) would close down completely for the majority of our visit.  If we'd known, we would've gone to the grocery store that first morning and stocked up, but we didn't, so we ate out a little more than expected, and not really in the places that we try to frequent when we travel.

And yet, the palaces were amazing.  They, and the zoo, were my favorite parts of Vienna.  Oh, and the Sachertorte!  So even though it was kind of a bummer about so many shops and restaurants being closed, we still got to see the highlights.  Our apartment was beautiful and cozy, and when people ask what our favorite city on our trip was, Danny often says Vienna - so I'd call that a win!