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Vienna City Trip

A Vienna fountain
Vienna Fountain


72 Hours in Vienna

by Dawn Turek

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With eyes closed, it's easy to imagine you're back in Vienna's imperial heyday, especially when listening to the clip-clop of passing horses and inhaling the sweet smell of chocolate sacher torte. Listen more closely, and perhaps you'll pick up the strains of the city's illustrious composers: Schubert, Haydn, Strauss, and yes, Mozart. Rather than closing your eyes, however, you might want to relish in Vienna's grandiose art nouveau, baroque, and rococo façades, as well as soaring gothic spires and spacious leafy boulevards. In Vienna, indulge your senses.

As nineteenth-century Austrian satirist Karl Kraus said, "The streets of Vienna are paved with culture, the streets of other cities with asphalt." Sound ostentatious? Perhaps, but who are we to dispute the city that once ruled an empire of 50 million people stretching from Bohemia to Bosnia and Tyrol to Transylvania. There's plenty of proof as well. Just listen to a concert at the majestic Vienna State Opera, savor sinfully rich coffee and pastries at an elegant cafe, watch the precision of the Lipizzaner horses at the Spanish Riding School, or go shopping at the airy, bazaar-like Naschmarkt.

Despite its compelling past, you can be assured that Vienna doesn't rests on its laurels. The ever forward-thinking Viennese are waltzing into the 21st century with aplomb. Contemporary architecture, an innovative culinary industry, and a vibrant nightlife add to the modern allure of Austria's capital. Some good examples include Museum Moderner Kunst, a cubist building enveloped by basalt lava; the sophisticated vegetarian eatery Wrenkh, which offers cooking classes; and Flex, a nightclub featuring renowned DJs Kruder & Dorfmeister.

Whether you prefer period styles or a trendier flair, there are numerous accommodation options for every traveler. Hotel Rathaus Wein & Design, a small hotel behind City Hall, has a retro-chic wine bar and rooms dedicated to different Austrian wineries. The Hollmann Belletage presents a clever, open, studio-like design, while the Radisson Blu Style Hotel, smack in the center of it all, has 78 smartly designed rooms behind a striking art nouveau facade. Le Méridien Hotel , situated near the Opera House, is a "design + art" hotel that grants guests complimentary access to Vienna Secession, the world's oldest independent art institute. The Palais Coburg's regal splendor — in a nineteenth-century palace — is steps from the heart of the city. DO & CO Hotel Vienna offers sensible sophistication right next to St. Stephen's Cathedral. Also located off St. Stephen Platz, Pension Pertschy offers old-fashioned ambience at a modest price. Eco-conscious visitors will love the boutique Hotel Stadthalle, the world's first hotel with a zero energy-balance.

Unlike Venice, Amsterdam and Prague, cities that seem designed for wandering, Vienna is best with an itinerary. With that in mind, here's our take on how you should spend three days in Wien.

FESTIVALS

The month before Christmas offers a bounty of festive markets, among whose overflowing stalls you can meander while drinking hot spiced wine and shopping for gifts. In March and April, elaborately decorated Easter markets pervade the city. From late June to early July, the classics are put on hold in favor of the annual Vienna Jazz Festival, when the world's top jazz musicians converge on the city and take over venues where classical music is usually performed.

VIENNA DAY 1: St. Stephen's Cathedral and Hofburg

St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna
St. Stephen's Cathedral

Vienna fans out like a seashell, split into three parts: the historic center, known as the Innere Stadt; the Ringstrasse, the road that circles Vienna's historic section; and the Vorstädte, the suburbs beyond. It's best to begin right in the center of it all, at St. Stephen's Cathedral.

Towering above the city like a gothic skyscraper, Stephansdom, (as the locals call it), is the core of medieval Vienna. Begun in 1304 (with the finishing touches finally put on in the twentieth century), the cathedral is fun to explore both inside and out. The roof, which is decorated with colorful tile chevrons, is said to be modeled on the pattern of a Saracen carpet. When you enter the soaring interior, make an immediate right to see the Pötscher Madonna. The painting, which is still venerated today, apparently wept during a 1697 battle against the Turks and is thus credited with inspiring the Viennese to win the battle.

The Turkish threat on Vienna lasted more than a century. By the time the Ottomans finally turned back east, their influence on Viennese culture was indelible. One of these was the coffee culture that's still alive and thriving in 21st-century Vienna. High-ceilinged coffee houses, where one can sit all day reading the many newspapers on hand, are ubiquitous. The oldest, Café Frauenhuber, is just a short walk from the cathedral and a good place to grab a late-morning plate of ham and eggs. Founded by Empress Maria Theresa's chef in the late eighteenth century, it was also the site of Mozart's last public performance.

For Mozart fans, the sites are endless. Plaques on buildings throughout the historic center announce where the composer performed, lived, ate and drank. The top spot on the Mozart trail is undoubtedly the Figarohaus, the apartment where he lived for three years (because of his constantly changing financial situation, he moved around a lot — thirteen times in a decade!). Today the house is a Mozart museum. Another noteworthy Mozart stop is St. Michael's Church, located on Michaelerplatz. Here, his last composition, Requiem K. 626, was first performed one week after his death. The church has a striking gothic interior with rococo touches.

The Vienna Boys' Choir
Vienna Boys' Choir

Outside on the square, note the Roman ruins before you head over to the arched gate of Hofburg, the Habsburgs' Palace. (each generation of the ruling family wanted to put their stamp on the castle, so extension after extension was built). Two of Vienna's most famous sites are housed in the Hofburg: the Vienna Boys' Choir, which performs in the Hofburgkapelle, and the Spanish Riding School, or Winterreitschule.

One of the most stunning and memorable parts of the Hofburg is the Schatzkammer, which displays precious relics of the Holy Roman Empire (including the dazzling crown of Rudolf II). You'll also see golden goblets, shiny reliquaries, a supposed piece of the True Cross and too many other priceless pieces to list. A couple of less-visited, but worthy sites to check out in Hofburg are the National Library, with its baroque domes and soaring floor-to-ceiling walls of ancient books, and the Museum of Ancient Musical Instruments, whose prized possession is a violin that belonged to Leopold Mozart, Wolfgang's father.

Albertina is located in Vienna's Hofburg megaplex
Albertina

The refurbished Albertina (also in the Hofburg megaplex) is part palace and part monastery. Today, it features nearly 50,000 watercolors, drawings and etchings, including some by Klimt, Schiele, Picasso, Bruegel, Michelangelo, da Vinci and Raphael.

For a few really offbeat museums, try the Esperanto Museum, dedicated to what was once hoped to be the world's next lingua franca, and the Globe Museum, displaying ancient globes mostly dating to the nineteenth century.

After all that walking, a rewarding lunch is in order. Continue the grand tradition a few blocks away at Café Central, which has served customers like Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky in imperial style since 1876 — at reasonable prices too.

For a walk on the darker side of Viennese history, you can venture to the Kriminalmuseum. The faint of heart will want to wait outside while the intrepid explore the capital's most shocking crimes, from medieval times to modern day. Note that exhibits are graphic. Gruesome displays aside, more lighthearted entertainment awaits at the nearby Museum für Unterhaltungskunst (Circus Museum). This Big Top bonanza celebrates circus life from props to costumes to those crazy clowns.

After so many museums and so much art, you'll certainly be in need of refueling. You needn't go far, as the rooftop of the Albertina houses a great restaurant. DO & CO Albertina serves modern takes on Viennese dishes as well as sushi. In warm weather you can grab a table outside; otherwise, lounge inside under one of the oversized Egon Schiele prints. Want something slightly more traditional? Try Zum Schwarzen Kameel, an art deco-style restaurant that dates back to 1618 and serves slightly upscale, traditional fare. For fun, fresh, meatless delights, Wrenkh Restaurant serves chic veggie fare that you can both savor and learn to make. Ask about the cooking classes in their studio. For a nightcap, ride the glass elevator up to the seventh-floor Sky Bar, which offers more than 350 cocktails and a charming view of the rooftops of Vienna.

Continue to Day 2

(Updated: 03/19/13 CT)

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