2: Votivkirche, Rathaus and MuseumsQuartier
There's much more to Vienna than what lies within the Innere Stadt. In 1857, with the Turkish threat long past, Emperor Franz Josef I had Vienna's thick fortifications torn down and replaced with a leafy, boulevard-like road befitting an imperial capital. The Ringstrasse (Ring Road) was born. The horseshoe-shaped road, which follows the old fortifications, is not only grand, but was a way to mobilize cannons should the proletariat ever revolt. For 21st-century travelers, the Ring is little more than a glorified race track, so it's best to see it by tram. Walking is possible in some parts and even recommended if you're only going a short distance. For longer distances, hop on the clockwise-traveling tram 1 or the counterclockwise-traveling tram 2.
Rathaus, Vienna's City Hall
Before hitting the sights, fuel up at Café Prückel just outside Dr. Karl Lueger Platz on Stubenring. A favorite of expats and suave, artsy types, the kitchen serves up classic breakfast plates alongside its popular wiener melange — a half cup of espresso topped with as much hot frothy milk.
One of the most striking sites on the Ring is the Votive Church (or Votivkirche), a mid-nineteenth-century, neo-gothic church inspired by the great cathedrals of Chartres and Cologne. One block south is a building that people often mistake for a cathedral (because of its tall neo-gothic spire), the Rathaus, or City Hall. The building, modeled after Brussels' City Hall, has seven courtyards that are open and free of charge. If, however, you want to see the ornate interior, you'll have to wait for the 45-minute guided tour, which is narrated in German.
Keep walking south (or counterclockwise) around the Ringstrasse. On your left will be the Museum of Natural History, which first opened in 1889 and is known more for looking exactly as it did a century ago than for being particularly innovative. For this reason, it's usually overlooked in favor of the shiny new MuseumsQuartier, a complex of galleries, museums, cafés, restaurants, and shops. The most popular stop is the Leopold Museum, probably because it houses the largest collection of Schiele paintings as well as works by Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka.
If your stomach feels like a blank, empty canvas, you needn't go far for a good meal. There are several great cafés and restaurants in the complex. Try Glacis Beisl for a 21st-century take on Austrian cuisine or Die Halle for contemporary cuisine in a chic setting.
Following the Ringstrasse, you'll soon come upon the underwhelming State Opera House, or Staatsoper, the first public building to be completed on the Ring, in 1869. The building was immediately decried by locals who said it looked too much like a railway station. (Ironically, the Allies bombed it in World War II because they, too, thought it was just that!) Nevertheless, the State Opera House still hosts world-class operatic productions that are worth seeing. Inexpensive, state-subsidized, standing-room-only tickets are available each day before performances. Short guided tours are also offered.
If you have a hankering for rich chocolate cake (and who doesn't?), a visit to the nearby famed Hotel Sacher for a slice of the legendary Sacher torte is imperative. It's also an essential stop for those on the trail of "The Third Man," the famous 1949 film set in post-war Vienna.
If you only visit one museum in Vienna, make it the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum). With the largest collection of Bruegels in the world, plus a massive collection of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century paintings by artists like Titian, Rembrandt, Cranach, van Dyck, Tintoretto and Rubens, one could easily spend half a day here soaking in all the art.
If your eyes and brain can still stand it, stop at one more museum. When Klimt (and other artists) decided to break from the classical style for a new avant-garde approach at the turn of the twentieth century, the Vienna Secession was born. The Secession Building on Friedrichstrasse was the artistic movement's headquarters. Today it is a museum and features Klimt's famous Beethoven Frieze. Across the street, be sure to stop into the art nouveau-style Café Museum, which was designed by Adolf Loos in 1899.
For dinner, try the nearby Steirereck, which many Viennese consider the city's best restaurant for its upscale dishes from the Austrian region of Styria. Another option is Shambala in Le Meridien Hotel. This painfully hip restaurant dishes up what it has dubbed "Cuisine Mondiale" — French and pan-Asian fusion. Afterwards, nightlife revelers can head over to OMAR Absinth Bar & Lounge for cocktails and absinthe — although perhaps not together. The combination will either cure you or leave you with little memory of the bar's chic interior.
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