“Slow down, you crazy child
And take the phone off the hook and disappear for a while.
It’s all right, you can afford to lose a day or two.
When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?”
~Billy Joel, Vienna
Vienna is a city that doesn’t seem to be in much of a hurry. Pedestrians patiently wait until the light changes before stepping off the curb. They walk inside the crosswalks, without making even a small zig-zag to reach the other side more quickly. Restaurants and cafés allow diners to linger long after plates have been cleared and the last drops of coffee have left the cups. People are welcoming in a reserved, easy sort of way, happy to help but also willing to let you find your own way, at your own pace, on your own terms.
It’s an elegant city, rich with white marble buildings and beautiful flowery parks. Pristine and clean and surprisingly compact. From the music to the Danube to the old Ferris Wheel at the Prater, it’s a romantic sort of place, holding firmly to its past without seeming old-fashioned. For me it was love at first sight, and my only thought was, “Why didn’t I get here sooner?”
Hofburg Imperial Palace
Herb and I spent the morning in the city center exploring the area around the Hofburg Imperial Palace. The former winter residence of the Austrian royal family was home to Emperor Franz Joseph I and Empress Elisabeth – aka Sisi – whose portraits seem to be everywhere throughout the city. The Palace complex is vast, filled with museums, courtyards and grand statuary. We focused on the Imperial Apartments and opted for the audio guide tour that also included the Silver Collection and Sisi Museum.
The audio tour is exceptionally well done, offering enough history to provide an understanding of Franz Joseph and Sisi, but not so in-depth that it is overwhelming. Photography is allowed in the Silver Collection, but not in the Imperial Apartments.
Austrian National Library
Our next stop was the State Hall of the Austrian National Library, where more than 200,000 books from 1501 to 1850 are housed. After spending time in Prague’s magnificent Strahov Monastery Library, I wondered how this would compare. But with its frescoed ceilings, graceful curved balconies and rich wooden bookcases, the State Hall is spectacular in its own right.
I was most excited about experiencing Vienna’s famous “coffee house culture.” Ever since the first coffee house opened in 1683, these venues became gathering spots for writers, artists and philosophers to discuss important issues of the day. I had put together a long list of cafés to visit, knowing we’d be limited to only a few in the time we had. At the top of the list was Café Central. Established in 1876 inside the Palais Ferstel, Café Central was a popular meeting place for Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky and a host of writers and poets. It is said that writer Peter Altenberg spent so much time at the café that he had his mail – and his laundry – delivered there!
Café Central carries on a long Viennese tradition of coffee etiquette, including this custom, which we found in cafés throughout the city:
“The glass of water traditionally served with coffee is meant to cleanse the palate. The face down coffee spoon on top of the glass is a sign that the glass has been freshly filled up, a remnant of Habsburg etiquette.”
~Café Central Website
St. Stephen’s Cathedral & St. Peter’s Church
It was early afternoon by the time we pried ourselves from our lovely table at Café Central. We walked down Graben toward Stephansplatz, the central city square home to the towering symbol of Vienna, St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The square was crowded at mid-day, and so was St. Stephen’s. We spent a short time inside, but mostly walked around the exterior, taking in the intricate Gothic towers and that intriguing patterned tile roof.
We also stopped at nearby St. Peter’s Church, another architectural treat that is almost hidden from view. Sandwiched between two large buildings, it’s easy to miss, except for its distinctive green dome.
Hundertwasser House & Beyond the Ringstrasse
Our final walk of the day took us beyond the Ringstrasse – the grand boulevard circling Vienna’s historic central district. We were headed about a half-hour from St. Stephen’s Cathedral to a place called Hundertwasser Village, an apartment building and shopping center designed in the mid-1980s in a quirky, Gaudi-like style by an artist named Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
As is often the case with travel plans, the pathway to our desired location proved to be more interesting than the destination itself. Getting outside the city center offered insight into a less touristy part of Vienna. Buildings were not as grand or historic or marbled, and streets were not as wide or plaza-filled. But it was still impeccably clean and tidy and oh-so pretty.
We passed through Stadtpark, Vienna’s first public park that opened in 1862, a scavenger hunter’s dream for tracking down famous sculptures and monuments. We walked across a bridge over the Wien River that was decorated with sculptures of avant-garde, mask-like faces. And we took a detour beyond the Hundertwasser House just to get a glimpse of the Danube Canal, a nod to our upcoming river cruise.
I had already left a little piece of my heart in this beautiful city, and in a way, seeing another side of Vienna made me love it even more.