Coffee, Art, History, and Cake | 3 Days in Vienna

Happy Boxing Day, Brits and Canadians 🙂 Happy post-Christmas Day to those who celebrated yesterday. I’m taking advantage of today’s downtime to finish up my Vienna recap, which seemed to grow and grow and grow. Finally, I’m done and can share with you what we did, learned, and ate while in this culturally and historically (and just actually) rich European capital.

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I need to be upfront with you. I believe Vienna is a beautiful city. We had a nice time while there. Many things were great and I would recommend many of the things we did while there (see list of recommendations at the end). But my recap is likely to seem less enthusiastic than that for Prague or other cities I plan to blog about.

Why? Because, for me, it’s hard to separate the weather from my tourist experience in a place. Especially when you’re only in a place for a couple days. When we got on the bus in Prague, it was a sunny morning. By the time we reached the Austrian border, all was overcast. The rain was light, a nuisance more than a concern, but the temperature had also dropped considerably from one side of the bus ride to the other. In Prague, I’d been strolling along the bridge, letting the sun hit my shoulders, carrying a shawl just in case. In Vienna, I opened and closed my umbrella constantly, wrapped my scarf around my head regularly, and never left the hostel without a sweater. It’s hard to compare these experiences.

Lodging makes a difference, too. Our lodging was a little weird here. It was a clean hostel, but it wasn’t comfortable. There were oodles of rules, and I had apparently accidentally marked that we were a male-male traveling duo when making the reservation and the owner nearly wouldn’t let us stay when I turned out to be a female. This was particularly weird since it was already a private room and there were not different sections for males or females. We had to keep our shoes at the front door (so the floors stayed clean), which meant there was a particularly funky smell immediately upon arrival. The shared kitchen was basically a Foreman Grill, a tea kettle (Actually, think I’ll make myself a tea now. Okay, I’m back. The kettling is warming.), and a cutting board. The walls were bare excepting multilingual signs of rules for every single item in the place. I know these rules are often necessary, but seeing nothing but rules on the walls is a bit unexpected in a city with so much wonderful art.

My point is that I feel Vienna is likely better than our experience of it. If I had felt the warmth of the spring sun while walking along the streets or stayed in a beautiful apartment with a functional kitchen where I could make white spargel (asparagus) soup and homemade schnitzel without the smell of feet wafting by, maybe I would be writing a post about how much I want to move to Vienna. Who knows?

We did enjoy ourselves, though. Really, we did. We loved the Naschmarkt. We visited some of the best museums we’ve ever seen. We loved exploring Vienna’s cafe culture. We loved our quick wine garden/heuriger afternoon. It was a good time. There is so much art, history, and music to see. It was, overall, a positive and rewarding stop.

Day 1

We arrived on a rainy afternoon, as I said. For someone who claims to be a “planner” when traveling, I had a major fail here. We had the address of our hostel and vague directions. We navigated the U (metro/subway) system well enough, but then had little to go on. We asked a very nice–but directionally challenged–local for help and were sent farther away. Finally, we went to a hotel to ask their concierge for a map. We found our way.

And from there, we immediately wandered into the Naschmarkt, snacking on some perogies and sampling dried fruits along the way. According to my journal, the market had the best dates I’ve ever seen on offer (but reading this makes me remember the dates we later ate on this trip, so I’m not so sure anymore). We sampled the tiniest wild strawberries, talked with butchers, cheesemongers, visited wine shops, looked longingly at piles of spargel (asparagus season is no joke in Austria and Germany), barrels of sauerkraut and pickled cucumbers, bulk bins full of candied or roasted cashews, almonds, and any nut you can think of. Along the sides of the market, there are restaurants, small wine bars, etc. The idea of joining locals for an evening glass would have sounded much more tempting had it been warmer, so we never did.

Our second stop was Cafe Sperl, an impressive cafe of yesteryear. All servers are tuxedoed and take their jobs very seriously, just as you’d hope as a tourist in Vienna. We found a cozy booth along the tall windows. The rain on the outside is always nicer when seen from the inside. As soon as the waiter had given us menus and walked out of earshot, I started to talk Jung and Freud and logical positivism (check out this video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UA06_MTjcwQ) to the mister, seeing how long he could pretend that I knew what I was talking about.

Since we’d just snacked in the Naschmarkt, we weren’t really there for the food as much as the atmosphere. Thankfully, due to the long-established cafe culture and less of an emphasis on tipping, servers don’t seem to mind at all if you take up prime booth real estate while ordering minimal food. I ordered a zucchini soup; the mister ordered traditional sausages with horseradish and mustard. The soup was great and went according to plan. The sausage? Well, turns out that just because you’re in Vienna, it doesn’t mean you’re getting a great sausage. Also, it doesn’t mean you’ll get cutlery. Alas, a skinny and naked hotdog appeared before him on a silver platter. He asked for silverware. The server seemed surprised, but then gave an exaggerated, acquiescent head nod before bringing him a knife and fork. We were flabbergasted that in such a fancy-schmancy place, you were just supposed to pick up your weiners with your hands. We spent the rest of the time seeing if anyone else ordered the sausage to see how they ate it.

Then came dessert. I, being the trip researcher, knew all about the famous–or infamous–Sachertorte that everyone eats but few actually like (Mr.Bourdain isn’t thrilled with it, either). It’s dry, of course. I figured I probably wouldn’t love it, but it also seems like something you ought to try once, particularly when in Vienna. The mister is a chocolate fan. I mean, the guy really loves it. And he had heard of Sachertorte. So, when he saw other people ordering it, I knew he would want it. Should I tell him that most people don’t really like it that much and save us the trouble? Or should I let him discover this Viennese cake for himself?

I let him order it. We shared. Thankfully, we both had coffees to supplement it. He had denied the whipped cream (seen as a must for this cake) on the side offered by the server. I should have intervened there, too. Anyway, we finished it, him all the while saying he couldn’t believe I didn’t tell him all of this before he ordered. The coffee was great, though.

We called it an early night after dinner. I was sleepy, and he had plenty of work.

Day 2

We continued our cafe exploration the next morning. We sauntered among the monuments and sculptures into the Inner Ring, making our way to Cafe Central. We got a little lost, but not enough to be bothered. I met Mozart and Goethe and saw some of the prettiest cakes along the way. The size and ornament of the buildings were truly impressive. One beautiful building after the next; even “boring” bureaucratic buildings were lovely.

  

Since we got lost along the way, we were much hungrier than we’d expected to be upon arrival at Cafe Central. The grandeur of the place almost, almost made me forget that I was hungry. Nothing about this place was disappointing. I geeked out from moment one, which is the moment I saw a proper doorman for the cafe. Tuxedos or skirt suits for women, large windows, beautiful architecture inside and outside. The breakfast was ample, and I say this as an extreme breakfast lover. Mine came with a Viennese coffee (espresso with whipped cream). The mister got the “healthy” breakfast: granola, yogurt, fruit, veggie sticks, cheese, and butter with a coffee. And then, because we were on vacation and were good and hungry earlier, we stayed put and ordered desserts. Right after breakfast. We weren’t even alone in this. In my journal I drew a diagram of the layered dessert so I could pretend as though I’ll recreate it someday 🙂

From the cafe, we wandered a bit, then found the Globe Museum, which is part of the National Library. This is apparently the World’s only globe museum. Of course, this may be true, but there were certainly great globe collections in other museums. Still, we learned about globe production and construction and saw two Magellan globes, which was geogeek exciting.

Afterward, we wasted a lot of time trying to decide how much Habsburg stuff we really wanted to see. Sure, in theory, I’d like to see all of it. But tickets for museums start to add up quickly, the mister had much writing/coding to do, and I had many other things I’d prefer to see first. We decided to visit a few parts of the Kunsthistorisches Museum, including the Arms and Armours collection and the Ephesos Museum.  Seeing inside the building’s great halls and stairways was half of the fun. I enjoyed seeing the intricate design on the armor, but was weird to think about how many were made simply for ceremonial reasons. Weirder still when you see pierced armor and you know there was an injured body underneath there hundreds of years ago.

After museum time, we went together to hit up the Naschmarkt yet again, this time buying a couple Austrian cheeses (one strong blue and one soft aged goat cheese), some salami, bread, and a bag of delicious cherries to each for dinner with the remainder of our dried fruits. Husband headed back “home” to work, taking the groceries with him, and allowing me to make the most of the Kunsthistorisches museum pass I’d just purchased. The things we saw earlier in the day were outstanding, but I was not going to leave Vienna without spending some time with Bruegel, Rubens, and Vermeer.

There was so much to see. I budgeted something like three hours of museum time, thinking it’d be okay. I ran out of time. (I was kicked out of the museum. Museum staff could have been nicer when explaining that I had to exit a certain way and they definitely made it awkward by building a human chain and forcing people out. All they had to do was tell me to go the other way. It was weird.) Thankfully, I got in my Caravaggio time.

I took copious amounts of notes in the gallery, which was something new for me. This was amusing on a social experiment level. Sometimes I’d be finishing notes about something else or even noting a French or Spanish vocabulary word, so nothing that was too important. Still, when others see someone taking notes about one painting, they tend to stop and pay attention, just because you’re there.

I felt slightly rushed through the European masters, but was extra rushed through the Egyptian and Middle Eastern collections. My highlights were the mummified Nile crocodiles and the Greek and Roman statues. If ever I return to Vienna, I will make a second visit here, no doubt.

After the museum, I met up with Jordan. He’d done a little research about wine bars in the neighborhood. He found a fun, low-key place to do a tasting. We went to Pub Klemo for a six-wine tasting (we shared folks, small pours :)). Because we were in Austria and didn’t know much about Austrian wines, we asked for a flight of blaufränkisch, a red wine we’d never tried before. We definitely need to take a look for one of these on the shelves for a special occasion. (Update! I found one in Cambridge and it’s on the shelf chez nous!) Anyway, I loved this place and would have returned had our stay been longer.

We returned to the hostel, pulling out our stinking cheeses and stuffed peppers in the common area. We’d prepared ourselves a proper charcuterie board with fruits and veggies. To the left, some people ate fast food take out. To our right, they ate ramen noodles from styrofoam. We felt a little weird. But less weird when we realized their take out cost nearly the same as our market meal.

Day 3

The next day seemed equally as full as the first. We started just like the day before, in search of one of the city’s well-known cafes. I often feel that because something is famous it must be overrated. This, I’m learning, is not the case near as much as we think. These cafes are great. They’re no secret either.

We actually skipped breakfast at the cafe because it looked like weiner and kaiser rolls were the main breakfast options. We enjoyed our coffees and newspapers before venturing out to food stalls for a late morning snack of pretzel. Enormous pretzel, that is.

The pretzel hunt led us by St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which we ventured into for just a wee bit. We also passed Mozart’s house, but didn’t stray from my direct path to the Belvedere once the pretzel had been secured.

 

Oh, the Belvedere. I think it’s my favorite art museum of all time. Okay, I have other favorites, too, but my experience here was just so fun. Also, the clouds started to break up, so the grounds looked gorgeous, sun shone into the galleries and halls, and there was a cafe where Jordan was able to work to his heart’s (head’s?) content while I arted to my heart’s content.

The Belvedere is the old palace of Eugene of Savoy. I mean, well done. I’d love it as my summer residence as well. And I’d also love to fill it be a great art collection. I, like everyone else in the museum, fell in love with Gustav Klimt. Even if you loved his art before walking in there, you’d fall in love all over again. The museum knows that the famous painting, The Kiss, is a victim of its success/everyone wants a photo with it. So much so that the museum made a replica, but it in a well-lit area and made it an official “selfie point”. Frankly, I wasn’t sure what to think and I feel like I’m behind the curve in the art of the selfie, so you’ll have to just imagine me there. I would love to tell you all of the new-to-me artists I loved here, but it would be a long list. I just loved the interwar period. Anyway, if you like art museums or old palaces with great views and orangeries, go here!

After feasting my eyes on some Europe’s best art for the SECOND DAY IN A ROW, I collected the coding husband from the cafe here. (In case you’re wondering why he passed on the art, it’s not necessarily because he’s a Philistine, but because his dissertation was due for submission at the end of the summer). As I mentioned, the clouds had parted, and the rain decided to give us one party cloudy day in Vienna. Since the weather was nice[r], we decided to make the most of it and head toward the outskirts of town to a little heuriger (wine garden that serves up a homemade-like style meal). We hopped on the tram to Beethovengang (the man himself was here!) to visit the Schübel-Auer Heuriger.

Clueless as to how to proceed upon arrival, we wandered in and sat down at an empty table, hoping that was the protocol in these places. Soon, a man came over (not a waiter exactly, since they didn’t bring any food) and simply asked,

“Red or white?”

I ordered white; Jordan ordered red. When you think wine in Europe as a North American, you typically think swirling, sniffing, pontificating, right? None of that. Just good and low-key. The man disappeared and returned with two mugs of wine and signaled that we should head on inside.

My journal tells me that the food on offer was all that we’d hoped! I stand by it. I had a plate full of blood sausage and sauerkraut. I’ve had some pretty solid blood sausage in my day (think mortadella and Argentine parrillas!), but this was the best. My dining companion had pork and dumplings.  Naturally, I stole bites, but I was so thrilled with my own choice that I didn’t feel the slightest twinge of food envy. Oh yeah, then there was dessert. If you’re in Vienna for a long stay, you can spend more time going to and from a heuriger. If you are in Vienna for just a few days, but still want the experience, this is a perfect, tram-accessible stop.

We spent a bit more time exploring Beethovengang before returning into the city. You know, as I write this, I feel full just thinking about what I’m about to write. You can judge me if you’d like. It’s fine. We ate again. In the time we had spent in the city, we hadn’t had a proper beisl experience. I’m still not entirely sure we have, since it didn’t fall at the lunchtime beisl rush. Either way, we split a schnitzel plate, because how can you not eat schnitzel in Vienna? I know, double meat consumption. I was a horrible flexitarian. But really, it was a great schnitzel. And a great, cozy little place to have something to eat.

The next morning, we woke up relatively early (when traveling, I’m always sooo nervous about being late for my bus/train/flight), leisurely at our market leftovers for breakfast and packed our bags. And then we found what may be the only seedy part of Vienna (see article here): the bus station.

Just like that we said goodbye to Vienna.

Except, of course, I haven’t really. Despite the weather, despite the lame lodging situation, there is just too much to do and see there. I want to return to see an opera in the Vienna Opera House. I want to return to the market and go to a functional kitchen and sip Grüner Veltliner and more Blaufränkish while making schnitzel. I want relive all the fancy cafe experiences and try different coffees. I want to read more about the Habsburgs and then visit their palaces. I want to visit the Albertina and all the art (impossible task, I imagine) that I missed this go ’round. I want to take a biking tour of more family-run heurigers.

If you ask me what my favorite stop on our trip was, my answer will not be Vienna. But I would never tell you not to go. And I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’d regret visiting or turn down another opportunity to go. It’s grand–in ever sense of the word. You should go if you get the chance.

Recommendations

I thought about separating out the food and sights, but in Vienna, cafe culture, beisl culture, and heuriger culture are both, so it made little sense to separate 🙂

 

 

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