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Austria’s wonderful capital Vienna spreads along both sides of the “Blue” Danube (which as the Viennese are certain to point out is actually muddy brown) at the very foothills of the Alps. The city is a smorgasbord of Baroque with a dash of art nouveau. Circling the old town (the Innere Stadt ) is the striking revivalist architecture of the Ringstrasse Vienna’s main boulevard. These buildings range from the charming Opera House to the monumental Natural History Museum. Nestled throughout the city are the graceful art-nouveau buildings of turn-of-the century architects Otto Wagner and Adolf Loos. The buildings are one of the many remnants of the artistic and intellectual flowering that took place in Vienna at the turn of the century. Of course the buildings and the city’s history are only a backdrop for the daily culture that can still be found in the concert halls opera houses and cafes.
Before traveling to Vienna try to reserve tickets to the main attractions in advance as ticket requests from outside of the country are given priority. We recommend the Vienna State Opera the Spanish Riding School (with its famous Lipizzaner stallions) and the Vienna Boys Choir (the choir is particularly moving). If tickets for the State Opera aren’t available try the Volksoper which features operettas musicals and ballets. If all else fails the Gothic Rathaus (city hall) hosts a popular Christmas market in the winter and free concerts in the summer. Take a tour of the city to get oriented either on foot or in a Fiaker (a horse-drawn carriage). If you’d prefer a more elevated impression of the city go up to the top of the Donauturm (Danube Tower)—at 846 ft/258 m it provides quite a panorama from its observation platform and two revolving restaurants. You can see from there that Vienna is quite a large city — its sights are dispersed throughout so you’ll want to buy bus/subway passes for the number of days that you’ll be there.
The pulse of the city can be found along Ringstrasse, according to most tourist guides. Perhaps they are correct, if we think of Vienna as a 19th-century invention. As you walk around the area be sure to take a break at a sidewalk cafe and have one of the city’s superb pastries. The Viennese invented cafe society and there is no better pasttime than to linger over a torte read a newspaper and watch the Viennese. Each café has its own personality; while the lavish cafes inside the Ringstrasse are most impressive the smaller ones just outside have a charm and authenticity that should also not be missed. Don’t just stick to coffee — the Austrian fruit teas and black teas are so flavorful that you’ll wonder what you’ve been drinking all these years. Other cafes that are not as stodgy and expensive as the ones on the Ring are the illustrious, beautiful and comfortable Cafe Sperl (2nd district); any of the cafes near the Naschmarkt, Freud's house, the house designed by Wittgenstein, and gorgeous St. Charles Church--a must-see; Hawelka (1st district); Brauenerhof, where the lacerating and hilarious writer Thomas Bernhard spent his mornings (1st district); and many others. While the Biedermaier pulse of Vienna, long associated with the upper-middle class and collective repression, may be found along the Ring, its darkly satirical flip side is found in these and similar haunts.
After a coffee or a cup of tea you should be ready to visit one of the many world-class museums along the Ring. The Kunsthistorisches Museum has works of art by Bruegel, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Titian as well as Roman and Egyptian antiquities. Just across the plaza is the Naturhistorisches Museum which has the 25 000-year-old Venus of Willendorf one of the oldest works of art in existence. The Museum of Applied Art located farther down the Ring has an amazing one-million piece-collection of Rococo Baroque and Jugendstil furniture glass porcelain and fabric. Just off the Ring is the brilliant Secession Building one of the must-sees of Vienna. Built as a reaction to the overblown Ringstrasse buildings the museum is a work of art in itself and—except for Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze—generally better than the hit-or-miss contemporary art exhibited inside.
If the Ringstrasse is the pulse of the city the Innere Stadt (the old city) is the heart. This is where the city’s main attractions are located (and since it is a pedestrian zone it is also a great place to stroll). For an overview climb the bell tower of the 450-ft-/137-m-high St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The cathedral built in 1258 is easily identifiable by the zigzag pattern of its roof tiles. Between St. Stephen’s and the State Opera House is Karntnerstrasse Vienna’s main shopping street. Nearby is the Albertina museum which houses more than 200 000 drawings (works by Albrecht Durer among others). At another corner of the old city is the Hofburg Palace a massive complex that contains the Burgkapelle (the chapel where the Boys Choir sings Mass) the Stallburg (where the Spanish Riding School performs on Sunday mornings and Wednesday evenings) the Imperial Treasuries (Habsburg Crown Jewels) and the elaborate Austrian National Library.
Across the river from the old city is Prater Park an enjoyable amusement park that dates from the 18th century. The park’s main attraction is the Riesenrad the giant Ferris wheel seen in the film The Third Man (the film plays every summer in one of the theaters on the Ring) and the goofy statues scattered around the park (one shows a enormous baby taking his tiny father for a walk).
On the other side of the old city near the Südbahnhof is the Belvedere Palace which houses a stunning collection of Viennese art from the art-nouveau era including Gustav Klimt’s “The Kiss.” These enchanting pictures are reason enough to visit Vienna. The palace also has a spacious garden with a great view of the city.
Another enjoyable museum is the quirky KunstHausWien designed by the artist Hundertwasser. The museum is a fantasy of colorful tile lumpy floors and peculiar architecture (trees grow out of the third floor window). Just down the street is a block of apartments that was also designed by the artist. Though not open to visitors the colorful fairy-castle facade always draws a crowd of onlookers. If you still have a hankering for modern art visit the Museum of the 20th Century (we found the exhibits to be a bit spotty).
However we thoroughly enjoyed seeing the homes of famous Viennese: Sigmund Freud (his psychoanalytic couch and other possessions are on display) Johann Strauss Jr. (where he composed The Blue Danube ) Beethoven (he wrote his Third Symphony there) and Mozart (called Figarohaus: it’s where he composed The Marriage of Figaro ). We also enjoyed seeing where famous Viennese are buried! Probably the most famous grave is Mozart’s hidden somewhere in the cemetary in village of St. Marx— when he died the great composer was buried in a communal grave, not a pauper's grave as many people believe. Vienna later began to bury its famous people in clearly marked graves in the Central Cemetery which now hold the graves of Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert, Schoenberg, and other Viennese dignitaries. To round out the cemetery tour travelers can visit the Imperial Burial Vault (Kaisergruft) the final resting place of the emperors and empresses of the last 300 years of the House of Habsburg. We’re not particularly ghoulish but we enjoyed visiting the Augustinerkirche vault (it contain the hearts—literally—of many of the Habsburgs).
Visitors shouldn’t miss the elaborate 17th-century Schönbrunn Palace which was the Habsburg summer home. Often crowded with sightseers it is nonetheless a must-see. Highlights include the State Rooms the Hall of Mirrors (where Mozart made his debut at the age of 6) the magnificent Wagenburg Imperial Coach collection the enormous gardens and the Tiergarten Europe’s oldest zoo.
If you feel like taking a short excursion out of the city consider having a picnic in the Vienna Woods (beech-covered hills) relaxing in the charming wine gardens attached to nearby vineyards or strolling along the scenic Danube River.
There are several sights nearby Vienna that merit a visit if you have the time. One is Klosterneuburg an abbey begun in the 12th century which features the Verdun Altar. Also south of the city is Baden a pretty wooded town where Beethoven and Mozart lived. Appropriate to its name Baden has a huge open-air thermal bathing complex with a treatment center. The town’s sulphur waters are believed to provide healing; following the footsteps of Mozart’s wife Constanze thousands go there every year seeking rejuvenation. Once rejuvenated they attend festivals and operettas (in the summer) or head to the casino.
Another composer’s town was Eisenstadt south of Vienna where Joseph Haydn lived (he was court musician at the Esterhazy Palace). And don’t miss St. Polten with its Baroque frescoes; and (in summer) Rust and its famous storks.
Every year orchestras from around the world take part in The Vienna International Festival. Churches mansions and palaces across the city host more than 150 different concerts ranging from sacred music to opera and choral music to symphony.