I didn’t know what to expect from Vienna. One of my favorite movies, Before Sunrise, paints a painfully romantic version of the city that I didn’t hope to be a true experience. But I have to say, the place is beautiful. You really do find yourself wandering through majestic gardens and down dark and magical alleys filled with dimly lit cafes and locals having conversation. Great wine and delicate pastries. The lavish remnants of a pampered dynasty now given the boot and populated by regular people having fun and enjoying life. A real democratic vibe, at least from my street view. The people are friendly and jovial. The food is great. I ended up having a fabulous time in Vienna. Feel free to paint your own romantic delusions. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.
The Neubau neighborhood
If you want to see all the major sites and you only have a couple days, staying downtown could be the place for you, but it’s crowded and urban and devoid of any locals, basically a collection of hotels and tourist restaurants. Instead we chose to stay a bit further away in the arty hipster neighborhood of Neubau. It’s only a short walk to downtown but you’ll be surrounded by quirky bars and coffeeshops, less expensive restaurants filled with locals, and a much cooler experience in my opinion. Tucked away in little alleys you’ll find small parks and murals and cafes. I loved it.
We found this second story walkup for a good price in a perfect part of town with loads of charm.
Of course, you’ll want to see the big stuff. And as the seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire and enormous wealth, there’s plenty to see. Huge palaces, grand public works, statues of famous people you probably even have heard of, enormous parks dotted with locals napping in the sun, museums and concert halls, Vienna has it all if that’s what you’re looking for. As Bourdain once said, something like: seeing this kind of opulence makes me feel obligated to take a shit on this guys lawn. And I feel the same. This kind of majesty can only come from the subjugation of the poor and the downtrodden. But there’s still something kind of cool about standing in the room where Beethoven gave his first recital for the Queen at age 6. And that dynasty is long gone. The tortured manicured gardens and private hedge mazes that once entertained the royal children are open to the public free of charge. So at least some of that criminal wealth has been transferred back, if only as aesthetic relics.
Originally purchased by Maximillian II in 1569 as hunting grounds for the Hapsburgs, this estate was embellished over the years and became the summer residence of the Hapsburg court. Its over the top rococo interiors of gold and inlaid wood conjure the absolute height of heartless wealth and dynastic subjugation, populated by giggling powdered wigs and lavish truffle plates. This was the childhood home of Marie Antoinette who played with Beethoven as a child when he gave his first performance for the queen in this palace at age 6 and who later became the Queen of France at a very bad time. Photography isn’t allowed inside so you’ll have to take my word for it. With over 1,440 lavish rooms, it’s easy to see why you might want to erect a guillotine outside as well. Today the dynasty is dissolved and the palace is a tourist attraction with the slightly less manicured lawns open to the public for free.
If you have only a passing knowledge of Vienna, you might be familiar with this park and one of the oldest Ferris wheels, Wiener Riesenrad. Featured in the classic movie The Third Man where Orson Welles menacingly opens the door while parked at the top threatening the protagonist. We had to at least give it a spin. At 12 euros each, it’s not a cheap ride, and you’re in a railroad box car with about 9 other strangers, but it’s still a great view and a cheap thrill.
Austrian food is a lot like German food. You have your schnitzel and your sausages. But you also get a variety of Hungarian influences like goulash and sausages stuffed with paprika. I can’t say the food was particularly unusual but we ate well and there’s plenty of delicious stuff to be found. And I found several new dishes that I had not tried yet. Something to note, at least in the neighborhood we stayed in, vegetarian and vegan were particularly easy to find and many vegan only places including a vegetarian Michelin star restaurant. Our first meal was a vegan hamburger joint (one of several) and it was great.
I didn’t have to go far to find a good traditional restaurant. Restaurant Wiener was only a block away and was a nice mix of boisterous and white table cloth, loud funny waiters and some of the best classics we tasted. The frittatensuppe was great, a rich beef consommé with shredded thin pancakes that take on a noodle-like quality but retain their pan fried richness. The tafelspitz, boiled beef and vegetables, was surprisingly delicious. I didn’t think there was any way to make boiled beef delicious but it was tender and fatty and saturated with rich broth. It came with three condiments of cream spinach, a horseradish sauce covered in applesauce, and sour cream with chives. On a subsequent visit I ordered the goulash with spaetzle. This one had a spicy paprika heavy sauce and tender beef. Also good.
Honestly I’ve had a lot of schnitzel in my lifetime and these days it’s a bit heavy for me. But I heard this place served the best schnitzel in Vienna, so I had to give it a go. A family run locals joint, a fast service, no nonsense, ball busting kind of pub with long tables packed with big dudes putting down outrageous portions of fried meat and beer. A little intimidating since I speak basically no German. But I studied the menu online and knew exactly what to order before I went in. The tables are big and they seat strangers at your table if the space is needed. I didn’t really feel like making small talk with hand gestures while getting judgmental scowls as I snap photos of my schnitzel but luckily I picked a quiet time and got the table to myself. The service was as expected terse and no nonsense but polite. I ordered the cordon bleu schnitzel and heard online that the erdäpfelsalat, an austrian style potato salad with vinegar and onions, was a must try, plus a bit of tartar sauce to accompany the schnitzel (condiments by request only), and whatever beer was on tap. Then in no time at all I am served a gigantic slab of pork, hammered thin, battered, and deep fried. It’s hanging off both sides of a standard dinner plate. This particular one was stuffed with slices of ham and cheese so it’s a gooey monster that could feed a medium sized Asian family. I knew going in I couldn’t finish so I methodically sliced and ate exactly half before throwing in the towel, a hard won victory. They have paper and bags in the dining room to wrap up your leftovers so I didn’t feel like too much of a loser.
I wanted a real sausage stand to get my first Vienna hotdog. I had my heart set on a different place further downtown but ran across this hidden gem inside the first floor of a parking garage in the Neubau neighborhood. The kind of place you’d only know about if you lived nearby. During the day, the tables around the stand are filled with orange-vested construction workers and other blue collar warriors looking for a cheap lunch and a beer. At night you get the drinking crowd, equally loud and jovial. I loved it. I wanted both a hot dog of the frankfurter and the käsekrainer, a cheese stuffed local sausage, but stumbled with my english. When asked if I wanted the sausage or the hot dog, I replied, yes, with the bread. So what I got was the sausages on plates with a plate of sliced bread. So just say “hot dog”, that’s the local phrasing. Traditionally they come two sausages on a bun and I really wanted to try it as a hotdog so I ordered the frankfurter hotdog but fumbled something again because I just got one sausage on a bun. Maybe next time.
For some reason, the thing to get in Vienna is the Sachertorte. It’s like a tourist staple. “You have to get the sachertorte.” But something so beloved and well marketed screams cheesy to me. A sad reflection of something that might have been delicious 200 years ago but has since faded into a mass produced post card of a thing. But hey, you have to try to sachertorte, right? So we went to the place that created it, the Sacher Hotel and waited in line for a seat in their café, a white table cloth joint downtown packed with tourists doing the same thing that we were. Taking selfies with their sachertorte. And while I was at it, I ordered the melange, a local coffee drink. When I tried to order one of these at a more hipster joint in the Neubau, they didn’t make them. The barista said if there was a difference between a melange and a cappuccino, she didn’t know it. But there is a difference, I later discovered. In theory at least, instead of steamed milk foam, you spoon on whipped cream, which makes a lovely coffee drink. Here at Sacher, I got a cappuccino with a squirt of whipped cream turd on top. I kind of expected a bit more. The sachertorte was pretty good. Dense dark chocolate cake, a bit on the dryer side, with dark chocolate icing and a thin layer of apricot jam in between the two layers that gives it a tart note. It’s served with unsweetened whipped cream which makes the cake more moist if you ration it out. Not bad but it didn’t blow my mind or anything.
Schönbrunn Palace Zoo
After a long morning of touring the embarrassing decadence of a long gone dynasty we needed a snack and popped in to the zoo (yeah this house had its own private zoo) to get a snack. The snack stand only had a few things, some spinning hotdogs, big donuts, and these things. It’s like pastry dough filled with apple pie filling, rolled into tubes and tied like a pretzel, then slitted all over. It’s bigger than a large pizza.
TIAN Bistro am Spittelberg
While looking through the Michelin restaurants in Vienna, I found several top notch places but each weighing in around 300 euros a plate. But the Michelin starred TIAN bistro caught my attention, only a few blocks away in the Spittelberg passage. Keeping with the Neubau spirit, TIAN is a vegetarian-only restaurant with a fantastic tasting menu at an astonishing 34 euros each. 4 starters, followed by 4 additional courses, and two desserts split between 2 people. The single bottle of house wine was a perfect accompaniment. We had a fabulous meal and walked away full and satisfied.
The Danube Canal
Vienna is split by the Danube river but the center of town is about three miles southwest and is bordered by a smaller canal connected to the river, The Danube Canal. On both sides of the canal running the full length of downtown are pedestrian areas running about a story below closer to the water level with bike and walking paths, bars and small restaurants, boats with bars and restaurants, little gardens and pea patches, and an endless run of murals and graffiti along both walls and on the bridges that cross over top. You’ll find lots of locals hanging our here and chilling. I really loved this area.
Before Sunrise shooting locations
Admittedly, my first glimpse of Vienna came from the romantic movie by Richard Linklater, Before Sunrise (1995) starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy whose characters meet on a train and spend the night walking around Vienna before parting in the morning never to see each other again. It certainly played to my romantic notions of the world out there to be seen, so I couldn’t help but stop by a few places from the movie.
Honestly, for most of the city, the graffiti isn’t that great. Mostly hastily applied tags. Sometimes some sponsored murals. But every now and then you could find some poorly patrolled area and see some real art.