Year after year, Vienna tops the rankings as the world’s city with the highest standard of living. After walking down the Schönbrunn gardens, taking a stroll down Vienna’s world famous Christmas markets, watching world-class opera at the Staatsoper, and indulging in the traditional delicacies of Wienerschnitzel and Kakao, it’s difficult to disagree with these ratings. Vienna is truly the gem of the former Hapsburg empire, with monarchs who emphasized an elegant and ostentatious yet refined aesthetic that visitors to Vienna today can enjoy.
Vienna intrigued me immediately upon arrival. Our hostel was located in almost a residential area in the middle of the city — which made getting into/out of the city doable. The hostel was more a converted apartment. And if I had to characterize it, some adjectives that come to mind are swanky, elegant, and cozy. Granted, student hostels don’t usually conjure images like these, but I’m employing them quite accurately. Our hostel room (which was more like a converted apartment) came equipped with tacky lights, a 1980’s musical instrument set (complete with a recorder and a rainstick), and complimentary wine. By far the best hostel experience I’ve had.
Vienna (or Wien as it’s called in German) felt much more metropolitan than I had anticipated. It reminded me much of Copenhagen in the sense that the city’s residences developed around the attractions, all located in one central area dubbed “center city.” Exploring Vienna was quite easy. Hoping on a metro for about 1 euro could get you anywhere in the city. Vienna’s metro system runs on 5-minute intervals, and trains operate all night on Fridays and Saturdays. I’d have to say it was the most efficient public transportation I’ve encountered in Europe. I would brag and say Copenhagen’s public transportation is the best, but the diversity in public transportation (sometimes really confusing), the cost, and the recent snow in Copenhagen (shutting down train operations temporarily) have urged me to question its efficiency. Vienna, somehow, has it figured all out.
As part of the former Hapsburg empire, Vienna is home to two royal castles: Schönbrunn and Hofburg. Walking down the gardens at Schönbrunn reminded me much of Versailles, both over-the-top, elegant palaces. The palace’s gardens intersect the palace itself and a hill. I strongly recommend walking to the top of it, because one can see the entire city of Vienna and the rolling hills of the Austrian countryside on sunny days. Hofburg, in contrast, is located right in the middle of the city and has now been converted into a museum complex — home to one of Vienna’s most famous ancient art museums, the Albertina. Though we opted instead to check out MUMOK (Vienna’s modern art museum) in Museum Quartier, walking through Heldenplatz at Hofburg let us indulge in some beautiful scenery. As an additional incentive to walk through Hofburg, Sacher Wien is located only a few blocks away from the palace. It’s home to a world famous chocolate cake, with a recipe dating back almost 200 years. For 6 euros a slice, it’s still worth it.
Speaking of food, there was no lack of it in Vienna (that seems to be the common theme in my travel throughout Europe). Wienerschnitzel (literally “Viennese schnitzel”) finds its roots in this magnificent city, which also manages to specialize in scrumptious desserts, brätwurst, and savory street food. Viennese coffee is definitely worth a taste. Unbeknownst to us, the weekend we travelled to Vienna was opening weekend for many of the Vienna’s renowned Christmas markets. Much like a holiday-themed flea market, these beautiful markets sell a range of gifts and souvenirs for the holidays. Surprisingly, many of the vendors sold items at reasonable prices, making the temptation to do some Christmas shopping that much greater. Free food and wine samples were equally abundant. The atmosphere was very much in tune with the stereotypes I had of the holiday season in Europe: ornate and over-the-top, but most importantly cheerful.
No visit to Vienna is complete without a visit to the Staatsoper (the Vienna State Opera). On performance nights, large crowds gather outside the opera’s doors, eagerly awaiting to purchase standing room tickets for the opera. At only 3 euros a ticket, standing in line for standing room tickets to the opera (even for those that aren’t performance art connoisseurs) is absolutely worth it. Getting to watch great opera at a world famous opera house in the performance art mecca of Europe was simply surreal.
Vienna was one of the few cities I’ve been to were you could live like a royal without having to spend like one. It’s a city that prides itself on not only displaying its culture with all those who visit, but also sharing it affordably. Where else can you see world-class opera for only a few dollars? Reflecting on this travel week, I travelled exclusively in central Europe, and yet, I visited four cities that couldn’t have been more different from each other. All this over-saturation of culture and history made my return to Copenhagen that much more needed. More posts to come soon!!