Austria is bordered by seven countries – Italy , Switzerland, Germany, Czechia and Slovakia, Hungary and Slovenia. Vienna has been its capital city since the days of the erstwhile Austrian empire. Vienna is close to Bratislava, Budapest , Prague, Munich and even Venice- all of which are just a few hours away by road or train making it a convenient hub for your travels through Europe. Vienna airport(Schwechat) offers long haul connectivity to Asia, Africa and the Americas besides of course Europe. The main railway station is Wien Hauptbahnhof with efficient connections to the Eurail.
Vienna has been inhabited since early Roman times but most of modern day Vienna dates to the Hapsburg era – a powerful dynasty which played a major role in European history till the end of World War I. Their three main palaces – the Schonbrunn , Hofburg and the Belvedere are major tourist attractions today . The Hofburg palace houses the Sisi museum and the Imperial chambers. The most well known and longest reigning emperor of Austria was Franz Joseph (1830-1916) and his wife Elizabeth known as Sisi dominated much of modern day.
The heart of Vienna is known as the Innere Stadt which is bordered by the Donau Kanal to the north and the Ringstrasse. Innere Stadt is well served by public transport but it is easier to walk than negotiate the numerous one way streets as the distances are small. One way streets are marked prominently with the sign and often mistaken by tourists for a street name.
The Ringstrasse is a 5 km long ring road which was once the castle boundary wall till its demolition in 1857 during the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph. Today it is a grand boulevard encircling the Innere Stadt. Astride the Ringstrasse are beautiful buildings, square, parks and statues all of which are in an exceptionally well maintained state and are Vienna’s major tourist attractions. If you appreciate the nuances of the the Gothic, Roman and Baroque styles of architecture this is the place for you.
The Ringstrasse is divided into several short subsections . Starting from Schwedenplatz the route takes one through the Stubenring and then onto the Parkring alongside the Stadtpark. Pass the Kursalon Wien theater onto the Schubertring and thence on the Kartnerring to the junction of the Kartnerstrasse – This road connects Stephenplatz to Karlsplatz and is a broad street with coffee shops, restaurants and large stores warranting a pleasurable stroll of window shopping . Onward from Kartnerring to the Opernring past the Vienna State Opera and yet another beautiful garden -The Burg Garden. Astride the next stretch is the Heldenplatz and the museum quarter(MQ) of Vienna. Heldenplatz or Heroes square is a large square in front of the Hofburg palace alongside the Volksgarden -yet one more sample of Vienna’s beautiful gardens. The ring continues along the Dr Karl Renner Ring (named after the father of the nation ) on which stands the Parliament House and the Rathaus ( town hall), both of which are fine examples of the Viennese architecture. Vienna University, one of the oldest in Europe is further down the ring on the Universitatsring stretch.The ring takes a sharp turn to the right and finally along the Donau canal (Franz Joseph Kai) back to Schwedenplatz . One could take a conducted ring tour starting at Schwedenplatz every half hour or hop on to a tram at a fraction of the cost . (routes no 2 and 1 ) . Or walk – If not the whole ring at least from StatdtPark to the university. Do keep a map and a tourist guide handy .
Public transport is very efficient and the google maps provide fairly accurate real time detail of the train , bus and tram schedules. A three day pass costs 17.10 Euro and is acceptable across bus, train and tram routes. Don’t forget to validate your ticket with a date-time stamp at the machine at the entrance. Underground Routes are referred to by their colour or numbers -for example – Red route or U1 . Look for the sign of a big ‘U’ as you walk along.
Vienna is dotted with coffee houses and street cafes which offer a variety of Austrian and continental cuisine. Must sample are the schnitzel , goulash , the apple strudel and the sachertort . – All typically Austrian. These restaurants are not very expensive .While most of them do accept credit cards surprisingly some do not. Best to check before you order ! And if you fancy something more try the three or five course dinners at the larger restaurants . Again here also in Vienna we missed the Michelin restaurants as these were booked well in advance. We sampled the Goulasch museum, a few yards away from our hotel and the coffee shops around Stephenplatz. Do check out coffee shops around Stephenplatz and Karlsplatz. My favourite was the Perella at the Karl Lueger square. Schwedenplatz offers a much large variety of cuisine and is just a train stop off central Stephenplatz . Sample the gelato and the sausages outside Schwedenplatz station! And also the Asian stalls.
Music in Vienna has prospered due to the patronage of Austrian royalty over the years. Mozart made his beginning as a child in Vienna and spent most of his productive years in Vienna. Haydn, Strauss, Schubert, Beethoven are some of the great composers who lived here and practiced their calling in their times. Today music concerts form part of the Viennese culture and at least one performance must be on your list. We went to a theater located at one end of the beautiful Stadtpark, just a few steps from out hotel. Majestic statues of composers don the footpath on the way to this theater – Kursalon Wein – The theater dates back to the 1860s and Johan Strauss earned the title of Waltz King here. The Salon Orchester Alt Wien performs through the year and tickets are expensive. The lowest at 45 Euro got us only the last row and tickets are available for as high as 99 Euro with rates much higher on special concert days. Acoustics were good and the orchestra kept us enthralled with their rendering of Strauss and Mozart. Sadly Photography was not permitted during the performance. Spot tickets are often not available. Best to book in advance or simply ask your concierge. They are pretty resourceful and willing to help. There are other venues as well where one can spend a pleasant evening such as the Wien Opera House on Kartnerstrasse or better still a concert with a glass of champagne and dinner in the theater restaurant.
The River Danube(Donau) runs past Vienna and is a must on every tourist Itinerary . A daily cruise /fast boat service runs to Bratislava and back from the pier on the Donau Kanal at Schwedenplatz.Two hours each way. Vienna is also a port of call on the popular Danube river cruises.
The Donau Insel is a long and narrow island in the middle of the Danube river and has been developed into a tourist attraction with water sports, boating, games, funfair, cycling , restaurants and the like. Go in the evenings for a piece of the action.
For those of you interested in shopping or even window shopping , walk along the area bounded by the three famous Roman Catholic churches – St Stephens , St Michael’s and St Peter’s. All the world’s top luxury brands have their stores in this area on streets with
names such as the Der Graben , Touchlauben and the Kartnerstrasse. Don’t miss the monument to the plague on Der Graben. Stop by at the Steffi church and get a good feel of the events of Austrian royalty and take a carriage driven by handsome horses back to the hotel .
And so for me the bucket list includes the three Hapsburg palaces and the Sisi museum -Add a museum or two (choose wisely – there are so many and eat up a lot of time and energy ), a Danube river outing and a day trip to Bratislava. Some evening window shopping around the Stephensplatz, a musical concert and three course dinner at a theater. Round off each day with Austrian cuisine at one of the many street cafes . Definitely take a tram ride on the Ringstrasse – Or better still walk if you can. Snack on the move with coffee and apple strudel and take in as many of the beautiful buildings as you can and finally a horse carriage ride back to the hotel. And if you still have time go see another museum or explore the towns of Salzburg and Innsbruck !