American-raised, London-based, French-obsessed Fathom contributor Kerry Saretsky needed a place to turn 30 in style. Vienna fit the bill — with grandeur to spare.
VIENNA, Austria – I knew I wanted to turn 30 somewhere I had never been but that was worthy of my new age bracket. So Cancun was out. When a friend at work told me to go to the opera in Austria and wear a ballgown, it was like a light bulb switched on in my head. Perfect. That was a very 30 thing to do.
Vienna is the perfect complement to itself. It is a stately, grand, and serious-looking city, full of right angles and spotless streets, which brings a kind of relaxation in itself for those of us who are rigidly type A. It is overrun with grown-up activities of discipline — the opera, the Spanish Riding School performances, the gorgeous cuisine. It screams EMPIRE, and you can almost see the ghosts in gorgeous gowns swishing past through bygone eras.
But at the same time it has that uniquely Germanic enthusiasm for fun and fresh air. Giant schnitzel lunches; hot and spicy gluwein outside in the frosty cold; enormous, slightly indecent-looking hot dogs gobbled down standing up; the gorgeous Danube just a quick train ride away. Come here if you're thirsty for a little culture and glamour, but don't be confused: This is not the kind of city where you soak up culture standing in a stuffy museum. This is active culture soaking, and it's so much more fun.
IF YOU ONLY DO ONE THING
If you only do one thing in Vienna, go to dinner at the Rote Bar at the Hotel Sacher. It captures all the glamour of old Vienna, but, despite the fanciness of the place, is totally unpretentious. Old Vienna rooms seem to be covered in paintings and photographs and hung with rich curtains. This one is no different, all scarlet (rote means "red") and chandeliers, but the whole glass front of the restaurant looks out onto the opera. Rote Bar is known for its talefspitz, boiled beef. Much like Vienna, it's a contradiction between the fancy and the fun: little spearhead vegetables, unbelievable creamed spinach, dainty fried potatoes, horseradish, and apple sauces — all constructed for what is essentially a boiled slab of beef that falls apart on your fork. It's awesome.
While you eat, the piano tinkles in the background with a playlist to rival Rick's Café Americain: "La Vie en Rose," "Our Love is Here to Stay," and, at the moment when my sacher torte arrived with a burning candle stuck into it, "Happy Birthday." Despite the predominance of pearls and panache, the whole room burst into applause as my fork pierced the famous little cake. And, ah, the true Viennese sacher torte: lightly dense chocolate sponge, a layer of apricot jam, a layer of chocolate ganache. My fiancé clawed his way into sharing with me and declared all other cakes to be a waste of time.
WHAT TO DO
The Vienna State Opera
I fell asleep when I went to the Metropolitan Opera in New York (what? I did!), but you must, must, must go to the opera in Vienna. It's not as fancy as I thought it would be, and I didn't wear a ballgown. But it is such an event. The huge chandelier. The perfect half-round tiers of seats, all peeking across at each other. And a phenomenal show. We saw La Traviata. I cried, and my fiancé Chris was visibly, and most unexpectedly, moved. The interior is all wide staircases, marble, and grandeur. This is where Vienna's glamorous ghosts whisper loudest, yet the production was modern and minimalist. Very of the moment, not at all stuck in the past. I recommend getting a front row seat in one of the balconies. You can see everything onstage, and everyone not on stage.
The Spanish Riding School
Go to their morning exercises. Get get a seat on the lower level or, best of all, in the front row of the old royal box. From the center of the most stately riding rink in the world, an emcee announces all the stunts the horses and riders will do — and have been doing for the last 440 years. The horses, all gray or white stallions, have been trained to do some of the more mundane dressage moves, but they also leap into the air, sit down on their hind legs, and pirouette. The emcee walks you through how they are trained over almost their entire life to execute such performances. Really cool.
A Horse-Drawn Tour
Throughout the city, you'll see little tangles of horses and carriages waiting to take customers for a tour. Yes, it's expensive. Yes, it's touristy. Yes, you must do it anyway. The guide will take you clopping through the streets of central Vienna to see all the gorgeous, stately, empiric architecture. Notice how so many buildings have figures holding up their second stories. Notice how there is not a single piece of trash or even a leaf littering the streets. Notice the gorgeous chevron tiling on the cathedral roof. Get up early and do this first thing when the streets are still free of traffic and pedestrians and you have all of Vienna to yourself.
The Christmas Market
Vienna is reputed to have the best Christmas market anywhere, and it makes for a good excuse to come in the winter. It runs from mid November through Christmas in Rathausplatz. We went on a cold weekend in November when the sky was stubbornly gray and the air was freezing. No matter, for in the heart of Vienna, everything was aglow. The huge Christmas market is constructed of little wooden huts, hocking ornaments and sweets under bright Christmas lights to the tune of live carols. Chris and I huddled around our mugs of gluwein, the genius combination of red wine, sugar, and spices served hot everywhere, feeling like we'd touched down at the North Pole. The tchotchkes tend towards the tacky, but the experience decidedly isn't.
Yes, another touristy recommendation. But if it was good enough for Habsburgs through the centuries, it's good enough for you. The palace interiors include the apartments of Franz Joseph and the Maria Theresa and more Baroque treasures than you could take in on five trips; the surrounding parks and gardens are breathtaking, drawing happy crowds in warmer climes.
Less than an hour's train ride from Vienna is Düurnstein, a cute little town on the Danube. Perched above town is a decrepit old castle where King Richard the Lionheart was once imprisoned. You can hike up to it for phenomenal views of the river and the vines that produce Danube Valley wines. And you can get lost in apricot. Everything here is apricot: apricot schnapps, apricot candy, apricot kernels, and, best of all, apricot punsch, a hot drink made from apricot nectar, apricot schnapps, and hot water that I like even better than gluwein. You can do the town in an hour, but the real treat is to take your punsch and someone you love down to the river and just sit. It is so beautiful that even though I was there on a cold, gray Sunday when almost nothing was open, I was overwhelmed and swore to come back in the summer when the apricot trees are in bloom.
WHERE TO STAY
Radisson Blu Style
It doesn't look like much from the outside, but I couldn't recommend it more. There are very old, stately, and glamorous hotels in Vienna. This one is more modern, more reasonably priced, and in the center of everything. Five-minute walk to the opera, three minutes to the shopping district and the Spanish Riding School, ten minutes to the Christmas market. The room was cozy and spacious; the bathroom lovely and all marble. They gave us a mini bottle of Champagne just for checking in. The chocolates on the pillows every night were the famous marzipan-filled Mozart chocolate that I love. The service was phenomenal: They gleaned from my passport that it was my birthday and sent up a surprise plate of (yay! even more!) chocolates.
WHERE TO EAT
Every visitor has to check out Vienna coffee house culture, and this is the crème de la crème: a meeting place for Freud, Trotsky, and even Hitler. The company today is not nearly so off-putting, and you'll fall hard for the vaulted ceilings and sweet pastry.
Zum Schwarzen Kameel
Reserve a table in the little restaurant where Beethoven apparently allegedly ate. It's cozy and old world, perfect for after the opera, with a slightly formal, but very intimate and friendly feel. The maitre d' has an elaborate cheek beard and looks like he's as much of an institution with the locals as is the restaurant. The Vienna ham appetizer, served covered in a mound of horseradish, is ridiculously good. The veal goulash served with spätzle is also phenomenal. Walk out of the dining room, and you are in a big delicatessen-turned-bar. Order a Campari drink with the rest of them.
The Hot Dog Stand across from the Opera
If this hot dog stand has a name, I couldn't tell you what it is. But diagonally across from the opera is a can't-miss-it institution where you can buy wursts of any variety fresh off the grill. I had a giant hot dog here every day. They impale a big French roll on a hot stick, squirt mustard inside, and stuff the charred hot dog straight in. Genius. It's hot and snappy on the outside, juicy and meaty on the inside. I couldn't get enough.
There are two locations of this iconic Viennese schnitzel restaurant. You may have to wait in line, but it's quick and worth it. The Wiener schnitzel is bigger than your face (see photo at right) and perfect: crisp, tender, drowned in lemon. The other thing they are most famous for is potato salad drizzled with dark pumpkin seed oil. It gives the schnitzel a run for the money.
If you want to buy beautiful cakes like chocolate violet torte, chocolates, or candies, you don't want to miss this place.
The Rote Bar
Of course. See full description above.
You can walk almost anywhere you want to go. If not, taxis and trains will suffice.
You must do as the Viennese do and either go to a coffee house in the afternoon or stand outside sipping hot gluwein.
WHEN TO GO
Vienna in a year-round treat. In the warm sunny months it's even more beautiful, but there was something decidedly charming about being there in the cold weather.