What more can I say about Vienna? I’ve really only covered it such as it was intertwined with Christmas. That’s fair. The holiday was the entire reason Vienna found itself so high up on my travel list.
I’d intended to wallow a little in self pity over the holidays. Sit around, watch Netflix, maybe start a questionable dating profile. You know, the usual jazz one gets up to when they’re bored and looking for pity. Instead I ended up eating schnitzel in a foreign city and deftly navigating the local transit system.
Annnd that’s a lie…
I gave my schnitzel to a creepy homeless fellow who, despite his assurances, I suspect didn’t understand a lick of english. As for public transit, I opted out from the get-go and went with an Uber. I often want to be Indiana Jones … but the thought of muddling through German whilst my host sat staring daggers between my texts and the time … left me feeling decidedly un-Jonesian.
Cue Uber. My driver’s name was Heinrich. Heinrich’s English was worse than my German. Heinrich had a great sense of humour. Heinrich couldn’t say the word “squirrel” to save his life. I quite liked the guy. After several minutes of alternating between broken dialogue and laughter, I keyed up my destination on a near dead phone and simply handed it to Heinrich. When your driver takes a look at your destination, asks, “you sure?” Then laughs and hums, “in the ghhheeeetttoooo…”, your sense of adventure does find itself somewhat restored.
Welcome to the Ghetto
Honestly, ask a native German-speaker to say “squirrel” sometime. It’s magical.
Two thoughts came to me in that moment. The first would be, ‘oh shit…’ The second was a somewhat more eloquent, ‘surely you jest?!’
Sure enough, searching for Leopoldstadt brought up one other popular keyword … “Ghetto”. That said, it’s a ghetto more in the traditional sense; a region of a city dominated by a minority group. It wasn’t pretty. There were plenty of stark facades only enlivened by graffiti and vandalism. Some of the local flavour was also a little raucous and colourful. However, I can see how a person could find a certain amount of charm and attraction to living there. There were hints of a thriving arts community, as well as a burgeoning Jewish cultural centre. Had I been a teenage girl travelling alone, perhaps Leopoldstadt wouldn’t have been my top choice for lodgings. As a 30-something, tall-ish, white dude, I honestly had no issues.
Still, Heinrich didn’t seem to think too much of the neighbourhood, which does make for a more interesting story.
Sadly, I didn’t realise that there was a fantastic example of a baroque styled amusement park, as well as two surviving WWII flak towers, located tantalisingly nearby until I was firmly back in the UK. I even missed out on many of the ‘must-see’ sights in the capital, including Sigmund Freud’s museum, Kafka’s residence, local tributes to Mozart, as well as anything that cost more than a tenner or so to take part in.
Regardless, there were more than enough experiences to be had.
The Street Meat and Beer Kiosk Experience
Similar to London, Vienna shutters its doors early. I suppose this is meant to curb drunken shenanigans. I’m not sure it’s really working. If you’re a fan of clubs, then you’ll certainly find some options to whet your appetite. I’m more of a pub and lounge person, myself … a gig, if one is available … so my options were a little slim.
I did discover that my bnb was much further from the heart of the city than I’d planned. 30 minutes walking in the dark through an unfamiliar and seemingly dodgy neighbourhood isn’t exactly what I’d had in mind. I did poke my head into a few pubs on the way, but beat a hasty retreat when I discovered one to be a biker bar, another to be full of ancient Jewish men, and a final one I’m pretty sure was a leather bar. I don’t know for sure, but I have my suspicions. I did get the impression that I’d have been welcome at the last one…
After 30 minutes I found myself on the edges of the old city. which is ringed by a tram system. At key points along the way you’ll find strips of kiosks selling everything from schnitzel and wursts to sushi. When in Austria, you can’t get away without trying some local Austrian sausage. I probably could have found plenty for free at the aforementioned bar … but this variety was more in tune with what I was looking for.
At this point in the story, Adam embarrasses himself with a murky attempt at German, gets mistaken for Irish, decides to go with it, as it appears that it will get him his wurst quicker. It does, along with a free can of local ale. Adam decides, in this moment, that he will forever be Irish when he travels alone. He’s certain, were he to try his accent around an actual Irish person, he’d be called out on it pretty quickly.
Laden with food and drink, I headed to a nearby standing table, where we can cue up the creepy homeless fellow. For a brief moment, though, I did quite enjoy authentic Austrian bratwurst chased with street ale. Heck, it was all just to say I’d done it, and to gain a check-in on Untapped in a place where none of my friends were likely to mirror anytime soon. In the process I did manage to surprise another human with generousity, so there was that, too.
The Old City
You might try to avoid it – and jeez, why would you visit Vienna and actively avoid its very heart and soul? – but there’s no way to skip the old city once you’re there. Sitting between my flat and J&C’s hotel, the old city found its way under my feet every single day. While stumbling over its cobbles in the dark wasn’t my favourite part of the trip, I wouldn’t have been able to justify skipping those winding streets first thing in the morning. Rather than take transit, I found myself getting up early enough each day to allow me to walk everywhere I wanted to be. It was refreshing. Winding idly through the streets. The cool morning air. Few tourists in sight … I took some of my favourite photos at these times of day. Eventually I would hear from J&C and we would find a meeting place, but until then I had no agenda and no goal in mind.
I also got to play my favourite game: Local/Not-a-Local*. *Name pending focus group approval.
This is a game that works best with few other people around. You need one-on-one time with either a single tourist, or a small group. Families work well, as well. Avoid crowds, though. They can throw your game.
It’s really quite simple. For starters, try to blend in with the locals. You don’t have to be mistaken for a local, but you’re trying to avoid looking like a tourist. Aim for traveler; someone who is well-travelled and could be a local but, well, it’s a grey area.
This is a game that can be played off-the-cuff. It’s more a crime of opportunity. You see, at some point a tourist will approach you and attempt to ask for directions, advice, or assistance. It’s up to you how to play this next part. I try to appear friendly, while being slightly confused. If there’s a moment to pause for a beat in the conversation … pause for one moment longer than is completely comfortable. Don’t push it. You’re aiming for that sweet spot between comedy and the creep factor. Don’t dip into the creep factor (ie: avoid faking eye twitches or staring intently).
If you’re lucky, the tourist will then reach for a phrase book and make a rough attempt at muddling through the local language. If you’re extremely lucky, they’ll have done this from the get-go.
I love doing this with North American tourists as they’re generally blatantly obvious as soon as their accents roll out. I can gauge their reactions fairly accurately, as well. After pausing for that beat, perhaps waiting for them to start a 2nd attempt with their phrasebook, I simply jump in… “Ah, no worries, I don’t speak a lick of German, either. I know exactly where you’re going and can take you there, if you like?”
Ok, it’s a really vanilla game and I sound like a complete dork for enjoying it. However, when I travel alone I find it really difficult to make friends. This little act has never led to a bad experience. It’s a great and inoffensive ice-breaker that’s allowed me to meet some genuinely awesome people. Occasionally even leading to drinks and temporary travel partners.
What was I talking about? Oh yeah, the Old City!
Even after spending a week in Vienna, I still found myself getting lost in the old city. The streets wind and fold upon themselves in some truly shocking ways. One turn that should lead back towards a courtyard you’d only just passed, will instead twist on itself and you’ll find an entirely new and undiscovered public square. It’s a lot of fun to simply wander aimlessly when you don’t have a destination or timeframe in mind. The cobbled streets and shifting corridors can be downright aggravating, though, when there’s somewhere specific that you want to be.
Regardless, you’ll find more than enough to distract you along the way. Some of the most beautiful churches, statues, and monuments in the city can be found within this cluster of winding streets. Chief among them being the church of St Stephan. There’s almost more to see than a person can manage in a week, but certainly do not miss St. Stephan’s. It’s a beautiful example of medieval architecture in a city dominated by gleaming imperialism.
Christmas Eve Monastery Cellar Experience
As it turns out, Xmas Eve is generally a more celebrated day in Europe than Xmas day itself. Following an afternoon spent exploring the city, J, C and I realised that we hadn’t made any plans for Xmas Eve. We were faced with the very real possibility of simply crawling into a nearby greasy spoon for our holiday festivities.
By shear chance, we happened on a local Baroque monastery that had converted its cellar into a fine dining experience. Plied with multiple courses, wines, and a hosted dinner, it sounded like a fantastic option. Unbeknownst to us at the time, the night would also end with fancy hats and an Oompa-band-led tour of the monastery’s own Franz Josef museum, but more on that in a moment.
The dinner was an absolute treat. Should you find yourself in Vienna, look for Piaristenkirche Weinkeller and book yourself a table. You won’t regret it.
We were surprised with a live band, which played through the entire meal. The meal, while not mind-blowing, was quite delicious and was only dwarfed by the experience of dining in a vaulted brickwork cellar adorned with paraphernalia from Austria’s regal history. Our host would make an appearance now and again to speak about the band, the holiday season, and introduce the next course.
Had everything ended there, it would have been a fantastic and memorable evening. However, upon finishing the meal we were informed that dessert would be served, but only after we’d all donned fancy hats, been plied with complimentary mulled cider, and accompanied him to the actual wine cellar, located below the now restaurant.
In retrospect, this sounds like the beginning of a B-level horror movie …
But we went, nonetheless. I was given an admiral’s hat, as apparently I looked quite regal. J managed to score a bowler, to go with his ‘dapper gentlemanliness’. While C was adorned with a fancy lady’s sun hat. And that was only the beginning…
… Accompanied by a background of Oompa music, we wound our way through a labyrinth of rooms and narrow passages adorned with all manner of regal finery and historical bits and bobs. I can’t even begin to describe the magical absurdity of it all. It’s simply something one has to experience with a head slightly full of mulled wine and spirits.
The dinner ended back in the restaurant with a tasty amuse bouche of pastries, a final farewell to the band, and a heartfelt thank you from our host.
Walking out into the night air, we were greeted by a city alive with the spirit of the season. A brass band played to local revellers in the courtyard, who kept warm with loved ones and mulled wine from a nearby kiosk. One of the monks from the monastery even emerged to take in the music and applaud the band.
I’d completely lost track of my surroundings at this point. Not out of inebriation, but simply out of being lost in the moment. I’d forgotten about the prevalence of midnight mass in European nations. At the stroke of 12, the city erupted in a cacophony of church bells. Every church for miles around unleashed a jubilant chorus of gongs and ringing … some haunting from a distance, others overwhelming and reverberating through the stone-laden streets of the city. It was honestly breathtaking.
On the heels of this barrage, locals and tourists alike seemed to materialise out of their hotels, homes, and eateries. In ever-increasing crowds, people drifted towards the open doors of local churches, some in ones and twos, others in boisterous groups and families.
I’m actually getting choked up remembering the moment as I write this account. It was an incredible end to an evening that I hope to never forget.
And with that I bid J&C adieu and set out back across the city to my threadbare blanket and bubble of security in the ghetto.
How do I make pubs an interesting followup to the above? Truth be told, I’m a huge beer snob. If you want to impress me in London, drag me out to a craft beer house and you’re set. Ply me with something with a high abv while there, and I’ll be your friend for life. That said, I’ve never been impressed by Austrian or Bavarian beers. I’ve never had a bad one, mind. I’ve just never had a great one.
As it turns out, Austrian beers are best experienced fresh from the source! I’m guessing they simply don’t travel well. While in Vienna, the 3 of us hit at least half a dozen local brewpubs and, I have to say, I wasn’t disappointed by a single brew that I tried. Well done, Austria, you’ve expanded my drinking options 20-fold! I’m…not sure that’s something I should be excited for…
Palaces in the Mist
Of all the sights in the city, Belvedere Palace is another must-see. As it happened, we found ourselves heading towards it at the onset of dusk, at the tail end of a particularly foggy day. While it made navigation a challenge, the fog brought an ethereal atmosphere to the entire city.
After a few failed attempts, we managed to enter the courtyard of the palace and wound our way through the gardens and steps, hopefully, leading to the palace itself. It was foggy enough that we couldn’t see from one end of the gardens to the other. There was an eerily brilliant light in the distance, which we decided must be the palace and became our navigation point.
Cresting a switchback of steps and statuary, we were eventually presented with the palace itself. Wreathed in fog and spotlights, it was a sight to behold. The entire scene would have seemed entirely at home in a fantasy novel or something ominously Transylvanian. I never made it inside the palace but, to be perfectly honest, the interiors of palaces don’t tend to interest me as much as the exteriors and grounds. They’re nice, and all, but after a handful of rooms I find myself glancing longingly at the exits.
Museums, on the other hand, never fail to hold my attention. The Natural History Museum in Vienna is definitely not to be missed. We ended up visiting it on Xmas Eve, which gifted us with nicely discounted tickets and shockingly short queues.
London, I love you but, I’m sorry, your NHM can’t hold a candle to Vienna’s. Not only are the displays of a higher calibre, everything feels lovingly cared-for and restored. Whereas London’s NHM feels slightly dusty, a little forgotten, and perhaps in need of some fresher displays and a new coat of paint.
That said, if museums are your thing, this is place to go, especially more so if you have any interest in geology! The only portion of the museum that actually wore on my was the geology exhibit … which stretched for perhaps 2 more rooms than my attention span allowed for. Still, the exhibits were exquisite and, should rocks be your thing, I should say you’d likely find a little piece of heaven here. Nestled between the rose quartz and peacock pyrite.
Axis and Allies
We managed to make it to one other museum during our stay. On the last day, as it was nearer the airport, the 3 of us trekked out to the Austrian Military Museum. It’s a fascinating place and definitely worth visiting, again, if you’re a history or museum buff.
It wasn’t until I was more than halfway through the WWII portion of the museum that a thought struck me. Set in front of me was a case with a small selection of trappings from the Allied forces. Up until this point, and from here on out, every case was full of Austrian and Axis paraphernalia. And that’s when my brain started up again and I recalled that Austria was an Axis power during both World Wars. Good job Adam. Your letter from Mensa is in the mail. They’re sending it to urge you to never apply.
The entire exhibit took on an entirely different meaning after that. It was fascinating to see the war from another perspective. The exhibits didn’t offer apologies or bolster either side over the other. They simply presented the facts as they were and aimed at being informative, rather than political. From a Western perspective, it’s easy to see old enemies as entirely that. We forget about the citizenry, rebels, and dissenters caught in the same positions on the other side of the conflict. The museum painted an intriguing picture of life under Nazi rule and the thumb of the Fuhrer.
The Axis propaganda was especially fascinating. Included amongst it all was a ballot from Hitler’s election to assembly. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the forms seems to push voters towards the desired choice. I didn’t see any examples of “nein” votes either, which perhaps says something.
Even more engaging was the exhibit of the car in which Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated. The car itself bears the marks of the attack and … the room is eerily quiet. All conversation seems to die off as patrons enter. It’s quite humbling being in front of such a piece of history. This one seemingly innocuous vehicle was likely one of hundreds and could have easily been forgotten. Instead, it was present at a turning point in history and shows the scars of an event that spurred one of the darkest events in human history.
My Night on the Streets
As a final note, I did spend one surprise night on the streets of Vienna. On my last night in the city, I returned to Julia’s flat late … to find the door firmly locked and my key no longer functioning. A lot of possibilities go through your head at a time like that. Aside from considering whether or not to simply sleep in the hallway, I began to put together an Airbnb horror story.
Perhaps Julia was staging a passive aggressive protest. Had I said or done something to offend her? Had I left the seat up? Perhaps turned the heater on a little too high? I was comforted by the fact that, should the worst case prove true, I’d have lost nothing other than a few dirty shirts and a couple of trinkets from the markets. Had she intended to lock me out and make off with my worldly possessions, well, the joke would be on her. I’m generally broke and one bad decision away from being destitute. Basically I’m the worst person to rob. It’s far more work than anything I own is worth.
As it would turn out, it was simply a fault with the door. Julia would be aghast at the turn of events the next day and was incredibly apologetic. For my part, I was able to find lodging back across the city on the floor of J&C’s hotel. A warm bnb is always welcome, but that’s no substitute for incredible friends.
Stay tuned for adventures in Bratislava…