I was very fortunate to have had some help celebrating my birthday this year thanks to Dan planning a ski trip to the Austrian Alps that included surprise guests – my parents! In order to facilitate the trip planning, I was informed of the surprise a couple months earlier, but that didn’t take away from the excitement of commemorating the New Year and my 30th birthday doing one of my favorite activities with some of my favorite people.
We had a couple days in Brussels to shift our mindsets from the sun of Spain to the snowy mountains of Austria before Dan and I flew to Vienna (Wien in German) to meet my parents for some city touring prior to our ski trip. The capital of Austria, being at the crossroads of Eastern and Western Europe, has a distinct cultural heritage, and is home to Imperial history, the performing arts, and some great coffee. It was a whirlwind 36 hour visit to what is consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable cities, but we still had enough time to be charmed by the culture and commit a tourist faux pas or two along the way.
We showed up at the door of my parents’ hotel room in central Vienna with Dan hauling our one roller bag crammed with ski clothing and me trying to avoid hitting anything or anyone with the clunky ski helmet affixed to the handle of my duffle. We had enough time to drop off our belongings and sample a few Christmas cookies that had survived the trip across the Atlantic before heading out for the 10 AM free walking tour with Good Vienna Tour. Arriving at the meeting spot just across from the Vienna State Opera House a couple minutes early, I was surprised to discover that we were far from the only visitors seeking a free tour. I must have been still immersed in the illusion of the off season that we encountered in Spain, but I was informed that in fact the Christmas and New Year holidays attract quite a few people to Vienna. Fortunately, the guides split the crowd into “smaller” groups and, even though we didn’t have a reservation (didn’t know that was necessary for a free tour), they accommodated our party of four and had us settle in with a group of 25 other people.
This being the largest group tour that we’ve partaken in, I was skeptical about how much we would get out of the experience, but our guide Katerina did a great job herding us around together and inviting participation to keep us engaged. Our walk took us through the Burggarten past statues of Austria’s well-known monarch, Franz Joseph I, and composer, Mozart. A block up, we came to Heldenplatz, or Heroes Square, and found ourselves looking at the famed imperial Hofburg Palace. With our group gathered around, she paused in this large, public square to explain its significance. Most notable is that the front balcony of the Hofburg Palace was the site of Hitler’s announcement of the Austrian Anschluss (annexation) to Germany in March of 1938.
Our tour continued through the outdoor corridors of the Hofburg Palace where she provided additional context on the expansion and then subsequent dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the country’s connection with the Habsburg dynasty and famous faces of the monarchy, like the intriguing Empress Elisabeth of Austria, known as Sisi, who was the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I.
After a short break, our guide switched gears to focus on Austrian culture. One of the world’s most recognized classical music composers, Mozart, rose to prominence in the city of Vienna so it was only fitting that we stopped in the courtyard next to the entrance to one of Mozart’s places of residence at the House of the Order of the Teutonic Knights. If you’re in search of said classical music in a relaxing setting, a visit to one of Vienna’s coffeehouses is also a must. Vienna is known for their coffeehouse culture where patrons can linger uninterrupted for hours without being scorned for occupying a table but not adding to their bill.
Asking for a to-go cup of coffee was tempting but I knew that would be frowned upon so we moved on with the group while we were led to St. Stephen’s Cathedral. St. Stephen’s sits in the center of Vienna, so it’s hard to miss, but even more so on New Year’s Eve when its Pummerin bell rings at midnight to welcome the New Year, followed by the communal dancing of the Viennese waltz. The New Year’s celebration culminations in the Vienna New Year’s Concert of classical music performed by the Vienna Philharmonic at 11:15 AM on New Year’s Day. If you aren’t in town, you can listen to the concert broadcast around the world.
Our final stops on the tour were in the Jewish quarter of the city which represents Vienna’s close connection with Jewish history prior to the German annexation. In fact, Vienna had one of the most prominent Jewish communities in Europe – Sigmund Freud called the city home for most of his life until he immigrated to London from Vienna in 1938. We completed our tour near to two important religious monuments in the oldest section of the city. The Stadttemple Synagogue serves as a memorial to the 65,000 assassinated Austrian Jews. The Church of St. Rupert of Salzburg, the oldest church in the city, is named for the patron saint of salt merchants of Vienna who would travel along the Danube River and pray upon arrival at the church.
We thanked our guide for the enlightening tour with a tip (that’s how free tours operate) and sought out a lunch spot nearby. We must not have been the only ones who did a Google search of the area to find a highly-rated restaurant because several other folks from our tour walked into Schachtelwirt just behind us. The casual eatery certainly lived up to its high ratings as the roasted pork and noodles were phenomenal.
Over lunch we made a game plan for the rest of the afternoon and next morning so that we could see as much as possible before boarding an afternoon train out of Vienna. We knew we didn’t want to miss the Schönbrunn Palace just outside the city, but now knowing just how many people were in town for the holidays, figured it would be difficult to get into the Palace without already having purchased tickets. Fortunately, my parents, who had arrived in Vienna the day before us and already done some sight-seeing, had just figured out that they were already in possession of the “golden” Sisi Ticket that seemed to offer our best chance of visiting the palace. During our tour, a fellow Good Vienna Tour guide had shared a helpful nugget of information about their Sisi Ticket, confirming that this combo ticket included entry into the Schönbrunn Palace at any time – no queueing required! That’s how Dan and I found ourselves waiting in a long line outside the Vienna Hofburg Sisi Museum and Imperial Silver Collection in order to buy the same ticket as them. We received another nugget of knowledge when an attendant came by and told us we could save time and purchase the tickets online. We stepped out of the line hesitantly, confused as to why nobody else who had overheard was doing the same, but were rewarded with the combo tickets and a much quicker entry in the museums. So while we toured the Sisi Museum and Imperial Silver Collection, my parents toured the Imperial Apartments.
The visit begins with the Imperial Silver Collection which offers a look into the dining culture of the former imperial court. I can sum up the collection in a few words – over the top dinnerware, fancy cutlery, and a few folded napkins for good measure. The first and second rooms filled with decorative bowls and plates were shocking, but by the time we got a couple rooms in, we were able to cover a lot of porcelain in a short period of time. That being said, I did pick out a few favorite pieces (see below) and was in disbelief upon hearing the story behind the ornate Imperial Napkin Fold used at Austrian state events still to this day. Only two people in the world know how fold the napkin this way (see below). From silverware we moved on to Sisi, learning about the life of the Empress through her personal objects, famous portraits, and stories from her birth, coronation, and assassination.
Having been educated on Austrian elite society, we met my parents back at their hotel for a quick Viennese coffee before we all made the trek to check into the apartment where Dan and I were staying across town. We were staying in a separate place because of the two night minimum stay required by their hotel, or maybe that’s just what they told us so they could have more chocolate croissants to themselves at breakfast.
We walked back to the heart of the city and immediately joined the line of people queueing for standing room tickets to the Hansel and Gretel Opera performance that evening. An hour and a half before show time, we were found ourselves standing behind about 250 people. I know this because I counted, not precisely, but close enough to confirm that we were within the maximum 500 people who would be allotted tickets. By the time I made it back to our group with the good news, they had scouted out tickets from a theater rep who was selling the last of the seats to those waiting in line, appearing to increase his sales as he reached the end of the line. He had a map to show us where the seats were and they seemed reasonably priced, so we purchased four seats and had a few minutes to spare before they opened the Opera House doors and we could enter.
We intentionally entered early so that we could marvel at the ornate architecture and enjoy a drink before the performance. We wondered where to begin our tour so I headed towards two women in capes who worked there, but as I approached I could see them start to whisper and point at me. I reached them and said Hello but before I could ask my question, one of them responded with “You need to change.” What? She gestured towards my jeans and said “Can you please go home and change and then come back again? You have an hour before the show.” My initial reaction was that I had been correct in suspecting the preference for more “formal” attire, but after the initial shock of the encounter, what stuck with me was how rudely they had handled the situation especially since it seems that said dress code is subjectively applied by teenage employees.
Fortunately, we had a reasonable solution with my parents’ hotel being a five minute walk from the Opera House. On the way over, I tripped on the foot of a guy trailing right behind me in the cross-walk and I received my second scolding within 10 minutes. I was not winning any points with the Viennese. Hoping to please somebody, I did a quick wardrobe change into my mom’s black spandex leggings and headed back to the “fancy” theater dressed in leisurewear to see if I would now be accepted.
We returned and I passed inspection this time. I wanted to communicate to these two women how they could have handled the interaction more politely but decided against it in the moment in case they changed their mind about my new pants. The four of us shared a bottle of Viennese white wine while I refreshed our memories on the story of Hansel and Gretel so we would all know what was going on during the show (something Dan and I learned is a good pre-show practice after watching the Russian ballet).
As show time approached, Dan and I asked for assistance getting to our seats and were excited to see we were in a box. That excitement evaporated when we walked in and realized our second row seats would have completely obstructed views. There was still a third seat behind us even! We chatted with the American couple in front of us and waved to my parents across the theater wondering how they had scored front row seats in their respective boxes. The show started and it was affirmed that we would have no problem hearing, but weren’t going to be able to see anything on the stage unless we stood ad leaned over the patrons in front of us. At least the boxes did include personal TVs with the libretto (words) translated to English, so we were able to understand the storyline and pick up on the humorous translation.
We met my parents at intermission and Dan and I decided that without being able to see the show, we preferred to seek out a place to grab a drink and make dinner plans. My parents stayed for the second act and afterwards met us at a bar, Salim’s, to regroup before all of us headed to a 10 PM dinner at Liebsteinsky. We had a good laugh when they filled us in on their gaffe which had happened after Dan and I left the theater. Apparently they had been sitting in the wrong seats during the first act – those front row seats with a view in their box didn’t actually belong to them. My mom came back to find someone in her seat and had to request help in sorting it out but somehow my Dad didn’t have to surrender his seat to anyone.
I don’t know that I’d call our Opera House encounter a complete success, but it was a unique experience and we did manage to laugh about all the things that didn’t quite go our way. If the moral of Hansel and Gretel is to not trust strangers and be wary of danger, I think the lesson I learned from the Vienna Opera is to not wear jeans with holes in the knees unless you want to deal with judgmental teens and their arbitrary dress code enforcement. Also, if you’re purchasing tickets while waiting in the standing room only line, don’t believe the ticket salesman because he’s likely just trying to get rid of the seats with an obstructed view.
After a couple hours of sleep that night, Dan and I hauled our suitcases back over to my parents’ hotel the next morning so we could store them and eat breakfast before embarking on our visit to the Schönbrunn Palace. An easy 10 minute metro ride later we were walking to the palace and feeling lucky to have our Sisi Tickets that allowed us to bypass the ever-growing queue of people at the entrance. We commenced our tour of the 1,441 room summer residence of the Habsburg monarchy. Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette, was responsible for much of the expansion of the residence from a hunting lodge to a palace. Much of the original décor and furnishings remain in the rooms so it’s possible to get yet another glimpse of the wealth and lifestyle of the monarchy. The palace is not quite comparable to Versailles in Paris, but it is the largest palace in Austria.
The gardens behind the palace expand across 435 acres and include numerous sculptures, such as the hilltop Gloriette structure, and even a zoo. With it being winter, the flowers weren’t in bloom, but we were able to walk up the hilltop to get a view over the sprawling city of Vienna.
On our way out of the palace, we browsed the Christmas market out front before taking the train back into Vienna for a visit to the Naschmarkt for lunch and train snacks. With over a hundred stalls in a seemingly endless line, I was impressed by all the produce, meat, fish, exotic fruits, bakery, and dairy products. The market has been a staple in the city since the 16th century and nowadays there is an assortment of local and multicultural vendors plus restaurants with ample seating area. Dan and I settled on sandwiches to go – a sausage in a baguette, and schnitzel on a roll. We walked from one end to the other and stocked up on goodies from the bakery as well.
We enjoyed one last Viennese coffee in the hotel café before departing for the train station. The Wiener Melange, similar to a cappuccino with a foamy top became my fast favorite.
All aboard our first connecting train, we settled in with our snacks and watched the Austrian countryside pass by. We were a little worried when our train had to make an unplanned stop on the tracks for almost 45 minutes, which caused us to miss our connection in Salzburg, but it was only a minor setback as we had no problem finding seats on a later, and very empty, train departing for the mountain town of Zell Am See.
Happy to have made it to Zell Am See ahead of our New Year’s Eve dinner, we checked into our awesome Airbnb that Dan had found, and were back out to the door on the way into town in no time. It was a good thing that we had made dinner reservations at Brasserie Traube in advance because the small town was filled with people looking to welcome in 2020.
We timed the end of our meal perfectly so that with about 20 minutes until midnight, we walked down to Lake Zell to stand amongst the enthusiastic crowds awaiting the fireworks that would ring in a new year and new decade.
The opportunity to discover a country’s culture and traditions firsthand while reflecting on my past decade and celebrating what’s to come in the new decade is an experience for which I was very thankful. Starting our trip in Vienna was a great way to get acquainted with Austria’s charming capital of culture, but I was especially looking forward to our plans for the first few days of 2020. I was eagerly anticipating skiing in the Alps and an authentic Austrian meal finished with apfelstrudel (apple strudel).