Monday, April 21, 2014



The city is gray and the Danube is anything but blue.  There are no blazing boulevards, no picturesque artists’ quarters and the Spanish Riding Horses are not even Spanish.

So why go to Vienna?  Quite simply, because the City of the Waltz is forever young…forever fair.  This ancient, tradition-steeped, crown jewel of Austria, long the capital of a great empire, exudes charm and class from its austere pores.

Vienna is a look into history, a dream, and an illusion.  Vienna is music in the air.  Vienna is schnitzel, strudel, and schlag (whipped cream).

Gathered in concentric circles around Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral), and surrounded by the romantic Vienna Woods, this city of 1.6 million inhabitants covers an area of 160 square miles.  The impressive Gothic Stephansdom, located on the Stephansplatz in the heart of baroque Vienna, is considered the center of the city.  There is an excellent panoramic view of the city from cathedral’s bell tower.


The most memorable and impressive Jewish site in Vienna is Judenplatz, the realization of Simon Wiesenthal’s dream of erecting a memorial for the Austrian victims of the Shoah (Holocaust).  This unique place of remembrance combines Rachel Whiteread’s Memorial and the excavations of the medieval synagogue with the Museum of Medieval Jewish Life to form a commemorative whole.  The inauguration took place on October 25, 2000. 

The memorial is a reinforced concrete cube, the outer sides of which are in the form of library shelves with books upon them.  The two concrete doors have no handles.  Around the bottom of the monument are engraved the names of the places in which 65,000 Austrian Jews were put to death during the Nazi regime.

The vast Hofburg (Imperial) Palace complex, formerly the seat of the Habsburg monarchs, is a complex of buildings from the Gothic period to 1913.  Of particular note within the Palace are:

The Hofburg Chapel (Burgkapelle) is used for performances of the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir (Wiener Sangerknaben) founded in 1498 by Maximilian I.  Originally constructed in 1296, it was modified 150 years later on the orders of Friedrich III.

Der Amalienburg (Amalia Wing) houses the Imperial Apartments.  Guided tours start on the second floor, but there are 74 steps to climb to that second floor.

Schweizertor (Swiss Gateway), the old gateway completed in 1552, is a masterpiece of renaissance art.

Schatzkammer houses an inestimable collection of jewels as a part of the Imperial Treasury.

Spanische Reitschule (Spanish Riding School) is the last stronghold of the classic haute ecole of riding where classical horsemanship is still cultivated in its purest form.  If you cannot make it to a performance of the famed Lipizzaner Stallions, try to attend a morning training session.  

As if the Hofburg Palace was not mind-boggling enough, we went on to Schonbrunn Palace.  This former summer residence of the imperial family was named after a spring found on the site.  Gloriette, the Neo-Classical façade backdropping the palace, is the crowning glory of the palace gardens.  Gilded coaches, sleighs and sedan chairs, used to transport the imperial family, are housed in the Coach Museum, the former Winter Riding School.


Staatsoper (The Vienna State Opera House) is one of the world’s most important opera houses.  It is the magnificent setting for the annual Opernball (Opera Ball), Vienna’s most elegant and talked about social affair that takes place every year on the last Thursday before Lent.  I still recall rubbing elbows with England’s Prince Phillip at the Vienna Opera Ball some three decades ago.  Cinderella at the Ball!

One of the best investments you can make in Vienna is the purchase of a Vienna Card.  It allows you to take any underground, bus or tram for a period of 72 hours and to enjoy many attractions at reduced prices.

Our Vienna Card took us to Hundertwasser House, an off-the-wall public housing building created in 1985 by Friedensreich Hundertwasser.  This off-beat artist, whose Jewish mother signed him into the Nazi Youth Party to save the family from suspicion, created Hundertwasser House as an outcry against what he called soulless modern architecture.  Reminiscent of Gaudi, this building is a melange of onion domed cupolas, bright bands of color, irregular windows, mosaic patterned ceramic tiles, uneven floors, and trees growing out of apartment windows.

The nearby KunstHausWien, a museum presenting the works and philosophy of Hundertwasser, is also the place to lunch.  The restaurant is a green oasis amid an urban concrete desert.  You can walk on an uneven, animated floor, sit on any one of 100 different style chairs, and dine on one of many tasty Austrian specialties.  In the adjacent gift shop, you can buy a pair of unmatched socks, Hundertwasser’s trademark.

Using the Vienna Card, we zipped over to Prater Fairground for a 20-minute ride on Das Wiener Riesenrad, the Giant Ferris Wheel that was constructed in 1896.  In 1945, all 30 of the wooden cabins were damaged or destroyed by bombs and fire.  Hand in hand with the reconstruction of the city, the Giant Ferris Wheel was also reconstructed.  Fifteen of the thirty cabins remain and have been turning without interruption since 1947.  It is said that if you have not taken a ride on the Giant Ferris Wheel, you have not been to Vienna.


The Giant Ferris Wheel was immortalized in Graham Greene’s film The Third Man, which climaxed in Vienna’s cavernous sewer network.  The Vienna Card will also get you a reduced rate for a 20-minute chilling tour that gives you a glimpse into the secrets of life below the city.  The "Return of the Third Man Tour" will immerse you amid the dark wastewaters of the city.  Blurred outlines, eerie shadows, mysterious voices, and ear-piercing shots will end with a finale that finds you face to face with The Third Man.         
Vienna is also a sinfully fattening experience.  Forget restaurants.  When it comes to the dinner hour, think coffee shop, konditorei, and heurigen.

On our first night in Vienna, we decided to skip dinner and indulge our fantasies in all the classy hangouts that are synonymous with Vienna.  First stop, Café Hawelka, a traditional Viennese coffee shop since 1939.  A hangout for artists, students, the literary and the intelligentsia, Hawelka’s patrons have included William Saroyan, Arthur Miller, Leonard Bernstein, and Richard Burton.  At Hawelka we ate our appetizer, “the cake of the day” which is whatever Mama Hawelka decides to bake.

Next stop, Demel Konditorei, the Kohlmarkt coffee shop that acquired its name in 1857.  The exquisite Demel confections that became our dinner entrée are still made by hand.  And, the penguin-garbed Demel waitresses still use the old polite form of address when asking the wishes of their guests: “Haben schon gewahlt?

Without question, our dessert course could be none other than the world-famous Original Sachertorte, at the Café of the Sacher Hotel.  In 1832, a 16-year old apprentice cook named Franz Sacher created this decadent chocolate dessert for Prince Metternich.  The hand-written recipe is a “state secret” and it has become the most famous torte in the world.

On our last night in Vienna, we enjoyed a Heurigen Evening in Grinzig.  The heurigen is a traditional wine tavern in Grinzig, a northeastern wine-growing suburb of Vienna.  The young wines (heuriger) are served in these taverns along with local specialties like schnitzel (veal cutlet), knoedel (dumplings), tafelspitz (boiled beef served with applesauce and horseradish sauce), strudel (fruit filled pastry) and gobs of schlag (pure, unadulterated whipped cream).  The merry crowd fetched their food from the cornucopias buffet and we all drank refreshing fruity wines from the area.

Ein gemutlicher abend.  Prost!  (An enjoyable evening.  Cheers!)

JANET STEINBERG is an award-winning Travel Writer and a Travel Consultant affiliated with The Travel Authority, Mariemont/Cincinnati, Ohio office.

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