At the very end of last year when we were planning where to go in 2016 we decided a cultural, relaxing city break would be in order towards the end of the year after all the adventures and mountains. We looked at Salzburg and decided on Vienna at the end of November. And it just happened to be the start of Christmas.
I’ve never been on a trip that I hadn’t had time to get excited about. I have been so immersed in wading through my workload that it wasn’t until we were on the runway at Gatwick did I start to realise I could finally start to relax.
Vienna Christmas Markets
Vienna started with getting off the U-Bahn at Karlsplatz and walking up to Stephansplatz underneath the billions of fairy lights that decorate Vienna at Christmas. Stephansplatz was the start of Christmas and a very relaxed four days in Vienna. We hadn’t planned too much for our first evening and kind of just stumbled upon the Christmas market on Stephansplatz beside the enormous Stephansdom. The market, like with all of the Christmas markets in Vienna were traditional and ‘old-Christmas’. No tacky and overpriced rubbish, just stalls with good food, mulled wine, punch and traditional Christmas decorations and gifts. Baubles everywhere.
We celebrated our arrival at Christmas with an Apfelstrudel punch. It was warm, sweet and alcoholic and it tasted like liquid Apfelstrudel. This was the start of various festive drinks including a double Schnapps later on in front of the stunning Rathaus. One of the favourites was at Schonbrunn Palace drinking a hot chocolate with mint liqueur. Just like melted after-eight.
The Viennese Christmas markets are similar in theme but range in various sizes from the enormous market in front of the Rathaus (the biggest and seemingly more commercial) to the tiny Old Viennese Christmas market we stumbled on along Freyung. The warmth, the smells, the sights are pure traditional Christmas and it was nice to get away from all of the commercial, greedy and tacky Christmas that is so often seen over here.
Viennese Coffee Houses
Certainly my favourite part of visiting Vienna was experiencing the coffee and the coffee houses. Vienna feels very pre-world war when you are sitting in one of the traditional coffee houses watching the trams go by all of the old buildings. It couldn’t be any further from being sat in one of the well-known coffee shops that plague the UK. Vienna doesn’t serve you a massive vat of syrup-flavoured latte and a giant slice of cake in a busy, loud and impatient environment. Vienna serves you small cups of delicious, quality-not-quantity Viennese coffee. Coffee in Vienna is like a little treat, a little cup of happiness, a cup full of flavour that is enjoyed at length, in no rush and not taken for granted like your big vat of flavourless milky latte. Vienna feels like Western greed/glutinous portions don’t exist and reminds you of enjoying the smaller treats in life. Not only this, but the coffee houses are old, dated and full of charm.
We visited three of them. We accidentally stumbled on one of the more famous ones on our first evening, Cafe Hawelka and enjoyed espresso and shared a Cheese Strudel.
At Cafe Sperl I had my first Wiener Schnitzel and on our last morning we enjoyed a Viennese breakfast at Cafe Schwarzenberg, the oldest cafe on the Ringstrasse.
Surprisingly we have come home and drink a lot more espresso.
Palaces and Museums
I like history and learning about the places I go, yet Austrian history, apart from the brief bit of knowledge about Marie Antoinette and Austria being annexed by Germany I admittedly knew very little. We spent one morning in the Military History Museum. From the Thirty Years War, the Habsburgs, the events leading up to WW1 and WW2 this museum is full of information about Austria and the way it shaped it’s history. The exhibitions range from dozens of uniforms from various cavalries to those used by Britain in WW1 and the uniforms worn by the SS in Nazi Germany. The most obvious exhibition is that on Franz Ferdinand which includes the car he was shot in while in Sarajevo in 1914.
Along side the Military History Museum we visited the Wien Museum which is small but informative about the history of Vienna. We spent a few hours in the Natural History museum which has the most impressive and vast collection of wildlife I have ever seen. Every species must have been in there!
Surprisingly, the one place I didn’t expect to find in the middle of Vienna was the Haus des Meeres. I’ve never seen an aquarium packed with so many different species. Including two anacondas which gave me shivers down my spine, and numerous other snakes, the aquarium is home to almost every fish you could think off but the highlight for me was the Green Turtle in the huge tank that you forget is in the middle of Vienna.
Unfortunately we ran out of time to visit the Schonbrunn and Belvedere Palaces properly and rather just ended up enjoying the Christmas markets in front of them. But they are just another example of how beautiful, old and full of charm Vienna is. A city certainly worth visiting.