Just over a month ago, I returned from a four-week stint in my favorite city: Vienna. The last time I spent time there was mainly during the winter months, and wow, what a difference a bit of sunshine makes! I felt like I was getting to know an entirely different city! In the summer, the city is chock-full of tourists and the Viennese (notorious for being a bit standoffish to outsiders) appear much more cheerful and approachable when the sun is shining. Though I was there to work on a project, I had the weekends and evenings to explore and get reacquainted with this marvelous city.
I have come to discover that, among my German-speaking friends, Vienna is “Geschmackssache”–a matter of taste. In fact, most people fall into two camps: there are those who love Berlin and those who love Vienna. I clearly fall into the latter camp—I have never felt cool or hipster enough to fit into Berlin. On the other hand, my friends who flock to Berlin every summer have told me they find Vienna too imposing, too imperial, too pristine. They miss the rough and rugged edges, the fusion of old and new, the remnants of the Soviet past still evident in many of Berlin’s neighborhoods, the quirky and eclectic styles that only Berliners can pull off.
It is true; Vienna does come across as a bit surreal at times, especially coming from Mozambique, as I did this time. There are likely no two places more opposite from one another. At night, I would hear the clip-clop of horses pulling the Fiaker—the horse-drawn carriages that ferry tourists from one attraction to the next—down my street, returning the horses to their stables to rest. And the massive, sprawling gold-adorned, ornate architecture from the Habsburg era and the mammoth Stephansdom still take my breath away.
On a more basic level, I felt a pang of culture shock when I reacquainted myself with the Viennese devotion to sustainability (bio – this, öko – that) and the access to clean water (a new perk is access to gigantic free drinking fountains placed throughout the inner city with pristine Alpine water flowing straight out of them). Or when I realized I could once again rely solely on public transportation to get anywhere in the city. No wonder this city gets voted most-livable in the world year after year!
To any extent, here are some of the tips about things I discovered and re-discovered while living there again. For the Vienna-lovers, I hope you enjoy this post and look forward to hearing your tips, too (I am looking at you, Christine!). For those who remain unconvinced, maybe this might sway you just a bit to reconsider Vienna. 🙂
Visit a market, or two, or three… – The Naschmarkt remains one of my favorite spots in the entire city. Walking down the narrow aisles of the market, you find all of your senses stimulated at once. Vendors cry out to you to sample their cheeses, falafel and olives. Colorful spices line the stalls, Käseland’s pungent smells beckon, the fish markets display various, wine and schnapps stores offer free tastings, store owners flaunt their tourist paraphernalia, loose leaf tea and candies line the walls of gourmet specialty stores. If you’re hungry and are looking for a place to stop, I can highly recommend Neni, an excellent Israeli restaurant. On Saturdays, there is also a sprawling flea market where you can find quirky treasures from all parts of the former Habsburg Empire. And don’t forget to look up—the Jugendstil architecture of the buildings along the Linke Weinzeile are a feast for the eyes!
If the Naschmarkt feels overwhelming to you, then head to the Kutschkermarkt in the 18th district, Währingen. This month, I lived a few blocks from this charming market, which is open 6 am-7:30 pm on Mondays-Fridays. On Fridays and Saturdays (7 am -2 pm), you can also find an organic famers’ market with beautiful (yet pricey) produce.
Have wine at a Heuriger – An absolute must in Vienna during the warm months is a visit to a Heuriger. Most Heuriger are on the outskirts of town, close to the vineyards that dot the hillsides. They are normally very modest establishments with indoor and outdoor seating. Servers take drink orders (you can expect to find house wine at every Heuriger!), and you can order food from the self-serve buffet or menu (tip: get some Liptauer cheese spread and Bratlfett to spread on the hearty bread—yup, that is lard). The Heuriger we visited, a progressive, feminist owned one called Schübel-Auer, is located in Nußdorf and accessible via tram.
Sip a Mélange in a Café – If you’re starting to feel like all I did was eat and drink in Vienna, then you’re right! Did you know that the Viennese Kaffeehauskultur was included by UNESCO in the Austrian national inventory of “intangible cultural heritage”? In other words, the Viennese take their coffee seriously. During the cultural boom of fin-de-siècle Vienna, cafés became the epicenter of culture, political debate and artistic creativity. Any visitor to Vienna should spend some time at one of the classic cafés such as Café Sacher (try the Sachertorte at least once!), Café Central (also amazing pastries—and a great photo op with a statue of Peter Altenberg), and Café Landtmann. If you’re looking for a more modern and laid-back vibe, then check out Das Möbel (great brunch on Sundays!) or phil (with an excellent bookstore).
Go Shopping in Spittelberg – Kärtnerstraße and Mariahilferstraße are certainly the best known shopping areas in the city, but if you want to avoid the crowds and find unique stores with high quality products, turn to Neubaugasse instead and spend an afternoon wandering the charming streets in Spittelberg. While you’re in the neighborhood, stop at the Amerlingbeisl for a glass of Grüner Veltliner.
Swim in the Donau – Be warned: air-conditioning in Vienna is tough to find. Since I really only knew Vienna during the colder months, I had little idea how hot it could actually get in the summer. Luckily, the Danube offers a refreshing respite from the heat when the temperatures creep into the upper 30s. There are plenty of beaches along the banks of the river to take a dip in the water, lounge in the sun, and have a picnic. At most beaches, you have to pay a minimal fee to get in; other spots, such as the Lagerwiese are free! And if you’re looking for a place to hang out along the Donau during the evening, check out one of the many bars at Schwedenplatz!
Visit the Leopold Museum – By all means, visit Schönbrunn, the Secession Building, the Albertina, the Kunsthistorische Museum, the Naturhistorische Museum, the Sisi Museum, the Freud Museum, and of course the magnificent Belvedere, where you can see Klimt’s The Kiss. (And there are countless other museums I haven’t even mentioned!) But my all-time favorite museum is the Leopold Museum—mainly because it is home to outstanding Schiele and Klimt collections. If you are interested in fin-de-siécle art, this is the place for you. It is also housed in the hip Museumsquartier, where you can hang out at one of the many restaurants and bars after your visit.
Eat and Drink at the Rathaus – Because the operas and theaters are on hiatus for the summer months (see my note below), the Viennese have to have somewhere to go on the weekends and after work. For the entire month of July, the Rathausplatz hosted a film festival, which featured recorded opera and orchestra performances. Set up along the entire square were also countless food booths, an Aperol stand and several wine bars. It was a perfect place to spend a happy hour, or to grab a bite to eat on those long summer nights.
Eat Gelato – Vienna’s many gelato shops were certainly not on my radar during the frigid months of January and February; but I definitely had my fair share of gelato this time around. My favorite place was right off the Kärtnerstraße, a tiny shop called Ferrari tucked away in an alleyway. Another place that I frequented was Leone’s Gelato in the 8th district.
Of course, this list is not meant to be exhaustive–it is simply what I managed to squeeze into a busy month of work! For example, I didn’t visit the Freud museum or make it back to the Prater and Schönbrunn as I had planned; but I will save those for the next visit!
Pfiat di und ba ba!
*A word of advice: if you’re an opera or theater aficionado, summer is not the time to visit to Vienna. All of the main theaters and operas in the city take a two-month summer break in July and August. In this case, I would recommend visiting Vienna in December when you can also experience the Christmas markets and drink hot Punsch or Glühwein.