For anyone who has had a glimpse of life in Vienna, seen the joie de vivre of the Viennese and experienced the ethos of their amazing city, it will come as no surprise that the City topped the 2010 Mercer consulting group’s annual Quality of Living survey of world cities. Vienna, it seems, is the best place to live. (Vancouver placed 10 and Ottawa ranked 14). And there is no denying the indescribable feeling you get when in Vienna. Like many other European cities, you are surrounded in architectural beauty, but somehow in Vienna, there is an additional feeling of being immersed, enveloped and cradled in culture that differs from other Euro cities. Maybe it is because Vienna has achieved incredible international cultural status despite its size. It’s roughly the size of our National Capital Region. (However, interestingly, its population has actually decreased compared with a century ago when it was the Imperial centre of the Habsburg Empire and its 60 million subjects across Europe.)
Vienna Philharmonica Ball
Whether it is music, opera, art, dance or coffee house culture (both traditional and avant garde), Vienna oozes it. You can practically hear the echo of Mozart’s horsedrawn carriage in the streets and yet, paradoxically, this is a cosmopolitan 21st century city where you can dance the night away to techno music, whisk around a ballroom floor into the wee hours or surf the net on Wi-Fi as you sip on a Viennese cup of java in an 18th century café.
While it may not jump to mind as a Mardi Gras or winter destination (for winter weary Canadians, beach holidays have a particular allure this time of year), Vienna offers the holiday seeker every opportunity to have an unbelievably good time.
First the basics. Connections to Vienna are remarkably easy. Air Canada will get you to Frankfurt where you can hop onboard an über efficient Austrian Airlines (AA) flight. AA’s level of service is astounding. A fast train link up gets you quickly to the centre of Vienna. English is widely spoken which is particularly helpful.
One fab hotel is the Falkensteiner Hotel Am Schottenfeld, (www.falkensteiner.com/de/hotel/schottenfeld). It is incredibly clean, the staff unbelievably helpful and the hotel itself perfectly located for discovering Vienna on foot. And that is the best way to get to know Vienna. The crazy thing is that while Vienna is a city of close to two million people, it feels much smaller, almost cozy.
Vienna has been home to much international intellectual, cultural, political and social influence. From the genius of Freud to the brilliant modernist artistic hand of Gustav Klimt (Vienna will be celebrating his 150th birthday this summer), Vienna has always been at the cultural forefront. You can learn all about it in any number of museums and art galleries scattered across the core. The MuseumsQuartier is a must see (www.mqw.at) with different galleries and art for every taste. The complex, which takes up a couple of blocks, marries the architecture of the 18th and 19th centuries with and ultra modern buildings with restaurants and cafés where the artsy set hangs out. It is close to many of the other tourist attractions including the Hofburg Palace. Regardless of all this history and the countless places to visit, somehow Vienna does not feel touristy.
Vienna in the Winter. Photo: Hugh Durant
If you head to Vienna in winter, catching the ball season is de rigueur and that alone can be the focus of the trip. Experiencing a Viennese ball will exceed every expectation. It is pure magic. Ball season is etched into the collective soul of the Viennese (kind of like Tim Hortons and hockey for us in winter). It starts New Year’s Eve and runs right up until Mardi Gras.
There is a real sense of pomp and ceremony at these events. The balls open with debutantes and their male escorts. It is a sea of white dresses in majestic rooms and it is quite the sight. Children learn how to dance practically before they can walk. It is such a part of the Viennese identity and dancing schools are everywhere. The Tanzschule (dance school) Elmayer will offer classes to everyone, including dancers with two left feet in an attempt to teach them a move or two. Thankfully, you don’t really need to know how to dance to enjoy the balls.
Many balls are organized by professional guilds, such as lawyers, pharmacists, confectioners, medics, gardeners, the press, the police, technicians, chimney sweepers, or locksmiths. There are balls from several universities and high schools as well as dancing schools and public institutions. You usually don’t sit down at a ball and this is what makes the events so lively. Everyone is in motion all the time. People walk from one room to another, soaking up the energy and music from each hall.
I had the opportunity to attend three balls and each one was different. The Bonbonball, takes place in the grand Wiener Konzerthaus. Sponsored by the confectionary industry, it is a candy girl’s dream come true. It was festive with a young crowd all the while retaining a regal feel.
Sacher Torte a decadent Viennese dessert. Photo: Hugh Durant
The Nacht der Wiener Wirtschaft (night of the Viennese economy) had a much more reserved but majestic feel to it and took place in the gothic Rathaus (City Hall). (Its architecture is very similar to the Hall of Honour and Rotunda of Centre Block on the Hill.) Last but not least, there was the Elmayerkränzchen, (a ball hosted by a dance school). I didn’t even bother trying to dance at that one. It was a marvel just to watch the dancers. That ball marked the end of the Vienna Ball season on Mardi Gras and took place in the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) (which you can visit during the day and learn about the Hofburg Empire.)
Cafés are everywhere in Vienna and one of the most amazing is the Café Sperl. Its claim to fame is that it has been used in many movie sets including that 1990s’ Gen X classic flick Before Sunrise. But it also offers an extensive coffee menu and is just an interesting place to people watch. Café Mozart has amazing schnitzel (a must try when in Vienna) and every café has a wide array of sweets and pastries to suit every taste. The Viennese take their coffee and pastries seriously and the coffee menu in each of these cafés would make Starbucks blush.
Food in Vienna was, as expected, hearty and heavy. To sample tra-ditional Viennese cuisine head to the restaurant Plachutta (www.plachutta.at). Other fab restaurants that mix Viennese cuisine with international flare include Kulinarium (www.kulinarium7.at). Steirereck (www.steirereck.at ) dishes out contemporary Austrian cuisine and is located in heart of the central city park.
Austrian Alps. Photo: Hugh Durant
A short train ride away and you are in Salzburg. Salzburg has a very different feel to it than Vienna. Being so close to Munich, the Bavarian influence is palpable. While Salzburg does not have the urbane, cosmo feel of Vienna, it does have a rocking night life, even in February and March. And unlike Vienna, Salzburg thrives on its tourism. Even though it has a deep and rich cultural history, it is most known for The Sound of Music. (You can take a bus tour of filming locations. While it may sound like the schmaltziest thing you could do, it is actually a great way to see the surrounding area and learn about its history (some of it is sordid given Nazi connections to the region).
More importantly, Salzburg is the birthplace of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and for any classical musician or fan, a visit to the very room in which he was born may seem like a religious experience. To experience a bit more of life in Mozart’s time, (www.mozartdinnerconcert.com)you can enjoy a candlelit dinner and concert performed by opera singers dressed in era clothing as you eat tra-ditional recipes from Mozart’s time.
Any beer and bratwurst lover will revel in time spent at the Augustiner Bräustübl Tavern (www.augustinerbier.at) a beer hall with long wooden tables and huge kegs of beer offered in beer steins the size of a bottle of wine. It is the ultimate Oktoberfest experience that you can get year round and the beer is incredible. The place is even run by monks.
For a small town, lots of other great stuff has come out of Salzburg. Next time you pop open a Stigl beer or indulge in a Red Bull energy drink, you can tip your hat to Salzburg, as both originate from the area.
If nature is more your thing, Salzburg is a stunning place. Cradled by the Alps, there are numerous walking paths where you can experience the breathtaking beauty of the mountains.
When the time to leave arrives, it is sadly all too easy to get a commuter flight to Frankfurt to catch a flight home. There is no doubt you will leave wanting more of Vienna, Salzburg and a desire to see more of Austria. I guarantee it.