A Travellerspoint blog

Wandering around Vienna

Castles and Horses and Royals, oh my!

sunny 70 °F

When I woke up at 4:15am to get to the train station by 4:45, it was almost completely light out. While I’m not as far north as I was in Stockholm, I’m significantly farther east but still in the same time zone (that stretches all the way from central Europe to Portugal), so the sun comes up very early here and goes down a bit earlier since Budapest is on the eastern edge of the time zone.

I was kind of excited to be on the train in the morning because I figured that there would be more to see along the way, but all I saw on the way to Vienna was a whole lot of countryside. Instead, I paid attention to the people getting on the train and being greeted at the platforms of our stops along the way. We’re definitely in double cheek kiss country.

In researching what to do in Vienna, I thought that I would find another free tour to get my lay of the land, but searching around travel forums yielded a disappointing fact. There are none. All tour guides in Vienna have to be licensed, so free tours are out of the question. It looked like a pretty easy city to navigate, however, with a big ring in a half circle with both ends on the river. Just about everything there is to see is on that ring. I booked a hotel that was just across the river on the street that was basically the continuation of one end of the ring. It’s called the Meninger Hostel and it wasn’t too hard to find. Again one of the first things I noticed along the way was how many darn smokers there are. You’re killing me Central Europe! These folks are definitely hard core rule followers on the crosswalks as well. A new curiousity that I spotted in Austria was their newspaper selling stations. Unlike the permanent ones that are commonly seen in the States, in Austria they have little baggies with locks (to take your change) on them that are hanging literally everywhere. Presumably, they just switch out the empty bags tomorrow morning.

When I arrived at the Meninger it’s definitely a different vibe than the cozy atmosphere of Mandala.
Whereas Mandala truly felt like a home, Meninger is basically a hotel that just has 4-6 beds per room. Very sterile. Ikea-type furniture. Nothing wrong with that…the price is right and it’s a place to sleep. Which is pretty much all I do at a hostel anyways. When I tried to check in, I was informed that my reservation had been cancelled. Apparently, when I didn’t show up last night, they charged me for that one night then cancelled the rest of the reservation. Normally, I would say that is pretty kind of them to not charge me for all three nights, but in my case, it wasn’t too helpful to have my reservation cancelled. The guy at the counter pulled one of those acts that people in the service industry sometimes do where they make it seem like it’s going to be very difficult for you to get what you want and that they’re doing you a huge favor so that you can be extra grateful for their heroic help. Long-story short, I got rebooked but it was still far too early for check in, so I had to put my stuff in the luggage room. I didn’t really trust the giant luggage room at this place, so I took all my clothes out of my backpack to lighten the load and stuck it in a plastic bag in the luggage room, but kept all of my valuables (passport, wallet, electronics) in my backpack for the day. A bit heavy, but if I lost my computer and or camera with all of my pictures on it, I would be devastated. One of the first things I learned from my first trip abroad was to bring a few plastic grocery bags. You WILL need them even though you’ll never know what for. Plus they take up almost no space when you’re not using them. Win-win! Glad I had them this time around. After a quick turnaround in the luggage room, it wasn’t yet 10am so I still had all day ahead of me to explore!

Forgoing a tour, I instead referred back to Arthur, who’s recommended itinerary for one day in Prague was to go to St. Peter’s Church and explore the old town in the morning, then go to Schonbrun palace in the afternoon. Schonbrun was a bit out of town, however and since I was getting a pretty late start, I decided to put that off for another day. I figured I would start at St. Stephan’s then walk the outer ring to get a lay of the land and see if there was anything along the way that looked exciting.

One of the tips that Chris gave me about traveling is that your phone uses GPS even when it’s not on a network. So, if when you have an internet connection, you can open the Maps app on your phone and zoom in to wherever in the world you’re going to be. Once the map is loaded, it will show up even when you don’t have an internet connection and because your GPS doesn’t need cell service, the little blue dot that is you will show up on the preloaded map. I still prefer a paper map, but if you don’t have one or if you’re just REALLY lost, this works like a charm. It’s always kind of a fun symbolic transition to get a new map. After three days of constant use, my Budapest map was well worn and starting to tear at the creases. That’s when you know that it’s time to move on! Bring on the crisp new Vienna map to wear over the next few days!

It’s actually pretty remarkable how quickly you can get to know your way around a city. The first rule is WALK EVERYWHERE. Walking forces you to slow down and gives your brain plenty of time to take it all in. Plus, if you take a subway you aren’t going to have a clue where anything is in the city and you’ll be missing all of the beautiful nooks and crannies of the city that you came to see! At least half of the beauty and character of a city is BETWEEN the sights. I’m always very conscious of how many times in a blog post I say “on the way to ______” or “before I got to ______.” I say it so often that it even annoys me! While I probably need to incorporate some new phrases into my vocabulary, the lesson is that a ton of the interesting stuff happens wandering around the city in the less famous places, with your head up and your eyes wide open, you’ll see all kinds of magic that gives you a glimpse into the real heart of the city TODAY, rather than that giant stone building built by some guy 500 years ago. For example, just about everyone who visits Vienna will probably go to St. Peter’s Church. They’ll more or less take the same pictures and read the same plaques. But what makes the experience truly your own is the unique perspectives you’ll find along the way. Which is why the second rule is GET LOST. It’s going to happen. There’s no use fighting it and certainly no use getting flustered. You’re going to find something spectacular along the way…a neat restaurant that locals actually go to (rather than the ones that cater to tourists near the main attractions), an alleyway that is as pretty as a postcard or at the very least you’ll get to know some inch of the city that 90% of the other tourists haven’t seen too. Rule 3 is that once you know how to get where you want to go along the main arteries of the city, you can’t let yourself use them anymore. You’ve already seen them! Even if you walk 20 miles a day for three days you still wont cover 25% of the streets in the city. There is so much out there to explore! Don’t let yourself be lazy and do what is comfortable. You’ll notice that the benefits of “travel brain” deteriorate exponentially each time you double back over territory you’ve already covered. If you want to stay fully engaged, to keep your brain and your senses active, to feel fully alive, novelty is your friend. Finally, don’t be afraid to look like a tourist and CONSULT YOUR MAP! Stop in the middle of the street, check for street signs. Who cares if you look silly? You’re exploring a new city and unlike 90% of the others that get to know the three main streets that connect the three main attractions, you’re getting a pulse on the true nature of your environment. The exception to this rule is an advanced strategy only if you can truly get in the right mindset. I call it embracing “shiny object syndrome.” Normally, shiny object syndrome can be a bad thing if overused. It’s typical of people who are jumping from one thing to another when they see a new “shiny object” without ever really finishing anything. I’m certainly guilty of this sometimes. But when you’re traveling it can be a good thing. Put away your map and embrace shiny object syndrome. If you see a street that looks interesting, go that way. Does that alleyway scream to have it’s picture taken? Snap away! Smell something good? Check it out! Want to climb that hill to get a view of the city from above? Go for it! Who knows where you’ll end up. But if you have a few hours and you’ve already checked off the essential attractions from your list, give it a go. After 12 hours of walking a city (usually at the end of day 1 for me) you’ll have a remarkable comfort level and can probably find your way home from anywhere with only a rare glance at your map. Not to get too deep (or did we already pass that point), but theres a lot of metaphors in there about how I try to approach life. Wow that was a tangent. Back to St. Stephan’s!

They’re currently renovating the exterior of St. Peters and the difference is pretty remarkable. Check out the front of the church in relation to the side. The front used to be just as dark. Must be a power-washer on steroids.
As I got to St. Stephan’s, I saw a strange little religious-looking stage set up outside. It was roped off, but I couldn’t really figure out what was going on.
The entrance to the church was roped off too. As I walked toward the outer ring for a stroll, I hadn't gotten very far when heard a faint chanting that grew louder with each block. Eventually I could see that a crowd was lining the streets as some kind of procession was going by.
Since I’m not a very good Catholic and recently learned about a few Catholic holidays I should have known about but hadn’t heard of until they popped up on my phone’s calendar, I had the inkling to check my phone calendar and sure enough, it was Corpus Christi. Turns out that’s not just a town in Texas! Also, the chanting in German strangely sounded remarkably similar to the chanting in Istanbul.

Just a few blocks from St, Stephan’s is St. Peter’s.
Why you need two churches in 3 blocks I don’t know, but St. Peter’s wasn’t roped off, so I went inside. St. Peter’s is built on the site of Vienna’s first church. The original church was built at a time when Vienna was still a Roman camp by the name of Vindobona. It was replaced with a Romanesque church that was later replaced with the present Baroque structure completed in 1733. Holy mass has been celebrated DAILY at this site for 1600 years. Not since 1600, mind you, but for 1600 years. Hard to fathom.

The inside of the church is stunning and unusually colorful.
The cupola even has a fresco with Sistine Chapel-like beauty.
Outside, there is a relief that depicts the supposed founding of St. Peter’s by Charlemagne in the middle ages.

When I stopped at an ATM to take out money, it had the option to take out cash or “load phone.” I’ve heard about people being able to use their mobile phones for money transactions in Africa where there is little infrastructure, but I didn’t know it was a thing in Europe. I’m very curious as to how it works. Not curious enough to load my phone at this point though…

As I walked the outer ring, I saw endless streams of horse drawn carriages. It definitely rivals Venice’s gondolas in their ubiquity.

When I got about halfway around the arch, I came to the Hofberg Palace Complex.
It’s pretty impossible to miss. The massive palaces and gardens seem to take up about a third of Vienna’s historical center. A bunch of the old palaces have been turned into museums. I remember that the Hofberg had made the cut on Arthur’s 2 days in Vienna itinerary, so I decided to check it out. I bought the “Sisi” combo ticket of the Silver Collection, the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum. First up was the Silver Collection. It started with a whole lot of SILVER-ware. It was common for silver plates, bowls and utensils to be melted down when they showed signs of wear (or when the owner was hurting for cash) so not many old sets exist, but they certainly had enough table settings for the whole city.

At the end of the 18th Century during the Napoleonic Wars, even more silverware got melted down to make coins and such to pay for all the wartime expenses. But how would the royals eat? Porcelain from the far East had become a collectors item but wasn’t considered fashionable enough to be used in the high courts, but at this point they didn’t have much of a choice. The king commissioned a 128 piece set and just to spruce them up a bit, had them hand painted with gold and with landscapes from throughout the empire. To hand paint all 128 pieces took 5 years!
Of course, when the royals visited Schonbrun palace, their summer home, they needed to bring their royal plates with them, so there were countless boxes custom made to hold each piece. If silver just isn’t fancy enough for you to eat off of, check out this collection of gold plates, part of a 4,500 piece set that weighs 1,000 kg. Of gold.
Check out this 30m long “centerpiece” (if you can even call it that) created for the Coronation of Francis I. It was so long I had to use the panorama feature on my phone.
The Viennese are also serious about napkin folding. They could probably even teach the Cornell “Hotelies” a thing or two. Here’s some pretty intricate animals.
The masterpiece of their napkin folding, however, is a special technique that is to this day only used at State dinners. It conveniently holds two Vienna rolls. The method to fold this napkin is such a closely guarded secret that only 2 people know how to do it.
Like I said, they are serious about napkin folding.

After getting more than my fill of silverware, it was on to the Sisi museum. Remember the kid during the Budapest free tour that interjected with his knowledge of Sisi? At the time I was impressed, but after going to this museum, I figured out that he actually probably just came from Vienna before going to Budapest.

Elisabeth, or Sisi as her family called her, was having a nice relaxing childhood in the countryside when two sisters, Sisi’s mom and the mother of Emperor Franz Joseph tried to set up Sisi’s older sister with Franz Joseph. Yup, encouraging cousins to get married. First cousins! Fantastic. Sisi came along with her mother and sister to the party that was put on so the two could meet. Instead, Franz Joseph fell in love with Sisi and asked for her hand in marriage. Still cousins. She accepted but soon after was quoted as saying “I’m so fond of the emperor. If only he weren’t the emperor” before bursting into tears. Clearly she knew she wasn’t going to like this life in the spotlight, but felt that she couldn’t say no. But what shall you wear to marry your emperor cousin?

She clearly had a depression for most of her life. She wrote a lot of poetry that they would quote and one that I liked was “Destinations are only desirable because of the journey that lies in between.” And that going to one place knowing that she would never be able to leave—even if it was her favorite place—would be the worst kind of torture. She was probably very introverted, because she hated going to official court meetings and though she tried to show up at the beginning, she eventually avoided them altogether. She was frequently traveling, which conveniently kept her from having to go to any official functions. On one trip on a ship when the weather was brutal, she had the sailors tie her to the mast like Odysseus so that she could experience the power of mother nature. Sisi was also seen as one of the most beautiful women of her era and went through some pretty extreme diet regimens to maintain her figure…99lbs and a 20 inch waist on a 5’8” frame. She also spent 2-3 hours per day getting her hair done. So in a nutshell, an vain, introverted, depressed Empress with an eating disorder. After the suicide of her oldest son, she would only wear black.

The only time she ever interfered in court affairs was when she convinced her husband to recognize the historical rights of Hungary and it’s people (aka what the Budapest tour kid was talking about).

On one of her trips, she was in Geneva where Italian anarchist Luigi Luchenni happened to lie in waiting to assassinate Prince Henri of Orleans, but the prince’s plans had changed. Although Sisi used a fake name to check into her hotel, the 19th century paparazzi figured out that she was in town and it made it into the newspapers. So Luigi changed his plans and decided to go after Sisi, a much bigger target. He stabbed her in the chest with this small knife.

Since she refused her official duties as empress and traveled constantly, she basically became estranged from her husband. While her husband, Emperor Franz Joseph, was exceptionally well-liked, the people didn’t feel the same way about Sisi. But that all seemed to change after her assassination. Her husband had remained deeply in love with her and as he mourned, Sisi’s legacy was written as a kind but misunderstood Empress. In death, she (and her legend) became extremely popular with the people of Austria.

After learning about this troubled woman, it was time to check out the Imperial Apartments where she and her husband had lived. Here’s the office of emperor Franz Joseph.
I’m guessing one of the reasons that he was so well liked was that he was up at 5am every morning and granted an audience to up to 100 of his subjects before lunch to hear their grievances and requests.

Most rooms had a fireplace like the one you see here, but they were all closed off, with an opening on the other side of the wall to stoke the fire so as to not bother the royals by lugging wood into the room.

Here was a chinup bar, rings and some kind of vertical monkey bars that Sisi used every day to work out…much to the chagrin of her mother-in-law who thought that it wasn’t very ladylike.

Here’s where they ate.
Usually, they would have 9-13 courses and tradition dictated that the course was over and everyone’s plates were cleared as soon as the Emperor put down his utensils. But, ever the benevolent leader, Franz Joseph was known to eat slowly and wait until everyone had finished. During dinner, it was impolite to have conversations with anyone other than your immediate neighbors.

The Hofberg Palace is a sprawling 240,000m2 and was the residence of the Hapsburg dynasty for over 600 years.

As I continued to wander, I walked through the main square I saw that St. Stephan’s was no longer closed off for the Corpus Christi festivities and decided to check one more thing off the list. This St. Stephan is different than the St. Stephen from Budapest. Vienna’s St. Stephan refers to the St. Stephan that was the first martyr of Christiandom. The original church was razed and the current one was built in the 13th century. That’s right, this bad boy is 850 years old.

Notably, Mozart attended church here and was married here. Two of his five kids were baptized here.

Here’s Frederick III’s grave.
Who was Frederick the III, you ask? Well, in 1440 he became the German King, in 1452, he became the Holy Roman Emperor and in 1459 the King of Hungary. So he was kind of a big deal. Hence the tomb with the 8 ton lid. 8 tons.

By now it was about 6pm and I figured I should get back to the hostel to eat and check in to my room. There was a grocery store around the corner from the hostel that was open until 7pm, so I figured I would grab something quick, them come back out on the town to check it out at night.

When I got back, it was close to 6:30 so I figured I would go to the grocery store before checking in. I got there and all the lights were off. I double checked the times on the window. M-F 8-19. I double-checked 19-12 a couple times to make sure that did in fact mean 7pm. Yet the lights were off and the door was locked. Grr. Heading back to the hotel to check in, I asked about the grocery store. How could I forget? It was Corpus Christi. How silly of me. Why would anyone work on Corpus Christi? Thus I was limited to making an omelette for dinner given the groceries I had brought from Budapest. Since I was on the train all morning, I hadn’t had eggs for breakfast, so I didn’t mind. The kitchen was packed though. Remember that Meninger is basically a hotel, but with 4-6 beds per room. So there are literally thousands of people staying here, yet the kitchen is smaller than mine at home. It took awhile to get a burner and even when I did, I was butting elbows with a half dozen different people trying to cook on 4 burners. The girls next to me had broccoli. I was very jealous and hoped that the grocery store would have some for my omelette tomorrow. After eating, it was starting to get dark and I felt like going for a walk around the town. Just a few minutes in, it started to sprinkle and I almost turned back, but I’m so glad I didn’t. My little walk turned into a 4 hour wandering around all of Vienna. I definitely got shiny object syndrome. Vienna is a beautiful place, but at night it is breath-taking. I don’t have much to report from my 4 hour jaunt other than the pictures that resulted…

First, the Rathaus (town hall)

….then Parliament….

…then a few of the Hofburg Palaces…

….the Opera house…

I had also been told that Belvedere Castle was beautiful at night. It’s a ways outside of town, but walkable, so I made the trek. It was probably a 45 minute jaunt. When I got there, however, all of the gates were closed off. It did look beautiful, but the closest I could get was about a quarter mile away through trees. Worst of all, it was on the Southeast part of town and my hostel is on the Northwest, so it was a good hour hike to get home. The only blemish on an otherwise wonderful night of exploring.

and just for kicks…
Marc O’Polo

and last but not least…
No, this is not the Jewish Weiner Choir. You should know that the Viennese call Vienna Wein, so this is the Vienna Jewish Choir. :-)

That’s all for now! Big day tomorrow…going to Schonbrun palace!

Posted by atbrady 15:30 Archived in Austria Tagged vienna st. palace austria house opera peters hofburg stephans

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