Our too-short trip to Europe: Second stop - Vienna

From Munich we boarded a train and headed east to the Austrian capital of Vienna, or Wien in German. I’d been there before – about 17 years ago – but my wife (aka “The Timid Traveler”) had never been to any of the cities on our itinerary.

One of our “lessons learned” was to make train reservations as soon as you have an idea of your schedule. We knew May 1 was the May Day holiday in Europe so, since we were traveling back to Munich on May 1, we made reservations and bought tickets online, weeks before we left the U.S. We figured we’d buy the two intercity tickets once we arrived in Germany.

Our chariot awaits

We did, but it took literally 1-1/2 hours at the Munich Hbf and even at that, we had to settle for trains that left much earlier than we’d have liked. One thing we HATE to do on vacation is to have to set an alarm to get up. Hey, WE’RE ON VACATION! Alarms are verboten. Or should be.

Anyway, we decided to spend the money for First Class which, among other things, meant reserved seats. In Europe, train tickets often mean two separate transactions: the ticket for passage, then a purchase of seats … if you can get them. Our ticket agent’s reaction when attempting to find appropriate passage hinted that finding a seat in Second Class may have been difficult.

On our way to the Hbf to catch our train to Wien, the S-Bahn we were riding came to a halt two stops away from the main train station and didn’t move for about 20 minutes. With our schedule getting tight, we headed topside and hailed a cab to get us to the station. We arrived with time to spare, but barely.

Once on the train, we exhaled and enjoyed a bite of breakfast as we watched the passing scenery.

A view of the countryside from the train

 Arriving at Vienna’s Hbf, we were approached by a Deutsche Bahn employee who was also acting as a “goodwill ambassador.” Though things are well signed in English as well as Germany, she asked how she could help. When we told her we wanted to buy passes for the public transportation system, she walked us to a Tobacconist’s shop (which is where they sell the tickets) and waited long enough to hear that we were able to explain to the clerk exactly what we wanted.

A very nice welcome to Vienna!

From there, a short U-Bahn ride to our hotel on the banks of the Danube where we checked in, dropped our luggage, took a brief time out, then headed back out to see the sights.

A view of the Danube and Vienna's skyline from our room

The walk from the Stadion U-Bahn station to our hotel illustrated the maxim, “A map is not the territory.” Although I had walked the entire route virtually using Google Maps and Street View before we left home, the actual walk was much shorter and smoother than I’d imagined. 

Because I’d been to Vienna once before, the tour guide duties fell to me.

Our first stop was the famous Stephensplatz and the Stephensdom Cathedral. With its roof done in spectacular mosaic tiles during the Nazi regime, it dominates the city center. You can visit the main nave without charge but paid tours are available and, for a fee, visitors can climb 343 steps to the top of the south tower, which served as an observational post for watchmen and firefighters from the 1400s into the 20th century.

Stephensdom Cathedral

The area of Stephensplatz is a tourist mecca with a variety of attractions, and all manner of stores from tiny shops to branches of international brands including an Apple store in case your iPhone starts giving you fits. Because it is so crowded, it is also popular with pickpockets, so keep your valuables close -- ideally, under a layer of clothing – and stay alert, particularly if someone is too close, approaches you to “ask directions,” or generally makes you feel uncomfortable.

Many pedestrian areas spoke out from Stephensplatz and include a number of statues and monuments to people prominent in the city’s past, as well as a number of other churches. Mozarthaus Vienna, the 1700s apartment where Mozart composed, is less than 400 feet from Stephensdom. Heading west along Graben, one of the most famous streets in the Austrian capital, you’ll pass the Wiener Pestsäule (Column of Pest), a memorial column for victims of the Black Plague, with Josefsbrunnen (Joseph’s Column) on one side and the Leopoldsbrunnen (Leopold’s Column) on the other.

Pedestrian zone with gold-topped Wiener Pestsäule column

Farther along, Graben crosses Jungferngasse (Virgin Alley) where you can get a good look at the green-domed Church of St. Peter. We headed toward the church and soon heard the sounds of organ music. We went in, found seats, and let the strains of several Bach melodies wash over us as we blinked back the tears; it was that beautiful.

That particular concert was free of charge, though a docent held an offering basket near the exit, and most everyone put something in. Other concerts were scheduled throughout the weekend, and seats ranged from €29 to €57 depending on location.


Back to the pedestrian area. At the end of Graben, we turned left and continued toward Michaelerplatz, home of the Sisi Museum where visitors can see numerous personal items that once belonged to the Empress Elisabeth, also known as “Sisi.”

Heading back into the city, we strolled the pedestrian areas, popped into various churches, and took in the amazing architecture,  before heading back to Michaelerplatz.

Roman excavation at Michaelerplatz

Michaelerplatz is the location of the Spanish Riding School, home of the famous Lipizzaner Stallions. Pedestrians can catch of glimpse of these majestic animals from a corridor that passes their stables, or can join a one-hour tour, watch the horses take their morning exercise to music, or take in a performance. More information and pricing area available at the Spanish Riding School website

Our tour guide explains the history of the school

We chose the one-hour tour which provided an overview of the horses, tours of many of the facilities including the exercise ring, the performance ring, an up-close view of the horses, and a visit to the school’s tack room where I could actually utter the words “egg butt snaffle” and someone would know what it meant.

Stirrups for each horse and rider

In the tack room, bridles, stirrups, snaffles and other paraphernalia are sorted by the horse that uses them. The names above the tack are the names of the horses. The first name is the name of the sire and the second is the name of the dam. This protocol allows the school to keep close track of each horse’s lineage and gives them better control over future couplings in the event that a certain sire/dam pair results in a foal that has health problems or other defects.

Reins for two of the horses

The next morning, we headed for the Schӧnbrunn Palace and castle. This expansive facility was the main summer residence of the Habsburg rulers and was home of Maria Theresa, Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, among others. One of Europe’s most beautiful Baroque complexes, Emperor Maximillian II bought the former hunting estate from a monastery in 1569. It stayed in the possession of the Habsburgs until the monarchy ended in the aftermath of World War II.

Schӧnbrunn Palace grounds

The grounds include five guard towers, four attractions in Palace Park, more statues and fountains that you can shake a stick at, and gardens that are more than a square kilometer. The gardens and the palace have been on the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites since 1996.

Schӧnbrunn Fountain

While tours are available, many people chose to wander the massive grounds and see what they could see on their own. As with many such venues, one can spend as much or as little time as you’d like. If we had planned on more time in Vienna, we’d probably have devoted at least a half day to this grand destination.

Albertina Art Museum

Back in the city, we walked by the Albertina art museum, the Café Sacher (and the line of people waiting for a Sacher-Torte), Café Demel (and the line of people waiting to buy its pastries and chocolates), the Vienna Church, the Votive Church, St. Michael’s Church, the Roman excavations at Michaelerplatz. And yet, we barely scratched the surface!

The line for a Sacher-Torte (we passed).

There is so much to see in Vienna, including the Schokolade-Museum. We’re not chocoholics but for those who are, this could be Nirvana!

Votive Church
Much of Vienna closes on Sundays, so we decided to use the day for a bus trip to Bratislava and a tour of that European capital. More on that in the days ahead.

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Photos and Videos by Carl Dombek
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