A visit to Vienna is always a great experience. So having one in the middle of my Viking Danube cruise was a real bonus: one of the world’s great cities mixed in with historic medieval towns like Melk and Cesky Krumlov.
For me, it was a fond return. I paid a visit to Vienna back in 2014, on my way to a Mediterranean cruise, and was captivated by its grand avenues, monumental buildings and cobblestoned streets that led past centuries-old shops and restaurants. History speaks from every corner in the old city: an emperor stood here, Mozart walked there, Sigmund Freud had his coffee in the café down the street.
The weather was frosty on my first visit to Vienna, so I was looking forward to finally seeing the city in nice weather. Not so much: we awoke to a cold, blustery day that made us put on every piece of clothing we had. But even so, it was still Vienna, and it was still as amazing as ever.
Our guided walk started in Theresienplatz, the great square dominated by the Natural History Museum and the Art History Museum, both huge buildings that were once part of the imperial palace complex. Today they’re the figureheads of a museum district that ranks as one of the best in the world.
The square is watched over by a statue of the former empress Maria Theresia, looking across the street to our next stop, the Hofburg Palace. For hundreds of years, this was the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, under the Habsburg family. That’s easy to believe when you see it, sprawling out in several directions over a big stretch of downtown Vienna.
And of course, all of it is monumental and artistic, dotted with heroic statues, expansive courtyards and beautiful archways. This is one of my favourite views, looking through the ornate ironwork to the heart of the old town – which shows how close the royal household stayed to their city, physically, at least.
The Habsburgs had a great liking for horses, and part of the palace is devoted to the famous Spanish Riding School and its renowned Lipizzaner stallions. We stopped at the indoor stable were some of the Lipizzaners are readied for the show ring; only stallions are used, because the gaits and steps used in the shows are more natural to them. The horses are trained for up to six years before they’re considered ready to perform.
The stable was quiet when we arrived, but just we were about to leave, a murmur went up and out came the horses, led by their handlers. As we watched, they paraded through the doors and across the corridor to the training ring for their morning session. It was a wonderful sight; these are some of the most beautiful horses in the world.
Outside, we entered into the life of Vienna’s old town as it is in the 21st century. However, not before a last look at the palace — and some more horses. On my last visit to Vienna, I caught a memorable photo of horses and carriages waiting outside St. Stephan’s Cathedral. And there, standing outside the palace gate, were horses that looked uncannily similar. So forgive me if I recreate an old shot: you can see it at the top of this post.
The way into the centre of town leads down some of Vienna’s toniest shopping streets, decked out with cakes and flowers for wedding season. While most of the buildings are centuries old, the Viennese have done a good job of keeping their character while turning the ground floors into modern stores and restaurants.
The centre of the old city is the cathedral, where men in medieval costumes stand selling tickets to evening concerts in the church. I followed the crowd inside, and walked the side aisle past people lining up for the tour of the catacombs; there’s also a tour that climbs the steeple for a great view of the city. It all looked familiar, though looking up, I saw something I didn’t remember from last time: what seemed to be an indoor cloud. Let’s hope it’s not the kind that rains.
The tour was over, but there was lots of time left. And the first directive was to get warm, and fed. I hustled past the palace and across the Volksgarten to where Vienna’s grand, Gothic Rathaus or city hall stands, on the Ringstrasse — the ring road system that encircles the old city, where a defensive wall once stood..
I wasn’t going to visit city hall, though. I was interested in the building across the street, which houses one of Vienna’s classic coffee houses: Landtman’s, where Freud ate on a regular basis. The venerable restaurant has added a glassed-in patio in recent years, but inside it’s still chock-a-block with wood panelling, fancy upholstery, and of course, classic Viennese food, especially pastries. You’ll read more about my visit in future. For now, let’s say I came away warmed and satisfied.
The next stop was the one main attraction I missed on my last visit to Vienna: the Schõnbrunn Palace. This was the Habsburgs’ summer palace, away from the heat and humidity of the inner city. It’s situated right on the Danube, and surrounded by extensive formal gardens that make some compare it to Versailles.
The summer palace is only slightly less imposing than the winter palace, fronted by a huge courtyard and filled with art and luxurious furnishings. The tour led through room after room lined with paintings of the imperial family and classical scenes from ancient mythology. It also took us through the room where the six-year-old Mozart first performed for the empress, then reportedly jumped into her lap and smothered her with kisses.
I’d like to show you pictures of all this, but like many other historical buildings in Europe, the Schönbrunn Palace has a strict no-photos policy. So we’ll have to make do with a photo of the gardens, where tourists take more than enough pictures to make up for it.
After the palace, I hurried back to the ship, because the day wasn’t finished. I had signed up for an optional night of music, held in a historic hall whose construction was partly due to the intervention of Mozart himself. The night of music and dance was performed without amplification, in a room illuminated only by chandeliers – a trip back to the city’s musical past. The performances did the surroundings credit, a good way to end a classic visit to Vienna.
The day was over, but the tour wasn’t. Another great city, Budapest, was still waiting for us. But before that, a day in Bratislava, Slovakia. You’ll read about it in my next post.
I was a guest of Viking River Cruises on this trip. However, the opinions expressed are my own.
The photos in this post were taken with the Panasonic DMC-G7 and Sony DSC-WX500 cameras.