A question I repeatedly received before my trip was ‘where are you most excited to go?’ My answer often changed. From the Greek Islands, to Berlin, to Switzerland. In fact, I think Austria is one of only a handful of destinations which didn’t once feature in my ‘most anticipated’ list. Perhaps my lack of expectations contributed to my being so completely rapt with it now.
We arrived in Vienna on Friday evening. Almost immediately, a couple of my pals and I set off on a walking tour which Busabout had suggested. Titled ‘Walk and Fork,’ the idea was to be guided around the city, before tucking into a traditional Austrian dinner. Our guide was wonderful – she spoke ever so enthusiastically about the city, both in a historical sense and a contemporary sense.
We visited many of the main sites, such as the famous statue of Mozart located in a central park, the Hofburg Palace, and St Stephen’s Cathedral. It accorded us a great taste of the city – before we literally tasted. I’m no stranger to a good schnitzel, but this one really was delicious. And we had apple strudel for dessert. It didn’t take me long to get on board with Austrian cuisine. Those at home, don’t be surprised if I come back a little rounder…
On Saturday, a few of us Busabouters had signed up for another one of the suggested tours. This one, the ‘Grape Escape,’ took us on the train about an hour outside of Vienna to the Austrian countryside. We rode bikes, visited wineries, and passed through some beautiful little towns along the way. The scenery was stunning, the wine was delicious, and the weather was sunny (well, in patches, but at least it wasn’t raining). This was easily one of my favourite days of the trip so far.
The only downside was that it left me with just one single day to explore Vienna. I started off at the Schonbrunn Palace – and seemingly every single other tourist had the same idea. Once I pushed my way through the sea of selfie sticks, the place was incredible. A little about Schonbrunn: it was an imperial summer residence used by the Hapsburg monarchs over the years of their reign. Built somewhere around the 1600s, it has – wait for it – 1441 rooms. The baroque palace is one of the most important architectural, cultural and historical monuments in the country. It also has amazing grounds and gardens which I enjoyed walking through after I’d toured the impressive state rooms.
A new discovery of this trip is Rick Steves. For the uninitiated, Rick Steves is a travel writer who produces audio podcast guides to European cities, amongst other things. You download the tracks relevant to the city you’re visiting, and then you’re ready to go. That afternoon I set myself up with his Vienna city walk, and let Rick guide me around the city. No need to read a map; Rick’s got it covered. Not to mention the history, or the interesting tidbits. I can’t speak highly enough of this app.
The starting point of the tour was the Opera House, which is grand beyond words. With music being such a big deal in Austria, it makes sense that their state opera is a focal point of the city. Unfortunately to see the inside you have to buy a ticket to a show, or take a guided tour, which I didn’t do. Next time!
I stopped briefly at the original Hotel Sacher, where the famous cake was first ‘invented’. The sacher torte is a chocolate cake with a thin strip of apricot jam separating two layers. It is iced in dark chocolate. In all honesty, I’ve had better chocolate cakes for less money. But it was about the experience. The hotel was fancy, and I can say I had a sacher torte at the home of the orinigal sacher torte. Tick.
Next on the audio tour was St Stephen’s Cathedral. I’m told it’s Romanesque and Gothic in its style, and has been the setting for many important events in Austrian history. What struck me most was its colourful tiled roof, which is unique and symbolic of this famous cathedral. The cathedral’s interior is beautiful, ornate, and quite enormous.
The last main stop was the Hofburg Palace complex, where the Hapsburg family lived (except for in the summer, when they stayed at Schonbrunn). It now houses a number of museums, including one on Empress Sisi (Elizabeth), the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. I thought that would be a cool one to visit, as something a little different from the typical history museum, or art museum. Moreover, I could tell Sisi was a fascinating character from my visit to Schonbrunn. The museum documented her narcissism and struggles with Royal life, and was really well done.
The ticket also included admission to the silver collection, which contains rooms and rooms of cutlery, crockery, and various other practical and ornamental pieces which were used by the Hapsburg family over many decades. I was in awe of every spoon and every knife; every plate and every bowl. Each piece was so intricately decorated. It’s the sort of museum I would imagine everyone’s grandmother enjoying. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it though!
I also visited the imperial rooms of the Hofburg Palace, which were amazing, although similar in parts to what I’d seen at Schonbrunn that morning. Wow, what a decadent life those Hapsburgs had!
Throw in a goulash for dinner, and that was pretty much all I had time for before leaving for Salzburg the next morning. There is a song by Billy Joel called Vienna – you probably know it. I’ve always known it and liked it a lot, but now I feel as though I appreciate its meaning a little more.
“Slow down, you crazy child, and take the phone of the hook, and disappear for a while. It’s alright, you can afford to lose a day or two… When will you realise, Vienna waits for you?”
As much as there are plenty of sights to see in Vienna, the city is also fairly relaxed. It’s not an enormous capital hustling and bustling at all hours of the day and night. The Viennese seek to enjoy life. To spend a morning sitting in a cafe over a single cup of coffee and some newspapers, or a sunny afternoon in a park, is very much ensconced in the culture. I only wish I had a little longer to slow down… But it turns out in this packed itinerary of mine, I can’t afford to lose a day or two. I know, though, that Vienna will be waiting when one day I make it back again.
On Monday afternoon, our bus pulled in to sunny Salzburg. During the day, we had stopped to pick up and drop off some fellow Busabouters in a place called Grunau. This tiny town, nestled in the Austrian mountains, was absolutely beautiful. Our guide encouraged us to fill up our water bottles straight from the stream, and we all enjoyed what I think is the freshest water I’d ever tasted. I wished I was staying there. But as I keep telling myself, you can’t do it all.
I spent my first afternoon in Salzburg with Rick Steves. As always, he gave me a great tour, which included various landmarks relating to Mozart – Salzburg’s pride and joy. They have really capitalised on Mr Wolfgang! That aside, Salzburg is a beautiful place. I wandered in and out of cathedrals and churches, made my way through lively town squares and old streets, all the while my buddy Rick Steves drawing attention to various points of interest along the way.
Salzburg’s other claim to fame, of course, is the Sound of Music. On Tuesday morning, I went on the famed Sound of Music tour. Though I’m a fan of the film, even if you’re not (who are you??) this tour would still appeal, simply for the pretty places we saw. First, we visited the back of the Von Trapp house, which is set on the lake where Maria and the children all fell in. Our guide gave us a whole range of interesting info, such as how they had to get divers under the boat to tip it over for that particular scene, and how one of the young actors couldn’t swim.
We then visited the gazebo which has actually been moved from its original location, but looks just the same. We passed another house which served as the front of the Von Trapp home, as well as Nonnberg Abbey, where Maria was studying to become a nun.
We then drove a little way out of Salzburg to see some of the glorious scenery which provided the backdrops for the film. In a little place called Mondsee, we visited the church where Maria and the Captain were married. The real life Maria and Captain Von Trapp were married at the Abbey, but this is where there wedding was filmed for the movie. Our guide was able to explain many aspects where the film differed from the true story. Hollywood is Hollywood, after all! The tour finished in the Mirabell gardens, which also played host to some scenes of the film. The whole thing was very touristy, but lots of fun. There was even singing on the bus!
That afternoon, I went up the Salzburg fortress. Set atop a hill, you can walk up, or take a fernicular if you’re sensible. I chose the latter. This fortress is from the 11th century, and as well as touring some of the rooms (including an old torture chamber!) there are a few interesting museums up there. Though perhaps the biggest drawcard for me was the view. From the top, you could see all of Salzburg and the mountains beyond. It was a beautiful day, which certainly helped.
On my last morning in Salzburg, I went to visit Mozart’s former residence. Today it’s a small museum documenting his life and that of his family. The highlight for me was seeing a few of the instruments which he once played. They don’t make them like that anymore! Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take photos.
I then spent some time wandering Salzburg’s main shopping street, which is set gloriously in the old town. Close by, there was a daily fresh produce market where I bought the most delicious raspberries. I sat in the square and enjoyed my last bit of time in Salzburg – and Austria. An unexpected highlight indeed.