Thursday, September 1, 2016

Summer part 3: Music, schnitzel, museums, and palaces in Vienna

Hofburg Palace in Vienna. June 2016

A contrast to my Malta trip. Vienna is full of activities. Museums, Palaces, Gardens, Biking, Wiener Schnitzel, Viennese pastries, Music, a Market, and Contemporary Art and Design. The only thing I am missing is dance. Just as I was leaving Vienna, the Tanz festival was about to start a week later. I was thoroughly impressed by Vienna. The city, the architecture, the open bike lanes, the monuments, the parks, the art, the music, the food and drink. It was beautiful. I'm going to make it a point to revisit this beautiful city.

The Austrian-Viennese residents overall were really helpful and nice to visitors. June is a peak summer travel period and there were many tourists littered all over the city. When I lived in New York City, I avoided Times Square many times because there were too many tourists lining the streets. There's an area near St Stephan's church that is lined with shops in the inner stadt and reminds me of all the tourist areas. Overpriced mediocre restaurants, kitschy souvenir stores selling the same crap, lots of gawking tourists, and crowded streets and plazas. The weather was pretty warm so walking through crowded areas was not very pleasant. However its pretty much unavoidable if you are a visitor to Vienna and want to see the famous landmarks. 

Typical Austrian food. Meat & Potatoes in a brown gravy sauce with fried onions. 
Food in Vienna is pretty generous in terms of portion sizes. I was shocked! If you live in America, you would definitely find the portion sizes to be normal. My first Austrian meal was this dish (pictured above) with meat, potatoes, gravy, and a generous topping of fried onions. Most Austrian food fare is pretty meat-heavy but the residents seem to be adventurous and health conscious so traditional Austrian food isn't consumed every day. 

Cute little wine shop near Pentahotel
I arrived Vienna in the evening and was pretty tired from the sun and sea in Malta so decided to rest that night. I stayed at the Pentahotel in Vienna which is in a neighbourhood that was part residential, part commercial, and due to a small amount of hotels nearby there is very little tourists for the first night. The next day, I walked around the area and found a little wine shop that also sold specialty jams, Italian parma ham, pasta, soda, etc. I sought some refuge from the heat (it was around 30 degrees). The Austrian guy working behind the counter was very knowledgeable about the wines that were sold in the store. I wanted to try Austrian wine so he poured out some wines for me to taste. 

I settled on a white Austrian wine because of the hot summer weather. I prefer drinking reds but the sun was brutal and I had just been walking around outside. This white had a light sweet taste with medium dryness, hints of apple and pear. In other words, it was refreshing. I drank about a glass or two almost each night I was in Vienna before bedtime. ;-) 

Wiener schnitzel 

Wiener Schnitzel in Austria? Why of course! Schnitzel is one of my favorite dishes and its origins are Austrian so of course, I had to eat wiener schnitzel in Vienna. After researching on Yelp where I could find a nice place to eat with good wiener schnitzel, I found a casual bistro pub near Wien Mitte which also happened to be close to the Aparthotel Hotel Adagio where I was staying for the remainder of my trip. This little bistro pub has a very German sounding name and I'm not even sure how its pronounced: Gasthaus our Gruabn A totally unassuming local joint with a peaceful outdoor al fresco dining area. The portions were very generous and prices were relatively cheap. I'd recommend sharing or taking some home to-go because the entrees also come with salad and kartoffelsalat (potato salad). 

Hofburg Palace. Royal table setting.
I have a thing for palaces and castles. Perhaps its due to the Disney Princess upbringing, although I preferred the supporting characters to the main character themselves. Perhaps it could also because living in Southeast Asia and in America, there's not many palaces or castles since those countries do not have an old history of monarchy. Vienna is filled with palaces and I visited two of them. Hofburg Palace and Schönbrunn Palace. 

The first palace visited is the Hofburg palace, located in the Innere Stadt area and is comprised of multiple museums. I was excited to see Viennese royal table settings, elaborate napkin foldings, all the gold and silver chinaware. It was a lot to see and one can easily be overwhelmed by the place. The Royals that used to live there in the past were extravagant in their dining rooms and the Hofburg palace has housed the most powerful people in European and Austro-Hungarian empire. Read more about the Hofburg Palace on their website

The tour of Hofburg Palace includes the Gold and Silver rooms, Imperial apartment, Sissi museum. Its broken up into three parts and you could get another type of admission ticket that takes you further into the Imperial apartments. I definitely recommend spending a day here because there's so much to see but if you have a limited amount of time in Vienna, plan to spend about 4 hours here. 

Travel tip: when given an audio guide to hear the historical facts of each artifact don't waste time trying to listen to everything. Pick and choose what you want to hear otherwise you could lose an entire day listening to all the historical facts behind every spoon, fork, napkin, painting, chair, etc. 

Photography is not allowed in the Sissi museum or the Imperial apartments but I managed to sneak in a picture of this dress. The Empress 'Sissi' was a mysterious lady with constant wanderlust. She was a troubled woman with many demons in her head and sought to find solace in being alone and traveling often. Quite a fascinating and mysterious woman who lived in a gilded cage. 

I am a fan of taking a coffee break in the middle of the day with a cup of coffee and a snack. The Viennese are known for their famous cafes and taking time out of the middle of the afternoon to sit and enjoy a sweet pastry cake with some coffee or tea. Cafe central is probably the most famous cafe in Vienna. Though Cafe Central is on the touristy side, it is the most famous with a grand history of literary and politics. I came here to get a chocolate torte and was surprised by the grandeur. I only wished I sat in the cafe with a cup of coffee, cake, and a book to read. The architecture, ambiance, and smartly dressed servers hints of the a different time period. This place will be on my list of to-do the next time I'm in Vienna.

My trip to Vienna coincided with one of the biggest summer festivals in Europe during the summer. Donauinselfest is a multi-stage all access music festival that is free for the public on the Donau island in Vienna. Totally free admission and many different types of music were being showcased on the multiple stages throughout the island. It's definitely an event that local residents and visitors come to Vienna for. There are multiple food trucks and vendors throughout the festival. Some of the music acts drew large dancing crowds that made walking through a challenge. 

St Stephan's church is located in the centre of the city and not hard to miss. The tall elaborate structure is magnificent. It's free admission into the church but if you want to go up to the rooftop, there's a small admission fee. Not as crowded as Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia with the number of visitors so one doesn't feel so overwhelmed. My biggest pet peeve of visiting tourist spots is the sheer amount of people there. 

The summer weather in Vienna was hot but not too much humidity like in Malta. I loved the fact that there was a park near the hotel I was staying at. People were just chilling in there sunbathing, walking their dogs, playing frisbee, reading books, doing yoga. Europeans love the al fresco lifestyle in the summer months. Austrians seem to enjoy the sun especially if it means leading an active lifestyle. There are many citibike spots to rent a bike for a few hours and dock it at any open bike spot. Littered throughout the city, Austrians also use this as a transport option the is fairly fast and inexpensive. Vienna has wide open streets and designated bike lanes which makes it fairly easy to travel by bike. 

I'm not a very good cyclist so the designated bike lanes were key to making me feel safe for city biking. I biked to another park just north of the innere stadt to check out a World War II historical landmark called the Augarten flaktower.  This city park has lots of green area with wide biking paths, gardens, two WWII flaktowers, and lots of open green space. Local residents come here to play a game of bocce ball, soccer, frisbee, picnic, etc. A family-friendly park that is worth visiting if you need a respite from the concrete jungle. The WWII flak towers were once the artillery storage for gun powder during the war and now the towers just serve as a historical monument.

Street food in Vienna is pretty awesome. At the music festival, I ate a giant fried flatbread that was lightly salted and there was pepperoni inside the flatbread. I kept seeing these foot long sausages stuffed into a baguette condom. Sigmund Freud probably ate this a lot. I was intrigued and gave in after passing by the multiple food stands selling this at the Schwedenplatz area.

Schönbrunn palace is truly a stunning place. The palace grounds is massive with lots of statues and flower gardens. There is also a little area to go through mazes. A family friendly place where you can enjoy with your kids. The mazes are fun to go through and I felt like I was in a Harry Potter movie. (ok, minus the charms, wizards, witches, and dangerous animals lurking in between the bushes)  Schönbrunn palace itself is definitely a must-visit place. Your admission ticket will get you access to the stately grandeur of the rooms. The highlight is towards the end of the tour which is a ornately designed hall where royals of the past used to entertain their guests and have soirees that we only read about in history books. I wanted to dance the waltz in this beautiful room. Your admission ticket includes an audio guide as well. Like the Hofburg Palace, you can purchase a special ticket to see more rooms. Personally, you don't need to purchase this ticket unless you are a fan of Sissi and the Austro-Hungarian empire.

Vienna is known for music around the world and musicians flock to this city from all over. My Aussie cousin (Hi!! If you're reading this! ;-) ) is a talented musician and she came to Vienna when she was younger with her music group. On the first day in Vienna, I was seated at a table next to some Americans who were music teachers and music students that were in Vienna for a music conference or festival of sorts. With so much attention on music, it would be a shame to not attend a classical music concert in Vienna. There is a ton of music sample performances made specifically for tourists and it can feel very commercial and touristy. I was a bit annoyed by the pushy sales guys outside St Stephan's church and the price of the ticket wasn't too bad so I bought a ticket to a show that consisted of classical music, ballet, and opera in a traditional Viennese hall. I wanted to see what the hall would look like. The show wasn't bad, the musicians were pretty good and the classical Mozart pieces they performed were famous that were crowd pleasers. I really just wished that I had done a bit more research and bought an opera ticket ahead of time. Lesson learned. I was amazed though at the acoustics in the music hall. The musicians and the opera singers didn't need microphones because the acoustics from the shape of the ceiling reverberated the rich sound. It was still an enjoyable evening.

I love markets and was excited to hear that there was a large market in Vienna. Naschmarkt is the most popular market in Vienna with fruit and vegetable vendors, stalls selling hand painted plates, clothing, Asian food shops, spices, nuts, snacks, chocolate, souvenirs on one side of the market and on the other side were restaurants. It was quite overwhelming to choose where to dine. I was hoping that Naschmarkt would be similar to Boqueria market in Barcelona or Östermalms Saluhall where one can sit at little cafe or order food to-go and sample a little of everything. Naschmarkt has proper sit-down restaurants so its wise to look around and see what is on offer before making a selection. All of these restaurants were busy with local residents and visitors alike. One can choose to dine al fresco or sit inside the restaurant. Naschmarkt is a cross-cultural crossroads of Vienna with food from around the world.

Public transportation in Vienna is fast, efficient, and clean. There are also plenty of taxis as well. Getting around the city is fairly easy. My favorite mode of transportation are the trains and walking. One of the recommended things to do in Vienna is to take a tram around the ring tram which goes around the Innere Stadt area around the central part of the city. Instead of doing this, I went to the technical museum which houses all the advances in technology, transportation, and music. From cars to violins to apps to anatomy to agriculture this museum is filled with artifacts and information. A great place to take the whole family and wander the whole day. This has got to be one of the best museums of science and technology I've been in.

Near my hotel sits the MAK museum which I kept walking past until I got curious and walked in.. MAK is the modern art and design museum. Like other museums there are permanent collections and temporary exhibits. I was intrigued by the Robert La Roche exhibit of vintage glasses (and even bought my souvenir Robert La Roche sunglasses from Vienna from the museum shop!). On the same floor there were also table settings, furniture, and fashion design exhibits. I loved the MAK and gained free admission because it happened to be a Tuesday evening. The MAK museum is free admission on Tuesday evenings from 6-10 pm.

The beautiful adjacent restaurant/lounge rounds out my first trip to Vienna. This restaurant has a gorgeous garden and a cozy atmosphere. A great place for post-museum and to enjoy a nice drink with tasty new-Austrian cuisine.

I have relationships with places. Some places just click and the chemistry is endless. Vienna is one of these places for me. I know I have to come back because there is an energy and a lifestyle that draws me into this city. Museums, good food, music, festivals, cafes, architecture, palaces, what more could one want? Vienna, I'll be back.

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