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I’ll admit that my strongest associations with Vienna have to do with hot dogs and Billy Joel. Growing up in Chicago, I never gave a thought to what Vienna Beef meant other than an authentic hometown frank. And when the Piano Man asked, “When will you realize, Vienna waits for you?” I didn’t have a good answer.
But when I spotted a good fare on American Airlines, I happily booked the flights with my Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard. Even more happily, I had recently gotten the Hyatt Credit Card and turned my bonus into two free nights at the Park Hyatt Vienna.
Lots of cities have a reputation for providing a world-class experience, and Vienna delivers, with the world’s best quality of life. But you don’t have to live there to appreciate the incredible architecture, history and shopping — and those weren’t even my favorite parts of the trip. It was really these four things that struck me the most, and why you should plan your own visit someday.
1. The Art
From lowbrow to highbrow, from established masters to undiscovered prodigies, Vienna is a delight for art lovers. To start, one of the most glorious paintings in the world can be found in one of the most glorious settings — Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss at the Belvedere Museum Vienna, a palace-turned-gallery and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In fact, the Belvedere holds the world’s largest collection of Klimt paintings, as well as my favorite display: an entire room of character heads by German-Austrian sculptor Franz Xaver Messerschmidt.
A short ride (or long walk) away is the Albertina, a stunner in the center of town that plays host to a variety of touring exhibits, a permanent collection featuring masterpieces of the 20th century and a print room with more than a million other pieces.
Too fancy for you? Check out the street art — both official sculpture exhibitions throughout the city and street-level displays on walls, especially along the Danube.
2. The Music
Some of the greatest classical music comes from Austria, and you’ll find plenty to listen to all over Vienna. Classical isn’t really my jam, so I eschewed the opera houses but did allow for a mid-afternoon visit to St. Peter’s Church for an organ concert. Even if you don’t know your Mozart from your Mahler, the setting and sound are good for the soul and the price — free! — is good for the wallet.
For more afternoon music, I took a 10-minute taxi ride from the hotel to the concert hall at the MuTh to see the Vienna Boys Choir, a somewhat surreal experience as their repertoire ranged from music I recognized from horror films to a stirring rendition of Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes.”
At night, you can hear the pulsing EDM and rock music from clubs big and small or head, as I did, to see a Broadway-style musical — in German — at Ronacher theater. To save some money, check out the discount ticket booth near the Hofburg Imperial Palace.
3. The Food
Between all the schnitzel, goulash and sausages, Austria is a meat lover’s dream, and Vienna keeps the dream alive in ways varied and magnificent. The sausages on the street are served sliced with a piece of bread and a little sauerkraut and you can add a beer for a filling meal for just a few euros. I couldn’t go to Wien (Vienna in German) without having its namesake wienerschnitzel, breaded and pan-fried veal — it’s hard to find a bad one, and it’s even harder to eat the whole thing yourself.
I found simple, well-cooked meat dishes in Vienna. The goose at Gmoakeller was so good that I came back a second time. Restaurants aren’t always easy to find, with some memorable ones set in basements or tucked away behind churches. One that benefited from its advertising was the aptly named Ribs of Vienna, which sucked me in with its “1 Meter Spareribs” sign. I regret nothing.
Save room for dessert, either fresh pastries from the city’s many tiny bakeries or the legendary sachertorte, a slice of fluffy chocolate heaven/cake from the cafe in the Hotel Sacher.
4. The Transportation
Getting into Vienna is simple — whether by plane, train or ferry. And getting around Vienna isn’t just easy, it’s beautiful.
Taxis are plentiful (if a bit pricey), and Uber worked as well here as it does at home. But the real treat is using the metro and its trams. One of the world’s largest tram networks has some of the most beautiful straßenbahnen trains, which are always sleek, quiet and roomy.
The Vienna Central Train Station is as modern as can be, and can get you just about anywhere you want to go in Europe. The Danube River isn’t just nice to look at, it’s nice to ride on, too. I eventually opted for the high-speed Twin City Liner ferry to Bratislava, Slovakia, where I continued my trip. After a wonderful visit to Vienna, it was hard to leave, but from the back of a speeding ferry, it was a nice way to watch her go.
Vienna’s quality of life isn’t just a statistic. And it’s not just a city of luxury. In fact, what I appreciated most was the mix of high and low culture. I could see it in a few of my favorite things, to borrow a phrase from Maria von Trapp (who was born in Vienna before continuing her Sound of Music story in Salzburg): great art, food, music and transportation. Whether you spend a lot or spend a little, you’ll be glad you spent time in the center of Austria.
After all, Vienna waits for you.
What are your favorite things to do in Vienna? Let us know in the comments, below.
Featured image courtesy of Martin Deja via Getty Images.
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