When my mom was young, her parents worked for the US State Department. As a result, she spent most of her childhood traveling from one country to the next, instilling in her a love for travel and adventure that she still has to this day. A few years ago she mentioned wanting to take a vacation with the family to one of her favorite cities that she lived in growing up: Vienna, Austria. Unfortunately it was too expensive for the whole family to travel across the world and too hard to fit into everyone’s schedules, so we never got to go on that vacation. The idea stayed in my head however, and now that I have the means to travel on my own I decided to take a Vienna vacation for myself.
On Friday, December 2, I boarded a plane from Dulles to Vienna knowing absolutely no German and having booked nothing but a (very nice, very well researched) hotel room near the city’s Museumsquartier. I didn’t really have any plans whatsoever. I hadn’t picked out any sites I wanted to see (except a single museum), and I knew almost nothing about the city itself. All I knew was that I wanted to have a relaxing weekend sipping coffee or beer in the small European capital.
Day 1 — Ich Spreche Kein Deutsch
Landing at Vienna International Airport, it quickly became clear just how little German I can understand. While I can usually stumble my way through Spanish and French, German may as well have been Greek to me. In the airport this wasn’t an issue at all, of course, but I was relying on the Vienna underground to get to my hotel (which is already a bit of a crapshoot in many cities).
Vienna has a very convenient train that goes directly from the airport to the center of the city (Wien Mitte) which I took instead of a taxi, expecting that I would get to see a bit of countryside. Unfortunately I didn’t see much of anything from the train. From there it was a quick subway ride to the Volkstheater stop and then a five minute walk to the hotel. It was more than a five minute walk for me, though, because I couldn’t read the street signs and went the wrong way. I got a good look at the Parlament on the way though.
One thing I very much appreciated about Vienna’s underground was the way ticketing works. You buy your ticket at a kiosk as you would anywhere else (or on your mobile phone, as I did), and then you just walk onto the train you want. There are no turn-styles or anything between you and your train.
When I arrived at the 25hours hotel I was able to check in, but my room wasn’t yet ready because it was only about 9:00am. So, I dropped off my luggage at the desk and asked the helpful young lady working there for a map and some ideas for things to check out around the city.
The museum I was most interested in in Vienna is called Mumok, a modern art museum less than a five minute walk from the hotel. I made my way over there and spent a couple hours exploring its six floors. The top three floors were dedicated to a rotating exhibition that I can’t say I was much of a fan of, and the bottom three floors were filled with selections from the museum’s archives. The museum building itself is a beautiful but imposing structure, with very dark and industrial interiors (other than the standard white art exhibit rooms). I enjoyed some of the more high-concept works I saw there, but I was most impressed by the paintings that were on display in the lower levels.
By the time I finished exploring the museum I was getting pretty tired, so I headed to the museum’s cafe and ordered a black coffee. I still don’t know what I received but it wasn’t black coffee as I know it. It was very tasty, however. Then I looked around the gift shop for a bit before heading back to the hotel. When I arrived the cleaning people were just finishing up my room so I headed up to the top level where it was located. I was blown away by the room: it had floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the beautiful city, it was equipped with a full kitchen and a bluetooth speaker, and it had an extremely comfortable bed and heated floors in the shower. Frankly, it was the most comfortable room in which I’ve ever stayed. I’d recommend the 25hours hotel in Vienna to anyone. I immediately fell asleep.
When I woke up several hours later it was dark. It was about 9pm and I wasn’t really in the mood to explore the city for a place to eat, so I headed downstairs to 1500 Foodmakers, the hotel bar and restaurant. It was pretty busy, but I managed to get a seat at the bar and flag down a waiter whose nametag said Nacho. A few minutes later I had a large bottle of Puntigamer, known as the “beery” beer. That’s probably the best way to describe it; it’s about as generic tasting as beer gets. Disappointed in my choice but still thoroughly unable to understand German, I ordered a second. After that I had to ask the bartender for something a little darker and received a massive glass of Wieselburger Schwarzbier. It was much better.
Now fortified against the cold, I decided to do a little midnight exploring. The hotel is situated within a five or ten minute walk of three or four of the plazas that turn into Christmas markets all winter. I headed towards the nearest one, Rathausplatz, knowing that the market would be closed but expecting to get some dark and moody pictures of the fantastic architecture. Satisfied with the photos I’d taken and starting to lose feeling in my hands, I made my way back to the hotel. Back in my hotel room, I fell asleep easily once again.
Day 2 — A Little Exploring, A Lot of Sleeping
I made it my mission before I even set off for Vienna to spend as much time as I could relaxing in complete comfort, and on Day 2 boy did I ever accomplish that mission. I spent much of the day in the hotel room dozing, watching the sun rise and fall, and listening to music on the bluetooth speaker. It was absolutely decadent.
In the morning, however, I got up in search of a good cup of coffee. What I found was a small brunch place near the hotel called Ulrich, which was mercifully less crowded than usual due to it being the off season. Because I was a party of one, I was seated at a communal table, where I was later joined by two American girls from Boston and Los Angeles. We chatted for bit about what brought each of us to Vienna as I enjoyed my breakfast (the Full Monty, it was delicious), and then I headed back to my cozy hotel room.
After another fantastic nap, I headed to the Rathausplatz once again, this time to see the Christmas market. It was beautiful: a bustling little village of stalls selling all sorts of crafts and treats, couples walking by clutching warm drinks, and all under the beautiful buildings of the plaza. I warmed myself with a mug of Gluhwein (mulled wine) and searched for gifts among the stalls. Each Christmas market had its own Gluhwein mug design so I decided to try and acquire as many variations as I could. As I finished my steamy mug I made my way back to the hotel for a good night’s rest.
Day 3 — City Exploring
I was lucky enough to wake up extremely early (perhaps because I had spent the bulk of the previous day napping), and got to take some fantastic photos of the Viennese sunrise from my hotel window.
When the sun had risen fully I decided to explore the area around the Museumsquartier. Everywhere I went was very walkable and not too crowded but not empty either. I checked out the various museums and some shops, saw some strange buskers in horse head masks, and finally wound up at the Maria-Theresien-Platz, another nearby Christmas market. There I took some photos, grabbed another delicious mug of hot Gluhwein and trolled around looking for Christmas gifts for family and friends. The Maria-Theresien-Platz was one of my favorite plazas, surrounded by ornate buildings and with massive statues in the center. I returned to my room for another wonderful nap shortly thereafter.
Waking up in the evening again, I decided to find a local dive bar to grab some food and beer. There turned out to be one very close to Ulrich, where I had been for breakfast the day before, called Das Käuzchen. It was small and cozy and reminded me of smaller bars back home. Many of the decorations on the walls were even in English. I ordered a beer by pointing at the drink of the man sitting next to me and settled into the great atmosphere. A couple beers later a guy at the bar struck up a conversation, noticing by my camera that I was a tourist. We talked a bit about the Austrian election which had happened the day before, about traveling, and about the American election before eventually parting ways for the night.
Day 4 — St. Stephen’s Great Workout
The sight that is probably the most recommended in Vienna is the south tower at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in central Vienna. It’s in the guidebooks, it’s on the Internet, it’s even one of the major things that nice lady at the front desk mentioned on my first day in Vienna. So I knew I wanted to see the view from the top of this thing. The only problem was that it wasn’t really close to the hotel and it was 343 steps to the top, so I saved it for my last full day in Austria.
I set off around 1 in the afternoon in the direction of the cathedral (it can be seen from anywhere in the city but I had a GPS as backup) and passed through a few more Christmas markets on the way, promising to return to them for my Gluhwein mugs. At the center of the city is essentially a large outdoor mall, filled with people walking along and shopping at the fashion retail stores and gift shops. Personally not a lot of the shopping appealed to me, but the streets were lined with beautiful buildings and punctuated by incredibly intricate statues.
Finally I came to St. Stephen’s Cathedral, bought my ticket from the least friendly ticketing window attendant on Earth, and started to climb the 343 steps to the top. I quickly realized that I had no idea how many steps 343 was. I had to take a breather a couple times on the way up, but finally made it with my shirt completely soaked through with sweat (I was wearing three or four layers because it was so cold outside) only to see that at the top was a tiny gift shop and a diagram showing that the “top” wasn't really the top at all. It was maybe halfway up the total height of the tower. Not only that, but the view was obstructed by filthy panes of glass on small windows, from which you could see almost nothing of the view. After collecting myself for a minute or so, I descended the tower feeling as though I’d been had.
At the bottom I decided to start doing my shopping on my way back to the hotel (I had picked out a few gifts for people and needed to pick up the two Gluhwein mugs of the plazas I’d passed through), and once I reached the room I laid down for a well-deserved nap.
The Long Road Home
I had planned to head back to Stephansplatz in the evening to see it lit up with all the Christmas lights, but the funny thing about walking up 343 steps (not to mention across the city and back) is that it has a way of knocking you out. I booked a transfer to the airport for the morning so I wouldn’t have to worry about using the trains so early in the morning and enjoyed my last great sleep at the 25hours hotel.
In the morning I checked out and my driver was already waiting for me. He was very helpful and we made it to the airport with plenty of time. The airport was kind of a pain, mostly due to them requiring you to check yourself in and check your bag instead of having an attendant do it. An attendant had to verify everything anyway, so I’m not sure how much it really helped anything. Once I’d made my way to my gate, I grabbed some breakfast and settled in.
The flight was uneventful, if a bit long, and before I knew it I was back in the good ol’ US of A. All in all, it was an amazing trip, and I can’t wait to go back to the city in the future.