When Jack and I began planning our recent trip to Europe, we expected to only visit Italy. We had our hearts set on seeing Lake Como and the Piedmont region, but we weren’t sure where else to go. We looked into visiting Cinque Terre on the Ligurian coast, but quickly realized that we wanted a bit more city sightseeing to balance out the quieter lakes and Italian countryside. I looked at a map and realized that Vienna, Austria was just a quick plane ride from Milan; neither of us had visited Vienna before, and we had fantasized about spending time in this seemingly charming city after watching the movie Before Sunrise. This location was new to both of us, different from the other spots we were visiting, and fit seamlessly into the logistics of our trip. Vienna it was!
We had United miles to burn, so we flew from San Francisco (SFO) to Vienna (VIE) with a brief stop in Frankfurt (FRA). We left SFO at 2pm on a Saturday and arrived in Vienna at 1:10pm the next day. We chose a United flight so that we could upgrade and get more legroom in Economy Plus, though we are doubtful that we had any extra legroom at all. At least my giant husband was on an aisle!
We took a cab from the airport to our hotel, which cost €38 total.
Since Marriott acquired Starwood last year, we now have many more options for cashing in our Starwood Preferred Guest (SPG) points when we travel. A friend of Jack’s gave him a valuable tip to cash in SPG points at Marriott properties when possible (instead of Starwood properties), as the conversion is 1:3 and you get more bang for your buck. Boy was he right! We ended up staying at the Ritz Carlton in Vienna (by Marriott), which was comparable in points to staying at Le Meridian (a lower category Starwood property).
We loved the Ritz Carlton in Vienna. Our room was large and comfortable, with a decent park view. The location was fantastic, right along the famous Ringstrasse (circular street in the heart of the city), and next door to Stadtpark, where the famous Steirereck restaurant is located. We were able to walk everywhere we wanted to visit in the city (we didn’t even use the metro!) The service at the hotel was fantastic, and the concierge was incredibly helpful when we needed information about museums, the opera, or an excursion out of the city.
By far my favorite part of the hotel was the warm indoor swimming pool. For three days straight, we would wake up and Jack would work out at the gym while I took a leisurely swim. Each morning I was the only person using the pool; I was able to swim laps, stretch, float, and walk thought the water – whatever my heart desired! – without anyone disturbing me. It was a luxurious way to start each morning.
The Albertina Museum houses one of the greatest collections of graphic art in the world. It was originally established in 1805, and was given the name Albertina in 1920, a portmanteau of “Albert” and “Christina,” referring to Duke Albert of Saxen-Teschen and his wife Maria Christina, Duchess of Teschen (daughter of Empress Maria Theresa and sister of Marie Antoinette, part of the Habsburg Monarchy).
There is so much to see in this museum. We only had a couple of hours to spend there, but I would recommend going early in the day, leaving for lunch, and perhaps returning after lunch to see more (tickets are valid all day). The permanent Batliner Collection contains over 100 paintings including the works of Monet, Picasso, Degas, Cézanne, Matisse, and many more. We really enjoyed our time there.
We weren’t sure we’d visit more than one museum in Vienna, as we only had three full days there (a short stop for us – we like to take our time exploring cities, ideally on foot), and we typically don’t like to pack our days too full of activities. However, it rained for the majority of our stay, and we were grateful to duck into the Schloss Belvedere to keep dry and take in the breathtaking views and art.
There are two buildings at the Schloss Belvedere, the “Lower Belvedere” (€13) and the “Upper Belvedere” (€15). Both buildings have their own artwork and gardens. We bought tickets to both (saving €6.50 each), but the Upper Belvedere is the real star of the show – you probably could get by with skipping the Lower Belvedere. The museum is home to Gustav Kimt’s The Kiss (and used to house his painting Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I – I highly recommend watching the movie Woman in Gold to learn the story behind this painting before visiting Vienna). There were other works by Klimt, Monet, and Van Gogh to name a few. The architecture, gardens, and views were outstanding as well.
We walked past the Vienna State Opera on our first night in Vienna and we were immediately drawn to this historical cultural mecca in the heart of the city. It was teaming with guests dressed to the nines, and we noticed passersby seated in first come, first serve seating watching an opera projected on the wall of the opera house. Jack and I had never been to an opera (except for free “Opera in the Park” when I lived in NYC), so this seemed like a great way to take in the music scene for which Vienna is famous.
Our concierge assisted us in purchasing tickets. Unfortunately, we were unable to see the Mozart opera during our visit because we had made dinner plans at Steirereck which couldn’t be easily moved. So we went with a Russian tragedy called Chowanschtschina by Modest Mussorgski. We ended up purchasing these tickets at the opera house (€124 each for front row loge), as we had been told we might get a better price if season ticket holders had returned any tickets. When we purchased our tickets we saw that the show started at 6:30pm; we asked the ticket saleswoman what time the opera ended and she replied, “a quarter to eleven.” We made a pact that we would be okay leaving early since 4 hours and 15 minutes seemed absurdly long even for a theater-lover like myself!
We arrived right at 6:30pm and EVERYONE was seated already. I guess the Viennese are prompt! We had incredible seats which included small screens with the English translation of the Russian opera. The acoustics of the opera house were incredible, and we really felt the emotions of the tragic performance on stage. However, I did have a difficult time following the story, despite the English translation!
The first act lasted until 7:30pm, followed by a 15 minute intermission. The opera house served drinks as well as sandwiches, which made sense given the early start time and overall length of the show!
The second act lasted from 7:45-9:10pm. At this point we had been at the opera for 2 hours and 40 minutes and we were running out of steam. I assume the second intermission lasted until 9:25pm or so, followed by the third act which was scheduled to end at 10:45pm. We decided to duck out early to grab a slice of Sacher Torte and a couple glasses of champagne across the street at Café Sacher. The cake was a bit dry for our tastes, but it was a fun experience nonetheless.
Overall we were glad we visited the opera. If I could do it all over again, I would have looked at the show schedule ahead of time to choose a show that was a bit shorter and by a composer with which we were familiar. Lonely Planet recommends booking up to eight weeks in advance, especially for popular shows. We visited in mid-September and were told the opera season had just started; if you visit in the summer, check to make sure the opera has performances at that time.
As I’m sure you know by now, Jack and I love to explore cities on foot. Unfortunately, it rained for most of our stay in Vienna. When the sun finally peeked out on our third full day in the city, we decided to walk to the Spittelburg neighborhood, which was recommended to me by an Austrian friend who visits Vienna often. We found all of Vienna to be beautiful and clean, but Spittelburg was an especially charming neighborhood. It reminded me a bit of the Monti neighborhood in Rome: tall trees and greenery, lots of outdoor cafés and restaurants. There were a lot of young people out and about, and there were a variety of restaurants (including several Mexican restaurants?) We ate lunch at a spot named ULRICH, which I had read about in the New York Times 36 Hours in Vienna. The outdoor seating area was very charming, though the food was just so-so. We walked by a restaurant named Glacis Beisl which had a gorgeous garden out back – I would love to try this spot when I return some day.
Day trip to Heurigen
My friend Amanda visited Vienna a couple years ago and highly recommended visiting the Heurigen (wine gardens) in Grinzing (a 20 minute train or cab ride from Vienna). Luckily the weather cooperated in the late afternoon/early evening of our last day in Vienna. We took a €20 Uber to Sirbu, a heuriger up on a hill with incredible views of Vienna and the nearby vineyards. This was recommended by our concierge – I recommend having your concierge make sure that the heurigen you plan to visit are open, as they are known to keep unpredictable hours. We drank some “award-winning” riesling and took in the view. The wine was good enough, as these heurigen typically serve “young wine” no more than a year old made by the owner.
After Sirbu, we took another Uber down the hill to the village of Grinzing. We had some pinot noir at Zum Martin Sepp, which was less charming than Sirbu. After these drinks we migrated to Müllers Heuriger, which we had found on TripAdvisor. We found Müllers to be incredibly charming – we shared a tasty bottle of chilled white wine (€19 Müller Traminer) which won a “Goldmedaille” in 2017. We also had some of the cafeteria-style food, which was quite good. I ordered some cheese, speck, salami, a fig/bacon/brie tart (would have been better warmed up), as well as a warm tomato/zucchini tart, with a slice of brown bread for a grand total of €18. We did have to swat away some yellow jackets which were all about our food, but we enjoyed ourselves nonetheless. We got to watch a killer sunset from the deck, which was a fabulous way to end our stay in Vienna.
If we’d had more time
If we’d had more time in Vienna, I would have checked out the following activities:
- Ride bikes to/around Prater park (rent from Citybike).
- Ride Wiener Riesenrad (giant ferris wheel in the Prater – Celine and Jesse do this in Before Sunrise).
- Ringstrasse (circular street) Tram Tour – a good thing to do when you first arrive in Vienna, when you’re just getting to know the city.
- St. Stephen’s Cathedral – climb to the top of the towers?
- More time at the Albertina Museum!
- Hofburg Palace and the Spanish Riding School (performances Saturday and Sunday; practices Tuesday – Saturday at 10am – our concierge recommended arriving at 10:30am to watch the second practice of the morning).
- Schloss Schönbrunn Palace – #1 activity according to Lonely Planet.
- Musikverein: classical music concerts
- Sigmund Freud Museum
Prior to leaving for Vienna, my good friend Amanda forwarded me an email with food and sightseeing recommendations she had received from an old coworker named Sophie who had lived (grown up?) in Vienna. Sophie stated that Figlmuller Wollzeile has “the best wiener schnitzel in Vienna.” So we went here for lunch on our first full day in Vienna.
We were grateful I had made a reservation, as the restaurant was completely booked for lunch on a Monday! We ordered the famous wiener schnitzel with vogerl potato salad. The schnitzel was giant! It was bigger than the plate and while it was thin, I still could only eat half. Traditional wiener schnitzel is made with veal, so I assume that was the meat we were eating. It was pounded thin and battered and fried – what’s not to love? The potato salad was creamy and a bit sweet. It came with mâche salad (my favorite – I wish Trader Joe’s still sold it!) with balsamic vinegar. The restaurant did not serve beer like we are used to having with schnitzel, but their own wine made from estate grapes. Our lunch cost €50 + tip.
My friend Kathrin is from Austria and just so happens to be a vegetarian. I’ve never met a vegetarian who didn’t love hummus, and Kathrin is no exception. NENI’s hummus came highly recommended by Kathrin, who really wanted to hear Jack’s review (Jack is Armenian-American, born in Beirut – he’s very particular about his hummus). So we made our way to Nashmarkt, an outdoor market that has existed since the 16th century. Most of the restaurants looked like tourist traps (lots of pictures of food), though NENI appeared charming and hip.
The verdict on the hummus: the creamy and smooth texture was perfection, but we felt it needed a bit more flavor (garlic? lemon?). But many of the other items we ate at NENI were out of this world. The quinoa salad, lamb/beef kebabs, and baba ganoush were outstanding. The falafel and muhammara were less memorable (we’re used to the walnuts being blended into the muhammara). If we’d had more time in Vienna, we would have returned for a second meal. Highly recommended if you’re in Vienna (they also have locations in Berlin, Zurich, Hamburg, and Tel Aviv).
When we were planning our European vacation, we took a peek at The World’s 50 Best Restaurants to see if we could hit up any spots on the list. We discovered that the 10th Best Restaurant in the World is Steirereck, located in Stadtpark in Vienna. We made a reservation as early as possible (a few months in advance).
We enjoyed our meal at Steirereck immensely. We chose the seven-course tasting menu, each of us choosing our own seven courses. We had heard that the char cooked in beeswax was Steirereck’s signature dish, though this was not on the tasting menu; our waiter kindly allowed us to use this for one of our courses, though we both had to order it since two portions are cooked together.
Here are the standout courses complete with the detailed description cards provided by our server:
Next we had one of the most decadent cheese courses I have ever experienced. We let the cheese expert decide for us – what a delightful treat!
We really enjoyed our experience at Steirereck. These rankings are a bit arbitrary and subjective, though we haven’t been let down yet. These tasting menus tend to be a lot more affordable outside of the U.S., and Steirereck was not exception. Another special meal!
I discovered Eis-Greissler on TripAdvisor, where it currently reigns as the #1 Dessert spot in Vienna. We had read that the ice cream was not only delicious, but made of natural and fine ingredients. So we stopped by for a few scoops. Jack went with caramel soft pretzel, which tasted exactly like yellow cake batter! I ordered a scoop of raspberry as well as pumpkin seed ice cream. All of the flavors were delicious – what a great find.
I had learned about Das LOFT (previously called Le Loft) in the New York Times’ 36 Hours in Vienna. Located in the Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom Hotel, Das LOFT offers sweeping views of Vienna from the 18th floor. We stopped by during the day for a coffee, but I would love to check it out for dinner or late night drinks.
We dropped by this bar for a couple late night drinks after our stop at Café Sacher the night we saw the Vienna Opera. Another gem from the New York Times’ 36 Hours in Vienna, When Dogs Run Free is a dark, swanky bar with delicious cocktails. The menu is only in German, but it is easy to understand as there are pictures of the drinks and a lot of the ingredients are easily identifiable. Jack enjoyed the Boulevardier and a Manhattan, while I sipped on the Amalfi Tonic (Tanqueray gin, limoncello, tonic, lemon juice, rosemary), followed by a Moscow Mule. Pro tip: watch your step walking downstairs to the restroom – the first step is too tall!
If we’d had more time
If we’d had more time, I would have eaten at the following spots:
- Dinner/cocktails at Das Loft (we grabbed coffee during the day, but would love to see it at night).
- Lunch at Glacis Beisl (beautiful/charming garden).
- Lunch at Motto am Fluss (hip restaurant on the river, likely need a reservation even for lunch).
- Pastries/coffee at Café Hawelka. Get the Buchteln (yeast rolls w/ jam and sugar) or Fruhstuck (Viennese breakfast), as well as a Melange (cappuccino) or Wiener Eiskaffee (Viennese ice coffee with vanilla ice cream and whipped cream – not sure if they serve this at Hawelka, but it was recommended as a coffee to try in Vienna). No take out, not even for pastries.
- Coffee/bread with butter at Kleine’s Café (café from palm reader scene in Before Sunrise).
- Eismarillenknödel (ice cream dumpling filled with apricot jam, covered in breadcrumbs) at Tichy.
Jack and I were very happy with our decision to add Vienna to our Italy trip. Vienna is clean, safe, and made up of beautiful, imperial buildings. The food is delicious with a variety of styles and cuisines. The city is small and manageable, and most places we visited understood enough English for us to be comfortable. I hope to visit again one day so try out some new restaurants and activities, as well as revisit the spots I enjoyed so much on this trip.