Just a few days after our return from Slovenia, I was back at it again. This time, bound for Vienna, esteemed capital of the Hapsburg dynasty. With May having turned to June, travelling was getting more expensive, so instead of the usual flight I opted for a train ride. 7 hours stood between me and my destination. With a long weekend ahead of me I boarded the train just after work and was on my way.
I had seat reservations the whole time and had brought along my laptop to get a little work and research done. The ICE trains in Germany feature WiFi, which made being productive (or unproductive) easy. I had a changeover in Munich. The highlight of my brief stop there was when I was able to buy something from a vending machine paying exclusively with 5-cent pieces. It was very satisfying to get rid of all that change.
Despite my best intentions I did nap on the second train a bit. This turned out to be okay however, as my scheduled arrival wasn’t until 12:30AM and the train ran about 30 minutes late. Arriving at the train station was a little disorienting. I was looking for the S-bahn (street train). I had assumed it would be above ground, but the station was actually underground connected to the train station through a tunnel.
Eventually I found my way, bought a ticket, and rode a few stops north towards my hostel. Unfortunately I had a 30 minute walk or so after my ride, because while the U-bahn would have taken me closer, it was no longer running this late at night. I got into the hostel, paid, and collapsed onto my bed around 2:30AM. I suppose the nap wasn’t such a bad idea after all.
Between the nap and the late bedtime I managed to get enough sleep to be out of the hostel by a respectable 9:00AM or so. I was in Vienna alone, so the first item on my agenda was an audio tour to get me oriented. The tour started south of the city, so I made my way to the opera house. The building was done in an intricate baroque style in an grandiose scale. I didn’t peek inside but took some time admiring all the sculptures and statues adorning the exterior. Vienna is somewhat of a musical capital in Europe; historically, great composers performed in the halls around the city. Nowadays, the Opera House still hosts shows daily, and standing-room tickets are actually really affordable.
After surveying the Opera House, I stopped by a few ritzy cafes nearby. Elegant interior decorations framed rich cakes, coffees, and patrons. I can’t remember the last time someone served me wearing a tuxedo, but here you could have the luxury experience for just the price of a cup. Too bad I don’t like coffee. I moved on.
My next stop on the self-guided tour was St. Stephen’s cathedral. Vienna feels like it radiates outwards from this impressive church. I did a lap of the church, taking in all the intricate carvings, the dirt which had accumulated on the church walls, and all the gawking tourists staring upwards at the colorful roof and elegant spires.
While there I learned a bit about the history of the cathedral- the building was in many ways responsible for the rise of Vienna as an important city. Rather than being built here because the town was notable, locals erected the church to stand out in the eyes of the church to attain prominence.
Inside the cathedral I faced a gloomily lit lofty interior, flanked by rows of carved saints forming pillars to hold up the roof. I spent some time admiring art near the front entrance but opted not to pay to enter the main part of the church.
Continuing on with my self-guided tour, I settled down for lunch at a recommended spot. I was treated to a tasty mix of stewed beef and potatoes. While it was good it was perhaps a little heavy for a lunchtime meal, but I made up for it with a light dinner later. After lunch I dipped into a nearby baroque church which had some really intricate decorations on the inside.
Near my lunch spot was the Hofburg Palace, ruling seat of the Hapsburgs. Besides being an impressive example of Baroque architecture, the palace hosts several museums, including the famous Treasury. There, precious artifacts including gilded vestments, crown jewels, decadent everyday items like cribs and chairs, and even (alleged) nails from the cross of Christ are on display.
I grabbed a new audio guide and made my way through the treasury. I learned a bit more about the history of the Hapsburgs, their ties with religious powers of the time, and got a sense for the wealth and splendor they indulged in in their empire. Dark rooms contrasted starkly with shining gilded objects on display.
The treasury was divided into two halves: one each for secular and religious artifacts. I surveyed the secular artifacts first, and found a few curiosities among the more conventional items. They had a “unicorn horn” (really a narwhal tusk) on display. Apparently it was thought that unicorn horn had healing properties and was therefore very rare and valuable at the time. Who knew?
Making my way through the treasury, I found myself gaining an appreciation for the Hapsburg empire. While it may not be as well known as some of the ruling dynasties in France, England, or Italy, the Austrio-Hungarian regime had plenty of power, wealth, and influence. The remnants of that time here on display serve as a testament to their once-great status.
I made my way out of the treasury but decided I would check out some of the other exhibits in a different wing of the palace. A short walk later brought me into the armory, a far less crowded yet (in my eyes) equally impressive display of arms and armor.
I geeked out for awhile admiring all the weaponry and regalia. It was a little strange being there myself as there was no audio guide this time, so I was left to wrestle with the German descriptions where I needed any explanation and just look on without them otherwise. There were lots of different arms and armor on display, from purely-functional pieces to highly ornate ceremonial suits. Armor for sport and jousting dominated some rooms, while others’ held more battle-ready pieces. I liked some of the odd ones- breastplates for overweight men, strange faces in helmets, and unusual weapons such as flails and maces all ensured there was something interesting to keep your attention.
The armory also held a large collection of classical instruments. I didn’t spend as long here as I did with the arms and armor, but it was still neat to check out and here too I noticed some unusual pieces. Horns in shapes I had not seen before, harpsichords and pianos in strange forms, and lots of finely decorated string instruments graced the halls. Sadly, none were being played, but my imagination filled the air in this city of classical music. Like in the armory, the exhibit was not crowded so I was free to explore at my own pace and get up close to the objects.
Alongside the armory there were a few Greek statues and works of art. It seemed a little out of place there in the same museum, but I took a quick walk through regardless. The collection was small and modest, but featured a few pretty statues and again, no crowds. It was nice to appreciate the art without hoards of tourists gawking at everything.
I exited the museum. The afternoon was winding down but I had a few more spots to check out before heading back to the hostel. I swung by the Museum Quarter to do some people-watching and appreciate the ambiance. Bushes and fountains with wide paths hosted children playing, musicians, buskers, and others relaxing in the afternoon sun. To either side, an imposing facade framed another museum – an art gallery to the left and the museum of natural history to the right. I didn’t spend time to go into these but stood for a bit and watched kids playing with some sculptures outside the natural history museum for a few minutes.
After strolling through the open square I began a winding journey back to the hostel. I made a pit stop by the impressive Rathaus (city hall), where I saw a few skaters trying tricks and seating being set up for an outdoor event. I snapped a few pictures then continued along the ring road surrounding Vienna until I made my way back to the Danube river. There, I grabbed a quick sausage dinner and headed back to the hostel for the night.
After a long first day in Vienna I was tired. But I had a long weekend ahead of me, and lots more to explore. Stay tuned.
Best wishes and safe travels everyone,