Vienna is one of the most regal of Europe’s great cities. The mostly Baroque architecture creates high drama throughout the streets with imposing statues, green patina domes, and intricate detail work. In fact, the word “grandeur” in the dictionary should be illustrated by pictures of the city center – a legacy left by the Hapsburgs after their 640-year rule.
The most famous building of that legacy is Schönbrunn Palace, which was built in 1752 and has 1,441 rooms. The grounds are also the home of the world’s oldest zoo still in existence. My favorite architectural landmark in Vienna, though, is the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral. You can’t miss it because it’s right in the middle of everything and has a striking mosaic roof.
Besides just ogling the architecture, what I love about Vienna is simple: Strolling the streets, people-watching, and visiting some of the shops that actually made goods for the Imperial Court. I drooled over the fine porcelain at Augarten and the delicate hand-blown glass at Lobmeyr, which is also famous for its chandeliers. (Lobmeyr designed and made the crystal chandeliers in New York’s Metropolitan Opera House.)
If you want to get some fabric for a special custom garment or buy a scarf as a gift, head to Jungmann & Neffe, tailor to the royals. If nothing else, just walk in, take a look at the designs, and run your fingers over the cashmere. Then, drop by Demel, the perfect break spot for a Viennese pastry and a coffee. Walk upstairs to sit down rather than stand in line on the ground floor.
For a great lunch in a beautiful, huge Art Nouveau greenhouse building, there’s Palmerhaus, a restaurant in the Burggarten, a 19th century park near Schönbrunn Palace. Or take yourself to one of the restaurants along the Danube. Spend the rest of your afternoon visiting some of the many world-class museums in the city like the Kunsthistoriches, with its extensive collection of antiquities, historic musical instruments, and masterpiece paintings. It is honestly one of the best collections in the world.
As for where to sleep, I had the good fortune to stay at the recently redesigned Hotel Sacher, the home of the well-known Café Sacher and the dark chocolate Sacher Torte. The 5-star hotel was built in 1876 and has 149 individually designed rooms and suites. People like Queen Elizabeth II, Grace Kelly, Leonard Bernstein, John Lennon, and John F. Kennedy have stayed there.
Hotel Sacher is an institution in Vienna and is now owned by one of Austria’s top socialites and businesswomen, Elisabeth Gürtler, who also serves as the property’s Managing Director and had a personal hand in the new design of the property.
I loved the Blaue Bar, which is decorated entirely in deep blue from the walls to the velvet loveseats. There’s also the Rote Bar in red and the Anna Sacher Restaurant in rich green. Rote Bar serves traditional Viennese cuisine, while the Anna Sacher Restaurant, helmed by Chef Werner Pichlmaier, serves some of the most creative dishes I’ve ever seen. The meal I had there was one of the most memorable of my life. The menu changes periodically, and there are several choices for each course, allowing you to design your own meal. What I remember most was my cherry gazpacho with a small brioche in the center and some savory elements to cut the sweetness. I had a strawberry sorbet with goat cheese for another course and perfectly prepared venison for my main course.
Of course, with dinner, we enjoyed Viennese wines. One of the things that many people don’t know about Vienna is that it’s the only world capital with a number of vineyards in the city itself – 700 hectares of them. The wines in Vienna tend to be light whites like Riesling, although more red varietals are being grown today than in the past.
I loved the evening we enjoyed a meal at a traditional wine tavern called a Heurigen. The one we visited, Weingut Mayer Am Pfarrplatz, was a short cab ride from the city center and has been in existence since 1683, serving food since the 19th century. Beethoven even stayed upstairs for a period of time and composed part of his Ninth Symphony there.
We sat outside with some of the grape vines tangled in a canopy overhead, and an accordionist played live music for the guests made up of both locals and tourists. The traditional Viennese foods – Weiner Schnitzel (breaded and fried chicken or veal), sausages, and sauerkraut – were a great counterpart to the white wines.
While it’s great to simply drink in the ambience of Vienna, there’s nothing simple about the highlight of my recent visit – a formal waltz ball. Vienna has a very active “ball culture” with more than 450 held every year (most in winter). Mrs. Gürtler, the owner of Hotel Sacher, also runs the Spanish Riding School nearby the hotel, and each summer for the last three years, she has organized the Fête Impériale ball at the school as a fundraiser.
Before the ball, we took a Viennese waltz lesson at The Dancing School Elmayer, which has been in existence since 1919. As a tourist, you can arrange to take a lesson or two there yourself and feel ready for your grand ball experience.
With the basics of the waltz in my head, I donned my floor-length gown and headed to my first ball. The Fête Impériale is one of the few balls held in the summer, and it was quite a spectacle. Debutantes in white gowns danced with their young men in black tuxedos, and an all-female orchestra played while a celebrated Italian opera singer, Lucia Aliberti, sang an aria. Despite the fact that Vienna – like most of Europe – was experiencing an extreme heat wave this past summer, most of the men wore their tuxedo jackets all evening. This waltzing is serious business, and I was impressed. I recommend trying to nab a ticket to a ball when you visit Vienna. There’s nothing else quite like it.
I was in Vienna in the mid-1990s and saw all of the main tourist sites, but I missed out on so much because I didn’t know about the Heurigens, the balls, or the purveyors of the Imperial Court.
So, even if you’ve already been to this city in the center of Europe, you may need to go back if you also missed these experiences. And if you’ve never been there, it’s a must. I’ve seen most all of the large cities on the continent, and Vienna is unlike any other. There’s a reason why this gem on the Danube was named the world’s most livable city three years in a row.