The February half-term holiday was approaching and I decided that I needed a trip to look forward to following a very trying few weeks at work.
This is where “Ryanair Roulette” steps in- you check the cheaper airlines to see where has the ideal combination of cheapest flight prices along with most convenient dates and times, then you check hotel prices and availability and you go from there. It’s not about finding the absolute cheapest holiday, but about having an open mind to go somewhere that might not necessarily be your first choice but somewhere that presents itself as an economical and convenient opportunity for this particular time.
Obviously, there are other factors to take into consideration such as weather, safety, and whether or not the place does actually appeal to you in some way otherwise there is no point.
This strategy has lead me to Bordeaux, Tallinn, Porto, and now Vienna, the capital of Austria.
Everybody close to me already had holidays lined up around this time and Andrea, my partner, had just returned the day before after a month in Italy studying hard towards his final veterinary specialism exams that will take place in Frankfurt at the end of March. I moved abroad to Córdoba alone, took several trips to Málaga and Madrid alone whilst living in Spain, and I’m no stranger to driving across the country to visit family alone, but I had never gone on a holiday travelling abroad totally alone. I decided it was time to take that adventure.
I had had some intrigue about Vienna in the past but it wasn’t top of my wish list but I went to Austria for the first time last year on a school ski trip (Zillertal region) and it made me see what a beautiful country it is and I did want to explore more.
Truth be told, I didn’t know an awful lot about Vienna but its very name evokes 19th-century grandeur, classical music (Strauss), art (Gustav Klimt), the Hapsburgs and the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
The name Vienna also brings to mind a certain Ultravox song and Viennese Whirls (turns out they too are a British invention- who knew?).
Anyway, the half-term holiday arrived and Andrea dropped me off at Manchester airport for my maiden solo voyage.
I arrived in Vienna around 11:30 and walked through the airport following the bright green signs for the CAT (City Airport Train). This train takes just 16 minutes from the airport to Wien Mitte which is Vienna’s central train station for national and international journeys. A return ticket costs 24.90 euros for an adult. This was easy enough! The language in Vienna and most of Austria is German however almost everybody I interacted with spoke very good English.
After disembarking the train at Wien Mitte, I wasn’t sure where to go or which way to turn; it looked a bit rundown as I exited the station into the cold, stark February street which didn’t look exactly inviting with bare trees, grey buildings and graffiti everywhere.
I hadn’t had much time to plan the specifics of this trip due to work being so busy that I didn’t even know where the centre was so I had to Google this quickly: Stephansplatz, or, St. Stephen’s Square, just a 20-minute walk away.
I turned the corner and was surprised by the imposing, gothic St. Stephen’s cathedral, completed way back in 1578. It gave me the creeps a bit so I didn’t venture inside or linger around. I wasn’t sure where to go at first so I decided to head for a famous old kaffeehaus I had seen on Vienna’s Tourist Board Instagram called Café Schwarzenberg.
Think dark wood interiors; vintage chandeliers; waiters dressed in black suits with brass buttons, arms behind their backs as they pour your wine; soft piano music tinkling over the speakers, and businesspeople meeting over a coffee or taking half an hour to themselves to read a newspaper- that is the vibe of this grand café that dates back to 1861.
I ordered würstel piccante (spicy sausages) in gulaschsuppe (goulash soup) with a bread roll. This was beautiful and full of flavour, spicy but not overbearingly hot. I ordered a glass of Austrian Zweigelt red wine as I brought a bottle back from Salzburg airport after the ski trip last year and it was one of the nicest wines I tried in 2022. This choice of wine accidentally paired with the dish so well with its smoky, chocolatey flavours.
On a side note, I think Austrian wines are so underrated here in the UK. Zweigelt for red and Grüner Veltliner for white are now amongst my favourite wines- look out for them in Aldi and Lidl to give them a try.
Viennese Coffee Culture
The Viennese love their coffee just as much as the Italians do but in a different manner and style.
Whereas Italians cherish their coffee bars for a quick espresso to catch up briefly with a friend before the working day or for a lunchtime pick-me-up, the Wieners started frequenting coffeehouses and coffee gardens from the 17th century for longer periods of time to play cards, debate politics, discuss art and literature or play billiards or chess.
Unsurprisingly, women were not initially allowed to enter coffeehouses but from 1840, they were allowed to enter if accompanied by their husbands. Later, women could enter ‘unchaperoned’ but were assumed to be there to meet men. Eventually, women could enter in their groups of female friends to partake in similar activities to the male patrons.
There are hundreds of coffee shops around Vienna from the old, elegant ones to minimalist, hipster bars but I would say when in Vienna, do as the old Viennese did and visit a classic kaffeehaus, a form of tourism in itself.
After an espresso to wake me up, I left the café and walked a few minutes around the corner to find a beautiful church called Karlskirche, or St. Charles’ church with its grand Greco-Romanesque pillars, golden Latin lettering and jade-green dome.
In front, there is a duck pond and just a few people sat around it quietly reading in the calm afternoon. It is lovely to find an oasis in a busy city to get your bearings, especially when you have just arrived and are there on your own.
It had just turned 2pm so I could head to my hotel to check-in and leave my bag behind so I could walk around hands-free for the rest of the day.
I stayed at the Jaz In The City Hotel which (as the name indicates) is a music-themed hotel as part of a small chain found in Amsterdam, Stuttgart and of course, Vienna. I loved this hotel and highly recommend it due to the little details such as having a record player in your bedroom and being invited to choose some vinyls from their selection to take up and play, to the tablet in the room loaded with information on the hotel facilities and services and the tourist sights of Vienna, to the yoga mat, Nespresso machine and record-themed decor.
After a shower and a nanna nap I got ready and started to map out a route of where I was going to go, writing metro stops down and distances in my notebook.
I popped up to the rooftop bar to see if I could have an easy dinner there but they were just serving bar snacks so I had another glass of Zweigelt (nowhere near as nice as the earlier one at the Café) and sat outdoors despite the cold to take in the view over Vienna, wrapped up in coat, scarf, (faux) furry hat and gloves.
I searched on my phone for traditional Austrian restaurants and found just what I was looking for: the Zwölf Apostelkeller (Twelve Apostles Cellar), an underground venue that felt like a cave with wooden benches and tables and lanterns. Musicians played the violin and accordion, moving around the tables as people chattered away loudly in a lively atmosphere.
I ordered what I thought would be a selection of three different Austrian cheeses but it turned out that ‘three cuts of cheese’ was just the same, bland cheese three times… how often does this happen abroad when you order something that sounds enjoyable but arrives and wasn’t what you expected!
I didn’t fancy sitting in a pub, club or bar on my own but the night was still young and I wanted somewhere to go before heading back to the hotel so I thought about going to see some live music.
Google (again) provided the answer which was Jazzland, Vienna’s oldest jazz club set in another cellar. It cost 14 euros to enter and they only take cash at the desk. The venue had already filled up with almost all seats taken but I just managed to nab a stool in the middle to the side, just where the bar staff could enter and leave while they served customers.
Take a tip from my lesson and get there earlier to get a better seat and view!
The jazz band that night was a quartet on piano, saxophone, double bass and drums. The pianist spoke in English to the crowd and they were really entertaining, scaling a variety of moods and tempos.
At this point I was tired and considering how to get back to the hotel, unsure of when the last metros run, so I climbed the cellar stairs into the moonlight and hopped on the metro back to the Jaz Hotel.
The next morning I had an espresso in the room then took advantage of the yoga mat which was a lovely touch and should be more commonplace in hotel rooms in my opinion! I put the record player on as I got ready then jumped on the metro into the centre.
A quick note on the metro system:
It is a little bit like the London Underground with a network of five lines named U-Bahns. They are highly efficient and easy to navigate, jumping on and off with ease. They operate between 5am and 12:30am, usually every 5 minutes.
You can buy a day ticket which costs 8 euros and also permits journeys by tram and bus, but I stuck to the metro for ease. A one-way ticket costs 2.40 euros. Just remember to validate your ticket after you purchase it and it is printed at one of these otherwise it will be invalid (I was almost arrested in Budapest aged 19 for not validating a subway ticket which was terrifying at the time!):
I started my day at another 19th-century café, this time the Café Central on Herengasse, established in 1876. This was once the daily hub for poets, philosophers and revolutionaries including Trotsky, Freud and Zweig. (More about the middle fella later)
I usually hate queuing and tend to reshuffle my day or skip an attraction altogether if it means standing around for an unknown duration in the cold but the queue diminished quickly and I was in after around 15 minutes. Upon entering, I was struck by the intricate architecture and decor which reminded me loosely of the arcs of Andalusian structures such as the Mezquita of Córdoba.
I ordered a hot chocolate and apfel strudel which were both enjoyable enough and the glass counter of pastries and chocolates is stunning artistry but one gripe about this place was the rude and dismissive waiter who then asked for a tip.. I’m sure that tips are supposed to thank someone for good service, and the café isn’t cheap (I paid 16.40 euros just for a hot chocolate and a slice of cake).
Much more joyously, I walked a few streets away towards the Austrian National Library expecting to just burn half an hour in a pleasant, bookish space but was stunned when I entered the doors to find the most beautiful library I have ever seen.
It costs 10euros to enter but is worth it, and there is clearly constant restoration work going on which ticket fees must fund. I watched two members of staff carefully painting gold leaf on to the ornate banisters, while others were moving around the lofty bookshelves on wheel-mounted ladders, handling the large yet delicate leather-bound books with gloves.
The baroque furnishings, heavenly pillars and presence of gold everywhere is striking and that is even before you reach the end of the state hall and gaze up to the frescoe-painted ceiling. It is breathtaking, my mouth literally fell open as I walked in not expecting to look like the interior of a palace (and I have been to the Livreria Lello in Porto and the Gladstones Residential Library in Hawarden- both unique and beautiful in their own ways).
Kunst Haus Wien/ Museum Hundertwasser
Kunst Haus Wien, or Art House Vienna, was one of my favourite experiences of this trip. I had only heard of the Viennese artist Hundertwasser at the school where I teach as Year 9 study him, so I felt drawn to go and learn more.
Hundertwasser was an artist, architect and environmentalist who connected art and nature, refusing to draw or work with straight lines due to the fact they don’t exist in nature. The floors throughout the Kunst Haus are uneven for a reason:
Hundertwasser designed this house to reflect his artistic philosophies, playing with colour, shape and dimensions. It is known as the first ecologocial museum with the omnipresence of plants, rocks and water systems alongside the artworks. The whole building and garden are artworks; it is truly an immersive experience.
Afterwards, I had lunch in the Café and opted for Wiener Schnitzel (basically a chicken escalope over french fries with ketchup) even though it wouldn’t be usually what I’d choose but it’s good to try local cuisine.
The museum is part of the Hundertwasser Village where the streets are similarly uneven, with houses with trees sticking out of the walls and the same absence of straight lines but plenty of bright colours.
That night I had dinner at an Asian restaurant round the corner from the hotel then packed my bag ready to leave early the next morning to see a couple more places before the 15:25 flight.
I had to leave this until Wednesday because it is closed on Tuesdays. The ticket was 14 euros which seemed a bit steep for a small museum with not many artefacts (most of Freud’s possessions and furniture such as his famous ‘talking therapy’ couch are now in London) but I imagine it helps pay for the upkeep.
I first studied some of Freud’s theories for A Level Psychology and was fascinated, and I continued to learn more about him on my English degree so I had to visit his home of 47 years and his psychoanalysis practice at Berggasse 19 until he had to flee the Nazis.
It was interesting to see the door to his building with name plaques and buzzers like any clinic on an old street and to step inside and walk up the stairs where his patients and colleagues would have ascended all those decades earlier.
Freud had his ‘smoking room’ where he and friends would meet to discuss their ideas, away from the rest of his family.
Freud seemed a loving and devoted husband and father, and he nurtured his youngest daughter Anna into following in his psychoanalytic footsteps.
I then hopped back on the metro then the City Airport Train and made my way to Vienna’s really efficient and comfortable airport before a really smooth flight (for a change) back into Manchester!
I was tired when I got home so it took me a few days to appreciate Vienna, but now after a few days back home plus writing about it here on my blog, I can now say that Vienna is a really cool and artistic city that has loads more to see than I had time for, and I might return one day as part of a dual trip with Budapest (a holiday idea we had in autumn 2021 but Covid prevented that one!).
Let me know whar you thought of Vienna or if you have plans to go in the comments!