PHOTO: Spring tulips at Karlsplatz. (Photos by Scott Laird)
Tell virtually anyone who’s familiar with Vienna that you’re planning to spend 48 hours there, and they’ll immediately tell you that’s not enough time. Indeed, 48 hours isn’t enough time for most European capitals, but Vienna’s charm is very much a slow burn.
So, if it’s a slow burn, what’s the point of trying to see it in just two full days and a single overnight hotel stay? To be honest, my recent visit was a layover on the way to somewhere else, but I couldn’t fly through Vienna without seeing the place, so I booked a night in a hotel, and learned enough from my short time on the ground to offer some tips, so whether you’re a layover tourist, like me, including Vienna as a brief stop on a longer continental tour, or have a few moments to let expire on a business trip, read on.
Location is of the utmost importance when booking a short stay. Time spent commuting is even more precious when the visit is truncated, so I booked a room at Hotel Imperial, a Luxury Collection Hotel. It’s right on the ringstrasse, or ring road, the circles the city center, in a prime location next to the city’s top concert venues and historic cathedrals. The hotel was once itself a palace, and to this day continues to host state visits and celebrities from around the world. Rates are commensurate with the hotel’s palace status, but there are several nearby hotels that are just as convenient and more moderately priced.
Elizabeth Suite at Hotel Imperial.
A visit to Vienna should mean a visit to one of the city’s famed coffee houses. In fact, Vienna’s coffee house culture has been listed as Austria’s Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO , “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.” Coffee houses in Vienna are temples to languor, where the purchase of a beverage virtually bestows property rights until the bill is requested.
Coffee houses range from ultra-modern to classic to famous (Café Central, for example, was favored by both Freud and Marx). My favorite, however, is Café Sperl, open since 1880. Richly upholstered and staffed by famously gruff servers, the well-priced coffees and pastries buy any visitor a piece of quintessential Viennese tradition; multilingual periodicals and Wi-Fi are also available for those who prefer to read while languishing.
It seems as though the national culinary objective of Austria is to cook everything until it is fork-tender. From fiakergulasch (a braised beef stew) to taffelspitz (steak simmered in broth) to wienerschnitzel (deep fried pork cutlet), you shouldn’t need a knife to cut any of it (and it can be considered offensive to use one). There are plenty of places around Vienna to procure these famous Austrian dishes as well as a host of other international cuisines (a particularly appealing sign on one café I passed advertised “burgers, gin, and cheesecakes”; I couldn’t go in because I’d never leave).
For a quite Austrian experience, I ducked into Augustinerkeller, which is in the wine cellar of a former monastery and serves Austrian classics. Another place to wander, drink, and nibble is the naschmarkt (literally “munch market”), a few blocks from the ringstrasse, where you can sample from vendors and admire the multicolored food stalls and outdoor seating for restaurants and bars.
Fiakergulasch at Augustinerkeller.
I honestly agonized over whether to commit to purchasing tickets to a musical performance the day after getting off an overnight flight from North America, not knowing how well I’d sleep on the flight or at precisely which time Lady Jetlag would wield her wares to my detriment.
I’m glad I didn’t buy tickets, because the Viennese State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) projects performances in simulcast on a giant screen outside. I happened across the performance on the way back from dinner and watched for about 20 minutes completely free of charge before jetlag and the Fiakergulasch made sleep a necessity.
I’m a music fan, and I just had to see the space where the child prodigy Mozart charmed the Archduchess Maria Theresa of Austria. That’s Schönbrunn Palace, which is a short subway ride away from the ringstrasse. It’s a boon to early risers, opening at 8:30 each morning, and it’s best to go early when the light is good and before the tour busses start showing up en masse (luckily, I was just leaving a bus deposited what seemed like a large group of tourists all dressed as Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music. You can do the full tour in about an hour or poke around the gardens for as long as you wish (they’re open to the public free of charge).
Otherwise, in true Viennese style, the city is great for wandering without purpose and relaxing without a set end time. Linger over a mélange and apfelstrudel in a coffee house, sit in a park and take in the scenery, or poke around ancient cathedrals like the Karlskirche or Domkirche St. Stephan. Most importantly, even during a short visit, enjoy things the Austrian way: slowly, and completely.
Money Matters: Vienna isn’t quite as expensive as other European capitals. Credit cards are less widely accepted than other large European cities. Take cash to the naschmarkt in particular, and for smaller purchases.
Language: English is dependably spoken by staff in most hotels and some restaurants, but generally less so than in other parts of Europe. Like in many countries, even English speakers will appreciate some attempt to speak the local language, particularly prefaced with the local greeting Grüss Gott.
Instagrammable Moment: Vienna is gorgeous, and Instagrammers will find no shortage of places to photograph. You can’t take photos inside Schönbrunn, but the gardens are totally photo-worthy.
Souvenir: Chocolate, of course. Mozartkugel, is a local specialty confection. You can also find Vienna’s famous tortes, from sachertorte to Imperial Torte (from the hotel), packed for shipping.