As one would expect, Vienna is huge, but it isn’t an over-crowded, dirty, hellhole like the capital cities of most countries tend to be. After suffering with severely deficient maps in several cities (Munich, Göthenborg) or being denied a serviceable map altogether (Berlin), I got a tear in my eye when someone gave me a huge, detailed, easy-to-read map of Vienna almost as soon as I got off the train.
Although I was warned about accommodations being thin during high season (my visit fell in the middle of July), I had absolutely no trouble getting a reservation at a place within backpack hurling range of the Westbahnhof train station a mere two days before my arrival, (though by my third day in the hostel I was witness to several groups being turned away in reception, albeit with very helpful directions from the clerk to another nearby hostel with open beds).
If I may jut off on a general hosteling tangent for a moment: while the practice of reserving rooms on the internet has exploded into a near indispensable, fast and easy backpacker resource, it can also be horrendously misleading. One has to remember that for every one hostel listed on internet reservation sites, there are about five that are not and if you strike out on the net, there’s no need to panic. Worst case scenario, you’ll have to show up in the city with no accommodations arranged – like we brazenly did before there was an internet – whoops, just dated myself there, didn’t I? – then just wander around town for an hour looking for an open bed, or God help you, trek out the suburbs to the loathsome Hosteling International hostel affiliate. You should most definitely not bypass a city on the basis of a failed accommodations search on the internet. My biggest coup was the time when a friend and I arrived in Edinburgh with no accommodations arranged on the final weekend of the International Fringe Festival and through sheer bullish determination still managed to find two beds at a great hostel (Globetrotter). Sure, it was 35 minutes out of town on a spine jangling double-decker bus ride, but my point still stands. There is always a bed somewhere.
OK, back to Vienna…
Wandering around Vienna was a treat. I never got lost and I never had trouble getting a fix on my location on that God’s gift to city maps. I almost never used public transport in Vienna as nearly everything that a visitor could possibly want to see is all within happy and lazy walking distance within the Innere Stadt (Old City). The tourist information office is just off Kärntner Strasse, the main shopping street, which is a joy of people watching and woman oglin’. It is also a good example of Vienna’s multitude of historically profound and gorgeous buildings that are almost claustrophobically close together.
After putting myself through a 48 hour, high speed tourist-a-thon in Salzburg, I was museumed and cathedraled out. Despite its endless wealth of historic sights (The Rathaus, the Hofburg), art (The Museumsquartier), music (Haus der Musik, Vienna Boys Choir & Philharmonic), sex-obsessed psychoanalysis (Freud) and culture (everything else), I was content to spend my time in Vienna simply walking through the numerous, huge parks and boulevards; people watching in the Old City; circumnavigate and gape at various architecture marvels and fueling all of this footwork by wolfing down several chocolate and coffee combo gelato cones a day.
The best excursion in Vienna is without a doubt the gargantuan 1440 room Schloss Schönbrunn royal palace. Even if you don’t go for the forty room guided tour, this place will easily eat up an entire day once you’ve toured the palace grounds and gardens (it’s no Versailles, but it’s still bigger than anything you’re going to have the vigor to walk across in one afternoon), conquered the hedge maze, navigated the obstacle course park (watch out for the water jet booby traps), taken in the greenhouse and zoo and topped it all off with a dip in the swimming complex in the company of local women who will, to the adulation of all the males, be impossibly clad in even less clothing than on Kärntner Strasse. Damn, I love Europe! If you’ve got anything left in the tank after all of that, you can limp next door to the Baroque Schloss Belvedere palace and tour its art gallery and Baroque museum. Or you can just find a bench and make a spectacle of yourself double-fisting gelato cones, trying to consume them before they melt.
An unavoidable theme in Vienna and Austria in general is the Habsburg dynasty, which dominated central Europe and endured for more than 600 years. Unlike most empires, for the most part the Habsburgs expanded their regime passively, using cunning land purchases and superbly maneuvered royal marriages and networking, until of course they almost single handedly started WWI, at which time they were bounced out of power. With longevity like this, it’s hardly a surprise to learn that nearly everything Austrian is in some way related to this family, be it art, the historically unrivaled music scene, architecture styles, cathedrals, palaces, universities and won and lost territory stretching from The Netherlands to Spain to Hungary. These people dominated everything Austrian and in a mostly satisfactory way, so they are deservingly and heavily honored.
The Old City is a loiterer’s dream, particularly in the immediate vicinity of the Gothic, 13th-century Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) where a potpourri of tourist hoards, drunks, beggars, cult recruiters and statue guys can all been seen in the same 50-yard radius, providing a wildly entertaining sideshow in almost every direction. The square boasts a horse drawn carriages for every man, woman and child, forcing you to give concerted attention to every step you take and if you happen to get bored you can always wander into the Stephansdom itself and ride the elevator up the north tower or kill yourself scaling the steps of the even taller south tower for one of the highest views Vienna affords.
While in Vienna, I decided to go native and pound down another Austrian meal. After the beating I inflicted on my arteries with the sautéed potatoes, white sausage, onions and fried egg greaseapaloza in Salzburg, I thought I would take it easy on my cholesterol level this time by ordering the fish. A futile effort. It was breaded and deep fried to State Fair standards. As soon as the plate arrived, I ordered another glass of wine, knowing that I was going to need it to pulverize the fatty deposits out of my blood vessels.
My visit to Vienna was slightly soured by the fact that about 50% of its historic buildings were covered in scaffolding and tarps for cleaning, making it impossible to admire this fundamental attraction of the city unless I bought a postcard with the historic building of my choice on the front, which I could have very well done from home over the *&%@#% internet. Call me a demanding, American malcontent if you will, but I maintain that tourist intensive cities should save extensive construction, city-wide cleaning and building refurbishing for the off-season, not July. Right, I understand that the delicate process of cleaning and refurbishing a 600 year old edifice can’t be done zip-zop in a month or two, so do it in stages and give those hard working cleaners the summer off for crying out loud! After coughing up a debilitating amount of coin and traveling in excess of 2,000 miles, which is not far compared to many, being confronted by one set of scaffolding after another can be a monumental letdown. Fortunately for you all, by the time you read this and call your travel agent, everything should be back on display in all its glory. Let me know how it looks.
I had both read and heard random anecdotes of Austria’s social atmosphere being less than peachy due to the efforts of political groups – Austria’s extreme right-wing Freedom Party and the more moderate, but still unsettling, People’s Party are just eight seats away from having coalition control over the government – in concert with low-key Nazi sympathizing citizens and the occasional skinhead incursion. However, in the nearly two weeks I spent in Austria, I didn’t witness strife of any kind. In fact, I was repeatedly taken off guard as to how friendly the Austrian people were, particularly in Vienna, though this could have been due to the fact that I am a blond, fair skinned, green eyed, hunk-o personified sex, but I digress… Finding pleasant people in most huge, tourism bathed cities is like finding a Norwegian without a cell phone. Here, strangers talked to each other on the street and on the bus like they were all pals. Tourists weren’t cast aside like lepers with SARS. Shop owners, waiters and the general public were more than happy to bust through the communication barrier by writing down prices, pointing or doing a little pantomime to get concepts across. With all that Vienna had to offer, I could see myself staying weeks and never getting bored or growing to despise the locals like in other country capitals that shall remain nameless, but rhyme with “Kerlin.” Alas, even a homeless, unemployable travel writing nomad does not have these kind of luxuries. I sullenly packed away the stack of postcards I was forced to buy and made like a baby and headed out.