I’m one of those Canadian weirdoes who likes to vacation in winter….. to other cold places. I’m also someone with flight anxiety, so I get excited about new direct flights out of Toronto. This is partly how I ended up for the first time in Vienna, Austria in December. I went for just a weekend to see its glorious cathedrals and twinkling Christmas markets, explore the city’s weird stuff, and eat sachertorte – its famous chocolate cake.
It’s a beautiful place, with many reasons to add it to your wish list for your next European vacation, whenever that may be. You don’t have to do in winter, but I highly recommend it.
Here’s what I learned my first time in Vienna
Vienna is highly walkable
A former walled city, Vienna is quite compact, with most of the key museums, cathedrals and palaces in close proximity. You can see a lot in one weekend without spending too much money on taxis or time on transit. I clocked more than 15,000 steps in one day. Which I learned is about the maximum amount of walking around a city that I will enjoy!
There are secrets after dark
My first night was spent walking the city on the Dark Side of Vienna tour by Secret Vienna. It was two hours dedicated to the strange and unusual history of the city, from murders to hauntings. Our tour guide Tatjana lead us through twisted dark alleys, showed me where the mummified bodies are buried, and even had Dracula stories.
It’s also nice for cycling
I took a three-hour “Classic Vienna” guided bike ride through the city with Pedal Power, which took advantage of the city’s well-maintained bike lanes. We had no trouble navigating even the most crowded central streets as a group, and it was easy to get out beyond the ring road and ride along the Danube through some lovely parks. Two wheels, good!
Coffee takes an hour
This was a good tip from my bike tour guide. “If you have less than an hour, don’t go to a Viennese coffee house. That’s what Starbucks is for.” I took his advice and allowed myself at least an hour to grab a hot chocolate from Cafe Tirolerhof. At home, I would walk out of any establishment where the wait staff didn’t acknowledge you for like 20 minutes. But since I knew going in that would happen, I just relaxed and enjoyed the scenery, watching locals sit and sip all afternoon while reading the (physical) newspaper. My reward was a delicious drink and also some downtime.
On the way to the Christmas market you will pass another Christmas market.
And then another. And then another. You will overeat on market snacks and overbuy hand-crafted ornaments. Resistance is futile.
Potatoes are plentiful
Ways in which I ate potatoes: fried, boiled, mashed, spiralized, grated, baked, and as a pancake. Basically, as a vegetarian I had potatoes for every meal and every snack. With no complaints!
White people are also plentiful
I know I was only there for two days, and only in the city centre, but this was the most ethnically homogenous population I’ve ever seen. And I’ve been to Iceland.
You can go to the opera for 10 Euros
Performances at Vienna’s historic Staatsoper (State Opera House) sell out months in advance. But they offer rush seats in the upper echelons for cheap on the day of show. Did I say seats? I didn’t mean actual seats. For 10 Euro, you get to stand. Which is how I found myself at a four-hour Mozart opera, pressed against the back wall behind the very top row, eye-level with the chandelier on the ceiling. If you’re going to do this, I highly recommend spending 2 extra Euro to rent those tiny opera binoculars. Even then, I couldn’t see that much, it was a listening experience, and an exercise in endurance. My favourite part was actually walking out onto the rooftop terrace during intermission to catch the nighttime view of Vienna with cold air whipping through my hair.
Ticket details here.
Austrians are death obsessed.
The Imperial Crypt, built to house the remains of the Hasburg empire, is the most glorious subterranean burial vault I’ve ever seen — dozens of massive metal sarcophagi adorned with elaborate sculptures of skulls, and angels and more. The former kings and queens had their hearts, brains and intestines buried elsewhere around the city, too — also on display in jars beneath the main St. Stephansdom Cathedral. Which is also covered in skulls outside.
The Empress Elizabeth is my new favourite poet
I wandered into the Sisi Museum almost by accident. I walked out with her book of poetry because the quotes along the exhibition walls of her melancholic musings made me want to know much more about the assassinated wife of Emperor Franz Joseph. Because Canadians are taught almost zero about Austrian history. I was honestly embarrassed that I’d never heard of Empress Elizabeth and the rest of the Hasburgs. Their story (and their royal jewels, and their tombs) are just as fascinating at the British Royals and I demand a big budget historical costume drama!
They do ice skating right
The outdoor rink in front of Rathausplatz (City Hall) is the most beautiful and fun I’ve ever skated. The nighttime lights are gorgeous for a start. But the rink itself is huge and not just a circle, it curves around paths, with a section for kids/practise and even some graded hills for extra thrills. I loved this!
It’s pretty expensive
Between my hotel, some tourist attractions and all those Christmas market potatoes, I spent as much in 48 hours here as I have in a week for most other holidays. In all fairness, it’s a very pretty city. But I’m not sure how one would do Vienna on the cheap. However……
A desert from Demel is worth is every penny
Vienna’s famous confiserie (founded in 1786!) had a huge line out the door but how could I not wait my turn? I tried both the chocolate sachertorte and an apple strudel and I think I can still taste them in my dreams. Decadent delights!
Have you been to Vienna? What did I miss?