It was five degrees below zero and there was snow lying around. No matter; trains, trams and buses were running perfectly normally. These little things matter. In the UK, it sometimes seems that the merest drop in temperature or a little snow causes the entire transport network to cave in completely, though obviously cold or wet weather is so unusual in Britain that the chaos is entirely understandable. In mainland Europe, though, life continues.
National Library at the Hofburg Palace
If you’re on a three-night trip and planning to use public transport and visit museums, it’s worth buying either a Vienna card (for about €20) or a 72-hour public transport pass for €14.50. You don’t get a big discount for museums (most are 10%), but there isn’t much of a difference. If you’re visiting in freezing temperatures, there is more of a temptation to dash down into the warmth of the U-Bahn for a short while.
There is no shortage when it comes to museums. The Neue Burg at the Hofburg Palace has three museums, the Ephesus Museum, the Museum of Musical Instruments and the Kunsthistorisches (or Museum of Fine Arts, if you don’t want to spend half an hour unravelling your tongue). The Musical Instruments Museum contains some delightful oddities, several of which appear to have been designed for an octopus with three mouths.
A personal choice would be to visit the museums in the order listed above. The Kunsthistorisches is likely to take quite a while, as the collection is vast. It is simply too big to do justice to in this brief article and will be considered as part of a little series on museums and galleries.
Museums of Natural History are not generally, I concede, my favourites. All too often, there is a rather moth-eaten collection of stuffed animals and that is as far as it goes. The Vienna version, however, has a lot going for it. Yes, the taxidermists have been kept in employment, but there is a wealth of fossils and minerals here, enough to keep an army of David Attenboroughs happy for several days.
The city has more than a hundred museums and some of them are decidedly different. Those with a sense of the morbid might enjoy a trip to the Undertakers’ Museum, perhaps after seeing how victims may have been despatched by a look round the Kriminalmuseum. There are also museums dedicated to those favourite Viennese drinks, schnapps and coffee.
Music, of course, is another Viennese speciality. The Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) is both an opera house (in Neo-Renaissance style)and opera company and is possibly the busiest in the world. There is something happening throughout the year and it’s perfectly easy to turn up on the night and buy a cheap ticket if you don’t mind standing. Going to an opera or a classical performance is not the preserve of the elite in Vienna.
Not too far from the opera house is the Secession Building, an extraordinary Art Nouveau concoction that acts as an exhibition hall. The features the Beethoven Frieze, a work by Gustav Klimt that was originally intended only as a one-off for an exhibition, but has stuck around for more than a hundred years. Adding to the general lunacy, there is a statue of Mark Antony being hauled around in a chariot by a team of lions.
Visiting a coffee house feels obligatory. How could one go to Vienna and not visit a coffee house? Naturally, they get rather busy when it’s cold, but there are plenty of them and you should be able to squeeze in somewhere. If all else fails, then you can book a table for another time. Only in Vienna could you imagine booking a table for a cup of coffee.
There are quite a few cafés near the park. A couple of good ones are Café Diglas and Café Pruckel, but there is not exactly a dearth. The ideal is a sense that you have been transported back in time and if you can immerse yourself in a deep philosophical debate while enjoying your coffee, even better.
Stadtpark (with ducks on holiday)
The ‘park’, of course, means the Stadtpark, the huge municipal park in the city centre. It’s filled with monuments and sculptures, including the famous gilded bronze affair that portrays Johann Strauss. Franz Schubert is also well-represented, with a fine monument. The music of Strauss and Schubert can still be heard in the park, at the Kursalon, a beautiful pavilion in Italian renaissance style.
Vienna has a particularly impressive public transport system. The U-Bahn has six lines and the trains are amazingly frequent. To miss a train by seconds early on a Sunday morning may sound like a serious annoyance, but the indicator boards reassure you that you’ll only have to wait a few minutes for the next one.
Also impressive is the CAT (City Airport Train), especially for those of us used to the legalised extortion racket that is the Heathrow Excess Express. The CAT is not exactly dirt cheap, but ten euros for a single (using a Vienna card) isn’t too bad. The trip takes fifteen minutes or so and you get a nice big double-decker train to sit on.
Vienna is no different to any other capital city in that there are expensive places to eat and drink, and there are not-so-expensive places. Food leans towards the meaty, but just about everywhere has a vegetarian option and one particularly pleasant evening was spent in the Palatschinkenpfandl, a pancake house where spinach and sheep’s cheese pancakes were washed down with several glasses of Salzburg’s Stiegl beer. There are many, many worse ways of spending about 20 euros.
One pleasing thing about Vienna (not that it’s too hard to find pleasing things) is that there are some delightfully old-fashioned bars. Bane’s Bar represents a throwback to days when pubs were for drinking beer in, rather than posing ostentatiously and pretending that you really want to eat roasted polenta with crispy ostrich droppings in a rich salmon and chocolate sauce. Bane’s offers beer, atmosphere and the feel of a good local, all served with a pleasing background of jazz and blues music.
Austria, naturally, is rather overshadowed by its German neighbour when it comes to beer, but has a good range of both breweries and beer. Another brewery from the west of the country, Hofbräu Kaltenhausen, dates to the 15th century and is notable for its wheat beer (under the Edelweiss name). It also produces some intriguing dark beers, including a black lager and a creamy chocolate stout.
There really isn’t a bad time to visit Vienna. There is always something pleasing about sitting outside a café or bar on a warm summer’s day, but a trip in the cold of winter is just fine. A little walking around can be interspersed with strategic disappearances into cafés, museums, restaurants, bars and any of the myriad delights on offer. Besides, a little chill in the air does no harm if you really want to revisit the eighties and do that coat-collar-up thing from the Ultravox video.