I was afraid I would find Vienna overrated since my parents, Max and Katherine could not stop talking about how wonderful it is. I was pleasantly surprised, even after I had heard so much good, how much I enjoyed the city. My only disappointment was the lack of any sort of Chanukah market! It was a perfect, relaxing weekend with a ton to do and see. It was definitely one of my favorite places to visit.
I went on a coordinated trip with CIEE, and at first, I was worried they would not let us go off on our own to sightsee what we wanted. However, we ended up having every day free after around noon, which was perfect. We took about a 5 hour bus ride there Friday morning and checked into the hostel around 1pm. Immediately we went on a planned walking tour around the city until after dark. It was really nice to get out and walk and sightsee, but I wish the tour was a bit shorter. We stopped at a lot of neat places that I wanted to see on my own so I could spend some time there and go inside, so the tour was kind of a waste of time for me. The tour guide seemed very knowledgeable, however our large group and the many tourists made it hard to stay together and hear what she was saying. We did walk by the detailed St Stephens Cathedral and the old Jewish Quarter where the only surviving synagogue stands.
St Stephens Cathedral
Finally, we were let loose in the main Christmas market, one of 67 in Vienna alone. Being Jewish and missing Chanukah, I wasn’t too excited about the Christmas markets because I thought it would mostly be ornaments and Christmas-y crafts. However, no one told me about the food. Everywhere I looked there was hot wine, candy, soup, bread, and cookies. I was in heaven.
All lit up
Garrett and Tyler with a giant something delicious
We of course started off at the hot wine stand, where I actually ended up getting the best hot apple cider I have ever had. The drink comes in a unique Christmas market mug that you put down a deposit for. If you want to keep the cup, you keep it, if you want to return it, you can get your money back after you finish your drink. It’s a great system. I tried a ton of gingerbread cookies, candy, and chocolate, but the garlic soup bread bowl was the best. It was thick and creamy and the bread bowl was to die for. I ended up having one a day over the weekend, and I don’t regret it.
Enough to make a life size house
Saturday we got up with the group early and went on a bus tour. Again, the sights we passed were all the ones I wanted to see up close, except for one. We drove a little way out of the main part of the city to the UN Headquarters. The massive buildings are constructed in an odd shape so that sunlight can enter every room. The complex was huge and secure. We then headed to the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment building built with no straight lines, and many shapes and colors. Even the floor was uneven. It was very unique.
After the tour we were dropped off and left to explore on our own. A bunch of us decided the best way to see everything in a day would be to do a bike tour. This was probably one of my favorite activities during my study abroad. We started at People’s Park (no, not the stoner park in Bloomington) where a famous statue of Mozart stands. We each had the chance to play our air instruments with him, and Kevin and I of course picked the best, the cello.
Sweet Sweet Air Music
Next we biked to St. Charles Church, a gorgeous church with a green roof and huge columns sticking up in to the sky. In the square behind it was a more local Christmas market. Locals sold handmade crafts and there were a ton of kids playing in hay with goats and ponies. They even had furry pigs – that’s right, pigs with a sheep’s coat on.
Paul is ecstatic
We grabbed a bite to eat and headed across the street to the Soviet War Memorial. It is the last statue of a Russian soldier standing in Vienna, with a half circle of columns behind it and a rocky fountain in front.
Biking in front of the Soviet War Memorial
Across from it was obviously from the complete opposite era – a giant black, rounded, spiderweb sculpture that you could bike underneath. The sculpture was making odd, almost trippy sounds that wasn’t music, but sounded like something on the sci-fi channel. We have no idea what it was, but it was a truly surprising experience.
(insert alien sounds here)
After taking some cheesy bike pictures, we biked over cobblestone (oy) and up to the Belvedere Palace. The palace and gardens were huge, and of course, there was another Christmas market. We biked around the lake in the front garden, and then down the giant hill in the back enclosing huge fountains, gardens, and sphinx statues. At the bottom of the hill there were even more palace buildings. The main palace and gardens were built in the early 100’s. The sloping hills and classic building were mindblowing. The trees in the garden reminded Tyler and I of the womping willow from Harry Potter. I would love to see it in the summer.
Garrett, Paul, Tyler and I in front of Belvedere Palace
This is not your mother's Sphinx
We headed back to the city center and past the gigantic National Theatre. Apparently the theatre has a repertoire of over 365 plays they can produce in a day’s notice. I would like to see a year of a different show a night!
We then returned the bikes and sat down for some much needed relaxation and schnitzel before heading to a bar in the Bermuda Triangle – the main street of clubs. Mallory, Josh, Kevin and I were pretty tired and decided to head back to the hostel. We ended up planning charades for a good few hours before falling asleep. It was a great childhood throwback.
The next morning we went with the whole group to Schonbrunn Palace, or the summer palace. I was a little sad while I was visiting because everywhere I looked the name Maximilian was right before my eyes, making me miss my own Maximilian! The palace was incredible though, I still can’t believe that it was only a summer home. We toured the inside, gardens, and of course, the Christmas market. The most spectacular room inside was the ballroom, a huge open space with gold mirrors and dazzling chandeliers. I would have loved to have more time to explore the gardens, with the massive plots of designed bushes and the fountain that was practically a lake. On top of the hill was a gazebo, as intricate as the palace. Unfortunately the hedge maze was closed – another reason to go back in the summer! The blue sky and sun made the gardens even more beautiful.
From the back
On our own again, we headed to the center of town to see the Hofburg Palace, or the Winter Palace. It is right in the middle of town and looks more like a state building than a palace. It was still huge and beautifully detailed though. The palace also houses the Spanish Riding School, which was the only thing I had to see when visiting Vienna.
The Spanish Riding School is an elite equestrian organization that has bred and trained Lipizzaner horses since the 1700’s. The unique and natural movements of Lipizzaners are sought out by royalty, the rich, and nowadays, tourists. I first saw the Spanish Riding School in DC when I was a kid. Unfortunately there was not a performance while we were visiting, but we did go on a tour behind the scenes. We saw the training ring surrounded by the world’s biggest horse walker. The horses need it to exercise with the lack of fields in the middle of Vienna. We then went through the stables where we saw real, live, working Lipizzaners. I was so excited! We also got to hang out with the fat barn cats. We stopped in the tack room which was the most interesting part for me. Each horse has a training saddle and performance saddle. The training saddle is standard, but the performance saddles are white and uniquely to fit each horse perfectly so there is no need for a saddle pad.
In performance, the only saddle pads used are attachable and use color to determine the rank of the rider. The bits were all fit exactly to each horses mouth in the Vienna style for comfort. Next, we went into the stables and saw each of the horses.
They were on a day of rest, and that’s exactly what they were doing. Most of them were asleep but a couple were playing with each other. They were adorable! We ended the tour in the Winter Riding School, a beautiful ring with huge windows built in the 1700’s. Performances are still held there today.
After such an incredible tour, I was satisfied (except for the fact that I couldn’t keep a Lipizzaner). We hit one last Christmas market and boarded the bus back to Prague. One weekend is too short for Vienna. It is definitely somewhere I would love to spend a week in.
Who wants to cuddle??