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Vienna is one of the world’s great tourist destinations, and the more than five million visitors expected this year prove the point. But locals and resident expats know a few secrets these tourist hordes do not.
I once worked at the American International School (AIS) for two years, and on a return trip two decades later, discovered that some tourist tricks I’d learned still hold true. These tactics might help you avoid a few expensive disappointments and deepen your experience of this wonderful city.
For instance, you must attend the opera in Vienna, but why spend upwards of 200 Euro? Buy a stehplatz (standing room) ticket for as little as three Euro, tie a scarf to the rail directly beneath the emperor’s box to save your place, then stand with the local opera fanatics and the other smart tourists. A little opera can go a long way unless you are already a fan, so if you leave early you haven’t lost much. But even if you do depart after intermission, take a stroll through the Opera House and watch the native Viennese socialize and drink champagne. It has the feel of a tailgate party, except more sophisticated. At AIS our Viennese students used to leave school early on Thursdays for Tanzschule (waltzing lessons), and today they actually own tuxes and ball gowns and attend fancy dress balls in the winter season; these are the adults interacting with the ease of a lifetime’s friendship at the Opera. So for the price of a stehplatz ticket and some people-watching at intermission, you can peek inside a unique lifestyle.
Vienna is a musical mecca and if you should be in town on Sunday, follow this plan. One highlight is the Boys’ Choir, but the truth is less than the reality, we found. For one thing, the boys sing a capella (unaccompanied voice) which is not to everyone’s taste. For another they sing from the choir loft and are therefore invisible. Tickets are also expensive and the choir frequently tours the world in tourist high season. The Boys’ Choir sings at the 9:15 Mass and exits the Burgkapelle about an hour later; you might see the boys milling around outside afterwards, just as adorable as advertised. But then enter Josfsplatz behind you and go into the Augustiner Kirche for the 11 am High Mass with full chorus and orchestra in the choir loft. I used to go most Sundays, and the music is truly divine. Forget the expensive tourist concerts; this music is free.
As you leave the church, you might be lucky enough to see the Lipizzaner stallions entering the stables in season after their 11 am performance. You just scored a taste of Vienna’s most famous tourist experiences, it didn’t cost a dime and took less than two hours. But now it’s time to eat.
Eating and Drinking in Vienna
Sacher Torte is Vienna’s gift to the dessert world, but truthfully, we always found it a bit dry and the Hotel Sacher shop too expensive. Try any other of the dozens of bakeries lining the city streets. Just stand in front of the display case and try whatever looks good; it is almost impossible to go wrong. My favorite was the Palatschinken, a filled crepe, and the Linzertorte, an almond pastry. Sturdy Austrian breads opened my eyes to why bread is called “the staff of life,” back in the days before artisan breads were common in America. Have the bakery slice up a loaf of Volkorn Bauernbrot (farmer bread) and put together a picnic from the local Julius Meinl grocery.
Don’t miss the monstrous weiner schnitzel at the tourist classic Figl Müller restaurant, of course, but the most authentic way to eat like a Viennese or expat is to learn the word “Beisl,” the local pub/bistro/café found in every neighborhood. The food won’t be expensive or complicated, but it will be hearty, homemade, reasonable, and the place will be filled with regulars who call it their “Lokal.” Ask at your hotel for their favorite beisl. Or try a Würstel stand for the original fast food, and you will find yourself surrounded by more Viennese than tourists.
Vienna has ways of drinking peculiar only to the city. Let’s start with coffee. Viennese coffee houses are unique and not to be missed. But learn to drink like a Viennese. First of all, relax; you really can stay all day for the price of a melange (cappuccino). The waiter wears fancy dress and you may expect him to have an attitude; do not take it personally. On this visit we tried the Café Central, but it might as well have been Disneyland; way too touristy. Much more authentic was the Café Hawelka, but be sure to go inside where the walls breathe history and character. When we lived in Vienna, our Lokal was the Café Landtmann on the Ring, and we dawdled away many a pleasant Saturday morning reading the International Herald Tribune.
Wine-drinking for tourists generally means the Heurigen, rustic restaurants on the outskirts of town just steps away from the vineyards that produced their grapes. Expats generally avoid Grinzing and its rumbling tour buses and head instead for Nussdorf, last stop on the #D Tram. But be warned. The wine served in the Heurigen is extremely green (new) and we all had painful stories to tell of hangovers from very light intake of this wine. So learn to mix the wine with mineral water (gespritz) as a hangover prevention method, limit your intake, and dilute with food. Then enjoy the music, the rustic feel and hearty food, and join the jolly and slightly tipsy locals on the tram back to town.
Art in Vienna
The Kunsthistorisches Museum is one of the world’s great art museums, of course, but the Habsburg emperors did the collecting, and they tended toward the romantic, religious, and heavily fleshed. But we went many times and always headed straight toward the astringent Brueghel gallery and the Northern European Art. The other gallery that blew me away this visit was the Belvedere Palace with its magnificent Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele paintings. I had forgotten their power and ominous foreshadowing of the upheaval about to engulf Europe before World War I.
Day-trips from Vienna
Whenever visitors came, we expats always took them to the “highlights of the Wachau Valley tour” to see the ruined castle of Durnstein and the great Melk abbey. If you can spare a day, start with the fully restored Baroque abbey of Melk, easily accessible by train or boat just up the Danube from Vienna. Several times, we rented bikes at the train station in Melk and biked the flat road to Durnstein and then Krems, where we dropped off the bikes. Our middle school kids loved to climb the hill overlooking Durnstein and explore the romantic derelict castle where Richard the Lionhearted was held captive in 1193 on his way home from the Crusades.
Vienna is a world class tourist heaven, so by all means check off the sights. You just don’t need to be herded through the city exactly like all the other millions of tourists. With a bit of planning and some insider advice from a former expat, you can go a little deeper and feel a bit like a temporary local.