Have you ever wandered around a city and after only a few hours felt so comfortable that you could easily imagine spending weeks, or months (or years) living there?
That’s how the streets of Vienna felt to us.
As a stopover vacation on the way to Mauritius, we had the opportunity to spend a few pleasant hours strolling through downtown Vienna, Austria. Knowing we had a layover when we booked our flights, we researched whether a stopover would be possible. Luckily for us, it was. We were travelling in February, so there was potential for a very chilly and snowy Austria, but our final destination was expected to be tropical. Having no intention of wearing winter-ready clothing on the plane, we packed our winter essentials into a small carry on luggage. Once we landed in at the Vienna International Airport, we changed into our heavier clothes and stored the carryon in a locker. We then purchased tickets for the express train direct to downtown Vienna.
The CAT (City Airport Train) express ran every 30 minutes, but took only 10 minutes to reach the city center. We chose to disembark at the Stephansplatz Station so that we could easily walk to St. Stephen’s Cathedral (also known as Stephansdom). The station is large and filled with a wide variety of restaurants and shops. We used Google Maps to create a walking route that would allow us to easily reach to as many of the attractions we wanted to visit as possible, while taking into consideration that the weather could be inhospitable.
TIP: Give yourself some options when stopping over, especially if there is the possibility of inclement weather. For example, we had considered going to the Vienna Opera House during our short visit; as it was within walking distance from the station and they offered an interesting and in depth backstage tour. Had the weather been unbearable for walking, we likely would have opted for this tour so that we could stay warm but still experience some of Vienna’s rich history. It’s always good to have a back-up plan.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is a marvel to stand before. With its iconic gothic and romanesque style, it towers over you. Clearly having been rebuilt, one can easily make out the different sections as you walk around the massive structure, each one seemingly older than the last. The most recent build occured between 1339-1365, but stands on the ruins of two other churches from as early as 1147. The mosaic tile roof, with it’s bright colours and intricate design, is stunning and has become one of the most recognizable images associated with Vienna. The faces of the gargoyles were very intriguing and we found ourselves slowly walking around the entire Cathedral with our head’s raised so to look up at each one as closely as possible. One can enter the Cathedral, walk into the main alcove and visit the gift shop for free, but one cannot access the bulk of the Cathedral without purchasing a ticket ($6.50 Euro). One can also opt to descend to the catacombs or climb the south tower for what must be a spectacular view, for a small fee. Had it been a cold or snowy day, we would have spent more time inside and explored everything the cathedral had to offer, but since it was sunny, we decided to walk the city a bit more.
Vienna has had a long love affair with coffee and confectionary. Demel’s Bakery (originally founded by Ludwig Dehne, later sold to Christoph Demel) opened its doors in 1786. We could not leave the city without having a classic Viennese coffee and a slice of the world famous Sachertorte. It being early morning, we decided it was imperative that we have coffee and breakfast first, so we walked to Demel’s direct from St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Past the bakery and gift shop, we sat upstairs in one of the small rooms and relaxed. After a delicious breakfast of scrambled eggs in a glass, we ended our meal with an Apple Strudel and slice of Sachertorte. Personally not a big fan of the jam and chocolate combination, my expectations weren’t high, but the Sachertorte is surprisingly delicious. So much so, we were thrilled that they offered full cakes in the gift shop.
Did you Know: The original Sachertorte was invented by Franz Sacher and has two layers of apricot jam between the chocolate icing and the cake. Demel's version has only one.
We had every intention of purchasing a full Sachertorte, beautifully packaged in a wooden box, but discovered at the cash register that the cake would expire while we were in Mauritius. Unless we intended on consuming the entire cake while on the resort, we needed to leave it behind. Remembering that Demel had a store in the Vienna Airport, we decided to try our luck and hopefully purchase one on the way home. Unfortunately, the Airport store were all out of Demel Sachertorte and we left Vienna empty handed. In hindsight, we should have purchased it when we wanted to; we could have easily eaten it all during our stay in Mauritius.
Yes, it was that good.
After a long rest at Demel’s Bakery, tired and stuffed, we decided to cut the rest of the itinerary and just stroll slowly down Kholmarket street to Michaelerplatz (St. Michael's Square) and admire the beautiful buildings. Though we had planned for almost everything, the one thing we hadn’t anticipated was that arriving in Vienna at 9 am local time, meant it would be only 3 am Toronto time. No matter how much we managed to sleep on the plane, our bodies were not rested and to us it was the wee hours of the morning. We slowly maneuvered our way through the narrow cobbled streets and headed back to the Stephansplatz Station. Even with construction, the streets of downtown Vienna are very comfortable and easy to navigate.
Using Google Maps on our cell phone to help navigate through the blocked areas, we kept our eyes open for street names. Having seen many streets with the same name (Einbahn), we wondered how locals distinguished one from the other. It was only after we passed the fifth or sixth street named Einbahn that we realized it wasn’t a name, but a direction. Einbahn is German for one way. We were so tired, that we didn’t even notice the arrow on the street sign. We cut through a nearby park and sat on a bench for a short while, watching the locals and enjoying the sounds of the wind in the trees. It was lovely.
Had we been able to keep our eyes open, we would have sat on that bench for hours. We could have easily afforded the time to sit longer or walk around and explore Vienna more than we did, but we were so exhausted that we decided it was best to head back early. We hopped on the CAT express train once again and were back at the Vienna International Airport in no time, our winter clothing packed away. We relaxed in the Airport lounge and waited to board our flight direct to Mauritius. It would be a long 10 hour flight, but luckily we were seated in Business Class and would have lay flat beds. Sleep would come.
There is plenty to see and experience in Vienna, even in a few short hours, and though exhausted, we were happy that we were able to visit. It peaked our interests and inevitably added Austria to the list of countries we need to return to and explore more in depth. If you have the opportunity, take it, even if it’s just for a frothy Viennese coffee and decadent slice of Sachertorte. Auf Wiedersehen Vienna!