What is so alluring about big cities? One person might say it is the shopping and the people; another will swear by the food and the transportation; still another will be drawn by the opportunity to escape the ordinary, maybe by dressing up and catching a cab to the theater or opera. Others may avoid big cities. The darker side-the noise, the odors, the shady people and the traffic-can be disconcerting to some. This type of traveler might put at risk the energy and pulse of a bigger place to lean towards a smaller, less cosmopolitan city.
Personally, I have always been drawn to bigger cities, not only because I grew up in and around them, but also because traveling with children over the years has taught me that cities tend to be more conducive to pleasing a variety of tastes and needs. While planning our trip to Vienna, I was concerned that it would more resemble some of the smaller cities we had visited in Europe of late…small cobble-stoned streets, lots of churches and historic buildings, plenty of shopping and eating…but miss the truly interesting activities and sights about which children can get excited. After spending five wonderful days there in April, I can say with conviction that I should never have worried.
Vienna is a combination of all of these qualities, plus a palpable history. Whether your interest is music, art, or architecture, not to mention shopping and eating, whether you are traveling with children, or grandparents, or the love of your life, Vienna has something for everyone. I think of the differences between Vienna and other comparably large cities is like a glass blender filled with my favorite flavors of ice cream. Unmixed, they are separate lumps of ice cream
with no cohesion. But, hit the mix button, and then stop right before it is done. What’s there is a smooth swirl of clearly discernible colors moving in one direction, easy and continuous, but still unique enough to identify the strawberry from the chocolate from the mint. That’s Vienna. Now, pour in some milk and add a few other flavors of ice cream, then hit the
button again. When it stops, it is a blend of ingredients which may result in a delicious flavor, or not. That’s other big cities. Vienna has enough to satisfy those who need the feel of a big city with the flavor of a cozy town, but not so overwhelming to the senses as a visit to New York, Chicago, or London.
We started our trip from Amsterdam by City Niteliner train overnight through Frankfurt, Germany. We had a compartment for four. It was the first time any of us had traveled by overnight train anywhere. (Well, I had done it once when I was ten from New York to Los Angeles.but who can remember back then?). I can highly recommend it. My children loved the cozy quarters and settled right in. It was also a unique way to see the countryside without having to worry about the cars
around you. We arrived early in the morning that first day and were picked up by the car service sent by our hotel, the lovely Hotel König von Ungarn, on the Schulestrasse bordering St. Stephen’s Dom and Platz.
Our rooms were not yet prepared, so we checked our luggage and went exploring. We wandered aimlessly this first day, which is always the case with us in a new city. I can look at a map a million times in planning for any trip, and think that I have it down. However, I continue to feel blind and confused until I walk around, family in tow, and visually attach directions and landmarks to the maze of roads in my head. It is during this time that we are most apt to look like tourists, stopping every few minutes to re-calibrate while looking at a map and pointing, sometimes arguing and expressing other obvious hand gestures in the process.
By the middle of the day, we found the Puppen und Spielzeug (Doll and Toy) Museum on Schulhof, Hofburg Palace (even though we didn’t realize the significance of its location to the scheme of the city until almost the last day), Augustinerkirche on the Josefsplatz (where we listened to the choir), and Starbucks. All of this, and we made it back to our hotel only having to stop and ask directions once. After lunch, we took a two-hour city tour via cab. This is a must if you want front row seats to the history of Vienna. The drivers are knowledgeable and amiable.
For the following days, my plan was simple. I offer a variety of choices each day, and let each child choose something as the highlight for that day. Doing nothing (my teenage son’s idea, e.g. hanging around in the room and playing video games) was not an option. Prater Amusement Park was the unanimous choice for the second day. And, to do this, we rode the U3 subway line to the eastern fringe of the city. While it can be frightening at first, I feel using a city’s public
transportation is crucial to experiencing the heart of a city. Vienna’s system is simple and easy to understand. There are only four main lines.
The Prater is not cheap, as is the case with most amusement parks these days, no matter what country you are in, but it has a variety of rides that I haven’t seen in other parks. I spent most of my time sitting at an outside café drinking Austrian beer and watching the locals while my children went off and rode their favorite rides. We spent a total of about four hours there, at which time the kids were more than ready to leave.
Later on, I needed a cultural fix. We headed to Starbucks for an afternoon pick-me-up and then on to the Albertina Museum, just off the Ringstrasse. Their display change frequently, but we were lucky to catch the Mozart exhibition and, in another part of the museum, a display of period furniture and dress. That evening, we ate dinner at Sparky’s Grill, just off the St. Stephen’s Platz. The menu there resembles that of a Chili’s or TGI Friday’s. They have a wide selection of local and run-of-the-mill beers, service is quick and cheerful and it has a great view. It is also a great people watching spot.
Th e next day we took the U4 line west to Schönnbrunn Palace. None of the children was interested in taking a tour of the inside. Luckily, you can choose what parts of the grounds you want to see. This is not a place that can be done in one day, especially with children. Our first stop was Gloriette, which is a large gazebo at the top of the hill behind the palace. The hike up the winding path to the top of the hill is strenuous but once there the rewarding views of the entire greater-Vienna area are well worth it.
The Tiergarten (zoo) was next, but was un-amazing, even for my children, so we made it through quickly and ate lunch at the restaurant there. Although the food is mediocre, it is worth visiting just for the frescoes on the ceiling and unique rotunda shape.
On the way back into the city, we got off a few stops early and walked through the Market. This is something you have to sample, but only if you can stomach the bazaar atmosphere, with the vendors accosting you and
practically pulling you in to look at their stuff. If you can, you will be rewarded with a variety of merchandise and food products unlike you have seen
before. We were drooling as we walked past the food stalls with pile after pile of candies and dried and sweetened fruits of every type, nuts, olives, breads, cheeses, wines and meats. The long walk back to our hotel was worth the opportunity further complete the puzzle in my head of the layout of Vienna.
We could not leave Vienna without a visit to the Mozarthaus. Beyond the well-presented and educational displays, it was inspiring and chilling to stand at any window in the house or any room and think that at one time Mozart himself stood on that very same spot, or walked down that street or stood on that corner speaking with a colleague. The house is tastefully
complete with artifacts and much original design still intact.
Our final excursion was to Grinzing, which is reached by train and then bus. There is not much to do up there, but its allure is in the tranquility and the escape from the hustle of the city. There were some sights and activities that we missed this time, such as a night at the opera, a visit to the Spanish Riding School, and a bike excursion along
the river to Melk, and beyond. For me, I know we will get back to Vienna someday to expand upon our initial
experiences. Unlike some of the smaller cities I have visited, Vienna has a persona all its own which merits
investigation and consideration. It has enough variety and electricity to make us want to return again and again. In this
sense, it is more like a large cosmopolitan city. No wonder it was one of the centers of music and culture so early on. It is clear that it remains so to this day.