I was in Vienna for a conference last month. I was there for just 4.5 days, so let me just say, if you find yourself in Vienna, don’t do what I did. Which is fly 15 hours each way from Taipei and hardly scratch the surface of this fantastic city.
But the stuff I did see and eat? Worth it!
If I wasn’t doing anything conference-related, I ticked things off my to-do list with uncharacteristic efficiency.
First, the food. I really wanted to eat some authentic weiner schnitzel. After all, it’s the national dish of Austria and a Viennese special. I tried it at the unapologetically traditional Cafe Sperl, above, which opened in 1880.
The schnitzel was thin and crispy. Not dry at all. And it came with a generous side salad. Like most places I went to in Vienna, a glass of crisp Austrian white wine at Cafe Sperl costs less than a coffee. That’s my kind of town. We finished lunch with a sperltorte, their signature dessert made of almond and chocolate cream.
For the record, this place is not to be messed with. They don’t care about turning over tables or maximizing the table layout. In fact, everyone inside looks kind of cranky, furrowing their brow while reading the newspaper or waiting for their melange, the Viennese-style coffee locals drink. It’s definitely not the kind of place where people are taking selfies.
Newspapers laid atop a billards table at Cafe Sperl.
The second place I tried schnitzel was Zum Schwarzen Kameel, which translates to “the black camel”. The business started in 1618 (yes, 1618!) as a shop selling exotic foods and spices. Today it’s a beloved Viennese institution.
You can sit outside and people watch, or you can sit inside at the Art Nouveau bar where they serve open-faced sandwiches. I didn’t realize people in Vienna are allowed to smoke indoors, and I learned this very important fact when I poked my head inside at Kameel.
Aside from the schnitzel, we enjoyed this antipasto plate simply because the odds of it being a hundred times better than an antipasto plate found in Taipei were quite high. And it was. Sigh.
Another meal to try was tafelspitz — the unappetizing sounding “boiled beef” soup with vegetables that was a favorite of Emperor Franz Joseph. I split that spread of food at Plachutta with Fay, who caught the train from southern Germany to meet me for the weekend. Ah, friends!
For some reason, the butter that came with the bread was served on ice…so it had a bite. I think that was the point?
If that bowl above looks tasty to you, here’s the recipe for Plachutta’s tafelspitz. Tell me how it tastes. It should take like three hours.
We ordered a second entree to share, which was the white asparagus special. It was great and all, but the most incredible thing on this plate was the potatoes. I could not stop eating them. In fact, I wanted to eat Fay’s.
I only managed to fit in one museum, the Kunsthistorisches. Opened in 1891 by Emporer Franz Joseph, it’s the largest art museum in Austria. The Kunst is home to the insanely rich collections of the Habsburg family, who ruled the throne of the Holy Roman Empire between the 1400s and 1700s.
This kind of history just blows my mind.
And the crazy part was the museum was practically empty on a Sunday. If we were in Paris, the entire museum would be packed shoulder-to-shoulder to the point of claustrophobia.
But here? The rooms are stunning, the collections are ridiculous and the crowds nowhere to be found.
There’s a special section of the museum called Kunstkammer Wien or “Cradle of the Musuem”. It has a bunch of exotic stuff collected by Habsburg emperors and archdukes during the late Middle Ages to the Baroque period. Above is an ivory carved baby phoenix, which by the way, isn’t even a real thing.
The craftsmen just imagined what it would look like, and carved that sucker up.
The painting gallery is sooooo rich. You’ll see stuff you recognize from art books and postcards, and you’ll think to yourself, “Wow, I had no idea it was here in Vienna.” There are masterpieces by Vermeer, Rembrandt, Raphael, Caravaggio, Velázquez and the largest collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. That’s his painting, “The Hunters in the Snow” from 1565.
The conference organized a private tour in English, which was the highlight of the trip for me. I’ll admit I typically don’t pay for audioguides because I inevitably lose interest listening to the monotone voice of the narrator. A private tour is pricey — between 90€ to 135€ — but I would prefer that over a fancy meal any day of the week.
I made the wise decision to stay at the Hotel Daniel. There was a hammock in the room and also the cutest bathroom sink I’ve ever seen.
The Daniel has a clever personality and a boutique vibe. There’s no room service, but the downstairs restaurant is great. I spent a lot of time in the downstairs restaurant drinking white wine. Yes, drinking local white wine was a theme of this trip.
The hotel is next door to the Belvedere, the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy. The Upper Belvedere building took 6 years to complete, finally wrapping up in 1723. But in a cruel twist, Prince Eugene died just 10 year later and he didn’t leave a will. Drama!
Today the two palace buildings are museums that house the world’s largest collection of Klimt. Again, luxuriously spacious and nearly empty galleries. No photos inside, unfortunately.
It was so lovely to wander around the gardens with all the dramatic topiaries, fountains and sculptures surrounding us. The fresh air was so addictive too.
And one more thing to love about Vienna: würstelstands!