I’m not really sure why I hadn’t visited Vienna before. Perhaps I’d heard it was expensive and imagined it to be a little stuffy, full of gilt-chaired cafés with tourists eating Sacher Torte. Of course that is one side of Vienna, but on my Danube Cruise with Avalon Waterways I also found a city that is vibrant and youthful, with a sense of fun and style. Suffice it to say that I fell in love with Vienna and can’t wait to return and see more – here are some of the reasons why;
1. Mingle with the locals at the Naschmarkt
Our Avalon Waterways river cruise programme allowed an extra day to explore Vienna before the main cruise started, which is an approach I highly recommend if you have the time. Read more about our Avalon cruise here. There were a range of different tours on offer, with everything from jogging and cycling, to a gentle walk around the main sites. I took Avalon’s early morning walking tour, designed to experience the city waking up, while also including some of the key historic and cultural landmarks.
Our first stop was the Naschmarkt, an outdoor market that’s popular with locals but less known for tourists. We started in the flea market which is only there on Saturday mornings, and since it starts at 6.30am you need to be there early with the dealers to get the best bargains. Half of the stalls are reserved for the general public, with restrictions on how often you can have a stall – so there’s a mix of genuine antiques and the bric a brac from local attics.
Necklaces were laid alongside floral bone china, vintage clothes and shoes mixed with household ornaments. While some stalls looked as if they were run by seasoned dealers, other vendors didn’t even have a table, only a cloth on the ground spread out with odds and ends for sale.
As we walked further, the flea market turned into a fruit and veg market with a crates of fresh produce; shiny fresh peppers, aubergines and cucumbers as well as cartons of strawberries, figs and exotic fruit. As you’d expect, everything was fresher than fresh since the turnover if fast and competition high for the best quality.
Soon the open stalls of fresh produce merged into covered kiosks selling deli produce. We found a multicultural mix of flavours, with glistening Mediterranean olives, Turkish stuffed peppers, honey drenched baklava, mounds of hummus and bags of colourful spices. This would be the ideal place to buy your picnic lunch and there are also plenty of bars and restaurants to stop for a coffee or lunchtime dish. The market opens around 6am so it is a great place for earlybirds or those looking for breakfast after a night on the town. Most stalls are closed by around 6pm although some restaurants and food stalls may stay open into the evening. Nearest metro is Karlsplatz or Kettenbrückengasse Station.
2. Dip into Vienna’s wealth of art and culture
Our walking tour meandered through the Museum Quarter, a pedestrianised area that’s packed with different museums and galleries. In the huge open courtyard, colourful modern benches were scattered, just designed to encourage you to hang out with a beer and a few friends. Here there’s something for all kinds of art lovers, from the family museum with a green grass trampoline outside, to the Leopald museum, housing the collection of Viennese Art Nouveau including works by Egon Schiele. You’ll spot the former Imperial stables from the horses above the door, but the large halls are now used for concerts and dance productions.
We walked on to the plaza where the Kunsthistorisches (Museum of Fine Arts) and the Naturhistorisches (Natural History Museum) face each other like mirror images with a statue of Empress Maria Theresa between them. They were built at the end of the 19th century to house the collections of the Hapsburg rulers, and what a collection it is!
We spent an hour or so looking around the opulent marbled halls and galleries of the Kunsthistorisches, marvelling at the sheer amount of gold and precious artworks on display. The building itself was designed to impress with walls of coloured marble and ornate stucco ceilings, gilded and ornamented with frescoes. Each golden chalice, silver table ornament or intricately carved ivory figurine was a masterpiece that had a classical reference or story to tell.
One of the museum’s best known pieces is the golden saliera or salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini with the figures of Venus and Neptune, an allegory of the Hapsburg empire spanning vaste areas of land and sea. In 2003 the saliera was stolen from the museum and held to ransom, but in an ending worthy of a Michael Caine movie was discovered a few years later buried in a forest.
Vienna is so packed with museums and galleries that the cultural delights can be a little overwhelming, so I’d suggest you choose just one or two that take your fancy and dip into them, for a taste of the riches of Austria’s past and present.
Kunsthistorisches Museum is on the Ringstrasse – nearest metro – Volkstheater station
3. Enjoy Vienna’s coffee culture
Once you’ve dipped into Vienna’s cultural scene I’m sure you’ll be ready to relax with a cup of coffee in one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses. The obvious choices are those havens of old world elegance such as Café Demel or Café Sacher. At both you can taste the famous chocolate torte, layered with apricot jam, in elegant surroundings. I passed by Café Demel on our walk and popped into the gift shop which is full of delicious chocolate souvenirs, including your own torte to take home.
For a more modern take on the Vienna coffee shop we stopped at Café Dreschsler close to the Naschtmarkt which is a great breakfast stop and traditionally attracted those who were on their way home after a night out clubbing. Now it still has the Viennese style of marble tables and red leather banquettes, but with a pared down contemporary look after its remodelling by Conran & Partners.
Dreschsler Cafe, Linke Wienzeile 22, Girardigasse 1, A-1060 Vienna
4. Learn to cook like an Austrian
Of course you’ll have to try to famous Wienerschnitzel while in Vienna, but there’s also a contemporary flavour to be discovered in local restaurants like Wrenkh, who have a cookery school right next to their restaurant. The dynamic young chefs Leo and Karl Wrenkh focus on dishes that have a simplicity, based on the finest ingredients and healthy cuisine with lots of vegetarian options as well as meat and fish.
Under the expert eye of Leo Wrenkh, we prepared plump prawns, marinaded thin slices of raw beef with a herb dressing, tossed pumpkins in the pan and stirred the mushroom risotto tirelessly. Finally (and quite a few glasses of wine later) we sat down to lunch to enjoy the fruits of our labour, sharing the different plates that we’d created. The Wrenkh brothers have been working with Avalon Cruises on their ‘Eat Local’ Programme to create vegetarian dishes that will be served on board as part of the daily menu. Look out for the cookery class as an option on your Avalon cruise excursion or if visiting Vienna you can check it out on the Wrenkh website.
I popped next door after our cookery class to see their restaurant and was impressed by the menu, with different size plates, ideal for sharing with friends. Blowing away my preconceptions of Vienna being expensive, the prices were affordable and there are plenty of vegetable based dishes such as Styrian salad with pumpkinseed oil, quinoa and roasted smoked tofu or grated crispy potatoes with roast vegetables and cream-cheese dip. You’ll find them at; Wrenkh, Bauernmarkt 10, 1010 Vienna – 11am to 11pm, closed Sundays
Another taste of more traditional Viennese cuisine was the bread -making class we tried as part of the Avalon cruise. I’ve been to a few cookery classes and this was especially enjoyable because we could really get stuck into the mixing and kneading of the dough – a most therapeutic experience. Our enthusiastic baker Nabiel left us with no time for slacking as we patted, pinched and plaited the dough into authentic Viennese rolls. Rolling the Salz Stangerl (salt stick) was the easy one and by the end we’d also mastered the complex knot of the Mohn Flesserl covered with poppy seeds and the classic windmill folds of the Kaisersemmel.
Our freshly baked rolls were proudly taken back to the ship for all our fellow guests to admire and eat at dinner. You can book this as an additional excursion on your Avalon cruise or if visiting Vienna check out the Andante website. They have a regular class every Tuesday to learn how to cook the Austrian classic dishes (yes there’s Wienerschnitzel!) as well as one off cookery events.
5. In Vienna you’re surrounded by music
You won’t be long in Vienna before you become aware that it’s also the musical capital of Austria – so many of the great musical composers lived and worked here. Hayden, Vivaldi, Beethoven, Mozart and of course Strauss are just a few whose lives you can trace and music you can hear played in Vienna. Around Vienna’s tourist landmarks you’ll find young men in frock coats offering you tickets for the numerous concerts being held regularly in the city.
The whole experience of the Vienna concert with the greatest classical hits has potential to become a little cheesy, yet the concert we attended at the lovely Eschenbach Palace was a most delightful evening. The standard of musicianship from the Vienna Supreme Orchestra was extremely high and the favourite tunes were punctuated by moments of dramatic and comic opera that had us all laughing, as well as some charming pieces of ballet. The concert was just the right length and we all returned to the ship with a smile on our face, humming Strauss’s Blue Danube Walz.
I must admit that before visiting the House of Music I had my doubts at how successful a museum devoted to music could be – it seemed to be a contradiction of the senses. However the experience changed my perception, with interactive elements that would appeal to all ages, and a great choice for families. I ran up the stairs which like the keys of a piano played a scale as well as conducted my own orchestra, which spookily slowed down when I did.
Having watched the film of the Vienna Philharmonic at their New Year’s concert I’m even more determined than ever to secure one of the sought after tickets. There was also plenty of information in each of the rooms devoted to a different composer as well as audio experiences, so you can go away knowing a little more about the men behind the music you hear in Vienna. Haus der Musik, Seilerstätte 30, A-1010 Vienna
6. Fall in love with the horses at the Spanish Riding school
Those gorgeous white Lippizaner stallions are what everyone comes to the Spanish Riding School for, but if you want to see them in action, it’s wise to book your tickets in advance. The special performances are the most sought after tickets, but you can also see the morning practice sessions or take a guided tour of the Winter Riding School where the performances take place, and afterwards see the horses in the stables. For all of these tours there is a rule of NO photos of the horses, which is a bit disappointing as they are so gorgeous, but on the other hand I could imagine they would end up feeling like film stars being hounded by the paparazzi.
In our behind the scenes tour, we learned that each horse works for only one rider, although each rider may train 6-8 horses at a time. There are only 24 riders in the school at present and it’s an arduous process of apprenticeship which starts around the age of 16 and can take up to 14 years to become a fully trained rider. The Lippizanner stallions are mainly white, since the breeding has strengthened this charactaristic but they are born dark and then turn white after around 10 years. However, there is the odd horse that stays dark and they are considered as lucky charms for the riding school.
When we looked around the tack room I realised how specially these horses are treated, with performance saddles costing €15,000 that are made-to-measure for each horse. The stallions also have the right to 7 weeks holiday a year and when they retire at around the age of 24 they are looked after by the riding school and never sold. When we walked through the stables, it was very special to see all the horses close up although were not allowed to touch or photograph them – they really are gorgeous creatures. Like top athletes or models these are horses in their prime who like to show off and be the centre of attention – after all they are selected for their lively temperament so that performing comes naturally to them.
Spanish Riding School – check out the options for tours and performances well before your visit to Vienna to ensure you can see the performance that you want.
After a couple of days exploring Vienna I really felt that I’d just scratched the surface of what there is to see here. But in my short time I managed to get a taste not only of the well-known tourist highlights, but the authentic and modern style of Vienna. Now I’ve established that there’s more to Vienna than Sacher Torte and Wienerschnitzel, I can’t wait to go back and uncover more of what this gorgeous city has to offer.
Read more about our Avalon Cruise
Read more about holidays in Austria
Where to stay in Vienna
If you need an elegant hotel to stay in Vienna, perhaps for an extra day or two at the beginning or end of your cruise, I recommend the Intercontinental Hotel Vienna.
My room at Intercontinental Vienna was arranged through Avalon Cruises for the night before our cruise officially started, enabling me to see something of Vienna. If you’re looking for classic elegance that fits the image of old world Vienna, the Intercontinental Vienna will suit you perfectly.
I especially loved the lobby with coffee shop and bar area fringed by sparkling crystal and chandeliers which had a feeling of elegant luxury. Book your stay at Intercontinental Vienna as an add-on to your Avalon river cruise or if you are travelling independently check for the best prices and book through HotelsCombined.
Information to plan your cruise
The Avalon Waterways 9 day ‘Active Discovery on the Danube’ cruise from Linz to Budapest (and reverse itinerary) is priced from £2483 per person to include a selection of activities (based on 16 October 2017 departure). Cruise highlights include Linz, Grein, Durnstein, Krems, Vienna, Bratislava, Visegard and Budapest. Discover more on the Avalon Waterways website.
If you require a hotel in Austria at the start or end of your cruise check out HotelsCombined where you can compare the best prices and book from a range of hotel sites. If you require any airport parking services, I recommend APH Airport Parking and Hotels, a leading UK provider of airport parking, hotels and airport lounges.
Thanks to Avalon Waterways who hosted Heather for a 4 day taste of the Danube cruise from Austria to Linz.
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