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Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Austria.
Must see locations, events and places to travel and enjoy in Austria.
Thousands of white-tied and elegant-gowned waltzers attend more than 300 formal balls with different themes that Vienna throws during the winter Fasching or carnival season. But the belle of all the balls is the legendary Opera Ball. It is held in the Baroque Vienna State Opera House, minus the opera and its seats, which are removed by a beehive of workers who transform the ornate Staatsoper into a splendid, cavernous ballroom overnight.
The Opernball opens with the grand entry of 200 graceful young debutantes (the daughters of rich and titled Austrian families), joined by 5,000 guests who come from all echelons of Viennese society and around the world to partake in the fairytale event first established by the Emperor Franz Josef in 1877. The dance floor becomes a kaleidoscope of color as dancers whirl to the sprightly strains of the Viennese waltz.
When three-quarter time winds down at 5 A.M., turn to the next page of the fairy tale by retiring to your room at the Hotel Imperial, Vienna’s trophy hotel. Built in 1867 in the Renaissance style by Emperor Franz Josef for his niece and her husband, the Duke of Wurttemberg, it was used to house the duke’s most distinguished guests and is still the official hotel for state visitors, just as when former guest Richard Wagner booked seven rooms and composed day and night.
Many things remain unchanged, give or take a few multimillion-dollar renovations: priceless furnishings, marble floors, gilded balustrades, ceiling frescoes, glittering chandeliers. Guests will naturally feel as if they’re being treated like Queen Elizabeth who uttered before leaving that it was “the most beautiful hotel we have ever stayed in.”
“It stands at the far end of the Alps like a grandiloquent watchman of history.” —Jan Morris
The legacies of Beethoven, Freud, Klimt, and Mahler lure visitors to this gracious old-world city, the least frenetic yet one of the most compelling capitals of Europe. Famous for its gemutlichkeit, its trams, its cafes, and its pastry stores, it is a delightfully civilized and comfortable city and a timeless destination for art, music, and culture.
The Top Ten Sights
A number of Vienna’s top sights are at the Hofburg (Imperial Hapsburg Palace), the residence of the Hapsburg emperors until 1918.
The Imperial Apartments
(KAISERAPPARTMENTS)—Emperor Franz- Josef I lived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors can see his opulent private rooms, the great audience hall, the court silverware and tableware room, and the dining rooms, richly decorated in rococo stucco work, tapestries, and Bohemian crystal chandeliers—Vienna at its most Viennese.
Lipizzaner Horses of the Spanish Riding School—Founded in 1572, the Spanische Reitschule preserves classic dressage in its purest form, with presentations open to the public. Its horses were bred over the centuries from Spanish, Italian, and Arabian stock.
The Treasury (Schatzkammer) — this superb collection includes the imperial crowns of the Holy Roman and Austrian empires and numerous treasures from the house of Burgundy and the Order of the Golden Fleece.
Vienna Boys’ Choir at the Hofburgkapelle—Linked with Vienna’s musical life since 1498 and associated over the years with composers such as Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner, the choir has performed internationally since 1926.
ELSEWHERE IN VIENNA
Albertina Museum—Combining a 17th- century palace and a new fourteen-story building, the Albertina contains one of the world’s largest collections of graphic art (from the Gothic to the contemporary), plus some 25,000 architectural drawings and a major new photography collection.
Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere)— Actually two 18th-century palaces separated by landscaped gardens; the upper palace exhibits 19th- and 20th-century Viennese art (featuring works by Klimt), while the lower palace showcases the Gothic and Baroque.
Kunsthistorisches Museum—One of the richest fine-arts museums on the planet, with works from the ancient world and all over Europe, housed in palatial galleries. The Italian and Flemish collections are especially fine, as is the world’s largest collection of paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
St. Charles Church (Karlskirche)—One of Vienna’s great buildings, the Karlskirche was built in the early 18th century. Its entrance is framed by huge freestanding columns, mates to Rome’s Trajan’s Column. There’s a magnificent view from the roof.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom)— Retaining its medieval atmosphere despite centuries of renovation and rebuilding, the Stephansdom dominates the city skyline with its towering Gothic spires. Inside, it’s filled with monuments, sculptures, and paintings. Catacomb tours run regularly Mon-Sat.
Schloss Schonbrunn—Built by the Hapsburgs between 1696 and 1712, this 1,441-room palace (of which about 40 can be visited) is full of delicate rococo touches that set it in contrast to the starker Hofburg. Mozart performed here at age six for the Empress Maria Theresa, and Emperor Franz- Joseph was born here. The palace’s park was opened to the public around 1779 and quickly became a popular recreational area, with a hedge maze, reproduction Roman ruins, botanical garden, and zoo.
Other Must Do’s
Christmas in Vienna—Vienna is Christmas: white with snow, adorned with traditional decorations, and beautifully noncommercial. There’s midnight Mass at St. Stephen’s, and at City Hall’s huge Christkindlmarkt, hundreds of festive outdoor stands sell everything that smells and tastes of the holidays. “Silent Night” and other Viennese carols are sung by the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Top it off with the extravagant New Year’s Eve Kaiserball at the Hofburg.
The Musikverein—One of the greatest music halls in the world, built in the Baroque style in 1867, with nearly flawless acoustics. It’s home to the Vienna Philharmonic, whose New Year’s Eve Johann Strauss concert is broadcast around the world. The celebrated Vienna Mozart Concerts take place here and elsewehere in town, May-Oct.
The Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera)— Built in 1887 as the imperial court opera, the green-domed opera house is one of the world’s best, offering an incredibly long season (Sept-Jun) of mostly staples: Verdi, Mozart, and Strauss.
Where to Stay
The Palais Schwarzenberg—Built in the early 18th century by an aristocratic family whose descendants still occupy about half of it and set on 18 bucolic acres in the heart of Vienna, it’s more like a stately country home than an urban hotel. Despite ancestral portraits and other artworks (including Renoirs and Gobelins), public areas and rooms are inviting and unstuffy. The hotel’s renowned restaurant has one of the most impressive settings (and chefs) in the city.
The ICONIC von Ungarn—Vienna’s oldest hotel, tucked away in the shadow of St. Stephen’s cathedral and in operation since 1815. Simple and polished, with a lovely enclosed courtyard, it’s a welcome respite from the city’s opulence.
Demel and Sacher’s—Open since 1887, Demel is one of the reasons Vienna is known as Europe’s pastry capital, setting up an Olympic-sized array of more than sixty pastries in its music-box-perfect front rooms. The five-layer chocolate Anna torte and the profoundly rich chocolate Sacher torte are house specialties. Sample the goods here and then trot over to the Hotel Sacher’s cafe to compare—both insist they have the original secret recipe, though Demel’s usually wins out. Sacher’s strudel, however (“mit Schlagobers”—with whipped cream), knows no rival.
Hawelka Cafe—Whole books have been written at and about this classic, unapologetically smoky cafe, the enduring prototype in the city that invented European cafe culture. Its superb coffee is dense, bitter, and fresh.
The Heuriger Experience—At these alfresco wine taverns, sprinkled along the edge of the nearby Vienna Woods, large quantities of seemingly innocent wine are partially responsible for the atmosphere: alive with bonhomie, singing, and shameless Viennese accordion schmaltz. Beethoven lived at Mayer am Pfarrplatz in 1817; today it’s a favorite Heuriger.
Steirereck—Austria’s finest restaurant and the birthplace of New Viennese Cuisine, served amid baronial trappings with elegance and flair. Find a table in the more intimate and romantic winter garden, a greenery-filled conservatory built against an outside wall.
Zu Den Drei Husaren—Old Vienna’s enduring monument to its school of haute cuisine. Tourists love it, but so do the locals, who know they can reliably find Viennese standards at candlelit tables in a plush romantic ambience of stag horns and tapestries. Sample Austria’s finest labels from its enormous wine list.
Mozart’s birthplace, and its glorious natural setting, is the appropriate venue for Europe’s largest and most important annual musical event. More than 180 classic and contemporary performances, including operas, symphonies, major concerts, and recitals are scheduled around town—expect the banner events to be sold out well in advance (unless you’re willing to pay your concierge top dollar for his scalper connections).
It’s easier to find tickets for the matinees—chamber music or church concerts, which can be no less enjoyable. During the festival—or indeed anytime you’re craving luxury-—stay at Salzburg’s Hotel Schloss Monchstein. This 14th-century turreted castle, built as the summer escape for the archbishops of Salzburg, sits atop a hill surrounded by gardens and 25 acres of parkland and is a ten-minute elevator ride from the heart of Salzburg’s historic center.
Recently refurbished, its parquet floors, oriental rugs, leaded-glass windows, 18th-century furniture, and small chapel that dates back to at least 1500 convey the hotel’s history; guests like Czar Alexander II of Russia and Mozart himself conducted many a dalliance here. But it’s the modem amenities in the seventeen guest rooms that justify this theatrical setting’s five star hotel status. A stay in the Tower Suite will make you feel it deserves twice that.
Some of the choicest downhill skiing (and apres-ski) in the world can be found in the western reaches of the Austrian Alps. When other resorts go bare, Arlberg, a wonderfully picturesque niche well above the tree line, ensures ample amounts of powder. The region encompasses Lech, its most charming village resort, as well as St. Anton, Zurs, St. Cristoph, and Stuben. In Lech-Zurs alone there are thirty-five lifts and cable cars serving a 65-mile ski circuit of groomed pistes and 75 miles of open, ungroomed runs, including the magnificent 12-mile Madloch tour.
The home of modern ski technique, the revolutionary method named for Arlberg, is practiced today around the globe and the area’s schools and instructors are among the world’s best. Sharing Lech’s indisputable air of exclusivity but lack of pretense is the village’s smallest and best five-star hotel, the Gasthof Post. Run by the gracious Moosbrugger clan for three generations, the former post house is known for its impeccable yet homey ambience and excellent restaurant.
Where Lech is sought out for its unspoiled character, Kitzbühel is beloved for its fashionable, glamorous atmosphere. The smoothed but mighty crags behind the medieval walled town provide mostly intermediate ski circuits (except for the difficult, world-famous Hahnenkamm downhill race), heart-stopping cable car rides, and 120 miles of awesome summertime hiking possibilities that set it apart from all those Kitzbühel wannabes.
Those looking for a vibrant apres-ski scene will be drawn to the town’s historic center of cobbled streets and pastel-painted medieval houses. There are trendy boutiques for shopping, lively casinos, and sophisticated clubs. Visitors can also relax with hot chocolate and pastries at the well-known Cafe Praxmair. Set high on the sunny side of the Kitzbühler Horn is the elegant but friendly Tennerhof Hotel, a quaint converted 17th-century farmhouse and a joy any time of the year. The eating is some of the best in town, so dine here even if you’re lodging elsewhere.
Feast your eyes on the essence of alpine beauty and take the white-knuckle, breathtaking drive along Austria’s lofty Grossglockner Road. Named after the country’s highest peak and traversing some of Austria’s most scenic regions, the road was an important trading route between Germany and Italy in the Middle Ages.
The fantastic Grossglockner Road (now also Highway 107) was built between 1930 and 1935, and while most adventurers strike out today from Salzburg, the road actually begins farther south, in the heart of Hohe Tauern National Park. Almost 700 square miles in size, it boasts 300 mountains over 9,840 feet (3,000 meters), 246 glaciers, lush valleys, and dozens of pretty villages in which to seek a good meal and a simple overnight guesthouse.
Spectacular vistas of the park’s centerpiece, the towering Grossglockner, 12,460 feet tall, make it hard for drivers to keep their eyes on the hairpin turns. The 47-mile strip from Bruck to Heiligenblut is the most riveting, highlighted by the Edelweiss-Spitze and Franz-Josephs-Hohe, two awesome panoramic terraces at 8,500 feet and 7,800 feet respectively. Throw in the fantastic 6-mile sector called the “Road of the Glaciers” and you’ll have an unforgettable journey.
Graz, the southeastern seat of the Hapsburgs as early as 1379, features one of Central Europe’s best-preserved Altstadte (old towns). Just look around Graz and you’ll see the ubiquitous motto “Austria rules the world” (A.E.I.O.U., or Austria est imprerare orbu uni-verso) left behind by Friedrich III, King of Germany and Holy Roman Emperor, who resided here.
The city boasts the empire’s (and Europe’s) largest armory: more than 30,000 pieces of every imaginable kind of armor and equipment used for war and jousting fill four floors of the 17th-century Landeszeughaus Armor)’. The town’s draw may be its magnificent architecture from the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, but the tone of Graz today is young and upbeat, thanks to three prominent universities (one offering the only faculty of jazz in all of Europe), the oldest founded in the 16th century.
From spring until fall, a number of prestigious fairs and music festivals enliven the flagstone streets and squares, while students keep the atmospheric beer cellars, bars, and publike beisls buzzing. As capital of the agriculturally rich region of Styria, one of Graz’s most enticing day trips is a meander out along any of the eight “wine roads” south of the city.
Wachau’s exposure to the sun, and the beautiful, albeit not really blue, Danube that runs through the region make this one of Austria’s most productive and scenic wine-growing areas. Fortified abbeys and castles crown the valley’s rolling hills, on which steeply terraced vineyards alternate with forested slopes and orchards of apricot trees that bloom in late spring.
The little walled town of Dürnstein—famous as the site where Richard the Lionhearted of England was imprisoned in 1192 following an altercation with Leopold V—is justly popular. For lovely accommodations, you needn’t go any farther than the leafy terrace of the Schloss Dürnstein Hotel, featuring liltingly beautiful views of the river, excellent dining, and an attractive wine list. (Have a glass of the local launer vetliner on the terrace.)
Dürnstein’s hilltop Kuenringer Castle was destroyed and replaced in 1650; the ruins of the original structure can be reached by foot for some remarkable views of the surroundings, said to have inspired the tales of the magic kingdoms of the Brothers Grimm. Leave the charming castle grounds for a delightful side trip to Melk Abbey (Stift Melk), a recently renovated 1,000-year-old Benedictine monastery, filled with manuscripts and precious works of art, including the famous Melk crucifix. This particularly picturesque stretch of the Danube is a favorite for short boat cruises, a wonderful way to see the area.
If music be the food of love,” wrote Shakespeare, “play on.” The plays of Shakespeare and the music of Beethoven and Schubert are but a sampling of the dramatic and orchestral works that may be performed during the spectacular Bregenz Festival (Bregenzer Festspiele). The vast floating stage on the edge of Lake Constance (the Bodensee) is magical among the symphony of hills and starry nights.
For those who miss the one-month outdoor festival, the picturesque Lake Constance, which crosses the borders of Austria, Germany, and Switzerland, is the centerpiece of a resort area highly popular for fishing, boating, and hiking. The place to stay is the antique-filled 17th-century Hotel Deuring Schlossle, which sits high on a hill overlooking the lake and the charming city of Bregenz.
The ivy-covered Baroque chateau in a park full of flowers offers just thirteen sumptuous rooms; the most requested is the octagonal tower suite with working fireplace. The hotel’s restaurant has ranked among the country’s top ten for years.