Just so there’s no confusion, the fact that my husband, James, and I have been dallying in a coffeehouse for more than an hour in no way translates to a lack of either motivation or desire. It’s just that exploring can be exhausting. Besides, in Vienna, lingering over an afternoon coffee is not only fashionable, it’s de rigueur. That my preferred mode of caffeine delivery is strong tea is deliciously beside the point.
James and I love to soak in local atmosphere on our travels, especially when it affords a chance to get away from business, and Café Sperl on Gumpendorferstrasse proves to be the ideal setting for shaking off some jet lag and getting our bearings. Built in 1880, it exudes ambience, from the hanging lamps that cause the wood parquet floors to gleam and glow to the beguiling displays of cakes and pastries. Through a long row of tall, domed windows, we enjoy the outside views while James sips a Maria Theresia, a fragrant mocha coffee laced with orange liqueur and brandy. I have my pot of tea, and we share a warm slice of thick apple strudel — the perfect antidote for a chilly afternoon.
Revived, we head into the Austrian light toward the Ringstrasse, agreeing that it may be one of the loveliest boulevards we’ve seen anywhere in the world. This year marks the 150th anniversary of Vienna’s famed ring road, created at the behest of Emperor Franz Joseph. The emperor commissioned the reigning architectural geniuses of his day and set them loose in a whirl of construction that resulted in an elegant synthesis of Gothic, Renaissance and Baroque styles that still invites awe.
We board the bright yellow Vienna Ring Tram at Schwedenplatz in front of the Staatsoper (State Opera House) for a half-hour tour of the highlights. Operating on a continuous loop along the Ringstrasse perimeter, it doesn’t allow the jump on/jump off option of the city trams but offers the advantage of a multimedia system with an LCD screen showing details about sights along the route, plus multilingual headphones that provide background and interesting facts. It makes a great orientation to the inner city for those with little time to tour.
Alighting from the tram back in front of the Opera House, we decide to slip inside for a tour. The first thing I notice is that it is not filled with cherubic Viennese choir boys singing in perfect harmony. We mount a grand marble staircase and visit a number of spaces within the imposing Neoclassical structure. This was the first building along the Ringstrasse to be commissioned by Joseph, completed in 1869. We learn that though now treasured for the beauty of its architectural details, it was not especially appreciated by the locals when unveiled for its premier performance of Mozart’s Don Juan.
The long-ago public’s reaction is difficult to fathom, given the exquisite frescoes in the foyer and on the veranda, painted by artist Moritz von Schwind, and the Gustav Mahler Hall, filled with fabulous tapestries featuring themes from Mozart’s The Magic Flute. It’s all quite lovely, but it’s the Tea Salon that causes us to catch our collective breath. Within, Karl Madjera’s lavish painting, The Music on Eagles’ Wings, unfolds across the ceiling, adorned, like the walls, with glittering, 22-carat gold leaf.
In the morning, we take an early walk to the historic quarter to see St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It would be difficult to miss: Its icing-like Gothic limestone façade and soaring spires are the downtown skyline’s most prominent features. On the roof, a royal double-headed eagle presides over the city’s coat of arms and the collection of religious relics and jeweled treasures housed within the interior chapels.
We take an afternoon break back at our hotel, the historic Hotel Sacher. The detour is deliberate: There’s cake to be savored. Not just any cake, but the decadent, chocolate-raspberry concoction known as the Sacher-Torte. Created from a secret, 34-step recipe that dates back more than 180 years, the hotel’s own Café Sacher Wien offers the perfect place to sample a piece. Ours is served with a flourish and a scoop of whipped cream. The smooth, glossy, iced surface of the torte bears a chocolate emblem with the single word “Sacher,” a reminder of its origins with the hotel’s founder, Franz Sacher.
Later, we tour the quirky Sisi Museum in the Stephan Apartments of the Hofburg Palace, which holds the personal effects of Empress Elisabeth of Austria, the wife of Emperor Franz Joseph I. Called “Sisi” by friends and family, the empress had a fixation on maintaining her health and beauty that was considered a bit obsessive at the time, reflected in the unusual exercise equipment and herbal concoctions she kept in her personal rooms. The still fit and lovely Empress Elisabeth was tragically stabbed to death by an anarchist while visiting Geneva, Switzerland, bringing her beauty rituals to an unfortunate finale.
A tour through the main palace includes a glimpse of the grand spaces that still see action each ball season. I gaze wistfully at a wide expanse of floor in its fabulous setting and imagine pairs of dancers gliding by in frothy gowns while the music of Mozart fills the air. Someday, I vow, we’ll return while the balls are in full swing and kick our heels up a bit. James watches my face, able, after all these years, to get a pretty good fix on what’s floating through my mind.
Outside, he takes my hand and leads me to a broad expanse of green grass near the palace. He faces me, his green eyes twinkling, then lifts my hand and air-kisses it in keeping with accepted ballroom etiquette. Before I can say a single word, he sweeps me into his arms and across the lawn. Our music-less facsimile of a waltz would hardly survive the scrutiny of a professional dancer, but the few passersby who notice simply smile and politely look away. One circuit of our corner of the lawn proves to be enough, and we collapse together in laughter, glad for the sunshine and the opportunity to experience this beautiful city. A Viennese waltz, however imperfect, strikes us as the ideal way to end our day.
Vienna Info to Go
Located roughly 11 miles from city center, Vienna International Airport is easy to access via the City Airport Train, with service every 30 minutes between 6:06 a.m. and 11:36 p.m. Travel time is 16 minutes; follow green CAT signs to access the platform. Single tickets cost €12 (about $14). The train arrives at Wien Mitte station where train, bus, tram and U-Bahn (subway) transfers may be made. Three dedicated airport bus lines connect to Wien West, Wien Meidling railway station, all U-Bahn stations and Morzinplatz/Schwedenplatz in city center. Most major car rental companies are represented, and limousine service is available. Buses and taxis depart from in front of the arrivals hall.
Where to Stay in Vienna
Hotel Sacher Vienna This privately owned luxury haven carries a deliciously decadent history: It’s where the original chocolate-raspberry Sacher-Torte was created. Centrally located. Philharmonikerstrasse 4 $$$$$
Hotel Sans Souci Wien Equal parts Bohemian and classic luxury, this conveniently located historic structure beside the MuseumsQuartier has been spiffed and fluffed by Philippe Starck. Burggasse 2 $$$$
Palais Coburg Residenz From the elegant sweep of the front alabaster steps to the restored palace inside, this boutique design hotel includes fabulous suites, a relaxing spa and a secret city garden. Coburgbastei 4 $$$$$
Restaurants in Vienna
Mraz & Sohn Markus Mraz and his son, Manuel Mraz, offer tasty global choices, from Mediterranean delicacies to heavenly, locally sourced cheeses. Wallensteinstrasse 59 $$$
Steirereck Restaurant Sample classic Viennese fare and modern Austrian cuisine, including venison or Chioggia beets prepared with roses, in this elegant setting in the Stadtpark. Heumarkt 2A $$$$$
Walter Bauer Local at its best, this family-run establishment shines beneath a Michelin star. The menu of traditional dishes is elevated to gourmet status, accompanied by a cellar filled with excellent wines. Sonnenfelsgasse 17 $$$$
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