Monday, June 21, 2010

Vienna for beginners: a tour of 3 streets and 3 squares

Vienna, Austria is one of the great cities of the world.

I'm going to go ahead and make that bold claim without feeling bad about it. You know why? Vienna in the spring is a glorious place. The parks are green and flowers bloom. Cafes put tables outside, and people sit for hours. Free city bikes magically appear on street corners.

One of the things I've learned in my six months in Vienna is that the more time you spend here, the more things there are to see.

If you’re just visiting for a few days, though, you’ve got to start somewhere. Which is why I’m taking you on a tour of just 3 streets and 3 squares—that way you’ll see the highlights of the very core of the city.

Part One: Kärtner Straße to Stephanplatz.

Hello, Opera. This is the sight of many operas as well as the famous Opera Ball, the most prestigious social event of the year in Vienna. In recent years, a Viennese shopping mall tycoon, Richard Lugner, has made a habit of inviting a celebrity to the ball. This year, it was supposed to be Lindsay Lohan, but then she went shopping and missed her plane. (Oops) On a more serious note, the Opera House was completed in 1869, was damaged by a bomb in 1945, and was renovated and reopened in 1955. You can find news and tickets here. If you don't buy tickets before your trip, though, walk along the right side of the building to see if they are live-streaming the opera taking place inside.

Can you believe this? The day I took this photo it was pretty cold and dreary, but on nice days, the whole place is packed.

As you continue across the street and onto Kärtner Straße, the first thing you'll see on the left is the Sacher Hotel, birthplace of the Viennese Sacher Torte.

Gift shop mania. Apparently they'll send a Sacher Torte anywhere in the world for you, and it will stay good for up to three weeks unopened. Is this even possible?!

If you have any interest at all in trying Sacher Torte, this is the place to do it. Expensive, but classic--definitely worth trying if you're willing to indulge on some serious chocolate cake.

Kärtner Straße is a major shopping street. Lots of clothing stores, lots of cafes, lots of gift shops for the tourists (resist! these stores are tacky!).

One thing you can go down a side street to see is Loos' American Bar. Loos was an architect with a very distinct aesthetic, and he designed this bar with an American exterior.
I've never had a drink there because I think it would be crazy expensive, but it's cool looking.
At the end of the street, you’ll find yourself at Stephansplatz. This is the very center of the city and the home of Stephansdom, a cathedral that is one of the main symbols of the city. It was originally built in the 13th century, but major additions were made in the 14th and 15th centuries and later. It’s huge, and entrance is free.

Check out the tiled roof. It’s hard to see in a picture, but in person, it’s amazing. There are almost 250,000 tiles making the pattern you see there as well as the two-headed eagle that is the symbol of Austria. You can see it if you walk down a side street, though.

Across the square from Stephansdom is the Haas House, home to the upscale Do & Co Hotel. Look at the glass--you can see the reflection of Stephansdom in it! You can visit the Onyx Bar to get an unparalleled view directly on the cathedral. If you’re going on a weekend night, you’ll probably need a reservation, so call ahead. You can find out more here.

My sister and I went on her last night in Vienna, and it was the perfect way to close her trip—a really special place and view out at the heart of the city.

The tour will continue next week as we head from Stephansplatz down Graben and towards the Hofburg Imperial Quarters!

Kate Wiseman is an American expat currently living in Vienna, Austria. You can read more about her adventures at her blog, transatlantic sketches, or you can just show up in Vienna and talk to her yourself. Both are welcome.

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