Travel Writing: Vienna – The Fairytale City

Vienna is the loveliest city.  It’s as simple as that: it is a city of palatial, immaculate townhouses; of sprawling grounds, elegant cafes and exquisite architecture. It is a fairytale city of astonishingly well-kept buildings and incredible, magnificent beauty. Vienna is famed for its culture and its history – an intellectual city in which the opulent legacy of the Hapsburgs competes with the enduring influence of some of the world’s greatest classical composers; a city boastful of its endless appreciation of opera and music.

I stayed in an amazingly convenient apartment just off the Ringstrasse – the famed ring of streets meticulously created in the mid-nineteenth century, encompassing the historical district and an impressive array of beautiful buildings. All the guidebooks recommend walking or getting the tram around the Ring, and it is a suggestion that I would definitely second. In a four-mile walk alone, you can take in the Parliament, with its sweeping drive; the Rathaus, the City Hall, neo-Gothic and exceptionally intricate; the Burgtheater, adorned with busts of Vienna’s favourite playwrights; the dazzlingly complex Hofburg Complex, home to the famous Spanish Riding School; and so much more.

In my own walk along the Ringstrasse, I also took in St Rupert’s Church, a quaint structure smothered in ivy and dated as the oldest church in Vienna; St Stephen’s Cathedral, dizzyingly tall and ridiculously medieval and really just as striking as everyone says; and the Opera House. It offers an excellent tour, covering the aristocratic-looking red and gold of the auditorium, to the vast backstage area, its endless flies and mechanical structures somewhat dispelling all the romantic notions conjured by the idea of the stage.

I took a detour in the Hofburg Complex – open to the public for most of the day, because who wouldn’t want to amble around palace grounds for free? – and visited the Austrian National Library, a must for any bibliophile. The collection of 200,000 books, located in a sumptuous setting that makes my own Ikea bookcases pale somewhat in comparison, is accompanied by an evocative exhibition about the construction of the Ringstrasse.

At the risk of waxing on about buildings, Schonbrunn Palace, the summer residence of the Hapsburgs, also deserves a mention. The sheer expansiveness of the grounds is incredible: a zoo, a maze, several spectacular decorative fountains, the Gloriette, innumerable shady walks and endless leafy boulevards, a sprawling view of the city’s landscape and, of course, the palace itself. I’d recommend an audio guide – informative and succinct – and even if you’re not as obsessed with gold leaf and baroque interiors as I am, it’s definitely worth experiencing the way an emperor would have lived.

And for any museum geek out there, the Kunsthistoriches Museum is a (inconceivably stunning) haven, spanning three floors of inestimable treasures: infinite galleries of priceless paintings, including a few Rembrandts; Roman and Greek marbles; artefacts from the Hapsburg collection; and dead mummies and Ancient Egyptian art galore. Throw in a carriage ride past St Peter’s and Mozart’s old lodgings, and I was basically back in time.

There is more to Vienna than museums, of course: both café culture and opera form an integral part of the Viennese mindset, and I was lucky enough to experience both.

My visit coincided with the Music Film Festival, in which recordings of music, opera and ballet are shown on a large screen in front of the Rathaus – the stands were jam-packed for a screening of Carmen.

The cafes are even better – although the servers can verge on rudeness at times, and it is a bit unnerving to accidentally stumble upon a café that Hitler classed as one of his favourites, the cakes are truly delicious and I would highly recommend the Sacher Torte, a Viennese staple of apricot and chocolate. Wiener schnitzel and pork feature prominently on Viennese menus too, and you can never go wrong with apple strudel.

And as an antidote to grand Vienna, Museum Quartier is perfect.  A jumble of modern architecture, bars and art, it is vibrant and bustling at night and has an eclectic programme of activities, ranging from book readings to showings of foreign language films. The Prater, too – an amusement park dating back to the nineteenth century, it is home to some terrifying-looking rides and an old-fashioned big wheel. If only every city had rollercoasters right in the heart of the city!

The peaceful avenues, quiet squares and lively streets of Vienna are of the most ornate, exquisite prettiness.  To walk around the first district is to experience the impeccable fulfilled vision of an idealised city, a place where even the mundane buildings rival architectural prizes in other cities – and it really doesn’t get much better than that.

[Rachel Walker]

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