Category Archives: europe

24 Hours: Vienna

Before a trip, I’ve mentioned that I try to keep my expectations/pre-conceived ideas to a minimum. Travel porn can really mess with your head and make you feel like you’re missing something when you see the real thing.

Gee, I guess real porn might do the same.

And I’ll admit it, over the years I’ve looked at plenty of Viennese travel porn (I have a problem, ok?), and my romantic visions of the city were at completely unrealistic levels. Confectionary Baroque architecture, the home to the only surviving building lived in by Mozart, rich coffee, chocolate cakes, luxurious furs, sweeping waltzes, classical music . . . I mean, come on, how could any romantic not be a sucker for that?

And you know what? It’s true. Parts of the city really are that way! But, it’s also a modern, bustling place with people, you know, going to work in plain old suits and ties and unfortunately not powdered wigs.

I wanted powdered wigs.

Actually, I wanted Miloš Forman to art direct my vacation.

WTF, Austrians? You were supposed to dress like this upon Kiki's arrival.

But even with the lack of powdered wigs and Miloš, I still really liked Vienna, and I really needed more time there. I don’t feel like I fully maximized the time that I did have, but here are a few tips:

 

LISTEN

You know something that Brahms, Strauss, Schubert, Beethoven, and Mozart have in common? Ok, yes, they’re all classical composers, but they’re also all buried in Vienna. In fact, you can even pay your respects to all of them at the Zentralfriedhof if you’ve got the time, which is absolutely on my list for next time. Even if classical music isn’t really your thing, you should at least have a little listen for some ambiance. Try these:

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–           (he wrote The Marriage of Figaro while living in Vienna, dontcha know)

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SEE & DO

–          Schoenbrunn Palace – it’s probably best to visit this gorgeous palace in the warmer months so you can enjoy the gardens, but there is a great, non-cheesy Christmas market around the holidays, so brave the cold! It’s a bit outside of the city, but it’s a quick metro ride.

Schönbrunn Palace

–          Mozarthaus – this is the only surviving structure that was home to the Mozart family, which is now a museum at Domgasse 5. The admission includes an audio tour, but it’s sort of slow moving and a little repetitive. I spent about an hour there and it was good enough for my pace, plus, it was cool just to be in the building itself.

Domgasse 5, Mozart's Former Home

–          Stephansdom – who doesn’t love a cathedral? Well, Damian wasn’t too fond of them, but for the non-antichrist among us, they’re beautiful old buildings to walk through and marvel. This is the focal point of Stephansplatz, which is the center of the old city, and a good place to start your day.

Stephansdom

–          Kärtnerstrasse – this is the “main street” of Vienna, pedestrian only, and full of shops, cafes, and plenty to see

 

EAT

–          Figlmüller – home of “Vienna’s most famous schnitzel”! This might seem a little touristy, but you’re a tourist, so who cares. You can’t go to Vienna and not get a good wienerschnitzel, and this is a great spot for lunch. When we were there around 12, the crowds weren’t terrible, but by 1:00 it was a madhouse, so plan accordingly.

–          Der Naschmarkt – Vienna’s open-air food market

–          Café Sacher – again, another tourist spot (and the crowds will remind you of this), but when in Vienna. If you have the opportunity to have a torte and a coffee at Café Sacher, you should just go for it! And if, like me, you don’t have the time to wait in the long line for a table, no worries. There are plenty of cafes in this style where you’ll be served your yummies on a little silver platter.

–           Käsekrainer – ok, this is a really disgusting cheese-filled sausage, but it’s really kind of awesome during a night of drinking in the cold. You’ll find this at every wurst stand on the street, and I highly recommend it. It is definitely not kosher.

–          Mozartkugeln – you won’t spend more than 30 seconds in Vienna without seeing these Mozart-themed chocolates being hawked everywhere. We have these in the states, but here you’ll find not only the Wolfgang variety, but the Constanze, and the Mozart children and grandparents and giant crystal-covered versions. Hey, they’re delish and they make good token gifts.

Mozartkugeln - too much?

 

SLEEP

Vienna was where my group of eight had a slumber party in an 8-bed dorm room, so I can’t give you a ton of skinny on the lux digs available to you, but here’s what my initial research found:

–          Vienna Westend City Hostel – we stayed in this hostel on the Westend of the city, which wasn’t a terrible location, but wasn’t within the Ringstrasse. Clean, friendly, not too many frills, but very near the subway, about $20 per person  for the dorm

–          Wombats – this is a well-known, popular hostel in Vienna. There are two locations: Base and Lounge. They’ve won all sorts of awards and look like great places to stay if you’re in the market for a hostel, plus it’s the most awesome name ever

–          Some hotels that were cheap options on our list of potentials: Hotel Am Konzerthaus and Austria Classic Hotel Wien (doubles for both were under $120)

 

IN SHORT

Vienna is a very bustling city; it’s much more crowded than I expected it to be for some reason. That being said, I was there the day before New Year’s Eve, so that might have had something to do with it. There is plenty to see and do in Vienna, but even with limited time there, you should take part in their storied kaffeekultur. Sit down in a cozy café, relax with a friend or a book or both, have some dessert, and just people watch. It was so crowded when I was there that it was hard for us to get a table anywhere, but it’s worth it to fight for one.

You should also familiarize yourself with Princess Sissi, who was the less controversial Princess Di or Kate Middleton of her day, but even more so. The movie based on her life is beloved by German-speaking girls in the way that The Sound of Music is by Americans.

And ladies, if you have any fur in your wardrobe that you’re sort of nervous about wearing in your own city, bring it to Vienna. Ladies here love them some fur.

Looking forward to more time there  . . . and maybe in warmer weather!

24 Hours: Budapest

Ok, so 24 hours in any one given destination hardly seems worth it to some people. What’s the point, right? It’s this “If It’s Tuesday, This Must Be Belgium” type of travel that conjures images of Asian tourists with visors and cameras around their necks and fat Americans in shorts piling into large buses. I know; it’s not a pretty picture.

But I like to stretch that dollar, and if I find myself in a trifecta of destinations, I’m going to do what I can to hit all of them. And what’s the worst that can happen? You have a day somewhere and realize that you love it and want to return, or you get a so-so vibe and can at least check it off the list.

I don’t regret my whirlwind visit to Budapest, and here’s how I spent my time.

24 Hours: Budapest

Budapest is an intrinsically beautiful city. It’s hilly, there’s a river, and the architecture is ornate and overwhelming. The Danube cuts through it creating two distinctly different cities, with Buda on the west and Pest on the east. As it seems to go for many cities, the western part is more business oriented, and the east is a little more residential and artsy. I didn’t have many preconceived ideas of what Hungary or Budapest would be like, namely because there aren’t many movies with Hungarian characters, and so they don’t make for great stereotyping material. Blast. Unfortunately I had to think for myself, and here’s what my initial research told me:

1.) Baths

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2.) Goulash

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3.) Chain Bridge

 

 

 

 

 

 

And, you know, when I think back on my short time in Budapest, those really are good places to start. One of the best things about Budapest is that it’s a steal in terms of European traveling, so you can really feel like you’re splurging without blowing your entire budget. Throw in a little Liszt soundtrack, and you’ll have yourself a good intro.

 

Listen

 

Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 – Liszt

Liebestraum – Liszt

Hungarian Dance No. 5 – Brahms (even though Johannes Brahms is from Germany, this ditty will provide the manic energy you’ll need to get you through the fast-paced 24 hours in store)

 

See & Do

 

Budapest has more thermal springs below it than any other capital in the world, so when in Budapest, take a bath! To be completely honest with you, I (nor the rest of my group) had the greatest time at the baths, but I think it’s just something you gotta do. Relax in the hot springs, plunge into the cold bath, take a steam, and check out some naked people. That can never be a totally bad thing. . . . I guess. We went to the Gellert Baths, and while I definitely wouldn’t say that the atmosphere is snooty, it wasn’t the most relaxed place in the world either. The ticket for the day was about $15 with a 30 minute massage costing about the same. English was not widely spoken here, and it’s not the most intuitive of places. Please, for a moment, imagine our group of 8 wandering around in bathing suits aimlessly, huddled together like a school of fish. An employee directs us to a door, which we quickly realizes leads us outside – outside to the bitterly cold, Eastern European winter. We see nothing resembling a bath, so our scantily-clad group hesitates for a moment, takes a deep breath, and then exits. Abruptly, powerfully, horrifyingly, the heavy door slams behind us and we wonder if maybe we’ve just been Budapunk’d. We all internally freak out for a moment, and then burst into uncontrollable, hearty, undeniably American guffaws of laughter. Once we reclaim some semblance of composure, we climb the stairs, giggling, and find a pool full of silent, unamused bathers. Like much of Europe, I think they want quiet people there. Oh, and another side note, remember when I wrote about my indestructible Rainbow sandals? The Budapest Bathwater destructed them. Forever.

Gellert Spa & Bath – this is the “fancier”, more touristy bath that our group went to

Szechenyi Bath & Spa – this looks like a gorgeous place and sounds like it’s a bit more “local”

Chain Bridge (Lánchíd) – there are eight famous bridges crossing the Danube in Budapest. All are lovely in their own way, but the Chain Bridge is the grandest. It’s beautiful, but it’s also a great way to get to/from the foot of the Castle Hill district to Andrassy Ut, which is sort of like the 5th Avenue/Rodeo Drive/Champs Elysees of Budapest. You’ll also have a fantastic view of Hungarian Parliament, which is a gorgeous, fancy wedding cake of a building. It’s about a 20-30 minute walk from/to either of those points, picture taking time included.

Castle Hill – an absolute must-see in Buda. You can either walk or take a tram to the top of the hill to explore the winding streets of the district, plus catch amazing views of the city. Here you’ll find cute tourist shops and cafes, the Royal Palace, Fisherman’s Bastion, and Matthias Church.

Hungarian State Opera – tickets range from literally $2-$60, and since this is known to be one of Europe’s most beautiful opera houses, you should try to check it out. I went into the building, but I didn’t join my cousins for La Bohème, which they said was lovely.

 

Eat

 

When traveling, one of my favorite things to do is to go to a local market. I love the European-style open-air places, replete with stalls filled with a variety of local goodies. It’s not only a great microcosm of the culture, but they’re usually delicious and cheap places to eat. The market in Budapest is called Központi Vásárcsarnok, or the Great Market Hall. It’s a beautiful old building in Pest with a gorgeous tiled roof and soaring windows. In it,  you’ll find a wide variety of meats, produce, sweets, and spices (they are cray cray for paprika), plus places to find typical Hungarian dishes, like good old goulash.

Great Market Hall – the main floor is mostly a market, but the top level is full of food stalls where you’ll find traditional Hungarian dishes (and lots of chintzy souvenirs)

Baldaszti’s – there are three locations of this lovely little outfit, and I was lucky enough to go to two of them: Grand and Kitchen. John and I, after being apart for a few weeks, snuck away from the group (shhh) and had cocktails at Grand, a very chic, “sparkly-rustic” (my current favorite style) little nook on the Andrassy Ut. The next morning, we were happy to find that a second location, Kitchen, was right down the street from our hotel. We had a great, relaxed breakfast in the beautifully designed, adorably decorated space, and all for quite a steal.

Entrees and cocktails were all about $10-12 USD.

Chagall Cafe – we stumbled upon this cozy café on our first night in the city. The menu was a delicious offering of  hearty, rustic style food like deer ragout and confit duck leg: exactly the sort of thing you want after on a cold night after a long day of traveling. Everything was really beautiful, and again, no entrée was more than $13.

 

Sleep

 

We stayed at a really cool boutique design hotel in Buda, right near the foot of Chain Bridge. I highly recommend this hotel. The rooms are fun and funky, the staff is really helpful, it’s in a nice location with fabulous views of the Pest riverfront, and it’s a great deal!

Lanchid 19 (doubles about $90/night)

Others that I came across that look like excellent options:

Atrium Fashion Hotel (doubles about $80/night)

Home Made Hostel (dorm, $13/night; private room w/ bath, $50/night)

New York Palace Hotel (the winter rate was $149/night for a double – not too shabby for what the New York Times calls the best hotel in Budapest)


General

After all is said and done, I enjoyed Budapest, I’m glad that I went, it’s fair to say that I could have used more time there, but I didn’t have an instant connection with the city. The food was great, the people were (generally) welcoming, but I don’t have a strong desire to return. Budapest is like Eliza Doolittle, pre-Henry Higgins: she’s obviously beautiful, but with a foul-mouth and dirty face.

Just you wait, 'Enry 'Iggins!

One could argue that this mixture might give a place more character, and that could be true and perhaps explored with more time, but my initial reaction was not one of unadulterated swooning.

Prague on the other hand . . .

Stay tuned!

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