Friday, September 17, 2010

Paul's Guide to Vienna, Part 1 of 3

This is an aggregation of various suggestions I've sent to friends and acquaintances on what to see and do in Vienna (Austria). Once I noticed that I was doing a lot of copying and pasting from older into newer emails, it was clearly time to turn this into a blog post or three.
Updated June 19th, 2011: corrected typos and harmonized citation text styles.

Paul's Guide to Vienna,

for People who've read the Guide Books and want MORE

Part the First: Preparations, Lodging & Sightseeing

Before you leave:

  • Dante Calling Virgil

    These posts are in no way substitutes for a comprehensive guidebook. I have several for Vienna, despite the fact that I live only half an hour away by train. My go-to book is the one from Knopf: Knopf City Guides Vienna. The stand-out feature of the Knopf City Guides are the elevations of the street fronts. They are like Google Street View, but hand illustrated and much better annotated. Your needs may vary, so check out your local library or bookstore. Compare different ones and see which one suits your travel style and schedule. I don't recommend evaluating travel books solely via online sites; you need to actually leaf through them to get a feel for how easy they are to reference. You should also see if they fit into your pockets comfortably. Try not to look furtive when doing so, or you may be approached by security people.
  • Sprechen Sie Deutch?

    Before coming to Austria, most of the German I knew came via Yiddish, and the rest from Hogan's Heroes. In general, you can get by in Vienna without conversational German; most everyone in the tourist industries speak some English and the second language on most signs is English. Having said that, knowing some basics of the local language is always helpful to the traveler. Many guidebooks include a short lexicon, but my money is on a dedicated lexicon/phrase book like the Berlitz German Phrase Book. Not only are these books easy to carry, but they group the words by category/situation. Like the guide books, I recommend looking at these in person before choosing.
  • There's an App for That

    Yes, this advice is more applicable to folks who own smartphones or other connected devices, but even people who have "feature" phones may have useful programs that are already installed or can be added. Currency calculators are always handy, and I had a German/English dictionary on my Palm Pilot back in the day.

    With a smartphone, there are more tourist/tourism specific apps, but I would also look to a good navigation app, especially if your phone has built-in GPS. And unless you are prepared to deal with a data plan (see below), get apps that include all the maps you need, instead of something like Google Maps where you'd need to download maps on the fly.
  • International Roaming

    No two other words strike more fear into the budget conscious traveler with a cell phone. Since this varies between carriers and even calling plans, please check with your cell provider on how to activate this and how much it will cost. Don't forget about the data plan. There are also pay-as-you-go services, which involve swapping out your SIM and possibly unlocking and/or jailbreaking your phone. For those of you who understood the last sentence, you might consider Bob for your calling and data needs in Austria. (I use them for my iPad.)

    Place to stay:


    Postgasse 14, 1010 Wien, Ă–sterreich

    I've recommended this to multiple friends as well as my brother when he came out for my wedding. It's inexpensive lodgings that is a 10 minutes walk from St. Stephen's Cathedral, and it's just around the corner from the Schwedenplatz, which is a nexus for public transit. Also, their showers have curtains.

  • Wiener Rathaus, Vienna "Town" Hall

    Neo-gothic building, which can get pretty old after a while, since there are lots in Vienna. However the plaza in front is a major venue for events all around the year, so it's worth going by just to see what's there. See "Part the Third: Seasonal Notes" for more info.
  • Bezirkmuseums (District Museums)

    Vienna, over the years, has incorporated the smaller towns and villages that grew up outside the original city walls (now the Ring), which define the modern-day "First District" (or just "1st"). While city administration is divided into district offices, there isn't much for the visitor to notice when she crosses district boundaries. The one place where district history is gathered is the local Bezirkmuseum. Aside from general history, these museum often have special exhibits on famous locals: composers, writers, musicians, and the like. Do check the above website on opening times. These are not large places, and tend to have very limited visitor hours.
  • The Prater

    Home of the big ferris wheel ("Riesenrad') best known from The Third Man (and slightly known from The Living Daylights, aka: "Dalton 1" in the James Bond movie series). Good for cityscapes and picture taking. The rest of the Prater is a combination of boardwalk and city park, so all sorts of people wander through. Last time I was there (with friends visiting from California, natch), we saw a man doing hand puppets and a woman shooting video of him. I'm guessing YouTube.
  • The Danube (Donau) and the Danube "Island" (Donauinsel)

    The Austrians dug a canal paralleling the Danube as a means of flood control as well as to ease navigation (they also "straightened" the Danube in the 1850's). In doing so, they created an "island", which is just the stretch of land between the canal and the main Danube channel. It's another, relatively seasonal place, with restaurants, bars and clubs that cater to the summer crowd of sun-worshippers and vacationing families. There are also art exhibitions and theaters. As far as I know, there are no boats regularly navigating the Danube named "Proud Mary". There are paddle boats, though, but not of Mississippi-esque proportions. There are tours, but you should be careful about not accidentally ending up on the Bratislava or Budapest ferries. On the other hand, there are some nice Turkish baths in Budapest....
  • Hundertwasserhaus

    I've not been inside this building, so I can't confirm the undulating floors. However, the exteriors are definitely wild, and I imagine the tiling contractors are still suffering from PTSD. Very cool, but there's not much to it once you wander around the building once or twice.
  • MuseumsQuartier

    This whole complex is dedicated to "modern" art, with museums, shops, theater spaces, and offices. There are art installations in the open courtyards, including a series of concrete blocks that look like giant, pink erasers with holes in them large enough for a person to sit or lie in. These things get moved around all the time for various "shows". I'm not sure I get any of it, but it's fun to look at and wander through.
  • Imperial Apartments, Hofburg

    Sisi (Empress Elisabeth) is Austria's version of Princess Di, and the Imperial Apartments are, if not a shrine to Sisi, at least a semi-dedicated museum. They've recently re-done the whole Sisi wing, which I've been told by a Viennese docent as being very well put together, but the shrine-like quality has only increased.
  • Heeresgeschichtliches Museum

    The Military History Museum. It is full of sharp and pointy things. It is full of things that go boom. It has some cool uniforms, including a couple from Franz Joseph. It is worth noting that Austria calls the period from 1939 to 1945 "the dictatorship". In fact, Austria does not claim to be a country during that time. While technically true, I find this stance to be more than a bit facile. However, the Second World War section of the museum is otherwise stunning, including some very interesting art installations.

    And if the Imperial Apartments is Sisi's Shrine, then the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum is a reliquary for Archduke Franz Ferdinand. On display in its late-19th and early-20th century Wing: the car that the Archduke was shot in, his bloody uniform and the chaise longue on which he died.
  • Stadtpark, Strauss Statue

    This tends to be touristy, not least because of the webcam on the statue, so people arrange to be on it so their friends at home can see. However it's a good green space with lots of freeloading ducks, pigeons and swans.
  • Schönbrunn Palace

    Reasonably impressive building. Unless you've seen the Hermitage or the Sun King of the Hill: Versailles. Nice zoo.
  • Haus des Meeres, Vienna Aquarium & Terrarium

    Built in a former anti-aircraft tower ("Flakturm") it's probably the most vertical aquarium you'll ever see. Great for kids, and even a bit of WWII history. We always try to get sushi before or after a visit.
  • The Torture Museum

    It sits underground in a corner of the park where the Haus des Meeres is (you can see it from the Haus des Meeres' entrance). I've not been, but I'm told that it's not that different from other, Old Europe torture museums. My son went when he was five, but was apparently unaffected.

    End of Part the First

    Part the Second
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