Vienna: A weekend escape

Nosh on schnitzel, brush up on Freud and be dazzled by Beethoven.

 (photo credit: DIMITRY ANIKIN/UNSPLASH)
(photo credit: DIMITRY ANIKIN/UNSPLASH)
While Berlin, Paris, Rome and London consistently rank among the most popular travel destinations for Israelis looking for a leisurely escape, Vienna is quickly inching its way up that list. This is especially true now that Austria has come out as one of the countries to deal most successfully with the COVID-19 pandemic. In fact, masks are required only when taking public transportation and when in places where social distancing is impossible (like salons). Restaurants, shops, hotels and museums are all open.
Given these facts, it’s fitting that there is talk about quarantine-free travel between Israel and Austria. In the meantime, there are direct flights between Tel Aviv and Vienna for under $100, making it worthy of considering even with the mandated quarantine, given most people’s work-from-home situation.
Once in Vienna and free to roam, Israelis love to point out that chef Eyal Shani now has an outpost of his popular fast-casual restaurant Miznon in the Austrian capital, but do yourself a favor if you’re coming from Israel: skip it. From Wiener würstel and Wiener schnitzel, to Sachertorte and Kaiserschmarrn (a signature Austrian dessert that’s basically a scrambled pancake), Vienna has too much to offer by way of its local cuisine for Israelis to beeline for the cauliflower they already know.
It’s also worth noting that Vienna is a fantastic destination year-round. While peak season is December because of the famous Christmas markets, the off season is a wonderful time to take advantage of mild prices. While summer is usually a popular time, given the global state of tourism at the moment, now is a great time to find plenty of bargains.
So where should you go for schnitzel that will put Savta’s to shame (sorry)? Here’s everything you need to know to plan an unforgettable trip.
Getting around
Most people get around Vienna using public transportation. Within the city center (first district) all distances are walkable. Information about public transport is included in Google Maps, so it’s easy to find your way around. You can also try Wien Mobil, the app of “Wiener Linien” (public transport provider). Flat-fare tickets are valid for trains, trams, buses, the underground (U-Bahn) and the S-Bahn regional trains. Fares are very cheap. Plus, services are frequent, so there are rarely long wait times (even at night and on weekends). Uber is available, but because it’s so easy to get a regular taxi and Uber doesn’t offer cheaper fares in Vienna, taxis are the best option if you’re forgoing mass transit.
Note that while it’s not customary to tip taxi drivers in Israel, in Vienna 10% is the norm. This also applies for tips at restaurants.
Where to stay
While strolling around the pedestrian-friendly city of Vienna, it’s hard to believe that it was heavily bombed, including in the city center, during World War II. The city’s buildings have been meticulously restored to their former glory. The capital’s apartments are similarly famously stunning, making Airbnb a popular option.
That said, especially if you’re traveling this time of year when prices aren’t as high as they are in December, there’s a lot of appeal in staying at a hotel. There’s no shortage of palatial options. The Palais Hansen Kempinski Vienna, with its mix of old and new, is arguably, the best five-star option. The rooms are beautifully finished with all the modern amenities you can hope for (from iPads and Nespresso machines to heated toilet seats, not to mention Salvatore Ferragamo bath amenities). When staying there, make sure to opt for the “bed and breakfast” option, as their weekend brunch is consistently voted among the city’s best. Even if you’re not staying at the Kempinski, it’s worth stopping over for their afternoon tea – their lobby is a scene and the afternoon is a particularly great time, as they have someone playing the piano. The hotel’s strudel-baking class, which is open to anyone and takes place every first and third Saturday of the month with their head pâtissier, Wolfgang Erben, is also worth considering.
PALAIS HANSEN Kempinski Vienna lobby (Credit: Courtesy) PALAIS HANSEN Kempinski Vienna lobby (Credit: Courtesy)
For a more traditional luxury stay, Hotel Imperial – the oldest hotel in Vienna and the primary destination for world leaders and celebrities ranging from Queen Elizabeth to Michael Jackson – offers meticulously well-kept rooms in a stunning, gilded setting. Their concierge services are unmatched.
If you’re on more of a budget, but still want a luxury feel, the recently opened Andaz Am Belvedere Vienna Hotel, designed by Renzo Piano, is a great pick. It’s located in a more up-and-coming area, but because Vienna is so small and walkable, it’s still close to the city center. Their rooftop has become a hot spot.
Coffee culture
If Israelis and Viennese share one thing in common, it would be a deep appreciation for coffee culture. In fact, it’s so deeply ingrained in Viennese tradition, that it’s listed as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage” in the Austrian inventory of the National Agency for the Intangible Cultural Heritage, a part of UNESCO.
As famous as their coffee is, the city’s signature cake is, Sachertorte, a chocolate cake with apricot filling created by Hotel Sacher in 1832. It’s shipped and sold worldwide – there’s even a National Sachertorte Day, on December 5, in the United States. Two competing spots – the Demel pastry shop and chocolaterie and Cafe Imperial Wien at Hotel Imperial – have their own, now equally famous, version of Sachertorte called the Eduard-Sacher-Torte and the Imperial Torte respectively.
Needless to say, it’s highly recommended to go to all three spots to sample their coffee and torte (don’t forget to make reservations to avoid waiting on, often times, long lines). While at Demel, the bakery favored by the now-extinct Viennese royal family, make sure to check out their downstairs museum, which has artifacts about the history of the Imperial chocolate-making bakery. It’s open only from 10 a.m. to noon on Fridays, but if you call in advance, you should be able to book a tour outside of those hours.
A DESSERT display at Demel (Credit: Courtesy)A DESSERT display at Demel (Credit: Courtesy)
Café Central should also be on your list for a coffee/dessert break or for lunch. While they have their own version of the Sachertorte, too, you’d be better served leaving the torte to the other three spots and swinging by this gorgeous, historically rich spot – a favorite of historical figures like Sigmund Freud and Leon Trotsky – for classic Viennese dishes like kaiserschmarrn (it’s big enough for two) or apple strudel (opting for the extra vanilla sauce or vanilla ice cream is well worth it). If staying for lunch, the schnitzel is considered one of the best in town. You’ll want to make a reservation here unless you plan on coming very early as there is nearly always a line out the door (though it moves fast).
The Viennese take the making, serving, and drinking of coffee very seriously and they are strict about adhering to traditions, as such don’t expect to get the option for the likes of almond milk or oat milk at very many places (and you can forget about any unsweetened non-dairy options).
Where to eat
If it hasn’t yet been made abundantly clear, gastronomic pleasures are one of Vienna’s biggest draws. In the same vein as dairy alternatives being few and far between, menu changes are usually frowned upon – and don’t ever ask for a chicken schnitzel! Schnitzel in Vienna is veal or pork only. As a rule of thumb if the schnitzel is over €12, it’s veal; if it’s under €12, it’s pork.
If you’re staying in an Airbnb, there are plenty of supermarkets, all of which will put Shufersal to shame, but the best one is Julius Meinl. In fact, it’s quite a scene. The gourmet supermarket and special shop has an always bustling café at its entrance that’s well worth stopping by while shopping in the city center (and stock up on coffee beans while you’re there).
Casual and cheap bites can be had all throughout the city at one of the many sausage and schnitzel kiosks (some even have alcohol). For a trendy stop, it’s hard to beat Zum Schwarzen Kameel. Only in Vienna can a hot spot be a hot spot for, literally, over 400 years! There’s fantastic people watching in the always-packed eatery both indoors and outdoors (it’s so popular that even in the winter there are people outside). While you can sit down, you can also grab a drink and one of their mini open-face sandwich bites, which are affordably priced all under €4 (most are under €2). The same team as Kameel recently opened a nearby cocktail bar, Campari, which is similar always packed with high society types (and wannabees), making for equally top-notch people watching.
For fine dining, Opus at the Hotel Imperial cannot come more highly recommended. Everything from the carrot and radish bread (which comes with smoked – literally there’s smoke – yogurt-based cheese topped with vegetables and artisanal butter), to the many vegetarian, meat, and fish-base options, every dish will blow your palette away. There are three tasting menus, which can be mixed and matched or you can order à la carte. It’s well worth splurging on a multicourse tasting menu – which start at around €80 for vegetarian options – especially given how strong the shekel is against the euro at the moment.
Dstrikt Steakhouse at The Ritz-Carlton Vienna is another splurge-worthy option. A dinner there should start or end at The Ritz’s lobby bar, which is always bustling with a beautiful crowd (read: great people watching here as well). The steakhouse itself is known for their unbeatable cuts and service. You can’t go wrong with their filet option (offered in 150- or 300-gram portions) and don’t miss the truffle parmesan fries. It’s worth highlighting that their hearty portioned appetizer salads are surprisingly fantastic. You don’t expect to find amazing salads in a steakhouse, but this one would blow most vegetarian restaurants’ out of the water (they can easily be shared for two). A unique feature at Dstrikt (cue Instagram) is that before getting their steak, diners are invited to choose their steak knife from over a half dozen options displayed in a knife case.
Finally, Sacher Hotel’s Rote Bar or Grüne Bar are both worthy stops. Grüne Bar is the more formal option and offers a modern take on classic Viennese dishes. For tourists, the best option is usually the Rote Bar, which is more casual but still, especially by Israeli standards, very formal (you’ll find many men in suits). Not only do you get some of the best takes on classic Viennese dishes like schnitzel or rouladen, but there’s live piano and unbeatable views of the Vienna State Opera (ask for window seats when booking).
Note that dinner time in Vienna is early – the prime reservation time is usually 7 p.m. though eateries near the Opera and other popular concert houses have a second rush after performances let out at around 9:30 p.m. For after dinner drinks, 26°East Bar, Krypt, Bruder, Loos Bar, and Das Loft, the rooftop bar of the hotel SO/ Vienna, are all popular options.
Kosher options
Vienna’s Jewish population was almost entirely deported and murdered in the Holocaust. Today, according to the Jewish Museum Vienna, there are just 8,000 Jews (compared to more than 200,000 before 1938 and 4,000 in 1946). That said, there is still a pervasive and vibrant Jewish culture. In 1992, a Sephardic Center was officially opened; in 1999, the Ronald S. Lauder Foundation opened a Jewish School, and in 2000, the Judenplatz Holocaust Memorial was unveiled along with the Jewish Museum. In keeping with this and the city’s love affair with food, the kosher options blow many others out of the water despite the modest Jewish population. Novellino is a dairy standout, while Mea Shearim and Bahur-Tov are go-to options for meat and Schefa is the go-to when looking for a kosher supermarket.
Where to workout
If there’s time to workout in between all the noshing, Vienna has some fittingly posh spots to help burn sugar-induced fat away. Malu Sportsclub and EVO Wien both offer heart-pounding workouts. While they cater to a primarily membership-based clientele, both spots offer personal training as well as day passes/trial classes for tourists.
Cultural attractions
One of the best things about Vienna is that, like Tel Aviv, it’s entirely walkable. In fact, not only are most of the attractions very close to one another, much of the city is pedestrian-only. One such pedestrianized area is the Golden U, which houses the prime shopping streets. You’ll find everything from Cartier and Louis Vuitton to H&M and Zara. The real draw as far as shopping, however, are the specialty shops. While a great deal of the center city has been, as the local say “a victim of globalization,” you’ll find a number of unique-to-Austria specialty shops for things including knives, shoes, lighting fixtures (think those grand chandeliers you see all over the city), jewelry, porcelain and more. Many of these spots have a stamp that they were once the chosen purveyor for the Austrian royal family. Wienproducts.at is a great resource for the local companies to look for.
Speaking of the royal family, Austria has their very own version of the Palace of Versailles, and it’s a lot easier to get to from the city center. Called Schönbrunn Palace, it’s a quick subway ride away and well worth the trip – just make sure to buy tickets online in advance to avoid long waits. Note there is also a nearby zoo and it’s a beautiful area for jogging. While Schönbrunn was the summer residence of the former royal family, Hofburg was their city center palace. Today it’s the official residence and workplace of the president of Austria and similarly worth visiting – it’s easily one of the most stunning buildings you’ll ever see from both the inside and the outside.
As far as museums go, there are endless options, so it’s really up to individual interests. The obvious choices are the Belvedere (housing the famous works of Gustav Klimt); Albertina, which also has many works by Klimt along with those of many other masters like Cézanne, Kokoschka and Picasso; Naturhistorisches Museum Vienna (Natural History Museum); mumok (Museum of Modern Art); The Leopold Museum (the go-to for Viennese art nouveau); and Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien (Art History Museum).
Lesser known, but equally worthy options include the Jewish Museum (there are two locations), the Freud Museum, and Haus Der Musik (a fun, interactive option as relevant for children as it is for adults, given Austria’s rich music culture). There are also some truly unique finds like The Museum of Art Fakes – a “criminal” art museum filled with faked paintings from world-famous forgers and so-called “identical-fakes” of Schiele, Rembrandt, Matisse and Chagall, among many others. The Original Vienna Snowglobe Factory and Museum is another fun find (Vienna is considered the birthplace of snowglobes).
It’s worth mentioning that Vienna is world-famous for its gardens and parks. In fact, you don’t need to leave the city to enjoy nature year-round. Almost half the city consists of green areas, thanks to the numerous parks, forests and even agricultural land. In spring/summer, the Volksgarten, with its many roses, is a particular standout.
Lastly, Vienna is home to some of the biggest names in classical music, so a stop at the city’s famed opera or concert halls should be on the top of anyone’s list. That said, while Vienna is currently permitting performances with audience limits, rules and regulations may vary in light of the ever-evolving coronavirus pandemic, so check directly with venues for the latest updates.
That important note out of the way, Vienna is closely associated with many of the biggest names in classical music including Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss, and Schubert and the concert halls are jaw-droppingly gorgeous in all of their golden splendor.
VIENNA PHILHARMONIC Orchestra at the Konzerthaus, Haus Der Musik (Credit: Courtesy) VIENNA PHILHARMONIC Orchestra at the Konzerthaus, Haus Der Musik (Credit: Courtesy)
The Vienna Philharmonic at the Musikverein and the Wiener Konzerthaus are particularly popular. You can buy tickets directly online. The Jirsa ticket agency at Tourist Info (various locations in Vienna) also sells cut-price, last-minute tickets for individual events being held the same day between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m. Here again, however, you’ll want to call to confirm beforehand, given the changing regulations around coronavirus. For those on a budget, standing room-only tickets, pending coronavirus regulations, are also available for the Vienna Opera House for €5 to €10, minutes before curtain time at the standing room box office by the Opera House.
It’s also worth mentioning that 2020 is the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth. While he wasn’t born in Vienna, he spent his last 35 years there and Vienna is where he wrote or premiered all of his symphonies. It’s the city he’s most closely associated with, so there are Beethoven-themed events, concerts and exhibits happening to celebrate the milestone throughout the year.
While it’s easy to explore the city on your own, it should come as no surprise, given how obsessive locals are with their cultures, that there are many guides for easily arranged themed and walking tours. Findaguide.at/wien is a great resource for that. Just remember to keep socially distanced!