A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting here in my new home in Austria, and the current au pair (the one I’m replacing) said that she and her boyfriend were going to Vienna the next day, and I could ride with them, if I wanted. My first thought was: No way! Tomorrow?!?! I know, I know, I’m 24, not 80, but I am just not a spontaneous person. Like, at all. I’m a planner, and I don’t like surprises. But I thought about it for a second, and then said two of the most powerful words in the English language: Why not?
In fact, why not spend the weekend in Vienna, and then go on to Budapest for a few days? I was already going that way, right? This is what living in Europe does to you, by the way, everything is so cool and interesting and close together, that you start adding destinations. Well, I’m going to Berlin, but the train stops in Dresden anyway…and Leipzig isn’t very far… This can be a dangerous way of thinking, but in my case, I went for it.
I booked my hostels, bought bus tickets to and from Budapest, and I was off!
What can I say about Vienna? I think it might be my new favorite city. It has all the history, culture, museums, theater, shopping, and food that you could want in a European capital city, on par with London, Paris, Rome, Berlin, etc. However, it’s more compact, safer, and cleaner. It was the kind of place that made me immediately happy, deep down–I walked the streets of Vienna with a smile on my face, and the knowledge that the train only takes an hour and a half from Linz. I think one reason I had so much fun on my couple of days in Wien because I knew I would be back. It took the pressure off.
I started my day by eating brunch at the Naschmarkt with Crosley and Nino, before setting off on my own to explore. My first stop is probably not surprising–die Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, or The Austrian National Library. It was a dream.
They had a really cool temporary exhibit about childhood in Austria from the 1700s to present.There were toys, games, early photographs, and even a section on the royal children of the Hapsburg dynasty. I was particularly interested in the 20th century things, including the youth-targeted Nazi propaganda.
After visiting the library, I wandered around Maria-Theresien-Platz, the public square in between the National History and Art museums. There was a small Christmas market, but it was a little early for it to really be buzzing, so I decided to visit the Hofburg, with its Sisi museum.
Empress Elisabeth, wife of Hapsburg Emperor Franz Josef at the end of the 19th century, has occupied a lot of my imagination over the past year. She’s an enigmatic character, a strong female in history, but one who was made into a icon of beauty and femininity long before her death. It’s hard to be a living icon, as the museum emphasized, and Sisi fought for as much autonomy as possible. I’ve done quite a bit of reading about Sisi, so I didn’t learn many new facts from the exhibit, but I did find it very well done, with lots of her personal artifacts and letters.
Your Hofburg ticket also includes a trip through the imperial apartments, which are quite interesting, and the imperial silver collection, which is not. The whole experience took me over a few hours, so when I emerged, Vienna was dark, and the Christmas markets were hopping.
Unfortunately, my camera deleted all my pictures from this night. I’m not sure why. But I visited the big and bright Christmas market at the Rathaus, a smaller, less touristy market in Karlsplatz, and the grand and impressive market at Schönbrunn Palace. I had my first Käsekrainer, a sausage with cheese inside, and some great punsch. It was a whirlwind night of holiday happiness.
On my second day in Wien, I got up bright and early to visit Stephansdom, the old cathedral. I didn’t go inside, but I did admire the cool double headed Habsburg eagle on the roof.
Then I went to the last day of the “Matisse and the Fauves” exhibit at the Albertina. I love the Fauves. They were a group of painters considered wild and dangerous essentially because they used really bright colors. My kind of people.
After my cultural morning, I ate lunch in the cafe at the Jewish museum (so good, hidden treasure, you heard it here first!). Then, I got back to the Christmas markets by heading to Vienna’s own amusement park since the late 1700s (at least according to Wikipedia): Prater. It was awesome.
I liked the Prater so much. Most of the rides were closed for winter, but I rode the old Grottenbahn, or fairy tale train. The closest American comparison I can think of is in Rock City on Lookout Mountain in Tennessee. There’s a part where you go into the caves and see nursery rhyme and fairy tale dioramas. They’re old, run down, kind of creepy, and absolutely wonderful. This was like that, but you get to ride a train. I can’t wait to go back in the summer and have a real old-school amusement park day. However, the upside of a winter visit was definitely the little Christmas market, and the cool mug I got.
Oh, and Franz Josef and Sisi were in the gift shop! It’s basically a Vienna themed park…in Vienna. I loved it.
After the Prater, I went to Cafe Central, this art nouveau cafe where Freud and Trotsky and the rest of Vienna’s intelligentsia in the 19th century loved to hang out. It’s super expensive, but worth it once, for the experience.
I ended my day at the Spittelberg Christmas market, where I met up with a friend from college, also named Molly and also living in Austria. I met Georg, her Viennese husband, and we had a nice time catching up and chatting about the beautiful city of Vienna. I love seeing fellow Scotties all over the world!
On my last morning, I walked around a lot, orienting myself and planning all the things I want to see on return trips. Right after lunch, I got on a bus to Budapest, crossing the Hungarian border, and visiting yet another country, the fifth of 2013!
I stayed at the Wombat Hostel in Budapest, and I feel like I need to shout out to those guys about how wonderful it was. Spotlessly clean, so many amenities (free towels! free drink on arrival! free map with all the sites explained! cheap, filling breakfast! en suite bathroom!). It was also literally decorated in my personal style. These were the coolest chairs I have ever seen.
That first night, I ate dinner in a restaurant near the hostel, reveling in how cheap Budapest is compared to Vienna, and went to bed early. The next morning I took a free walking tour, which was pretty much the best idea ever. It really is free, although I definitely tipped at the end. I got oriented in Budapest, learned some interesting pieces of history, and got to see the changing of the guard at the castle!
I am not usually a tour kind of person, but for a last minute trip to a city where I don’t even remotely speak the language, it was a great way to hit some highlights and get a little context. It was also nice for me, as a solo traveler, to spend the morning with some other people!
I spent the afternoon and evening seeing how Budapest does Christmas at the small market in front of St. Stephen’s Basilica, and the main market in Vörösmarty Square. The cool thing about Budapest’s main Christmas market is that the vendors are carefully selected by a panel of inspectors, who ensure that they only see handcrafted goods, made in Hungary. This leads to a very authentic feeling market, with a wide variety of things to admire and purchase. I also loved all the live music, from a traditional Hungarian band to the throaty-voiced French girl doing scat covers of Disney songs. Amazing.
The next day, I visited the Hungarian National Museum, which covers the tumultuous tale of Hungarian history from the Stone Age through the end of Communism. It was absolutely fascinating to learn about a place I know relatively little about, in its capital city. A word of warning though, unless you are fluent in Hungarian, you should pay for the English audio guide.
That afternoon, I visited the old Central Market, which sells food, spices, and tourist merchandise, and ended back up at the Christmas market. Like in Vienna, I was quickly developing a list of things to do on a return trip. I definitely want to visit on of the hot thermal baths!
On my last morning, I walked down to Hero’s Square for one last major sight, before taking the bus back to Vienna and the train to Wels.
All in all, my last minute trip ended up being six days of fun and fancy-free exploration. I think I would have been stressed if this had been my only chance to see Vienna and Budapest, but since I know I can easily go back to both cities, it was a low-key and enjoyable introduction.
Look at me, being adventurous!