- Jul 11 • 9 months ago
NetRefer’s Cultural Traveller – Ben Takes Us to the Roads Less Travelled in Vienna
Benjamin Briffa – our eleventh Cultural Traveller – is NetRefer’s Head of Finance. Ben is a Maltese national. A few years back, he chose to go to Vienna as an international student after enrolling in a Masters’ Degree on International Taxation. He had a few different countries as options to choose from, but after weighing them all, he settled for the one offered in Vienna, being the one that matched his aspirations the most.
Vienna – Austria’s capital – is a culturally rich student city known for its sense of order, classical music, tasty sweets, and gorgeous architecture. It’s classy and stylish with a modern and polished touch. Then, once you leave Vienna, you have the choice to bask in the natural mountainous beauty of Austria or visit neighbouring capital cities – Prague, Budapest, among others. Join us as Ben takes us on a mental tour of Vienna and shares with us some great insider tips on what makes Vienna a must-visit destination!
1. What makes Vienna unique?
While not necessarily qualifying it as unique, Vienna is an extremely well-organized city. It’s very tidy, and the infrastructure – including public transport – is excellent. All of this makes getting around the city a breeze.
Vienna was rebuilt relatively recently. It was redesigned using a concentric circles pattern for its layout. All of this contributes further to making the city an easy one to navigate.
Also, while being a rather small city, it’s aesthetically very beautiful. The architecture is very uniform throughout the whole city. And it’s also a very musical city. Since it was the city where Mozart resided for most of his adult life, Austrians pay homage to this chapter in their cultural heritage by having concerts always playing his music throughout the city.
2. What are must-visit neighbouring cities and towns, and why?
Within Austria, and not far off from Vienna, there’s Salzburg. It’s simply beautiful and it has its own character to it. This city with somewhat of a medieval feel – which is the birthplace of Mozart – is surrounded by natural wonders including lakes, mountains as well as some very pretty villages.
And since Austria is very central, it’s easy to travel to fabulous neighbouring cities in other countries such as Prague and Budapest. Both these cities are a little less rigid and organized than Vienna. In other words, they feel rawer.
It only takes somewhere between one and three hours to get to each one of those cities. It feels strange that you only need to get on a bus, and within just a short time, you’re in another capital city.
3. What are staple historical sites any visitor should see in Vienna? How about ones off the beaten track?
The Schönbrunn Palace is a spectacular destination, which is on the list of UNESCO world heritage sites. It’s over 300 years old and consists of 1,441 rooms and several sprawling gardens. It was the main summer residence for several Habsburg rulers and reflects their change in tastes over the years.
Then, there’s the Museum Quarters, with a diverse number of museums all contained within one area. A few times every year, they open these museums up to the general public in the evening, and several events of cultural interest are held. For instance, at the museum of archaeology, you can taste unusual culinary treats, such as ants and crickets.
The Opera House is also a must-visit site. A great initiative here is that seats start at as little as €6 or so. The reason behind this is that they want to make it accessible to everyone.
In Salzburg, you can find yet another gorgeous palace – The Hofburg Palace – as well as the square in front of it – Heldenplatz. This played a significant part in Austrian history, since it was from the balcony of this very palace that Hitler spoke to the crowds in the square underneath when he annexed Austria. Standing there in the square and in the palace, while knowing what had happened there, has an interesting but bizarre effect since you’ll feel like you’re reliving history vicariously. It’s hard to reconcile the beauty of the place with the idea that such a dark chapter in history was written there.
Also worth mentioning is Vienna’s famous Christmas Market if you’re travelling there in winter. It’s something the Viennese take a lot of pride in. The atmosphere at the time is picturesque – it’s how you’d usually imagine Christmas to be, especially due to the snowy weather. The market itself is made up of hundreds of stalls, but surprisingly there isn’t such a variety of items being sold. Apart from the market itself, there’s an ice rink nearby that contributes further to the magical atmosphere.
4. If you were an outdoors/trekking type of person, where would you go?
If you get away from Vienna in summer, you’ll find glorious mountains strewn with hiking trails suitable for all levels. The Zell am See is a mountainous area offering 25 climbing routes, some of which are covered with snow patches all year round.
If you’re just starting off or like to go hiking in groups, you can sign up to any of the hiking tours available – there are plenty.
5. If someone’s a foodie, any particular types of food or drink you’d recommend and spots to try them out? How about if you’re a sweet tooth?
Generally, Viennese cuisine is very similar to other Eastern European cuisine. Popular dishes include goulash. Although, one dish specific to Vienna is the Weiner Schnitzel. The Viennese have their own way of preparing it.
Then, if you’re looking for traditional sweets, the Sacher Torte is delicious chocolate cake, and one of their most well-known. Recommended places where you can try some of the best Sacher Torte is either at the Sacher Hotel or at a cafeteria called Demel.
And, for coffee lovers with a sweet-tooth touch, there’s Einspänner – Viennese Coffee. They make this by taking two strong shots of espresso and infusing it with whipped cream.
For something a little more on the international side, you’ll find a lot of Turkish and Lebanese cuisine since there are large communities.
If you’re looking for some good alcohol, Vienna is famous for wine and beer. In the case of the latter – beer – they have Radler, which is flavoured beer.
There’s a famous food market in Vienna known as the Naschmarkt for all sorts of fresh foods. It also gives you a full dining experience, if you want to choose your own ingredients and have them served for you there and then.
6. What are the best beaches to go for a swim?
While there are no beaches, there are some particular and beautiful parks with pools, especially outside the city centre. One of the most highly recommended ones is Krapfenwaldbad.
7. If you want to go on an art/cultural tour, what are some good spots to visit?
Apart from the palaces and museums mentioned earlier, you can catch an eye-full of works by Gustav Klimt at the Belvedere Gallery.
Returning to Mozart, there’s the famous Mozarthaus, which was his residence between 1784 and 1787. Now, it’s been converted into a museum.
8. Is there a good public transport infrastructure? What is the best way to get around town?
The tram is very efficient. It’s clean, quick, and frequent. Besides, it’s not overly expensive.
Cycling is another good option to get around the city since, for the most part, Vienna is a very flat city, and the streets are well-kept.
9. What are the best seasons to visit Vienna? And does it change a lot from one season to another?
Vienna in winter is excessively cold, with the temperature dropping under zero. The Christmas Market and winter sports outside Vienna make it worth the while to visit at that time, but only if you can bear icy weather. And from January through March, the weather is at its worst.
On the other hand, Viennese summer is quite mild and pleasant overall. And, both other seasons have their highlights to offer.
So, depending on what kind of weather you enjoy and what activities you want to experience, you’ll want to pick the right season accordingly.
10. What are some customs/manners/expressions one should know when visiting?
A phrase you’re likely to hear a lot – especially on the train – is “Entschuldigung”, which translates to “excuse me”.
Then, customarily, Austrians tend to applaud by knocking on the desk rather than clap their hands.
11. Is it acceptable to haggle or is it considered rude?
You’d typically haggle at markets. It’s somewhat expected. On the other hand, you won’t typically do this at most stores.
12. What kind of nightlife can visitors enjoy? Any locales you’d recommend for that?
Nightlife in Vienna is amazing overall. There are several great clubs hosting world-class events, DJs, etc. So, if you’re into any sort of modern or electronic music, you’re sure to find something that matches your tastes. One club that’s highly recommended is Grelle Forelle. Another popular spot is the Techno Café.
And one more worth noting is the ‘Albert & Tina’ party outside the Augustinian Bastion if you want to enjoy fresh beats while savouring art on display in the Albertina.
For something else with a cultural flair, The Vienna Opera House holds performances at night.
13. What activities do you recommend for people travelling with kids?
The gardens surrounding the Schönbrunn Palace are a good spot to let kids running outdoors and enjoying some fresh air in a secure area.
There’s also a fun park called Wurstelprater. It’s not the greatest amusement park in Europe but it’s still fun for children.
The parks with pools mentioned earlier are also something fun for the kids in summer.
14. How easy is it to make friends with the locals?
People in Vienna are generally very welcoming and friendly. Shopkeepers offer great customer care and hospitality.
If you’re planning to be there for a short to medium-length stay, you can get by without knowing almost any German at all. Generally, it’s easier to find younger generations who are fluent in English than the older ones. This makes conversations with younger people a lot easier.
It’s also useful to know – especially if you’re staying long-term – that Vienna is a popular student city. So, you’ll find many younger generations with an open mindset and who are receptive to diversity.
15. How safe is Vienna? And are there any specific areas to look for hotels and ones to avoid?
Vienna is a very safe city overall. It’s hard to think of any area which can be labelled as unsafe.
16. Where can tourists go for shopping? And what kind of things can they shop for?
The city centre is the best place for shopping for luxury and mainstream brands. There’s no shortage of complexes, malls, and individual shops to cater for just about any budget.
Then, if you leave the centre, there’s a popular outlet village, where you can find items at a discounted price.
17. What are some recommended souvenirs travellers should look for?
The best souvenirs you can hope to find are mainly types of traditional food – especially sweets. We’ve already mentioned the Sacher torte – a typical Viennese chocolate cake.
Then, for bite-sized sweet delicacies, try Mozart Balls – known locally as “Mozartkugel”. These little treats are made of pistachio, marzipan, nougat and chocolate.
If it’s not clear yet how much Viennese love their chocolates and sweets, you can add Mini Pralines to the list. And, not only do they taste great, the packaging is also real eye-candy. Just about any confectionary you pop into will be selling their variations of pralines alongside other great handmade sweets and cakes in pretty packages.
Then, if you’re more of a wine person, Vienna has a history of wine-making that dates back to 750BC. That’s a long history – and plenty of experience garnered – producing wine. Vienna has six leading vineyards, and you can find their wines stocked in both supermarkets and specialist wine stores.
A traditional Viennese company called Staud’s makes some of the most locally-renowned preserves including jams, pickles and compotes.
18. What would you recommend to tourists who want to take boat rides/tours around the city?
Bus tours of all sorts are highly recommended due to the way the city is built. You can easily find hop-on hop-off buses that will take you to just about anywhere in Vienna.
As for boat rides, you can take these on The Danube River.
19. What extreme sports can you try in Vienna?
It’s easier to experience extreme sports away from Vienna. If you’re there in the cold season, you can expect to find all sorts of winter sports, such as skiing, snowboarding, and more.
White water rafting on the Salzach is a fun 4-hour event. There are several tours catering for this and you can choose the level of difficulty.
For something a little more contemporary, stand-up paddling and SUP yoga have also caught on. You can do this at Zell am See Kaprun.
And, one more adrenaline-pumping sport you can try in the same region is paragliding.
Then, if you head over to the Salzburger Canyons, you can try canyoning. This also comes in different levels.
Austrian mountains are one of the stops on the world-famous long-range paragliding and hiking competition – Red Bull X Alps – especially the rockier parts of it. World-class competitors gravitate here to take a shot for their moment of glory in this gruelling race.
20. What is the national sport? And when and where can visitors go to watch pro level matches?
Football is the national sport and also the most popular one. They have a slew of competitive teams, with Red Bull Salzburg probably being the strongest one at the moment.
You can catch them live at the national stadium – Ernst Happel Stadium – the largest one with the biggest seating capacity. Then, there’s the Hypo-Arena and Red Bull Arena stadiums as well.
21. What are some festivals or concerts to look out for? How about local feasts?
Vienna has a lot of events happening throughout the year. As mentioned earlier, the Christmas Market and the Museum evenings are two of the most popular. Then, there’s also a local Beer Fest and a separate European street food festival.
If you’re looking for something cultural, once again, there are several Mozart-related events always happening – mainly concerts. On the note of music, you’ll also find a lot of choir shows – especially in big churches in the centre. You can also catch Vienna’s Jazz Festival and close by the parliament, they hold a Film Festival. Apart from these, there’s a Comic Con too.
Join the colourful, diverse team that is NetRefer. Meet other Cultural Travellers, share your experiences and make many more memorable ones. You belong here!
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