A dream is a wish your heart makes. But I wasn’t fast asleep this time. With eyes wide open, I had an amazing chance to experience Vienna and Salzburg in the most rewarding of ways during my weekend trip in April. No longer covered in layers of sleet and snow, the Austrian capital gleamed in the spring air. Often times I’d update my parents whenever I landed in a new destination and this time was no exception. I quickly snapped photos of a Chinese advertisement at the airport and my father’s immediate reply was a confirming nod of globalization. The trains, albeit not as great as the ones found in Switzerland, were shiny and new. However, the most staggering impression of Vienna was the level of cleanliness that permeated down to the little street tiles.
Logistics aside, I landed late in the afternoon and was adamant about making the most of my short time in Austria. With the abundance of culture overflowing in the city, my first stop was the Kunsthistorisches Museum. Located right across from an identical building that housed dinosaurs and fossils, this museum displayed fine arts, Roman antiques, and decorative sculptures. As you wander the grand halls and admire the painting, some spanning floor to ceiling, you’d wonder how anyone could tire of this place. In my instance, this was very true. I met an elderly gentleman right before closing, studying a fresco in the Renaissance Hall. I spoke very little German and he spoke very little English, but he had managed to communicate the significance of the masterpiece. I’m always awestruck when I meet individuals so immersed in their passion, completely oblivious to their immediate surroundings and only wanting to share their own joys.
With a new appreciation for art history, I skipped along Getreidemarkt back to the hostel for an early night in. And then my tummy started to grumble. Luckily, I had passed by a pho shop twice in one day and my Asian food craving was at an all-time high. Saigon Restaurant served traditional Vietnamese fare. Playing it safe, and honestly just looking for some warm soup on a chilly rainy evening, I ordered the house special pho. It didn’t compare to the noodle soup made at home, but it was enough to keep me happy for the night.
I didn’t have anything terribly exciting planned, so I wandered around the hostel lobby making new friends. Changing into something more casual, I finally met the three other guests in my suite. Their names escape me, but two were Italian law students attending a conference and one was also a solo traveller basking in the Viennese air. The solo traveller mentioned that she had studied in Canada for a while, so it was nice to reminisce about home. Since she was leaving the next day and didn’t want her drink ticket to go to waste, I inherited another alcoholic beverage. For the record, I didn’t use it that night and it will come into play in later developments.
In the morning, I attended a free walking tour. The group was rather large, many gathering in little pockets under umbrellas to shield themselves from the light rain. Our guide was a local and led us through many sights within the first district of the city. Vienna is divided into districts, 23 to be exact, and their city centre expands in a radial-fashion from the ring-like borders. Our hostel was just on the edge of city centre, so we worked ourselves in. Starting in Naschtmarkt, an open-air market similar to the St. Lawrence Market in Toronto, proved to be quite a maze. A maze filled with mouth-watering food. Since it was earlier in the morning, not all the restaurants were opened, but we took note of the recommended cafes for later tastings. The guide had even made a joke about the late Toronto mayor, Rob Ford, comparing him to the current Viennese leader in their taste for food. The stalls that created narrow walking paths displayed colourful showcases of local and international food. The aroma was indescribably tantalizing.
The tour continued to several monuments and museums, many pertaining to Austria’s role in the World Wars, and the consequences thereafter. One of the most devastating examples is the monument of a Jewish man forced to kneel and scrub the street. Located between the State Opera House and the Albertina Museum, the statue draws much attention for both central viewership and political statement. Alfred Hrdlicka, the Austrian sculptor, intended it to complement the Holocaust monument located within the city centre. Another connection to WWII was Adolf Hitler’s catastrophic rejection from art school in Vienna. The anecdote that goes around is that the horrific genocide of 1939 could have been avoided if the Austrian’s would have accepted Adolf’s poor art skills. In loose relation, Austria also produced another notable character in history, Sigmund Freud. Although I did not visit his psychoanalytic museum, I had studied his works in detail during my undergraduate studies at the University of Toronto. And this is where I will conclude my slight connection between Jewish-German relations of this European country.
Quickly zipping through the brickwork streets, the next stop was Hofburg, the imperial palace located in central Vienna. The winter home of the Habsburgs, the architecture boasted capacious churches, cozy courtyards, grand gates, lavish libraries, majestic museums, renaissance rooms, spacious squares, sequestered stables, and winding wings. There wasn’t much time to digest all the details, but I could imagine a whole day exploring the grounds. After the tour, I eventually came back to spend some quality time in the Austrian National Library. The adjacent museum notably houses all the family jewellery, but be prepared for narrow opening times and expensive ticket prices. Alternatively, the Sisi Museum under the large dome gives a fascinating recount of the royal family and specifically of Empress Elisabeth. If you don’t know who she is, it’s time you read this!
Hofburg was not the only palace I visited in Vienna, but the walking tour didn’t bring us to the other in the allotted time. Instead, we explored Museumquartier and the mirroring structures across the street. I had already visited the Kunsthistorisches Museum the day before, so I started chatting with the other tour members during this time. It was great meeting Chandler, Sarvesh, and Camille(?) while walking around the cultural centre of the city. We discussed the other monuments and churches that we passed along the way, but most importantly, when we would visit Café Sacher. The famous hotel boasting the famous cake was supposedly divine, a perfect combination of sweet and tart. However, after our little adventure into the land of the rich and famous, we agreed that the apple strudel with a side of light cream was the clear winner in the battle of desserts.
And finally, how could I forget the church? Did you really visit a European city without checking out the tallest building in town? St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the beacon of Romanesque and Gothic design, resides in Stephansplatz. Don’t be fooled by the constant construction, the inside is stunningly mystical and the tower is worth every narrow passageway up. A drone would be an awesome tool to photograph the cross-like floor plan from above. What’s funny about the church’s placement in the city of Vienna was its proximity to Trinity Column down the street. Religious undertones spiral around the monument, almost in theatrical form, contrast with the symbolism of the Great Plague during the Baroque era. You’ll find prominent statues all over the city, but this one in particular stands out.
Once the walking tour concluded, my new friends and I parted ways. My day actually revolved around a later commitment. Wanting to make the most of my afternoon, I literally sprinted across the city to visit the Schönbrunn Palace. The imperial summer residence were located slightly outside of city centre, but was worth the trek for the architectural, cultural, and historical monuments inside. I never thought about having pastel yellow as an exterior colour, but it absolutely worked in contrast with the lush greenery surrounding the fortress. Behind the main building, you’ll also find a grand theatre and an extravagant garden. You can purchase tickets to explore the rooms inside the palace, which I had done on a different trip. Just for this first Viennese adventure, I decided to appreciate the cool rainy day.
Back in the city, I skipped across the museum region to the parliament region instead. Rathaus, Vienna’s city hall, decorated the cityscape with flags and spires. There was a spring festival occupying the grounds, which provided respite from the weather. The gardens were just blooming, so I’d imagine the April showers really did bring May flowers. Around the corner, I explored another parliament building, which can only be identified by the golden angel perched on the pillars in front. The umbrella pictured has probably seen precipitation in every country I visited during my exchange.
With enough time to spare, I visited the Belvedere Museum for my last afternoon stop. If you’re a fan of Gustav Klimt, this is the place for you. All photos on this blog are taken by me, so I will ask you to Google “The Kiss” for your educational purposes. Outside, it is your typical palace. However, the floating zodiac heads were not so typical, especially lining the waterways. At first I was confused, but then I realized the amount of Asian tourists that flock this region and understood some significance of the statues. It was funny running into another solo traveller and even funnier when he asked for a selfie! I couldn’t stay too long since I had to dash back to Wombats for a wardrobe change. Meeting the new roommate, I was sceptical about this frat boy’s intention as I dressed for my evening opera. With a hasty slew of brash words, I kept him at bay and scurried out the door.
I didn’t want to risk being late, so I took an Uber to Wien Volkstheater. Although of no comparison to the Staatsoper in terms of interior design, it was the showings that caught my eye. Mozart’s Don Giovanni tells a sinister tale of supernatural and melodramatic comedy. The plot was deviously entertaining, even with the lack of translation of the Italian libretto. The costumes were silly and light, which contrasted the dark undertones of the action on stage. Not to spoil the opera, but descending into hell does not seem like a good way to go. In comparison with my experience in Zürich’s Opernhaus, I very much enjoyed the Volkstheater due to the smaller venue size and simplistic design. Overall, I was content with my last-minute opera purchase, while still fulfilling my ARCT dreams.
It was quite late after the show, so I took another Uber back to the hostel. Although I was tired from a day in the rain, the student blood still ran hot in my veins. Changing into a casual t-shirt and shorts, I parked myself in the hostel lobby and caught up with some studying. In all fairness, I was also immersing myself in the UofT pain, as many of my friends were writing their final exams during that time as well. Let’s just call it international camaraderie. However, I minimized the late night studying for prospective adventures the next day!
An early morning train to Salzburg was first on the itinerary. Excited to visit Mozart’s hometown, I skipped all the way to Wien Westbahnhof with the giddiest grin. More on the logistics later, but you’ll need to take a local train to travel between Salzburg and Vienna. A simple direct route equated to more sleep. After a quick 2.5 hours, I arrived in what seemed like a fairytale. The hills were filled with The Sound of Music! That’s right; Salzburg was the famous backdrop of the musical gem. I didn’t have a solid plan on what to do or where to go. Nevertheless, I was convinced that if I followed the steady stream of tourist lines on the beautiful day, I’d run into all the landmarks.
Not bothering with public transit, I walk down the winding roads to an enchanted garden. Mirabell Palace to be exact. The intricately designed foliage lined the vast property, with several fountains populating the dense grounds. It was far from cluttered, but a steady stream of bustling tourists, enthused newlyweds, and adorable dogwalkers dodged and skidded across the landscape. I didn’t necessarily have a favourite part of the Mirabelle Palace, but the floral canopies and charming gazeboes reminded me of the whimsical scene from the movie. Julie Andrews had an air of grace that permeated the cast, making the film memorable through the decades.
Every corner of Salzburg was filled with music. Whether it be musicians sharing their trade or monuments of famous instrumentalists, the hills were certainly filled with the sound of music. Strolling across the Salzach River, I saw castles upon escarpments and locks bound to bridges. The narrow cobblestone paths were a maze, with a new treasure around every corner. Little cafes and bars lined the walls, mimicking village vibes that attracts so many to this Austrian gem. I had even passed by the Goldener Hirsch, a hotel that my father had stayed at back in his corporate days.
Sprawled under the broad daylight, the Salzburg Cathedral located in the centre square was massive compared to the fairy-like buildings of old town. Inside, the architecture was stunningly beautiful. Perhaps it was the sun reflecting through the windows, but each detail gleamed colours of rose and gold. The frescos painted atop the cathedral ceilings were too far up to fully appreciate the brushstrokes, but their loveliness paralleled with those found in Le Lourve and The Vatican.
Having stayed under the sun for too long, I sought respite to quench my thirst. This trip had major planning oversight, so many of my meals were decided on a whim. On this occasion, my casual discovery was definitely a jackpot. Zipfer Bierhaus was conveniently located in a junction occupied by a farmers’ market, which was the initial noise that attracted me to the area. Looking at the menu posted outside and a quick Google search confirmed the notoriety of the establishment, in the best of ways. The interior was homey, with the waiters dressed in typical Austrian mountain attire. It was pretty easy deciding what to order since the menu had English translations. With reasonable prices, I didn’t shy away from a meaty dish and pint of beer. The great thing about Austria, and especially Zipfer, are the radlers. An equal mix of beer and lemonade, it is a good middle ground for an easygoing afternoon drink. Downing a boot-sized glass along with my meal was the perfect remedy for the tired feet. The meal got even more interesting when the waiter tried to take away my plate before I had a chance to finish the gravy potato balls. He then gave me a very stern lecture about dining etiquette, with a full demonstration on how to place your utensils to properly signal meal completion to the staff. Needless to say, I was rather flustered, but thankful for the Dining 101 lesson from the (cute) Austrian waiter. It could have been unbearable, but several factors contributed to an unexpected gratuity.
Feeling like an absolute rolly-polly, I forced myself to take the stairs up to the Hohensalzburg Castle. I won’t bore you with the exact history of the fortress, but its position atop Festungsberg was a rather steep trek to admire the Salzburg skyline. Zigzagging up the hill did wonders for my calves, but did very little for my leather jacket, which was drenched by the time I reached the top. The views were definitely worth it. I even asked three different people to take photos for me because I was not leaving without the perfect evidence of my efforts. Along the escarpment, Google Maps lead me down a rather suspicious alleyway to my next location. Seriously looking like a European neighbourhood, the clotheslines hanging above provided shade and clustered balconies displayed unique fauna. I arrived at a rather deserted Nonnberg Abbey. If the name seems familiar, this was Julie Andrew’s character’s Benedictine monastery in the movie! A large viewing deck extended out from the hilltop, giving an unobstructed view of the Salzburg cathedral in the daylight. However, I didn’t have much time to appreciate the entire atmosphere, as I had one last destination to visit before returning to Vienna.
Mozarts Geburtshaus, the birthday pace Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is located at No. 9 Getreidegasse. You can’t miss it as you walk along the bustling pedestrian street, with it’s large patriotic flags hanging in front of the yellow building façade. Like a little kid at a candy shop, I was beyond excited to explore my childhood musical inspiration. I started playing the piano when I was eight years old; I know, super late. With each passing year, I grew into the classical aficionado that I am today. The epitome of my love for Mozart peaked during my ARCT years, when I performed Sonata No. 8 in a Minor for my examination. The sole purpose of their weekend getaway was to satisfy my inner Mozart fangirl. As I wandered through each room of the house, paired with the audio playing through my iPhone earphones, I was transported back in time. The historical recount written on the walls and musical notes scattered in cases, all of it compiled into the masterpieces enjoyed by a vast audience today. You may have heard of this piece and this piece in films and arts. I highly recommend visiting at least one of the Mozart attractions in Salzburg, knowing well that it will be a highlight of your trip.
Boarding the last train back to Vienna, I quickly fell asleep in the top compartment of the moving vehicle. I awoke from my slumber by a cluster of laughs from the seats in front. Since I was seated in a single row, with no neighbours to coyly divert my attentions, I looked out the window in a daze. Apparently I was in a pretty deep daze as a young man tapped on my shoulder to start a conversation. Thankfully he spoke English because I wouldn’t be able to understand his Cantonese even if I tried. Jason was rather enthusiastic about his German studies, giving me a rundown about his adventures abroad since leaving Hong Kong. It was great hearing about another Asian experience in Europe since it can vary so much across the board. After exchanging contact information, we remained connected over the promise of travels in the near future.
Now that I had another new friend in my roster, it was time to meet an old friend at Staatsoper. After a couple text exchanges over the course of 24 hours, we realized our itinerary overlap. Shockingly, we were staying at the same hostel too! Who was this mystery friend? It was none other than Edrick, my gracious host during my Scandinavian escapades. He optimized his time in Vienna and snagged a much coveted standing room ticket for the nightly show. As I meandered my way to the meeting point, I thought about the coincidence that fell on our lap. There’s a lot to see across this vast globe, but perhaps it was a small world in terms of the people that you meet along the way.
Edrick was also leaving within the next 24 hours, so I took him to Café Sacher to enjoy a famous slice of cake. I personally enjoyed another warm piece of apple strudel, but as the saying goes: “Did you really visit Vienna if you didn’t try the Sacher-Torte?” It was great catching up on his Eastern European adventures, from Russia to Ukraine and Austria to Hungary. It was certainly a miracle that he left Europe with both kidneys intact. A couple of selfies afterwards, we decided to utilize that extra drink ticket in my possession. We caught up over a couple of beers (okay fine, I had a radler), promising to keep up the pattern of international meet ups.
Turning in for the night, I packed my bags for an early flight home. In perhaps the most embarrassing way possible, I met my roommate’s “date” for the night. Thankfully, they weren’t as loud as the music that played from the ground floor. To make matters interesting, I bumped into said frat boy in the morning for breakfast. His roguish smirk was deterrent enough, but I couldn’t help but give him advice about his Switzerland leg of his graduation trip. Internally, I imagined ski accidents when he mentioned St. Moritz. Packing an extra apple with my meal, I hailed a taxi since the public transit system would be slower than normal in the early morning.
The taxi driver that I had flagged down was chatty. With a consistent flow of conversation, he spoke about the interesting characters that entered his cab. His English was impeccable and I was able to understand his insinuations about the last business client that had transpired a ride. The airport procedures were quick and efficient, giving me enough time to browse the duty-free selection prior to my flight. I was tempted to bring back a pack of radler. Alas, I boarded the plane empty handed and rightfully so. My return to Zürich was not a welcome and I will explain so in one succinct sentence. The shared flat was an absolute mess. In another post, I will recount my roommates, without distinctive identifiers, but lessons learned nonetheless.
Overall, I am exhaustively thankful for my solo trip to Mozart’s homeland. Logistically, I booked my transportation a month in advance, with surprising deals on national airlines and trains. Typical plane tickets during this season between Zürich and Vienna were about €150, where mine were under €100. Consider non-peak time flights to get the same deal. The train between Vienna and Salzburg were a little expensive, but that was because they were same day services. The OBB always has reliable schedules, so it’d be wise to consult the website before your trip. As for accommodations, I made reservations over the official hostel site. There were still cheaper option available, but since I was a lone traveller, I opted for a more sequestered room for peace of mind. In this experience, I would budget at least €20 per night. I knew exactly which museums I wanted to visit and decided against purchasing an attractions pass. Although I wasn’t terribly interested in exploring the interior of the royal palaces, it would have been helpful to purchase entrance tickets in advanced with timed options. There are many places to visit for free or at a student discount in Vienna, so take advantages of those experiences during your visit. Opera show tickets can be purchased online as well, but standing room tickets are limited on the day of the show. Public transportation within the city was also streamlined with a daily pass, which breaks even at four trips on tram, train, or bus. The three days abroad totalled to €250.
It was absolutely liberating to travel alone in a foreign land and I would highly recommend it to anyone who has a chance to do so. Taking the necessary precautions, such as upgrading accommodations and pre-planned transportation routes, are a given. However, be cognizant of your surroundings, learn a couple words of the local language, and make some new friends! You’d be surprised by all the cool people you’ll meet along the way.