Interior Statues of the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), Austria
Pure decadence, exorbitant elegance, genteel allure, stunning beauty. Welcome to the Staatsoper, Vienna’s State Opera House. The first of the extravagant buildings on Vienna‘s most famed street, the Ringstrasse (now a designated UNESCO site), the Staatsoper was opened to the genteel Austrian public in 1869. Built in the Neo-Renaissance style, the building was surprisingly unpopular with said genteel Viennese. (It somehow was not considered grand enough. You have to wonder about that genteel 19th century high society…). Then on the fateful night of March 12th, 1945, inferno rained down upon Vienna’s opera house, dropped by US bombers. Fire poured from the sky, bombs exploded in the streets, and flames ate their way through the Ringstrasse. Though the angry flames could not get into the walled-off foyer and fresco-filled stairways, the auditorium and 150,000 costumes for 120+ operas went up in smoke. When WWII was finally over, it was debated: shall we rebuild the originally unpopular building as per original design, or do we redesign it to modern tastes? Thank goodness the former option was chosen, and the Wiener Staatsoper was rebuilt in all its former glory (and happily, it is now beloved by Viennese and foreigners alike). Today, you can’t visit musical Vienna, home (at one point or another) to such musicians as Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and Mahler, without visiting the opera. Loiter inside the foyer for a bit and if you have time, buy yourself a ticket to the opera or ballet. If you’re a budget traveller, queue in the ‘standing’ line in the afternoon to buy a €3 or €4 ‘standing’ ticket (arrive 3hrs prior to the show’s start; once you’ve got your ticket, tie a scarf to mark your spot and head out for a bite to eat). Be sure to dedicate plenty of time to explore the palatial building – frescos, statues, paintings, vast staircases and awe-inspiring architecture await!
Few places can supersede Vienna for splendour or elegance, and one of reasons for this comes in the shape of the splendid Belvedere Palace. Baroque to the core, the massive estate comprises of the Upper and Lower buildings, the Orangery, the Old Stables, the beautiful jardins francais modelled on Versailles and many intertwining paths amongst the flower beds, marble sculptures, tree-lined paths. In a way, we can thank the Ottoman Empire for this marble monument: the Belvedere was built during a period of renewed construction by the Hapsburg family after the successful end to the encroachment of the Ottoman Empire into Central Europe. Much like the Belevedere, the city of Vienna itself isa work of marble and art: from the soaring grey towers of St Stephen’s Cathedral to the massive Staatsoper opera house, from the seat of power at the Hofburg Palace to the many marble and bronze statues scattered around the broad avenues and finally to the many cafes that have made this city famous. Walking Vienna’s avenues and boulevards and gardens is like visiting a living museum, one dedicated to Baroque and Art Nouveau and Gothic styles. From the historic extravagance of the cafes to the vast grandeur of the palaces, Vienna will make you feel like royalty in another era.
Stately elegance, the central streets of the Austrian Capital of the Alps beckons both cultural and nature travellers. Despite the city’s terrifyingly clever name – ‘Innsbruck’ translates to the self-explanatory ‘Inn Bridge’ (referring to the Inn River) – today’s city is an internationally renowned winter sports centre, attracting hikers, cyclists, skiers and other athletically-motivated travellers from all over the world. Case in point, Innsbruck hosted the 1964and 1976 Winter Olympics, not to mention the 1984 and 1988 Winter Paralympics, making one of only three destinations to host the Winter Olympics more than once. Innsbruck owes much of its cultural significance to the fact that in 1429, it began the capital of Tyrol and thereby assigning a political and cultural importance to the alpine city for centuries to come. We have Ferdinand II, Archduke of Austria and his successors to thank for the beautiful Renaissance buildings gracing today’s city centre, making a stroll feel both elegant and nostalgic. Today, Innsbruck remains a European pillar – a beautiful central European city (interestingly enough, one that resembles the not-too-far-away Croatian capital Zagreb just a little) that just so happens to be on the doorsteps of the Alps and Italian Dolomites making it a perfect starting point for anyone looking for adventure.
There are some places you keep going back to, if only in your mind’s eye, and Kreuzenstein Castle is one of them for me. If you have ever read a fairy tale or a fantasy novel, or if you’ve ever seen a fantastical film, then you know – there’s something magical about turrets and towers and crinolines, something supernatural, something that makes one think about fairies and elves and dwarves and impossible beasts, something that effects you so deeply that you can’t shake it. This castle – it seems as if it popped up from the pages of a fairy tale or a Games of Thrones-esque novel. Being there, or even just imagining being there by gazing at the photo carries one to another time, another world, another dimension. Not far from Vienna, Kreuzenstein Castle may be a hodgepodge of several European castles, manors and religious buildings (composed somewhat randomly to re-build a ruin quickly), but the very essence of it feels so real. Even years later, I cannot shake the spell cast on me by this place – the same spell that seems to exude from Tallinn, Estonia, from the Gauja Valley in Latvia, from Andalucia in Spain, from St. Petersburg, Russia, Largentiere or Auvergne in France or Slea Head in Ireland, as well as a few other select spots. Needless to say, I don’t think that Kreuzenstein is finished with me yet…
Home of the Linzer Torte (a kind of pie or pastry), the Austrian city stays largely off the tourism radar – with the exception of this little yellow train. Yet, Linz is quietly bustling – it is city where the wayward traveler is guaranteed to meet the “behind-the-scenes” Austrians (as opposed to those working directly in the tourism industry). People come, and people go (talking of Michelangelo? You’ll get the joke if you’re a literature nerd!). They go to school, they go to work. They stroll in the park with their families, they have a beer on a terrace, they shop in stores in the town centre, they wander along the river banks, they play fetch with their dogs in the grass. This is not a tourist city. This is a real city where you will catch a look “backstage” look at what it means to be Austrian.
Splendor. Grandeur. Elegance. Beauty. Magnifigance. Luxury. Marble. Sophisticated. Refined. These are just a few words we associate with the splendid Austrian capital that is Vienna. Old world charm, the age of the steam engine, the golden days, the Victorian era. Vienna, for one reason or another, seems trapped in a snow globe from the turn of the century. It is a city full of grand palaces, of tree-lined avenues, of magnificent churches, of stately gardens, of bustling cafes. Exquisite sculptures like the one above seem to stroll through the city, and fountains trickle in marble basins. This is city that gave us the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud, the Empress Maria Theresa, the doomed Marie Antoinette, the scientist Schrödinger and his famed cat. It is the Capital of Classical Music, a hub that entices some of the best classical musicians to call Vienna home: Haydn, Beethoven, Schubert, Schumann, Brahms and of course the infamous Mozart. The Pole Fryderyk Chopin (better known as “Frédéric”) made his debut here. Franz Liszt, the composer Gustav Mahler (buried in Vienna), Max Steiner, Johann Nepomuk Hummel, Antonio Vivaldi,Anton Bruckner, Johann Strauss senior and junior – they were all here. This is a city that exudes music. This is a city where you can see an opera for €3. This is a city were there is classical music playing even in the public toilets. Music, marble and cafes – the three things make Vienna the elegant exemplar that it is today.
Lost in the Dolomites, Innsbruck is the perfect starting point for a mountain trek. You may already know that Innsbruck is in the Austrian Alps, in the province of North Tyrol – what you may know is that just south of it is South Tyrol: a German-speaking, Austrian-looking province of…wait for it…Italy! Yes, you read that right – all due to shifting borders after the War. This region, including Innsbruck and its province North Tyrol, along with two regions in northern Italy, correspond closely with the historical Tyrol region. This accounts for the huge resemblance these regions have with one another, despite being separate (usually very different) nations! Today, only 23% of the Italian Tyrol region speaks Italian as a first language (63% = German). The Italian Tyrol is also one of the richest regions in the EU – despite its rural and mountainous nature. On the Austrian side, many of the Tyrol-Italians come to live, work, and study in Austria for both economical and cultural reasons. These three regions are an interesting example of a cross-border shared culture – the same kind of trans-border relationship that exists in ‘Pays Vasco’ (Basque Country) seen on both sides of Pyrenees (in France and Spain), or in the Alpine regions (ie the ancient state of Savoy between France, Italy and Switzerland), or even the relationship between L’vov, Ukraine and Poland, to which it has historical ties. At the end of the day, borders have to be drawn somewhere – but just because it’s marked on a map, it doesn’t mean one cultural stops and another starts immediately. No; culture, history, language, architecture and heritage are much too fluent and gradual to be that abrupt. So, rock on Tyrol!
The film set for Ken Follet’s World Without End is probably one of the most interesting castles in Europe.Why, you ask? Well, in some ways it’s not a castle at all. Some consider it authentic, but for others, it’s nearly akin to a hoax. You see, Kreuzenstien Castle is a bought castle, a ‘Frankenstein’ castle. It has been created from a hodgepodge of other castles from Austria, France, Romania, Germany…you get the picture. A ‘Frankenstein castle.’ The owner, Count Johann Wilczek, made rich from coal mining, decided that the ruinous medieval castle that predated the current structure was not a fitting for the Counts of Wilczek, so he built his own, using the original foundations as well as bits of any other medieval structures that his coal-mine money could buy. In this way, it is considered both a ‘neo’ and ‘original’ medieval building! Regardless whether you view it as ‘authentic’ or not, the castle remains a beautiful building with an interesting history, and well worth the day trip from Vienna. Add bonus? If you’re into history, try to spot the different styles, eras, and buildings!
Rarely celebrated for its modernity or eccentricity, Europe is known for old, historic and elegant buildings. However, there are a few odd pockets here and there, treasure troves of modern oddities that are worth seeing for yourself. Places like the Guggenheim Museum, anything by Gaudi, the Singing House in Dresden, Valencia’s City of Art and Science, Sopot’s Crooked House…and the Hundretwasser House here in Vienna are a few such examples. Created by Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1983 to 1985, the house represents the expressionist style. Inside, there are 52 apartments, four offices, 16 private terraces and three communal terraces, with about 250 plants growing on them. Today, it remains one of Vienna’s most celebrated (and visited) landmarks–which is certainly saying something as Vienna is a large and beautiful city. It’s beautiful, funky, enticing and dizzying all at the same time!
Travel and weather have a tricky relationship. The power of weather is so strong that it often has the ability to make or break a trip, to render your day magical or miserable depending on its mood. Imagine you are walking along the same cobblestoned street that Mozart once lived on, and it started to rain. Wait, no, not it’s not raining, but hailing. One minute it’s bright and sunny, and the next minute, little droplets of frozen rain have begun falling from the sky, obscuring the view of the beautiful Hohensalzburg Castle and attacking you as you scurry for shelter. You, as the tourist, can take this in one of two ways. On one hand, you can get angry and feel cheated out of a beautiful, magical day in the famous Austrian city. But on the other hand, you can take the experience at face value and enjoy it for what it is: a memorable, crazy afternoon dodging balls of cascading ice in the shadow of Salzburg’s beautiful schloss. Sometimes the weather doesn’t match up with the image you have in your mind–but does that make it any less magical? I think not.
One of Europe’s nicest cities and snuggled right at the top of the World’s Most Livable Cities list is the beautiful capital of Austria. Read the linked page and it will tell you all about Vienna’s perfect scores in education, healthcare, jobs, etc, and one must admit that these things are important. But even more so, one of the things that makes Vienna so attractive to its citizens and foreigners alike is the attitude of the people within its borders. Take this photo, for instance. Taken outside the famous Hofburg Palace, a group of balloon-laden parents take their children to the park, just for the mere sake of doing so. Whether it was indeed a birthday party or other such ‘special’ occasion, think about how incredible that over a dozen adults drove into the middle of the city, into one of the most crowded parts of town carrying armloads of balloons, just to take their kids to the park? Most kids get to go to the local pizza place or ice cream parlor, and these kids get a visit to a palace and have a picnic in a park within a cluster of balloons. The Viennese are just genuinely happy, healthy, sociable, and well-to-do people, and any visit to the city is likely to make the intrepid traveler immediately start looking for ways to learn German, find a job here and rent a flat somewhere along the Ringstrasse!
Resting on the banks of the famous (though not always blue) Danube, Linz has neither the splendour of Vienna nor the musical reputation of Salzburg. However, what Linz does have is the ability to let visitors truly integrate into Austrian culture while avoiding the crowds of Linz’s two overwhelming neighbours. Situated almost equidistant from both Vienna and Salzburg, a quick stopover in Linz is both easy and logical. A city almost always overlooked because it didn’t manage to produce nearly as many musical genii as Austria’s other cities, it did manage to create the Linzertorte, a type of lattice-topped pastry filled with jam, which one can eat while learning German from cheerful shopkeepers, biking down cobble-stoned lanes, and watching swans float down the Danube. And that, in itself, is reason enough to visit!
Neue Burg section of the Hofburg Palace, Vienna, Austria
Vienna is certainly one of Europe’s grandest cities. Tracing centuries of history along Vienna’s Ringstraße makes one feel awe-inspired and breathless amongst all of the elegant buildings, grand churches, beautiful opera houses and theatres, and never-ending palaces. In fact, it seems as if the city is nothing but palaces! The Hofburg Palace, along with the Belvedere and Schönbrunn makes up the three most famous palaces of Vienna. The Hofburg has housed some of the most powerful people in Europe and it has been in governmental use since 1279. The Palace was the centre of the Habsburg dynasty, (the rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire), and from 1438 to 1583 and from 1612 to 1806, it housed the Holy Roman Empire. It continued to be the home of the Emperor of Austria until 1918 and currently serves as the official residence of the Austrian President, Heinz Fischer. Over the years, it has been expanded and re-worked and rebuilt. Bits have been added; other additions have been planned but never came to light. Vienna, lovely and beautiful Vienna, is in so many ways the heart of Europe. It is in almost exactly in the geographical centre of the continent, it has housed many important governments, it has produced, hosted or inspired many of Europe’s important peoples, it is–and has been for some time–one of Europe’s biggest cultural hubs especially when it comes to classical music, and it serves as the gateway between Western and Eastern Europe. With this beautiful, moonlit Hofburg at its governmental centre, Vienna truly holds Europe’s vibrant, beating heart.
Ah, Belvedere. What would a trip to Vienna be without a promenade around these beautiful gardens? Comprised of two main complexes, the Upper and the Lower, the area also includes a few very lovely gardens. The area surrounding the palace is neatly manicured (in the French style) while the other is far more wild and natural. The oldest sections of the Baroque palace, which date back to 1717 (completed 1723), was built for Prince Eugene who, like all monarchs, wanted a nice, cozy place to relax outside of his taxing duties of being a prince. Various important people have entered these doors , including Franz Ferdinand, Marie Antoinette’s daughter Marie Thérèse Charlotte, and Maria Theresa, though she never lived here. Instead, she decided it would make a nice place to store the Imperial family’s art collection. After the first world war, the Palace officially became a museum, and was eventually opened to the public. Most people go here to visit a particular piece, Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. Even though the piece is surely worth your attention, don’t miss the rest of the exhibits, or the architecture, and especially not the gardens–because it is the whole experience that will make your visit special!
Landstrasse is the main thoroughfare in little-known Linz, Austria. As it is equidistant between Salzburg and Vienna, it is literally wedged between two giants, and it is always overlooked. No, it doesn’t have Mozart, nor does it have the splendour of the Ringsrtausse, but it does have a bit of that Austrian charm. It feels a bit like a step back in time, Linz. Wires criss-cross the sky, and tram tracks run down the centre of the narrow street. Bakeries and small shops line its edges. People hurry down the street with the day’s shopping under their arms. This is a place that people live, this is a place full of energy and life, not just pretty buildings–making it that much easier to become part of the city, instead of just looking at it from a distance. There’s something about staying with local friends in Linz that makes you think you found the heart of the Austrian people–instead of the heart of the Austrian tourists.
Right, so, this is a Ferris wheel. It just so happens to be a Ferris wheel called the Wiener Riesenrad located in Vienna’s amusement park, the Prater. The Riesenrad also ranks as one of the most famous Ferris wheels in the world – as well as a historic one. At 64.75-metres (212 ft) tall, this wheel was the tallest in the world after the Roue de Paris was demolished in 1920, and so it remained for 65 years. Constructed 1897, it was one of the earliest additions to the new attraction called the amusement park. As usual, this massive undertaking wasn’t built just because they could build it; it was built draw further attention to a famous person. In this case, it was constructed to celebrate the Golden Jubilee of Emperor Franz Josef I. Sadly, it wasn’t a lucrative business in the beginning, and its engineer died broke and obscure. Today, the Reisenrad is one of Vienna’s top attractions – though at 9 euros a ride, it has since made up for its early poverty!
Hauptplatz and Pestsäule (Plague Column) in Linz, Austria
Grey and dismal, this is Austria before a storm, and pretty much how the world views Austria. Yet, storms or not, Linz is far from dismal. In fact, the 3rd-largest city in Austria is teeming with life. For a time, it was the most important city in the Holy Roman Empire, as it was here that Habsburg Emperor Friedrich III spent his final years (though it lost its status to Prague and Vienna when he died in 1493). Its New Cathedral also sports the largest cathedral in the nation (though not the tallest; during construction, the tower had to be limited to 135m to keep it—by only two meters—shorter than St Stephen’s in Vienna). Cafés and shops line the boulevards; joggers and bikers span the river. The Baroque Plague Column rising from the cobblestones designs to protect Linz from plagues, fires and wars. Linz is a gem on the Blue (grey…) Danube.
If you’ve never seen an opera performed, I’d suggest you start here, in Vienna. Vienna lives and breathes music. Most North American music studies offer a study-abroad course to Vienna. A major must-see of this miraculous city is the Opera House. And most major music composers you’ve ever heard of have connections to Vienna. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Chopin and so many others came to Vienna for music. This is a city where people listen. Music overpowers any other form of communication. So, when you go to Vienna, go to the opera. It was the first major building on the Vienna Ringstaße (circa 1861), and the building itself is impressive. Three hours before a show, go around back to the standing tickets office, and wait in line (you might want to bring a book). When the office opens, buy a ticket to the parterre (in my opinion, the best view of the three options). You’ll have to stand, but you only pay 4 euros for the same view as the seats just in front of you…who all paid upwards of 100 euros (or pay the 100 if you can afford it). You won’t regret it.
Perched atop Festungsberg mountain, Hohensalzburg Castle overlooks the city of Mozart’s birth. With a length of 250 m and a width of 150 m, it’s actually one of the largest medieval castles in all of Europe. The core was commenced in 1077, but the castle was added to and changed countless times, acquiring quirks from across the centuries. If you make it up the hill to the castle and you still have the energy to climb to the top of the castle’s tower, then you will be afforded a spectacular view such as this one. Here is the Austrian countryside. This is the countryside of Georg Von Trapp and Maria, where girls in dresses spun in green fields. It is the countryside where Mozart spent his early years. It is the same countryside that the archbishops appointed by the Holy Roman Empire once ruled. The hills are alive with the sound of music…as well as the sheer charm of the rolling green hills, castle walls, and turrets poking through the trees and the Alps rise dramatically beyond the city.
Most people who visit Vienna (and it seems like the whole world visits Vienna) don’t go to Kreuzenstein Castle. In fact, most people haven’t even heard of Kreuzenstein Castle. Only discovering its existence by perusing a list naming Austrian castles, I knew nothing about it this impressive building overlooking Vienna and the Danube. Even after deciding to go, the internet yielded surprisingly little about this magnificent pile of stone only 3o minutes from the Prater station in Vienna. The castle itself was once a 12th-century medieval castle but then destroyed in 1635, at the end of the 30-Years-War. Finally rebuilt in the 19th century by Count Nepomuk Wilczek, the ambitious Count wanted to make it as authentic as possible. He purchased various pieces of medieval buildings from all over Europe (Romanian cloisters, German wattle-and-daub buildings, bits of other European buildings), making it one-of-a-kind. It has also been used in BBC series, Pillars of the Earth and World Without End.