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Fiaker exits the Hofburg (Imperial Palace)
Fiaker exits the Hofburg (Imperial Palace)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

A 90-minute drive from Melk brought us to Vienna, the capital of Austria. It's easy to time-travel back to the past with a Hop-on Hop-off bus tour pass and a Vienna Card, which offers discounted sightseeing and free public transit.

The clip-clop of horses' hooves drew our attention to the fiaker (horse-drawn carriages) that carried visitors to the Hofburg or Imperial Palace, which dates back to the 13th century.

Originally built in 1220, the Hofburg has 2,400 rooms. Looking up, we admired the fountains, pillars, sculptures, crests, scrollwork and inscriptions that decorate the former winter residence of the Habsburgs.

Jewels and gold

In the Imperial Treasury, fist-sized emeralds, golden ornaments and Emperor Rudolf II's jewelled crown, sceptre and orb left us awe-struck. Equally impressive was the National Library, with 200,000 historic leather-bound books and ceiling frescoes that were painted in 1730. Visitors are allowed to read books here, but they aren't permitted to take them out.

Crown, scepter and orb of Rudolf II
Crown, scepter and orb of Rudolf II
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

We did not want to leave the Imperial Palace without seeing a performance of the Lipizzaner horses under the glittering chandeliers of the Spanish Riding School. The graceful maneuvers of the white stallions left us so enchanted that we later toured their stud farm in Piber, southwest of Vienna near Graz.

Concert tickets

There are so many musical performances in Vienna that it's difficult to decide which ones to see. More renowned composers have lived in Vienna than in any other city.

Reminders are everywhere, from the golden statue of Johann Strauss in the Stadtpark to Café Mozart, where we enjoyed a mouthwatering apfelstrudel after touring the State Opera. During our tour, we watched staff set up props for the evening performance. They told us that the curtains weighed 11 tons.

As we photographed the beautiful tiled roof and decorations on St. Stephen's Cathedral, young men dressed like Mozart in wigs and historic garb approached us. They weren't figments of our imagination. They were just selling concert tickets.

Man in Mozart costume sells concert tickets
Man in Mozart costume sells concert tickets
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Overnight at Schönbrunn

At the age of six, Mozart performed before Empress Maria Theresa in the Hall of Mirrors in Schönbrunn, the summer palace of the Habsburgs. We viewed rosewood walls, porcelain candelabra and marble tables inlaid with semiprecious stones during a tour of some of its 1,500 rooms.

That evening, we returned to Schönbrunn Palace for a performance at the Marionette Theater. Watching the puppeteers skillfully manipulate the stringed puppets was as fascinating as the show.

You can now spend the night in Empress Sisi's bedroom as the only guests at Schönbrunn Palace. One package includes a carriage ride to the palace. Another adds butler service, breakfast in the Sisi Suite and a private tour of the palace.

Augarten porcelain

Schönbrunn Palace Park and Belvedere Palace's baroque garden, with its many beautiful statues, are designated World Heritage Sites. The Lower Belvedere was built in 1714 as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy, the conqueror of the Turkish invaders. The Upper Belvedere was built in 1721 for entertaining. They now house art museums.

Artist in Augarten Porcelain Factory
Artist in Augarten Porcelain Factory
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Vienna's oldest baroque garden is Augarten, which is also the location of a porcelain factory that was founded in 1718. We watched artists meticulously assemble and hand-paint figurines using centuries-old techniques. In addition to a museum and a restaurant, the building has a shop that sells both traditional and modern items.

Augarten, like Schönbrunn, was a former Imperial Garden. Today its palace is the home and school for the Vienna Boys' Choir.

In North America, they are called the Vienna Choir Boys, because Walt Disney Productions registered this name for the movie, Almost Angels. From September to June, two of the choirs sing in Vienna in the MuTh concert hall and at Sunday mass in the Hofburg Chapel. The other two choirs perform around the world.

Viennese restaurants

Memories of Vienna's fine cuisine and wines also linger after our trip. We dined on fork-tender wiener schnitzel at Zum Weissen Rauchfangkehrer (The White Chimney Sweep).

From our private wooden booth, we looked out over a flower-filled window box at the illuminated Gothic spire of St. Stephen's Cathedral. Piano music played softly in the background, while a flower vendor made the rounds with an armful of long-stemmed red roses.

If you're not sure where to eat, beisls (bistro-style restaurants) are a good bet. We enjoyed a seafood meal under the vaulted ceiling of the nearly 600-year-old Griechenbeisl.

Red candles flickered on the tables. Wrought iron lamps and stained-glass windows decorated the wooden walls. We took a fiaker ride here, as earlier visitors did, including Beethoven, Strauss and Brahms.

Enjoying Sacher-Torte at Hotel Sacher Cafe
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Chocolate Sacher-Torte

In spite of the wonderful marzipan-topped poppy seed torte served for dessert at the beisl, we couldn't resist Vienna's famous cafés the following day. Hotel Sacher Café is one of the most popular.

We each ordered a mélange (coffee with frothed milk) and a slice of chocolate-glazed Sacher-Torte, garnished with whipped cream. (Franz Sacher invented the chocolate cake recipe in 1815.)

Sitting back in our velvet banquette, we luxuriated in our surroundings — red silk walls, marble tables, gilded mirrors and crystal chandeliers.

Traditionally, Viennese coffee is always served with a glass of water. Coffee became a favorite drink in the city because the Turks brought in coffee beans before they left in 1683.

Hotel Sacher

Hotel Sacher Wien is the only five-star hotel in Vienna that is privately owned. Elisabeth Guertler, who is also the first female president of the Spanish Riding School, operates the 149-room hotel with her daughter Alexandra and her son Georg.

Dinner at Grinzing heuriger (wine tavern)
Dinner at Grinzing heuriger (wine tavern)
Photo © Barb & Ron Kroll

Although many rooms retain the traditional red velvet decor and elaborate chandeliers, others are more contemporary in style. A highlight is the art collection, personally selected by the Guertler family. Don't leave without enjoying one of the Sacher Spa chocolate treatments.

Grinzing wine taverns

Vienna's wines are as famous as its cafés. Nestled in the vineyards in the suburb of Grinzing are several heurigen, taverns that serve wines from the most recent harvest. (To identify them, look for evergreen boughs in their signs.)

During our visit, violinists and accordion-players serenaded diners, while dirndl-clad waitresses loaded buffet tables with heaping platters of smoked pork, chicken, veal and salads. Fellow diners spontaneously waltzed in the aisles and linked arms while singing along with the music.

Austrian Airlines

Vienna is the hub for Austrian Airlines. Its Star Alliance Terminal offers fast 25-minute connection times for most transfers.

Austrian Airlines' long-haul business class flights feature 180-degree flat seats with remote control massage functions, an on-board chef and sommelier. Long-haul economy class seats have individual screens with hours of entertainment.


Vienna Tourist Board

More things to see & do in Austria:

Vienna Vacation

Durnstein and Weissenkirchen in Austria's Wachau Wine Region

Innsbruck, Heiligenblut and Wattens Crystal World Tour

Touring Salzburg, Hellbrunn, Salzkammergut and Hallstatt

The Largest Ice Cave in the World