I arrived in Vienna as the sun was setting over the mountains and the sky was the most beautiful pink colour I’ve ever seen. My initial thought was how much the landscape resembled Kelowna; rolling hills and trees in the distance. The air was thick and unbelievably hot compared to the cool Amsterdam evenings I’d been slowly getting used to. Little did I know, it was only going to get hotter (40+ degrees every single day and so humid it was hard to move without sweating). Yes, the weather was warmer but it became very apparent how much cooler the people seemed in relation to those in the Netherlands. Everyone I saw kept very much to themselves, much less smiles and welcoming hellos on the streets. It surprised me that the residents didn’t appear happier because Vienna (and Austria in general) offers such a comfortable lifestyle. Residents don’t pay for post-secondary education, they have the longest maternity leave and more paid vacation days than any other country in Europe. There are so many free (or almost free) things to do and see in and around Vienna. In the short week and a half I was in town there were multiple music festivals, food & wine tasting events and yoga gatherings in the park. I was fortunate enough to have an apartment to stay while visiting; my friend Kristina has been living and working in Vienna for almost a year now and has a beautiful ground floor flat. As if having my own personal tour guide wasn’t lush enough, I got the added bonus of instant inclusion amongst her wonderful friends and family. It was the closest feeling to ‘home’ I’ve had in weeks. Here’s ten of my favourite things to do while being a ‘local’ tourist in Wein (Vienna).
1. Museums Quartier. Surrounded by a perimeter of historic museums, this was by far one of my favourite places to just relax. So many young people vegging out in the evenings on big loungers. There’s men who come around and sell ice cold tall beer for 2€ from their backpack. Gelato, popcorn and frozen yogurt stands are everywhere you look. If it was ever possible to get bored of people watching, one corner of the square is set up as a silent outdoor theatre (complete with seats and earbuds). Of course, movies all play in German language so it was literally a silent theatre film for me.
Probably the most active Friday night I’ve had this summer (and also the most protective sports gear I’ve strapped on since snowboarding season). The energy surrounding this event is completely infectious. Start time is 9pm and the meeting place and skate route always change to keep things interesting. A crowd of over 1000 people strong come out with bikes and roller skates to ride through the closed streets of Vienna as a truck ahead plays the best hits of the 90s. This is people watching at its best as some serious characters come out to participate, complete with neon lights and techno music. I was so proud of myself not only for staying upright as I crossed over the numerous tram tracks, but in the end we skated 13km in about 1.5 hours.
3. Learning to read a metro map.
Vienna’s public transit system is literally one of the best in the world and even dogs can ride (there are dogs everywhere in Vienna; restaurants, grocery stores, coffee shops). There really is no need for a vehicle in the city when you have so much at your fingertips; ubahn (underground metro), 99+ bus lines, strossenbahn (tram), schnellbahn (fast train). Within a week I was getting quite comfortable with getting around on my own. I began to get better at reading the metro map and started to realase a little bit of my hatred for the train after that awful experience I had from Amsterdam. Transit is incredibly affordable too, locals only pay about 1€ a day for a pass with access to all forms of transportation.
4. Beach on Donau River. Definitely the best we to chill out during the smoldering 40 degree days. Floating docks, wooden beds to lounge on and a beach bar playing trance music. We would bring a picnic lunch and a bottle of wine and spend the entire day.
(Still not quite sure how to properly pronounce these little gems). They are essentially wineries with unbelievably ‘homey’ Austrian food buffets. Anyone who knows me knows that wine is kind of my thing, so I don’t even need to mention that this was by far my favourite thing about Austria. The streets are cobblestone, the heurigers all side-by-side covered with ivy and the vineyard views are simply amazing. Servers dress up in traditional outfits (dirndls) and an accordion player serenaded us while we enjoyed the most delicious wine and cheese pairing I’ve had since I left Kelowna. I drank a glass of dessert wine from the year I was born and even managed to stomache a shot of homemade schnapps (not at all like the root beer schnapps I remember sneaking sips of as a teenager). I ate schnitzel and chocolate mouse like they were going out of style, melted brie cheese by the spoonful and the best Austrian pretzel buns imaginable.
6. Beach bars in the evening. I had no idea what to expect as we ‘prissed’ for a ladies night out in Vienna. I was so pleasantly surprised; the vibe at the Strandbar Herrmann was so cool and relaxed. The beach was lined with comfortable hammock chairs, a dj played trance music and groups of people took of their shoes (put their toes in the sand) to socialized in the moonlight. I tried what is now my favourite drink of the summer – ‘Aperol spritz’ (prosecco, Aperol liqueur, soda and an orange slice). All drinks are served with an added 1€ glass deposit at the bar; when you return the glass, you get your money back. Genius! Not one broken glass in the sand.
7. Free outdoor cinema at the Rathouse. Vienna’s city hall is perhaps one of the most beautiful buildings in the city. In the evenings, a large projection screen and stadium seating is set up with local food and wine vendors everywhere. I think I was most surprised to see the delicious food presented on porcelain plates (the wine in stemmed glasses) in what I call a ‘grown up’ food court.
8. Schonbrunn palace. Wow. Just wow. Situated in the rolling Vienna hills, this perfectly manicured property hosts colorful gardens, picturesque fountains and a stunning view of the city. Free to walk around outside. We saw a bride getting some wedding shots done on the palace staircase; stunning.
9. Strasse Ring. A 4km cobblestone loop throughout the city centre showcasing all the most beautiful buildings and monuments in Vienna. We walked in the warm evening air, the ring can also be accessed by a tram, bicycle or a horse and carriage. Live theatre in the squares and just so much history in the buildings you can feel it. It’s just so hard to believe how old everything is! The University of Vienna celebrated it’s 650th birth date this year (it has 500 plus years on Canada)! We tried to get 5€ standing tickets to the Austrian Opera (where the newest Mission Impossible was recently filmed) but the opera house doesn’t have air conditioning and it was closed until September.
10. Schweizerhaus in Prater Amusement park.Imagine 2500 people, a assembly line of thousands of Austrian beer steins, an open air beer garden covered with trees, and the loud banter of friends catching up. All the tables are communal so make a friend and just enjoy (if you can hear a thing they are saying amongst the clinging glasses and playful chanting). Every beer is poured in increments by a different member of the ‘line’ and sits for at least 7 minutes to get full flavour.
As if this place isn’t the absolute best, it’s situated smack dab in the centre of an amusement park that’s open late into the night. It’s amazing how much courage a few beers will give you! We raced go carts (only one minor crash!), refreshed ourself on a water log ride and rode the tallest spinning swing ride in Europe (the lights of Vienna from above in the night is more beautiful than I could ever explain). The house music was blasting, the lights were strobing and everyone was in the best mood. . . some things never get old (amusement parks are one of them).
The truth is, for the first time since I started this adventure I felt a sense of being settled. Staying with Kristina and spending time amongst her family allowed me to enjoy Vienna more like a local than a tourist. It’s amazing how much happiness a washing machine and a backpack of clean clothes can bring after a few weeks of travelling. I loved being able to go to the grocery store down the road and buy fresh produce to make healthy meals each day. I had my own room, my own bed and a spot for my yoga practice each morning. I felt somewhat rooted and had time to really get to know people and places; to make deeper connections. I’m starting to feel that I will never be completely at home again, because part of my heart will always be elsewhere. I guess that’s the price I’m going to pay for the gift of loving and knowing people in more than one country.