As my regular readers know, my wife Rita and I took to the road last fall, sampling the roving retirement lifestyle after six years of living on the coast of Ecuador, and a long COVID-caused delay in our plans. So far in my posts I've covered our time in Athens and Thessaloniki in Greece, and Istanbul in Turkey. Today I would like to tell you about the next stop on our planned 9-week tour, the majestic city of Vienna, Austria.

We flew out of Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, a comfortable flight that served an excellent lunch, and took just over 2 hours. A word about the new airport in Istanbul – it is huge, and beautifully designed. Sweeping, high terminal ceilings, built to allow natural light during the day. Plenty of stores and restaurants to keep you occupied, and plenty of information boards and easy to follow signs.

I mention the signs, because that was a noticeable difference when we arrived at the Vienna airport. Also large and attractive, but they went minimalist on the signage. Still, since all airports provide the same basic functions, it wasn’t that difficult to find our way through passport control to our baggage, and then out to our waiting driver. Soon we were there in the City of Music, as our driver pointed out highlights on the way to our AirBnb.

Amazing buildings everywhere we looked

Once again we were staying pretty much in the heart of the city. Actually, we eventually found out we were also in the heart of the gay district, but whatever. We were just a couple of blocks from the Naschmarkt, a 120+ stall open-air market that dates back to the 16th century. Walking down its pathways in the plaza space between two roads almost felt like we were back in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Vendors were displaying everything - fresh fruits and vegetables, candies, pastries, nuts, spices, meat, fish, teas, coffees, souvenirs, and of course there were restaurants as well.

Speaking of restaurants, we expected to be overwhelmed with places offering weiner schnitzel, sausages, and other foods you think of when you think of Vienna – and there were plenty of those. But we were surprised to find there seemed to be more restaurants featuring Chinese food, Korean BBQ, Sushi, Italian osterias, Greek, and Mediterranean fare. In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been that surprised. Vienna has long been a cultural mixing bowl, and was after all one of the stops on the famed Orient Express.

After a short walk to get some breakfast supplies for our new home and to get our bearings around our new neighborhood, we picked a local restaurant for our first meal -The Café Savoy. Mostly because of the impressive and expressive statues that formed part of the building façade, figures dramatically straining to hold up the balconies, and such.

Café Savoy

It turned out to be a great choice. I found out later the Savoy has been in operation since 1896. It is beautifully decorated in that 19th century style, and features two large mirrors that are the second largest single-sheet glass mirrors in all of Europe – only the Versailles Palace has one larger.

One of the large mirrors in the Savoy

Our waiter Stefan was friendly and helpful, and the food was superb and surprisingly affordable. We ended up eating there several times, as we made friends with the staff and it was just such a welcoming environment. Stefan always greeted us with a hug like it had been years since he’d seen us last. The bills for our meals including drinks (two rounds – Vienna has goooood beer) was never over 40 euros.

Weinerschnitzel, shrimp risotto, two beers and two glasses of wine for 38 Euros

Funny story – although it was pretty obvious some of the wait staff was gay, it didn’t really dawn on us until the second visit that it was a center of the gay community. We found out later from Stefan that it was actually the oldest gay meeting place in Vienna – but not to worry, because it was “straight-friendly”, which we found hilarious.

Friendly waitstaff making a customer sandwich

Anyway, that evening we planned our assault on Vienna for the next morning. We would be using our Vienna Pass which we had purchased online, giving us 3 days of access to the Hop on Hop Off Buses and 70 different museums and attractions around town. There will be more details about the Vienna Pass in a future article on the website, but for now just know that it made our visit much easier and cheaper.

Vienna called for a different strategy than the one we used in Istanbul. Although Istanbul is much larger, the sites we wanted to explore were relatively close together and mostly walkable. In Vienna however, the palaces, museums, and other points of interest are scattered all around the city, so the Hop on Hop Off Bus and later the public transport system were crucial to our plans.

We caught the bus in front of the Vienna State Opera House, and enjoyed a ride around town with the included audio guide pointing out highlights and potential stops for us. We were on our way to one of the sites farthest from our base, the Schoenbrunn Palace. This was the main summer palace for the Hapsburgs, a major dynasty in Europe from the 15th to the 20th century. In fact, Hapsburgs ruled in Austria as far back as the 13thcentury.

Schoenbrunn Palace

Today it is a major tourist attraction, and if you visit, be prepared to spend most of the day there, as the grounds cover over 400 acres and there is plenty to see and do.

When our passes were scanned we were given a 1:20 entry time for the palace tour, so we spent the morning walking around the extensive gardens, admiring some fake Roman ruins, and taking pictures of some incredibly beautiful fountains. 

Why travel to Italy when you can build fake Roman ruins?

We were working our way uphill, and by lunchtime were at the highest point on the property in the beautiful stone and marble structure called the Gloriette. The Gloriette

Rather ironically named, since it derives from the French for “little room”. It is an imposing structure in itself, with sweeping archways and mammoth statues. From there you a beautiful view of the garden and the palace, as well as the city of Vienna in the distance.

View of the Palace and Vienna from the Gloriette

It has been converted to a café, and we took advantage of that to enjoy a lunch and a radler, which is a refreshing mix of beer and lemonade.

Inside the Gloriette caféLunch and a radler

The palace tour is just as impressive as we had imagined, and you are provided with free audio guides for details about each of the rooms. I have to admit I felt a bit of a tingle when I heard that I was in the room where a six year old Mozart first performed for the Emperess.

Technically, no photos allowed inside the Palace. Rita snuck this one.

Again, this is an all-day stop, not just a quick palace tour. There’s a small train and horse drawn carriages for riding around the property, a marionette theater, a hall where concerts are still held, statuary gardens, a zoo, and more to keep you occupied.

Not to mention our favorite attraction, a 20-minute class on making the perfect apple strudel. While we missed the class, we did make sure not to miss sampling some of the output in a shady outdoor patisserie.

Apple strudel with vanilla sauce

The rest of our stay in Vienna was a whirlwind of palaces, museums, art work, churches, and just the generally impressive architecture virtually anywhere you looked. In fact, I think the architecture is the biggest draw to Vienna for me. Rita and I both commented that sometimes it seemed like the building housing the art was more impressive than the art on display.

An example: this is just the restaurant inside a museum

I won’t go into a lot of detail about most of the things we did while in town, but there are a few things I would like to highlight.

One is rather creepy. It is called the Kapuzinergrupf, or the Imperial Crypt, and it is just what it sounds like. Since about 1632, over 150 people, mostly members of the Hapsburg family, have been placed there in sarcophagi ranging from simple copper coffins to elaborately decorated tin, brass, and bronze monstrosities. I say “placed” rather than interred, because they are all just arranged in neat rows or tucked into cubbies, so visitors can walk through the many rooms of the underground facility. There are 12 emperors and 18 emperesses, some children, and even five “heart urns” in the complex. Best not to say too much about the heart urns.

Welcome to the Kapuzinergrupf

Tastefully done

Some included reliefs of the occupants

Incredible enough, to me anyway, is that it is still being used. In fact, the first day we tried to visit it was closed, because they were having a ceremony to install the latest tenant, Archduchess Yolande of Austria, wife of Archduke Carl Ludwig, that very day. Several main streets were closed to traffic to allow the guests and sarcophagus to arrive by horse-drawn carriages.

Secondly, we both were a little surprised by the interior of the famous St. Stephens Cathedral. The most important church in Vienna, dating back to 1578 and built on the ruins of an even older 12 century church, its soaring 450 foot spire and multicolor tile roof make it instantly recognizable. The exterior is meticulously decorated with carvings and statues, truly an impressive vision.

St. Stephen's

The interior however, while admittedly ornate, struck us both as rather dark and depressing. There was very little color, mostly shades of gray – although to be fair, looking back over the pictures we took there, the more sensitive camera eye did pick up more color and light. But I think it was the contrast between the church interior and the interior of the mosques we had visited the previous week that made it seem so stark in comparison.

For example, a church generally has rows of pews which take up most of the interior, making it feel a bit cramped or crowded when walking around. The spires and steeples require support columns which also break up the space. Typically there are wood, tile, or stone floors, which combine with the stone walls to give you that kind of echoey feeling.

The mosques on the other hand tend to have spires as external structures around a large central dome. This gives you a large, uninterrupted interior. Further, there are no pews to take up space, and since shoes are forbidden the interiors are carpeted, reducing echoes. The ones we visited all had a lot of natural light, as well as plenty of elaborate electric lighting. Extensive use of color and gold in the décor and painted tiles, combined with the light, the open space, and the carpets gave them a rich and warm interior.

Just a small example of how travel and exposure to different cultures can really be an incredibly rich experience if you open yourself up to it.

And speaking of culture, that brings me to the other stop in Vienna I need to mention. The Vienna State Opera House.

The Vienna State Opera House

Opened in 1869 as a home for the hot Vienna opera and ballet scene, this is an imposing and beautiful building on the outside. You can wander about and take pictures of the exterior – and we did – but if you want to see the inside, there are only two ways; either buy a ticket to the opera or ballet, or pay 13 euros for a scheduled guided tour. Well, I guess a third way would be to perform there, but I didn’t pack my tutu.

Guided tours must be signed up for in advance on the Vienna Opera website, and are only offered when they will not interfere with rehearsals or performances. Even though our guided tour was included with the Vienna Pass, we still had to schedule online.

It is definitely worth the 13 euros, less than $15 at the moment, to take the tour. It takes about 40-45 minutes, and you are led through intermission rooms and special waiting areas, get to sit in premium box seats, and get up close and personal with the orchestra pit and stage.

Setting the stage for tonight's performance

Most of us have probably seen the interior of the opera house in movies, but as usual nothing compares to actually being there. It is even more beautiful than you can imagine, and the seats were surprisingly comfortable. A few things surprised me. The building itself is huge, but the house holds only just over 2200 audience members, including 547 as standing room only. It seats just 1709, which is only about 80 more than our Tennessee Theater back in the US. Also, the stage was surprisingly large, twice the size of the auditorium, to allow for fast set changes during intermission.

View from the stage

The Grand Stairways of the Opera House

After our tour we were so impressed that over lunch we decided it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to see an opera while we were in town. Neither of us had ever been to an opera before – in fact, like most of my generation when I hear the word “opera” I hear Elmer Fudd in the back of my head with his spear and magic helmet singing “Kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit!”.

Opera tickets in Vienna can run 200 euros each or more, but all the seat for this night’s performance of “Tosca” were sold out. However, during our tour we learned that standing room tickets could be bought for as little as 13 euros. Which is why the idea of buying a ticket instead of taking a tour is a real option. In fact, we met a couple from England during the first intermission who did just that – they bought their standing room tickets, then arrived a half hour early to wander around taking pictures.

So after a quick verification that there was no dress code for the Opera House – I had also forgotten to pack my white tie and opera cloak – I jumped online and bought us two standing room tickets for 15 euros each, reasoning they would be better than the cheapo 13 euro ones.

When we got to our assigned places however, we were in literally the very last row in the highest point possible, backs against the wall and heads brushing the ceiling. Worse, we were skewed to one side and had a pole partially blocking our already restricted view of the stage.

The cheap seats - minus a seat, of course

Oh well, we were still in the most famous opera house in the world to witness one of the most popular operas. 

All was not terrible, as there were screens you could setup to get English translations of the lyrics being sung, and we had read a brief synopsis of the plot before attending. And despite the viewing problems, the acoustics were perfect. We could hear the music and the performers perfectly, and although our legs were a bit tired, it was a wonderful experience and one we will always remember – and a reminder of why we are out and about in Europe in the first place.

Before I close, I would be remiss if I did not give a shout-out to the Vienna public transportation system. They have a system of subways, electric trams, and buses that cover the whole metro area. You can buy a pass that gives you just a ride from point A to point B, a yearly pass that allows unlimited use, and everything in between.

For instance, we bought two 48-hour passes that allowed us to use any conveyance as often as we wanted during that period for 14.10 euros each. You can buy a physical card at various locations, or just download an e-ticket like we did on your phone. Pretty standard for most modern metro areas, right?

But here’s the interesting part – there are no turnstiles and no ticket scanners. True, if you bought a physical ticket, the first time you use it you are supposed to insert it into a handy blue box at the entrance to get your initial time stamp, but that is it. Otherwise, it is all on the honor system. If you’ve ever used a subway in the US before, you understand how much time that saves you and how it cuts down on lines of people fumbling with their tickets or passes and trying to get them to scan right.

Even the train we took from Vienna to Prague for the next leg of our trip had no one taking tickets. There was a conductor to help you on and off the train and to find your seats, but they never came around asking to see your ticket.

So why buy tickets at all, you may ask? Well, I’m told that once and a while a conductor or a transit person will do a spot check, and if you are caught without a valid ticket there is a fine and some considerable public shaming from the folks around you.

In summary, we loved Vienna, and we wish we could have spent a few more days there. Indeed, we may plan to return someday for a longer visit. 

One alteration in our plans occurred that would be a harbinger of things to come. We had originally planned to use our next to last day in Vienna to take a day trip to Budapest in Hungary. We had the train tickets and were all set, but the day before I started feeling bad. Mostly a fever and very tired. We decided it wasn't worth pushing ourselves, and stayed in Vienna. It turned out to be a good call, because I ended up sleeping most of the next day anyway.

I was feeling better by the next morning, although Rita was starting to drag a little, and we packed and prepared to catch our train to our next stop and halfway point in our planned travel, Prague in the Czech Republic.

And that is a story for another post ...

Follow the adventures of Jim and Rita in real time as they try out the roving retirement lifestyle on the podcast "Travels With Jim and Rita".