Vienna. It’s hard not to romanticise this iconic symbol of European imperial grandeur. I can see why so many before me have fallen in love with Vienna. Gorgeous cafés, exquisite architecture, and an impressive history are all brought together in this European capital. I wanted to find the imperial grandeur of old Vienna, and I was curious to see how that was translated into the modern age. My search began in the city centre.
Kärtner Straße, the main shopping street, was lined with incredible old buildings, but they were all hidden beneath dozens of modern signs and billboards. Countless tourist shops surrounded St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the main city squares. The tourism industry appeared to be grafted onto the city rather than incorporated into it. I found myself constantly distracted from the historical charm because of the gift shops and crowds of tour groups.
I was most looking forward to frequenting a few of the famous coffee houses spread throughout the city centre, but most of the well-known ones were crowded with tourists both inside and out. We finally managed to grab a table at Café Schwarzenburg, and the stunning interior was matched if not surpassed by the quality of the hot chocolate. But it wasn’t quite comfortable. It was hard to reconcile these two different sides of Vienna.
Around lunch time, Devon and I decided to try to find a café in which to grab a bite to eat. We turned down a relatively quiet street and saw a sign for Café Leopold Hawelka. The windows were dark, and we couldn’t really see who was inside or if it was even open. After an elderly couple passed us and entered the door, we decided to give it a shot. It took a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim lighting of the restaurant, but I was pleasantly surprised.
The floors, ceiling, and walls were all dark wood warmed by scattered lights. There were big bay windows lined with deep red curtains. Amid the sea of chairs, a few coat racks stuck out, covered with discarded winter layers. The walls were covered in vintage posters, pictures, and illustrations. It felt timeless. It was like a pub, but it’s the kind of pub I would frequent. No menus, just waiters weaving through the tables listing off the different soup and lunch choices. Aside from Devon’s laptop, this place could have been pulled straight out of the 20th century.
Inspired by our café find, I decided to head beyond the city centre for my next day’s solo exploration. Having had my full of tourist crowds, I set off on my own in search of some peace and quiet. After weaving my way through more residential and government business areas, I found myself at the Volksgarten, or People’s Park. Away from the bustling city centre, the garden provided a peaceful refuge. The leaves were falling, and I had the park almost entirely to myself. I could see the Rathaus, the city parliament building, rising above the treeline in the distance. I felt, for a brief moment, that I had found it again – a glimpse into the past.
I set off through the park towards the regal Neue Berg, only to find that the military was having some sort of recruitment street fair out front. Crowds milled about weaving between sausage stalls and military trucks. I looped around, hoping to get a closer look at the buildings while avoiding the worst of the crowds. But again, as quickly as I found my glimpse of romantic Vienna, it was gone.
On our final day, Devon and I set out to watch the morning training session at the Spanish Riding School. I have wanted to see the Lipizzaner horses up close since I was a kid when our mom had taken us to one of their shows in the US. We bought our tickets, headed up some unassuming steps, and entered the Winter Riding Ring. I was floored.
This ring was nicer than I imagined any building for horses could be. Dramatic arches and paintings adorned the walls. The room was breath-taking, closer to a theatre than a stable. Sadly, you are not allowed to take photos in the ring, so I don’t have any to share with you here. We found a spot in the upper balcony looking down into the ring as the white horses trotted around to classical music below.
Watching the horses and riders in their funny little hats dancing around the ring, I saw the Vienna I had imagined. Every move, every article of clothing was the product of a long tradition. One of the riders was instructing a student on the far side. His calm voice carried throughout the entire ring. I couldn’t understand a word he said, of course, but I could almost feel this sense of history, of importance in that room.
There it was. The tradition and trappings of imperial Vienna translated into the 21st century. I had my moment, and then the woman next to me began to take photos on her iPad. The electronic clicking sound snapped me out of my daydreams and pulled me straight back to earth.
For me, Vienna was a city of moments. There were moments where I felt a distinct connection to the past, moments where I was stunned by the beauty of the city, but there were also those underwhelming moments in between. I did get to have one of the best hot chocolates I’ve ever had, though, so I would say it was definitely worth the visit.