Keel’s Excellent Adventure 3: In Which I Went to Austria
So, some of you may be thinking after my last post “great Keel, so you didn’t know much about Austria. But should I go? And if I do, what should I see?” Good thing for you all, I have some answers. Unfortunately, I had not yet realized at this point that I did not have the cord to connect my camera to my laptop, so I don’t have a ton of pictures from my phone. Sorry!
Grace and I spent three days each in Salzburg and Vienna. Your guide books may tell you that March is the low season, and you should go during summer or over Christmas. With a couple of exceptions, I absolutely disagree — the weather during our trip was absolutely beautiful (mid-50s) and most of the sites were fairly empty, giving us the run of Austria. Ideally you would wait until early April, as there were one or two locations that hadn’t opened yet, but on the whole, it was well worth missing those to also miss the crowds and summer heat.
We landed in Vienna on Sunday evening, but were headed to Salzburg via train that evening. I’d booked our tickets ahead (OBB, the main rail-company has a really easy to use website that accepts international cards), so we immediately hopped on the metro to get to the main train station. Of course, when we got on our train, we realized that it had in fact started at the Vienna airport, and we could have gotten on there. Oops! Still, our tickets were only ~$25 each for the 2.5 hour ride to Salzburg. I still can’t believe how easy it is to get around by train in Europe, and how poor the train system is in the US. But I digress.
We got to Salzburg and headed straight to our hotel — it was a short 20 minute walk from the train station, and just on the North side of the historic city center area. For those of you with SPG points to burn, the Hotel Grand Salzburg a perfectly nice hotel, but you can definitely get better value at other locations for the 8K points we used per night.
Day 1 we got up bright and early, not yet tired from all the walking we were to do over the next few days. If you’re headed to Salzburg, there are two important things to know: 1) it’s actually a really small city. Everything is within easy walking distance, and even things outside the city can be walked to if desired. 2) get the Salzburg card — it’s a card you can get at any tobacco store (for some reason in Europe tobacco shops also seem to act as tourist info points), and it gives you discounted access to all the sights plus free public transport for 24 / 48 / 72 hours. We picked up our 48 hour card and started hitting the sights.
If you’re going to Salzburg, you’re going for three main reasons: Palaces / Fortresses, Mozart, and The Sound of Music. Mozart sites are scattered around the city, and while I was not blown away by any of them, the Mozart residence was definitely worth a visit. For everything else, start with the fortress. The Hohensalzburg Fortress sits on a large rocky outcropping over and looks over the city — it is quite simply stunning, and was definitely one of the highlights of the city. You can take a gondola up, or you can walk. I definitely suggest walking from the Northwest side of the city across from Schloss Mirabell — you can walk along most of the ridge leading up to the fortress, and there are some great views of the city. For palaces (Schloss), we went to two. Mirabell and Hellbrun. Mirabell was built by the most important Prince-Archbishop in Salzburg’s history — Wolf Dietrich von Raitenou. He built is for his lover (not wife), with whom he apparently had something like 15 children in 19 years. Epic. The palace is currently used for government ministries, so you can actually only go into the gardens. This was one of two times that the time of year was sub-optimal, as the gardens were not terribly impressive with all the plants dead for the winter. This was, however, also our first run-in with Sound of Music fame, as the Mirabell gardens are the setting of Maria singing Confidence as she heads to the Von Trapp house. Overall, definitely a must-see — especially if you’re there in the summer. The other palace was about 5km South of the city, and was the summer retreat of the Prince-Archbishops and their guests. This was the second time on the trip where March was a little early, as the main “trick-fountains” (I’d tell you what a trick-fountain is, but we couldn’t go…) were closed until April. Still this was another very beautiful compound with lovely gardens. Also, stop two of Sound of Music fame, as this palace housed the pavilion where Liesl and the future Nazi sang 16 Going on 17. Thinking about that song too closely made me feel old, but it was still fun! It was also, luckily for me, right next to the Salzburg zoo! As we had a little time to spare, we walked through the zoo, which was excellent. The cool weather at dusk had all the snow leopards, pumas, and various other awesome animals roaming about their cages. The zoo also had the most incredible setting I’ve ever seen — check out the view over the rhino pen:
Grace and I decided to walk the 5km back near the Salzach river, as it was a beautiful evening — I would definitely recommend this. The views of the setting sun over the Austrian Alps were incredible, and definitely worth going to see. Salzburg also is packed with old churches — two of which stood out as extra beautiful. St Peter’s Church, one of the smaller ones, had one of the most beautiful interiors I have seen in a church. It was not overly gaudy, as some can be, but perfectly atmospheric. The other church I would recommend is the Franciscan Church. You of course need to go through the main cathedral, but I did not think it was anything particularly special.
The other big thing we did in Salzburg was a day trip to the salt mines that brought Salzburg it’s name (and money!). First mined by the Celts over two thousand years ago, salt has been the lifeblood of Salzburg ever since. One of the main regional mines was recently closed and turned into a tourist attraction. While it was definitely worth the short train ride (they are located in the foothills of the alps), I’m still not sure how I feel about the mines. It was just a weird, really touristy experience. They had one of the corniest low-budget films I have ever seen, with recurring characters at different points throughout the mines. We also took a large raft-thing across an underground lake left behind from the mining, and there was some incredibly weird lighting / music choices to accompany it. Still, those were the type of thing that were so bad it was hilarious, and it was genuinely cool to see how the salt was mined. Plus, we technically crossed the border into Bavaria underground, so got to see Germany too!
Of course, the other key part I’m leaving out is the food — which was excellent. I had an excellent goulash with bread dumplings, and a pork cutlet stuffed with peppers and cheese. I decided to save the Weiner Schnitzel for Vienna, which I think was also the right call. The beer I had the first night was also one of the best Weissbeers I’ve ever had — it was called Wieninger, I believe.
After 2.5 days in Salzburg, we headed back to the train station to catch the train to Vienna. We had not booked tickets in advance for this one. Fortunately, Westbahn had frequent trains where you could buy tickets on board for only 20 euros. Again, super easy and convenient.
Vienna was a much busier few days, as there is an incredible amount to see. I easily could have spend a week there just going around to the various museums and incredible buildings. I already talked about the crazy decadence that was Viennese architecture in my previous post, so I won’t belabor it here. What I will say is that the museums are excellent. I particularly enjoyed the Kunsthalle Museum — the main art museum had the most impressive collection of Ruebens and Bruegels that I have ever seen, and the building it’s housed in was incredible.
Walking around the Ringstrasse felt like stepping back into a more glorified time. Definitely don’t miss the Imperial Treasury — still the most ostentatious collection of wealth that I have ever seen.
My favorite part of Vienna was, however, the day trip that we took to Stift Melk — a major Benedictine Abbey that was founded in the 11th century and came into its current form in the early 18th century. The abbey is along the Danube River in the Wachau Valley, a UNESCO site with small old towns as the Danube flattens out coming out of Germany and the Alps. The church within the abbey was absolutely stunning, and was one of the highlights of the trip. If you have time, I would definitely suggest renting bikes and biking along the river for as long as you can — there are villages all along the river with train connections back to Vienna, so you can definitely do multi-day trips through the valley.
Of course, an Austria trip wouldn’t be complete without Schnitzel, and I had three of them over the course of the trip. My favorite was, I believe, a pork schnitzel that I had at a restaurant called Figlmuller (call ahead for reservations, they’re needed!). The key, in my professional opinion, is the lingonberry jam — it completes the dish!
On the whole, an awesome trip. Austria is definitely a place I could see going back to during the winter for some skiing, or as part of a broader tour of awesome castles around Europe!