Thursday, May 15, 2014

A Viennese Trio: Music, Opulence and Decadence

The following appeared in the June, 2014 issue of Destinations Travel Magazine

Vienna, Austria does three things better than anywhere else: music, opulence and decadence. Opera houses, palaces and sumptuous desserts are the tangible reflections of a history rich with tradition and royalty.

But what does Vienna really do better than anywhere else? Make music, opulence and decadence accessible to those of us not named Hapsburg. The treasures of Vienna are there for the taking, no matter what your wallet size.

When it comes to music, music history and musical experiences, Vienna is unrivaled. The Staatstoper, Vienna’s majestic opera house, should be on everyone’s European must-see list. The building is the very essence of extravagance, beginning with its grand exterior that shimmers like a jewel at night. The plush interior spills into the main hall and onto the stage where performances from around the world continue this city’s great musical tradition. Tickets for a show can be purchased from any number of venues, including the ticket hawkers accosting most tourists outside of the busiest train stations.
But inexpensive music is just as easily attainable in Vienna. Street musicians abound here, and they are more talented and freer than most any other musician you’d find in Europe. The aforementioned Opera House, with its beautiful soaring façade and eclectic mix of world-renowned performances, offers day-of standing room tickets for just a few euro. And the standing room section just happens to be one of the best seats in the house, located center-stage elevated behind the sprawling floor.

As evidenced by the Staatsoper, extravagant architecture abounds in Vienna. You can't throw a schnitzel here without hitting a haughty homestead, typically one associated with the famous Hapsburg royal family. Palaces and cathedrals adorn the city and its outskirts like gems in a crown.
Gargoyles and elaborate gothic detailing embellishes the outside walls and spires of St. Stephen's Cathedral, one of Vienna’s eerie beauties. The real wow moment, though, comes from the top of the cathedral when you look down upon the roof. Like dragon scales, the colorful tiles shimmer in bright greens, yellows and reds. The mosaic forms the traditional Hapsburg double-eagle, along with the coats of arms for the city and country.

But the most undeniably beautiful location in Vienna is Schönbrunn Palace.
Schönbrunn’s immensity and beauty makes it that much more impressive. It is worth the price of admission to tour its elaborate corridors, ornate halls and gilded music rooms, but be sure to spend time strolling the palace gardens. The villa’s yellow exterior pops against the blue Austrian sky and rows of intricately arranged springtime flowers explode with color. Get lost amidst its labyrinth of footpaths, stopping at various statues and looming fountains. And be sure to scale the hill at the far end for an exceptional view of the palace and the city beyond. It's a truly breathtaking plot of land, made even more so by the awesome palace at its hub.

Instead of paying for the zoo located on the grounds, just walk along the pathway running behind the menagerie. It inclines up and around, allowing visitors to down through the fence for glimpses of rhino, otters, a few herds of hoofed creatures and a giant raptor bird.
Back in the city, you don’t need a ticket to wander through the streets gawking at striking architecture. To get a real sense of royal city living, go to Hofburg Palace, the Hapsburg’s winter city residence. Sit in the park opposite this massive white structure or stroll beneath its archways and past the horse stables where stars of the Spanish Riding School live.

Decadent meals, particularly pastries and cakes, cap off any long day of strolling pedestrian-friendly corridors. The city is known for the original Sacher-Torte, one of the most famous confections in the world. Since 1832 the Sacher Hotel, itself a gorgeous example of Viennese style, has been serving slices of this rich chocolate cake filled with a thin layer of apricot jam and coated with chocolate icing. As decadent desserts go, the original Sacher-Torte is a crowning achievement.

But if you can’t get a seat in the hotel’s café, there are still plenty of opportunities for an after-dinner treat. Stop at any of the outdoor cafés along the pedestrian walks, many near St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and pick a cake slice from their menu. It will be delicious, especially accompanied by a cocktail, and the buzz from passers-by will make for exciting outdoor ambiance.

Away from many of the glitzy examples of Viennese opulence and decadence, sits a grittier, more whimsical reflection of the city’s traditional grandeur.
The Prater, a large public park in the Leopoldstadt district,  is home to one of the world’s oldest amusement parks – and an impressive one at that. The massive, sprawling carnival houses rollercoasters, funhouses, a train ride, carnival games and every amusement park and kiddie ride imaginable. Enjoy traditional food and drink amidst traditional fairytale scenery and characters. 

Access to the Prater is free (individual attractions charge), making it one of the best ways to engage with Vienna. Like any typical carnival there is music tinkling through the air. Opulence here comes in the form of neon lights and over-the-top funhouses. And the food is just as decadent as anything you’ll find at the Saccher Hotel.
But there is a fun, lighthearted flare to the Prater that is absent from many other locales in Vienna. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, such as at the bumper car venue with the U.S.A. theme - it is decorated with a laughable array of American stereotypes, from the Hollywood blonde to the Texas cowboy.

The crown jewel is the Vienna Riesenrad, or Giant Ferris Wheel. Built in 1897, it is just as much as part of the city’s history and identity as St. Stephen’s Cathedral or the Saccher Torte. The Giant Ferris Wheel encompasses all the best traits of Vienna, and offers quite the view in the process.
Whether you’re leisurely ambling past a priceless palace or screaming around a Prater rollercoaster, you can be sure that music, opulence and decadence are everywhere in Vienna. And you don’t have to be descended from the Hapsburgs to enjoy every bit of it.

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