17 April 2023

Vienna - A Christmas Delight

I managed to sneak in a three night trip to Vienna with a friend - the first time I've been to Christmas markets abroad apart from Paris.  The only error was booking a Wowcher deal, as you always have to pay more for a normal flight time and bags. It was pretty difficult to get any cheap flights to Vienna in December so it probably worked out to be an ok deal, but I'm a bit annoyed that I didn't realise what would happen upfront. Our flights were from Stansted with Ryanair, and fell on the days that a lot of workers announced strikes in the UK. Typical! There was a massive queue at Stansted to go through security as there were only two or three desks operating, which was not fun. Then the plane wasn't even Ryanair, it was Lauda which is an Austrian subsidiary of Ryanair. Everyone moans about Ryanair and they are probably justified (both of our flights were delayed). 

Luckily Vienna is totally worth any travel stress, and is particularly beautiful at Christmas. With at least three main Christmas Markets, and plenty of hot wine and impressive decorations it's one of the most popular places to visit in December in Europe. 

We stayed at the Best Western Plus Amedia Wien, which is pretty central. The hotel gave us a really large room/suite type room which was great with a really comfy bed. We didn't get breakfast there because there were is many bakeries around; but reviews say that the continental breakfast is good. There's a Lidl next door and a coffee shop across the road. It's about a thirty minute walk into the centre, or around ten minutes by the U3 tram (the nearest stop is Kardinal Nagi Platz, about ten minutes walk away). The public transport system in Vienna runs on an honesty system, where tickets aren't required to get on buses, trams or the metro system, however undercover staff do occasionally check for tickets so it's worth getting them for the metro (couldn't really see machines for the tram). The central tram stops/metro stops are Stephansplatz, Karlsplatz and Wien Mitte. Getting around was pretty easy and civilised, we walked a lot but it was pretty freezing all day (around minus four) so in the evening we got the metro/tram. There's a bus stop right outside of the hotel too if it's too cold to walk. 

Golden interior of Karlskirche and columns, illuminated St Stephens and gothic interior

We were completely blown away by two churches that we visited; Karlskirche and St Stephen's Cathedral in the centre of the city. Initially we weren't going to pay the 10 euros to enter Karls Kirche (St Charles Church), but I looked up the interior online and it quickly changed our minds. I was literally dumbstruck for a while after walking in. Built in the early 18th century, it featured a huge dome and two incredible columns inspired by Trajan's columns in Rome. They depict scenes from the life of the church's namesake St Charles Borromeo, a patron saint said to have helped to heal plague sufferers. The most striking aspect for me was the high altar which is covered in gold and features a golden triangle which symbolises Yahweh (God). Built primarily with marble, the frescoed ceiling is also awe-inspiring. Use the lift or climb the stairs for a panoramic view of the city and a close up view of the magnificent columns. If you have the time make sure to buy tickets for a classical concert here - Vivaldi's Four Seasons is performed here most nights. 

We also visited St Stephens Cathedral at the heart of the city (free to enter), which was lit up in pink at night and encircled by a Christmas Market. The Gothic interior is truly spectacular as well as the multicoloured tiled roof. It's mind-blowing to think that it was built in the mid 14th century. You can also see the huge sarcophagus of Emperor Frederick III, and again here you can get a panoramic view of the city and also visit the catacombs. Click here for more information on the many churches in Vienna. 

As an art lover I was most excited about seeing Klimt's beautiful paintings, which are housed in Belvedere Museum in a complex including two Baroque palaces and a Versailles-like impressive garden. I bought tickets with Get Your Guide (£14) which gives you entry to Upper Belvedere palace and its amazing collection of art, which includes work by Klimt and fellow Austrian Egon Schiele as well as Monet, Van Gogh, Renoir, Munch and Rodin. 

Sunflower, Judith, the legendary Kiss and Avenue - Klimt masterpieces 

You'll see Klimt merchandise everywhere in Vienna, and for good reason. His "Golden Phase" produced beautiful works such as "The Kiss" and "Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer II," which prominently feature gold leaf (both painted around 1907). It was really emotional seeing his work after so many years marvelling at it in books - up close it is truly mind-blowing - the detail of his patterns and the sheer romanticism in both his portraits and landscapes. You might just be familiar with The Kiss, but please check out "Sunflower," "The Three Ages of Woman," "Hope II," "The Virgin" and "Judith and the Head of Holofernes." The permanent collection is equally impressive, with some pieces by Egon Schiele who is known for his twisted body shapes and depictions of raw sexuality (he was influenced by Klimt). You can buy separate or combined tickets for both Upper and Lower palaces (you can also visit Belvedere 21, a contemporary arts hub). Take a stroll in the garden, designed by a gardener who worked on Versailles (I knew it). The Christmas Market outside the Upper Palace was charming and smaller than the other markets; yet another place to drink hot wine and pick up handcrafted decorations, jewellery and ceramics (although we found it all pretty expensive). 

The Basquiat exhibition was incredible

The day after was again very much all about art, with a visit to the impressive Albertina Museum. I was totally blown away by their collections of Impressionist and early 20th century art. I'd seen posters for the Jean Michel Basquiat exhibition at the airport and knew that I had to see it (and hoped that my friend wouldn't be arted out). We paid around 18 euros for a ticket for the Albertina collection and Basquiat (which unfortunately ended in January). Highlights of the permanent collection for me - Chagall's The Kite, Miro's Birds and Insects, Kandinsky's Inner Alliance, Magritte's The Enchanted Spot and Munch's Winter Landscape. Not to mention works by Monet, Van Gogh, Cezanne, Degas et al. I was genuinely amazed at what was displayed here. I always love stumbling across artists who I've never heard of before - in the case the colourful paintings of Ruth Baumgarte who captures her travels in Africa and the stunning landscapes and people she came across. We then wandered through a gallery filled with huge drawings which were unbelievable in their detail, by Austrian Collectives Hauenshild Ritter and Muntean/Rosenblum. The latter's work draws on photographic images to depict young people in landscapes with deep captions underneath. 

By the time we reached Basquiat I was exhausted and couldn't find the energy to read all of the information and remembered I had a Taschen Basquait book that I could consult later on. I was genuinely excited to see his work as it's hardly ever exhibited in Europe. The exhibition included 50 major works from public and private collections. Some of my favourites are the black and white silkscreen paintings from 1983, including Tuxedo (reversed from black text on a white background, including 15 drawings and a collage). I also loved Light Blue Movers (1987), his 1983 Self Portrait and perhaps my overall favourite Untitled (Spermatozoon) for its colours and anatomy which was influenced by a medical book his mother gave to him when we was young. 

Nepalese Momo, Sachertore, Garlic soup and Apfelstrudel

Food-wise we stumbled across Yak Yeti, a Nepalese restaurant which does an all you can eat momo dumpling night (unfortunately I couldn't manage more than one plate). The restaurant is filled with Nepalese artefacts and we ate crossed-legged on the floor traditional-style. We had a great brunch in Coffee & Friends opposite the hotel - a huge pancake stack and delicious salmon bagel. There are a few of these chilled cafes around the city which are good for a rest from all the walking. You can't visit Vienna without sampling the Sachertorte, the famous chocolate cake with apricot filling. We tried it at Cafe Leopold, which is just one of the many traditional cafes full of cake hunting tourists (see also Hotel Sacher, Cafe Demel and Cafe Central. 

My friend and I like spending time in vinyl shops so we looked up where we could hang out. The nearest place to us was Needle Vinyl Bar, a charming bar with an extensive cocktail list and plenty of records to listen to (unfortunately not to buy). We also hit Rave Up Records and In And Out Records, but found that things weren't ordered in the same way as usual so it was a bit difficult to find what we wanted (I left with Prince, she got Velvet Underground). 

We got the chance to look around some more on the third day as our flight wasn't until the evening, so we went back to St Stephens Church and the Christmas Market; the church was just as stunning in the daylight. I caught a glimpse of someone eating soup out of a loaf of bread, remembering something similar that I ate in Iceland. We both chose the garlic soup, which was absolutely delicious. Who knows how the soup doesn't seep through the bread. It was freezing so when it was time to leave we took a taxi to the CAT station for the airport train and luckily had a stress-free experience at the airport. Typically Ryanair was delayed, but even the stress of strikes and airport chaos didn't take the sheen of this delightful winter trip. 

Click here to check out Visiting Vienna for more Vienna tips. 

Click here for a link to more information on the Christmas Markets in Vienna. 

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