We got into Vienna late, or at least it felt very late.
The sun had sunk down below the horizon during our train ride over from Prague; snow blanketing the countryside on one side, and bright, green fields on the other. It has been a strange winter for Central Europe this year. One day it is bright, the next it is cloudy. Indecision hangs in the air, prompting people to carry their parkas in their hands, backpacks, purses, wherever they go, just in case we get a flash of winter white.
We were picked up by a sweet Nigerian man at the train station that Monday afternoon, and taken to our flat past indistinguishable, lit buildings down a busy Strasse full of taxis and cars and people. It was a few days after the New Year and old Christmas trees littered the front steps of church after church, skeletons of the holidays. Small footprints, needle prints, rain prints, were etched in the sidewalk slush surrounding them.
Our place was a two minute walk from the Ferris Wheel, a minute from the McDonald's inside the largest bus station in the city where we got our morning coffee, and two hundred feet from the coffee shop on the corner that our flat host said would change our life.
They handed us our keys, a map, and told us to feel free to wear the slippers right by the door while inside. It was as much a welcoming greeting, I think, as a plead for us not to tread muddy snow drops all over the pristine floor.
With the lock of the door and a scramble to grab beds, we moved from one room to the other, checking the window views. There was a small orange food truck framed in one, the lights of an ice cream shop reflected in another, and out there in the distance, a church steeple barely visible from a lamp light. It made us hungry to see the world from the 5th floor, on a cold, windy night.
The Italian restaurant on our block, owned and operated by Tunisians, served up the best chicken wings a girl raised in the Southern United States could imagine. We sat underneath lights hung in a sculptured tree and talked well past closing time. When it got a little too warm and we noticed the snow picking up, we wrapped up in scarves and took our leftovers home for breakfast.
Along the Danube there are graffiti murals painted in the cobble stoned walls of the riverbank; huge, painted profiles and tiny, profound sayings, all in neon bright colors. If you walk down the snow slick stairs you might lose a glove or two on the way, but it’s worth it to throw a snowball or two down by the river, framed by the words of midnight poets and artists.
There were lots of people out despite the horrible, slushie weather, gathered around shop windows on the way to Stephansplatz, holding cups of cocoa or cookies in their gloved hands. It’s funny how smiles can make you look warm.
We hobbled back to the flat after taking a great look at the spire of the great Cathedral in the dark; you can’t get to close, ever, unless you want the opera-coated tour guides to yell at you. It’s better just to stand by the side and watch the absurdity of it all unfold.
Horses clomped by, and people rustled packages, and we were on our way home, hoping that there was plenty of hot water for us all to have long, quiet baths. In the absence of a television, we wait around the floor of the living room for our turn with the tub, talking about the quietness of this city in the winter—a deep breath or a long sigh—after a calendar just finishing a long string of holidays.
Magic, I have found, doesn’t come with the snow, it comes with people, discovering themselves when the world is crystallized and sparkling like new. We never like to say that some things are black and white, but in the end, I have yet to meet a single person who doesn’t at least hold a minute of awe when seeing an old town, surrounded by countryside and deep, complicated history, become light again with a fresh blanket of snow white.
Where to stay
Airbnb. Grab an Airbnb flat as they're the best option; we personally loved Stephen and his team on Praterstrasse. The flat was conveniently located, quiet, and just a 15 minutes walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral. With sleeping for 4 and plenty of space for sleeping bags, air mattresses and more, this apartment had everything we needed. Full kitchen and bathroom, with a street view were other big perks. Go in the off-season for a great deal (we stayed for four nights for around $175 including cleaning and booking fees).
Where to eat
Teka. My crew mixed it up while we were in Vienna, trying traditional foods but also sticking to a couple of our favorites. After touring all over Vienna, we wandered into a four tabled corner Japanese restaurant that changed our lives. With tired, wary feet and voracious appetites, Teka was exactly what we needed. Curry coconut noodles, bento boxes and more, it's a tight squeeze with only 4 tables so you've got to be quick or lucky to grab a seat.
L.Heiner Wein. Next, definitely make a stop at L.Heiner Wein. Here the atmosphere was authentically old Austrian, the cakes were beautifully pink, and the coffee was delicious. Plan to spend a little time in here, the atmosphere is truly to die for.
What Not To Miss
Chocolates. While the Swiss and Belgians may have a bigger stake in the chocolate trade, we personally loved all the confectious treats we had while in Vienna, and if we went back, there would definitely be a lot more chocolate covered strawberry marzipan purchasing, and eating!
Stars. Also, and this is a personal favorite, there are cute little costume jewelry sets at the Schonbrunn Palace in honor of a real set that Empress Sisi loved to wear. These little star baubles are really elegant (despite their costume-y nature) and would make a great birthday present for someone special. I also personally loved the lace-edged and monogrammed handkerchiefs for sale all over the city--these were a definite purchase!
How to get around
Walk. There are trams and a subway system in Vienna that are great if you’re going pretty far out of the way (or have trouble walking long distances) but the best way to check out this great city is to do it a la pied. A taxi is great for getting from the train station (or airport) to your destination, but past that, I say tie up those laces and get to marching.