Vienna was the first trip I did completely on my own. Why Vienna? Because being in a constant state of wanderlust means daily searches on kayak.com for cheap flights anywhere in the world. For $790, I found a round-trip, direct flight from Chicago to Vienna. Sold. Booked it on a complete whim (as is my nature). It should be noted that I bought the ticket in July of 2014 for a departure in December of 2014. The myth is that Tuesdays, six weeks in advance of your departure is the best day to find the cheapest deals. This may be true when you have a destination in mind. However, in my own experience, keeping your price range set and your destination flexible will open up a lot more cost-efficient opportunities! Just 5 short months after my ticket was confirmed, I was boarding my Austrian Airlines flight.
What I Packed
When I told people I was going to Vienna in the dead of winter, they laughed. However, coming from Chicago, the weather was actually a slight relief from the lake effect snow and below 0 temperatures, (when 30°F weather and 2-3″ of snow is a relief, you know you have a problem). I was determined to bring just a carry on for the 7-day trip. This meant digging out my bag from my college backpacking days- the perfect fit. The key for Vienna in the winter is wool socks, comfortable shoes, and lots and lots of layers. My go-tos are thick black leggings (which I wore under my jeans a couple days), long tanks, loose sweaters, and 2-3 cozy scarves. When you’re traveling alone, just a few basic pieces that you can mix and match each day seem to work best. No one is going to approach you on the street and let you know they caught you wearing the same outfit two days in a row.
How I Got Around
Getting from the airport to the city center is fairly easy. The cheapest option is the S7 commuter line (Floridsdorf – Wien Mitte/City – Airport – Wolfsthal) and costs €4. It’s about a 30 minute trip and once you get closer to the city center, there are stops that connect to the U-Bahn (subway) and light rail lines.
Tickets for public transit within Vienna can be purchased on board the light rail or buses, however the outdated machines seemed to truly function on every other train, and are actually slightly more expensive if you buy here. I had the best luck finding the Tabak-Trafik around the corner from my apartment and purchased a weekly travel pass for about €17. Note that unlike weekly travel passes in other cities, this is not a 7-day pass. This one is only valid for a calendar week. It’s your best bet if you happen to be arriving on a Monday (the first day they are valid). If you just so happen to be arriving later in the week, single tickets or 48-hour passes may be a better bet.
Whatever ticket you decide to buy, hold on to it and don’t lose it. You do not need to scan or present the ticket to board your mode of transportation. As a matter of fact, no one really checks to see if you have a ticket. Supposedly there are plain-clothes enforcers that randomly board and do checks, but for the entire week I was there, this didn’t happen once. Obviously it’s safer to have a ticket just in case (I’m sure there is a hefty fine if you are caught without), but if you want to live on the edge, it’s definitely made easier for you.
Every train/ bus/ tram I boarded was pristinely clean, arrived exactly on time (the German influence has never left), and was completely safe. However, if you fear navigating the system, the city is incredibly walkable. As a matter of fact, each day I would take the tram into the city center and get off at a different stop. From there I would walk around the entire day and mosey my way back to the tram when I was ready to head back to the apartment.
Where I Stayed
I firmly believe that AirBnb is the best travel invention of our time. For a little less than $400 for the week, I was able to find a cozy apartment in the Ottakring neighborhood of Vienna. The neighborhood is located just west of the city center and is filled with mostly families and young Viennese. The main street that runs through Ottakring, Thaliastraße, is filled with clothing shops, furniture stores, bars, cafes, toy stores, basically all the places where you would need to run errands if you weren’t a tourist.
The apartment included a small kitchenette, a shower and sink (per European fashion, the toilet was located down the hall and shared with a neighbor), a very cozy bed, and plenty of space heaters.
Getting into the city center meant a two-block walk to the light rail stop on Thaliastraße, followed by a 10 minute ride that drops you off right on the Ringstraße, the road that encircles the city center.
What I Ate
My favorite thing to do is travel. My second favorite thing to do is eat. You can’t visit Austria without getting a bratwurst. I arrived in Vienna at 8am and this was the first thing I ate. Street vendors all over the city offer these hollowed out baguettes, stuffed with mustard and your brat of choice. An easy, on-the-go meal for €2.
You also can’t visit Vienna without getting the Wienerschniztel. After all, “Wien” is the German word for Vienna. There are many places in Vienna that boast the “World’s Best,” or “World Famous” wienerschniztel. Your guidebook will list über expensive restaurants that offer the dish and are worth checking out if you’re into tourist crowds and long lines. I happened to stumble upon a restaurant one day, easily got a table for one. Because I am an idiot, I did not document this place at all. I can’t remember the name for the life of me and I have no pictures. Regardless, this place was quaint and cozy and I opted for the chicken schnitzel (wienerschniztel is pork). Served with a warm potato salad, it was delicious.
Cafe Central is a famous dessert cafe where the lines are long but worth the wait. Every kind of Viennese delight (and more) is displayed at their counter. A full menu is provided but each dessert is numbered and if your German isn’t quite up to par (like myself), you can just tell the waiter what number(s) you would like.
Cafe Sacher at the Hotel Sacher is another touristy spot but worth the visit. They have a world famous torte that’s maintained the same recipe since the late-1800s. I did not try it- opted for a cheese strudel instead, but still amazing. I had a traditional Viennese breakfast (a few rolls with butter and jams, as well as some coffee) at Cafe Sperl. This Cafe is known for being Hitler’s hangout spot when he was starving artist in Vienna. If only that art career had taken off. I imagined him, brooding in the corner, muttering “Jews” under his breath.
Speaking of, the best meal I had in Vienna was at the Jewish Museum of Vienna. The museum itself is absolutely beautiful and an incredible tribute to the millions of Jews who thrived in Vienna prior to the war. I stumbled upon this place on New Year’s Day when not many places were open. After spending a decent amount of time exploring the museum, I decided to eat in the cafe. Amazing. This is a must stop if you visit Vienna, for both the museum and the cafe alike.
What I Did
I planned nothing ahead of time. It was the holiday season while I was there- Christmas and New Year’s. While I wasn’t there for Christmas Day, the Christkindlmarkets were still open and bustling. These picturesque little markets are best enjoyed with a mug of piping hot mulled cider. Mine had a little Jack Daniels in it, as is the American way.
A lot of the vendors seem to carry the exact same “hand-crafted” goods, but they are worth checking out, and you might find something you just have to have. There are all kinds of food treats to buy as well.
As far as museums, I visited and highly recommend the following:
- Natural History Museum
- The Imperial Palace (the Hofburg Palace)
- Sisi Museum
- Jewish Museum of Vienna
- Mozarthaus (Mozart’s apartment when he lived in Vienna)
The most memorable thing I did was visit the opera. The Vienna Opera House is one of the most famous music venues in the world. As per tradition, the opera that is performed every New Year’s Eve is Strauss’ Die Fledermaus. Tickets go for hundreds of Euros, but if you’re smart, you can get a €3 ticket with a great view. When facing the theater, go to the left and you will see a small side door. Walk on in about 3 hours before the show and you can stand in line to buy standing-room tickets. There’s a lot of standing. Your feet will get tired. Once you are finally allowed in, they jam you into the standing area and you have about 30 mins to grab a glass of champagne before the show. I stayed for the first 30 minutes of the show before leaving. I definitely have an appreciation for opera, but would much rather enjoy it while comfortably seated. The cheap-o way definitely still gives you the glamorous experience and you can successfully say that you’ve been to the opera in Vienna.
I felt 100% safe at all times in Vienna as a solo, female traveler. I walked home alone on New Year’s Eve in the wee hours of the morning and was completely fine. As in any big city, there are pan handlers and pickpockets, but staying alert and aware will protect you from any mishaps. People are very friendly and willing to help. Almost everyone speaks English, but the nice thing to do is not assume. Knowing a few phrases in German is extremely helpful and if you at least make an attempt to speak German, you will be welcomed with English in return.
Tips and Tricks
WiFi is everywhere and usually free. Something I like to do is take screenshots of directions of where I am going so I have a point of reference when I am walking around.
As you can guess, Austria uses the Euro. I hate exchanging money at the airports and other kiosks- I feel like I always get ripped off. What I like to do is use my ATM card. Give your bank a call to make sure it will work. Then, as soon as you land, withdraw some money at an ATM. With my bank, PNC, there is just a $5 fee and they give you the best exchange rate.
Austrian chocolate is a great souvenir to bring back for family and friends. However, go to any chocolatier or specialty shop and you will be paying a lot for a little. Instead, go to a grocery store, like SPAR, and you can find Austrian chocolate for much cheaper. Same goes for wine. I brought back two bottles of authentic Austrian wine and spent about €12 total.
If you decide to go without a plan (like myself), I suggest that on the first day, you do one of those Hop On/ Hop Off bus tours. There are many that run around the city- you can’t miss them. Buy the ticket on the bus, then take a seat and never hop off. No seriously. Do the whole route (usually 1-2 hours) and take in all the sights. Have a notebook and pen ready and write down all the things you will want to go back and see up close.
Bring a pocket German-English phrase book (I brought the Lonely Planet Eastern Europe phrase book because I also went to Hungary, but I’ll save that for another post!) I also recommend Rick Steve’s Vienna travel guide. Rick knows his stuff.
Vienna is a beautiful place and a great mix of both Eastern and Western Europe. 7 days was of course not enough, but I will return one day!