When I first got to Vienna, I wasn´t sure I was going to like it that much. It is very different from the other places I have been recently. It feels so big and modern -- in fact it feels like Chicago...except everyone is speaking German. It seems like you can get everything here that you can get in the U.S. I am sure the same is probably true of Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, Rome, etc. But all of these other cities have a very distinct feeling to them that constantly reminds you that this is Europe, not the U.S. I didn´t get that in Vienna. At first I thought it might be the area that my hostel is located in. But even in the historic old center of town, within the Ringstrasse, it still feels the same. There is a Starbucks next to the Opera House and a McDonalds next to St. Stephen´s Cathedral. I probably wouldn´t have noticed this as much, but all of the places I have been recently have been the opposite. The Cinque Terre, Tuscany, Lake Como, Venice, Ljubljana -- not exactly major modern cities. So the size and bustling of Vienna surprised me a little. I had such a great experience in Ljubljana and was so charmed by that city, that Vienna took a little getting used to.
As I have spent more time here, the city has really started to grow on me. There is so much history here, and so much to see and do. The majority of the sights are related to one of two things: The Hapsburgs or the music scene. The Hapsburgs were once the monarchy of the Holy Roman Empire, and their empire spread from the Netherlands to Spain to Hungary, Bulgaria and central Italy. Their home base was Vienna. I really didn´t know a lot about these royals, other than the assassination of Franz Ferdinand started WWI and that they once wielded great influence in Europe. I have learned a lot, and it has really been interesting. It seems that for European royals they were actually pretty good rulers. Any citizen could have an audience with the emperor, and the last major emperor (Franz Josef) took his job as a leader of his people very seriously. He worked constantly and was never far from his desk. This is probably why they ruled as long (and as far away) as they did.
The Hapsburgs were great patrons of the arts and music, and you can see the effect all over Vienna. I went to the Kunsthistoriches museum, a huge building that houses art the Hapsburgs collected over the years. It is easily one of the top 3 museums I have been to so far. The huge collection of painters from all over Europe was amazing. My favorite pieces were by Pieter Brughel the Elder. I liked his paintings when I studied them in art history, but in person they were really remarkable. They are very colorful depictions of everyday life in small villages. Other than the paintings, the museum also has a large Greek, Roman and Egyptian collection. I loved the collection of Roman coins -- a representative coin for each of the Roman emperors. So much like we still do with our money today!
I also went to the Treasury Museum of the Hofburg Palace. This is an incredible collection of some of the most important (and expensive) jewels in Europe. I loved the crowns -- the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor and of Rudolf II. The amount and size of the jewels in some of these pieces is just amazing. There is even an emerald piece that is over 2,000 karats! The elaborate coronation robes were pretty remarkable too. Some of the most bejeweled pieces were reliquaries for Christian relics. Displayed were pieces of the "true cross" as well as one of the nails believed to have been used to crucify Christ. Crazy stuff!
I spent the morning at Schonbrunn, the Hapsburg´s country estate. It is incredibly beautiful. According to my guidebook, it is one of the only palaces in Europe that rivals Versailles. I actually liked it more than Versailles. Versailles is much more opulent, with unbelievable, out-of-this-world decorations. Schonbrunn seems more like a working palace. Plus I thought the tour was much more organized and informative. The gardens were beautiful and have been a public park for over 150 years. One thing I found really interesting is that part of the palace has been divided into apartments and is lived in by civil servants. I can´t even imagine living in a place like this -- although I would guess that you would get pretty sick of tourists.
Last night I went to the ballet at the Staatsopera. The State Opera house is considered one of the most important music venues in the world. Considering that Vienna was once home to Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss and a whole bunch of other famous musicians, you can see why. I was planning on going to an opera, but the Vienna Ballet was performing Romeo and Juliet, so I went to that. The great thing about the Opera house is that even when all the tickets are sold out (as it was for the ballet), anyone can get standing room only tickets for 3 euros. It is such a great idea. It allows students, tourists, and anyone else who can´t afford a full price ticket to still access all of the great shows. All that culture for less than the price of a movie! And my seat (standing place?) was great! I had an amazing view and it really wasn´t that uncomfortable to stand for the show. Plus the show was absolutely amazing! I have never seen anything like it before. The costumes, the set, the music, the dancing -- it was beyond beautiful. It was like a painting coming to life. I have never been a huge fan of ballet, but now I see why people are (and why I will be in the future). I loved it! I did manage to go to an opera tonight -- Manon. It was great to watch an opera in such a famous opera house, but it really couldn´t compare to the ballet.
One of the things that really surprised me about Vienna was how much I love the food. This has probably been one of my favorite food cities! After all of the great Italian food, I was kind of dreading heading north to "meat and potato" country. Especially since I don´t eat a lot of meat, I was thinking that I wouldn´t like the food here much. I have been very pleasantly surprised! Everything has been so yummy. I had the best lamb kebab sandwich of my life here, the bratwurst is to die for, and the breads are fantastic! Even weinerschnitzel is really tasty (although I did cheat a little and have the chicken version, not the classic veal). I had lunch in the famous Naschtmarkt -- a great open air market with all different kinds of foods from all over the world. I wandered around for over an hour just sampling things from different stalls. Cheese stuffed olives, dried papaya, falafel, and the best turkish delight ever made a great lunch. I also went to the Cafe Sacher, home of the original chocolate sacher cake. And I can report it is very good! Plus I have been enjoying Vienna´s great coffee and coffeehouse scene.