Getting a small museum dose

Vienna, Austria

We hit the gym, packed up, checked out and stored our bags with the concierge before grabbing breakfast again at Aida and hitting the streets for our last day in Vienna. It was a quick walk to MuseumQuartier, a complex of museums on the site of the former imperial stables that was completed in 2001. We bought MQ Duo tickets, which granted us entrance to the Leopold and MUMOK.

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The Leopold houses the impressive former private collection of Rudolf Leopold. It’s a white-limestone building and natural light floods into the rooms — which was great, since the sun made a rare appearance today. My favorite paintings were portraits by Christian Schad, while Charlotte was into the Klimts.

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Across the courtyard, standing in marked contrast to the Leopold, is MUMOK, the Museum of Modern Art, housed in a black-basalt box with no windows. There was a solid collection of Joan Miro and Josef Albers, both of which were really cool, as well as an audio and visual 3-D installation by Peter Kogler. In the basement was perhaps the strangest part of MUMOK, with a bizarre exhibit called Mind Expanders. This was performance art — or art that makes you ask: is this really art?

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We needed a break and some fresh air so walked over to Bitzinger Wurstelstand, an outdoor food stand, for an order of Kaskrainer, cheese-filled sausage wish mustard, and a Coke Light. Nearby, Oberlaa re-caffeinated us up with cappuccinos and a raspberry and truffle torte.

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A visit to Vienna wouldn’t be complete without some time at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of the finest art museums in the world. It includes much of the Hapsburg art collection and pieces by Rembrandt, Rubens, Bruegel, Raphael and all those other big shots. My favorite pieces though were the “vegetable” portraits by Guiseppe Arcimboldo.

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We returned to the hotel, grabbed our bags and got a taxi to the Westbanhof Station for our OBB train to Budapest that left at 17:50. It was pretty empty, so we got our own cabin and read up on our next destination as we passed through the countryside. The smell of wood-burning fireplaces permeated through our windows as the lights of Budapest drew closer.

A little before 21:00, we disembarked at the Keleti Pu Station and hailed a cab to our final hotel, the Sofitel, on the Pest side of the Danube River. It’s a big black box from the outside, but in the lobby, a retired plane hangs from the courtyard ceiling and a somewhat European trendy vibe resonates.

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We booked a Queen Suite, a huge room with a pillow-topped bed, two flatscreen televisions and delicious Hermes products in the bathroom. Another bottle of champagne was a nice touch.

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Good job, Hungary.

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U-Bahn’ing like it’s my job

Vienna, Austria

After yesterday’s ridiculously packed day, we cut ourselves some slack and slept in this morning before hitting up the gym and walking to Naschmarkt, the largest market in Vienna. Saturday mornings are the busiest time, when vendors sell fresh fruits and vegetables, meats and fish, as well as olives, cheeses and breads.

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We worked up an appetite walking around before ducking into Naschmarkt Deli, whose glass walls provide a fishbowl’s perch out onto the action. The Turkish breakfast — which included olives, feta and other market vegetables — and a bagel sandwich, whose contents we’re not entirely sure of, were both awesome.

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On Saturdays, at the end of the market, right by Kettenbruckengasse, is a huge flea market. There’s really something for everyone — from war trinkets to old fur coats strewn on the ground — including this guy, selling (quite literally) a kitchen sink.

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We bought 24-hour passes and hopped on the U-Bahn green line to Schonbrunn. Our Sisi ticket, which we bought yesterday at the KaiserAppartements, included entrance to Schloss Schonbrunn, a palace said to be second only to Versailles in its opulence and wealth. Built in 1700, it has some 2,000 rooms and was used by royalty — as well as Napoleon from 1805 to 1809 — until 1918. About 40 of its rooms are now open to the public, which we toured with our ears attached to audio guides as we battled the tour group masses.

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Afterward, we strolled around the gardens, which would have been much more enjoyable had it not been 30 degrees outside. Still, we got a chance to check out the Neptunbrunnen, the Neptune Fountain opposite the palace.

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We walked back to the U, and with a transfer at Schwedenplatz, took the red line to Wien Praterstern. The Prater is one of Vienna’s many parks, dominated by the Risenrad, an old ferris wheel built in 1897. A 20-minute ride aboard the historic cabins offered some great views of the surrounding countryside, including the Vienna Woods.

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Back on the U, we transferred at Volkstheater and took the orange line to Zieglergasse Station for the last attraction on our Sisi ticket, the Hofmobiliendepot, essentially a converted storage warehouse for royal furniture and everyday objects. There are over 6,000 items on display, rows of chairs, coat racks, foot-stools, mirrors and candelabras. With no tourists to compete with, we had an absolute blast here.

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On the U for one last trip, we returned to Stephansplatz and bee-lined to Trzesniewski, said to be the country’s best sandwich shop. If it was good enough for Kafka, it would be good enough for us. The egg and paprika, salmon and bacon and herring and horseradish two-bite sandwiches, washed down with a glass of carrot-apple juice on-tap, hit the spot.

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Meinl is Austria’s answer to specialty food stores like Chapel Hill’s Southern Season (or perhaps it’s the other way around). While it was a bit smaller and didn’t have the same variety, it did have some pretty unique foodstuffs for sale and we didn’t have any trouble filling up a basket.

Back at Le Meridien, it was time to hit the gym again before a late dinner at Cantineta Antinori, a Tuscan winery that has opened a few select Italian restaurants around the world. We started with an antipasto sampler and arugula salad and then split wild boar and mushroom gnocchi. With a couple of glasses of red wine, it hit the spot.

On our walk back, we stopped at Palmenhaus, a bar set in an old restored Victorian palm house. Its high arched ceilings and roaring digital fireplace above the bar offered a perfect backdrop for a Johnny Walker nightcap.

Nothing like Austrian royalty

Vienna, Austria

We started the morning with a latte and plum pastry at Aida before crossing the street for our 10 a.m. tour of Staatsoper, the venue for music here in Vienna. It was built between 1861-1869 but was largely destroyed during the war. Our guide showed us the lavish lobby and intermission rooms before taking us on stage, where crews were frantically scrambling to prepare for the evening’s performance of La Boheme. It was an interesting, behind-the-scenes look at one of the world’s most famous opera houses — plus, at 3.5 euros, cost us a whole lot less than tickets to a show would.

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Our next stop wasn’t far, just a 5-minute walk to the Albertina, said to house the greatest collection of graphic art in the world. The museum was featuring exhibits on Picasso and Monet, which we enjoyed, along with some really cool contemporary, mixed media pieces.

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The main attraction in Vienna is the Hofburg, the former imperial palace of one of Europe’s most powerful empires, so we made our way there next. We first checked out the NationalBibliothek, which was once the imperial library — and is now the largest library in Vienna. Our ticket granted us entrance into the Prunksaal (Grand Hall), an absolutely amazing space whose walls are lined with 200,000 leather-bound volumes dating back to the 15th century. Pictures don’t do this place justice.

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The Schatzkammer, which was next door, showcases all of the Hofburg booty and treasure. The precious-stone encrusted crowns and other opulence — like a 2,860-carat Colombian emerald — were pretty amazing.

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We saved the best for last with the KaiserAppartements, the former living quarters of Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth. These “apartments” offered insight into how royalty once lived — and how they often faced the same issues as us laypeople. Elisabeth was neurotic about her appearance and weight. She rarely appeared at dinner and had exercise rings installed in her door frame so that she could get in workouts before bedtime. No photos were allowed inside, but here’s me in the courtyard.

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It was a lot to take in and we were getting famished. For lunch, we picked out Figlmueller, a Vienna institution known for having the city’s best (and largest) schnitzel. We ordered a Figlmueller Schnitzel to share along with a side order of potato-field salad. Not disappointingly, the huge schnitzel, deep-fried to perfection, hung off of our plate and went well with the mustard-y salad. Good pit stop.

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We detoured to Judenplatz, the old Jewish Quarter. It’s a maze of tiny, cobblestoned streets but we found our way to the Holocaust-Denkmal, a memorial to the 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed in the Holocaust. The names of concentration camps line the base and the spines of thousands of stone-carved books face inward — representing the untold stories of those lost. The square was appropriately quiet and solemn as we took it all in.

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Having saved some room from lunch, we stopped at Café Sacher on our way back to the hotel for a cappuccino and the famous Sacher Torte, a rich chocolate cake that was once favored by Emperor Franz Josef.

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Properly in a sugar coma, we arrived back at the Meridien and promptly hit up the gym — which strangely, like the rest of the hotel, had mood lighting. Try reading the display of your treadmill bathed in purple ambient lighting. Form over function, anyone?

Being in Vienna, we had to hear some classical music so got spiffed up for a Strauss & Mozart concert called Sound of Vienna at the Kursalon. The tour buses out front were an ominous sign, but we entered anyway and bought the cheapest tickets in the house. Inside, we were shown to the back before promptly moving up about 20 rows when the ushers weren’t looking. The orchestra was actually quite good, which more than made up for the absolute tourist cheesiness of some of the guests in attendance.

We bolted downstairs after the encore to beat the masses to the coat check and then made our way back to Stephansplatz. Across the street from the grand church is the DO & CO, whose Onyx Bar, with fantastic views, is one of Vienna’s hippest spots. We grabbed a table and ordered a couple rounds of cocktails (including, a Frozen Blackberry, Monkey Business and some dirty martinis) as well as Asian inspired appetizer sampler to nosh on. A hundred something bucks later, with the clock striking one, we made our way back home.

Christmas in Vienna

Vienna, Austria

We returned to our favorite breakfast spot, Bohemia Bagel, early this morning before checking out of the Mandarin. We were sad to go — this really is an almost magical hotel. As a thank you, the concierge gave us two gift certificates for complimentary 90-minute Ultimate Body Massages, valid on our next two-night visit. Since we don’t plan on returning for some time, we’re happy to pass them along — simply mention promotion code “FANS” upon making a reservation. You can thank us for the 290 euro present later.

We took a cab through the deserted streets to the Prague Main Train Station, an Art Noueveau building built between 1901 and 1909, that is largely under renovation right now. Our 10:57 a.m. SuperCity Train to Wien departed promptly on time. There were three other passengers in our car — making us glad that we had paid extra for reserved seats.

The train made a couple of stops in the Czech countryside before an uneventful crossing into Austria. A new crew came on board and rechecked our tickets. Somewhere close to the end of our 4-hour journey, perhaps while flipping through Lonely Planet, we realized that there’s a lot to do in Vienna. The next three days would need to be well planned if there was any hope of seeing the bare minimum.

We pulled into the Sudbahnhof Station, unloaded and grabbed a cab to our next hotel, Le Meridien. It wasn’t long after passing through the bird-chirping revolving door and entering the vibrantly lit, strangely decorated lobby that we understood why this hotel has been called the city’s most contemporary accommodation.

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We were given #812, an executive room on the highest floor, with mood lighting, a glass headboard, hot pink bathtub and huge flatscreen. A bottle of champagne welcomed us. Needless to say, the place would do.

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To hit the ground running, we dutifully followed our guidebook’s “Essential Vienna” walking tour, which we hoped would provide a good introduction to the city. Our hotel was in a great location, just across the street from the Staatsoper (Opera House) and Hofburg Palace. We made our way to Stephansdom, the iconic church, with its tiled roof and skeletal southern tower. Christmas Mass was just getting underway, and the Pummerin, Austria’s largest bell at 21 tons, was offering a resounding call.

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Backtracking to Graben Street, one of the city’s grand pedestrian drags, we hit up Demel. This café is best known for its Ana Demel Torte, a chocolate and nougat cake that necessitates an almost immediate trip to the gym.

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We treated it as an amuse bouche and went in search of Ra’mien, an Asian-fusion restaurant that Lonely Planet called a “sheer delight.” Unfortunately, this sheer delight was mismarked on our guidebook’s map, so we spent the next 90 minutes hunting around the city in search of it. Helpful locals pointed the way but we somehow kept walking around in circles. The best part: when we finally got there, it was closed.

LP, prepare for my complaint letter – if my fingers ever thaw.

We walked back to the Meridien and noticed a restaurant a few doors down. It looked nice so we stepped into MartinJak, whose décor was straight out of an Alpine ski lodge. The friendly host showed us to our seats; we ordered up some Maker Marks for warmth and a wild mushroom risotto and spicy beef goulash. Homemade bread and some chive butter went well with both. We were happy.

Afterward, we walked back to the hotel, popped our champagne and waited patiently for Santa.