Emperor Franz Josef died exactly 100 years ago this year, formally bringing the Habsburg Empire to an end. In reality, the empire had been crippled for years, well before the beginning of World War I, but Josef’s death was the final blow, making him the last Habsburg emperor. This came after nearly 400 years of Austro-Hungarian political and militaristic prowess, and the untouchable Habsburg monarchy had been one of the key political actors in Europe for centuries. Napoleon and World War I were major factors in the drawn-out decline of the once-powerful monarchy. It’s been a century since then, but the Viennese aren’t about to let it go that quickly.
Austria isn’t a particularly big or small country: 8.7 million people, 32,000 square miles. But when was the last time you heard about Austria being a major mover and shaker in Europe? If you even saw the recent news about their frightening election a few weeks ago, that’s probably the first you’ve heard from them in a while (short version: an Austrian Donald Trump Lite barely lost the election). But Vienna still moves like a major political center. I don’t know that I’ve ever been anywhere as formal as Vienna besides maybe Geneva. Their absolute obsession with politeness and manners is about 75 percent legit, 25 percent hot air and delusion. I know Americans have pioneered the art of always being underdressed and excessively casual, but most men in Vienna still wear hats that we would consider a prop on Mad Men and not an actual wardrobe item. You don’t find that level of formality much anymore anywhere else on the Continent.
Outside Vienna, Austria is different place, all laidback mountain villages and wildflower-filled pastures. Everything is very casual, but not in a slovenly way. The Germanic sense of efficiency has definitely bled into Austria, but they love their beer and the outdoors and for all their punctiliousness, the Austrians are not an uptight or frenetic people.
Plitvicka Jezera—Vienna, 306 miles
Practically everything in Vienna is a monument to the former glory of the Habsburgs, and that’s in large part due to the buildings. The architecture in Vienna is stunning. It’s one of the most beautiful cityscapes I’ve ever seen and certainly gives Paris a run for its money. Vienna is a very 17th-18th century kind of city with soaring, stately Romanesque and Baroque facades.
While it’s not a grid system, it makes a hell of a lot more sense than most European city layouts. The city is more or less built on a concept of rings, with diagonal boulevards cutting across the inside of the rings. The highlight is the Ringstrasse. If you had an hour in Vienna, you could just walk this stretch and get a good overview of the city. Starting at the western edge, you pass the University of Vienna, the sumptuous Burgtheater, the Rathaus (city hall), the Austrian Parliament Building, the sprawling museum complex housed in palatial 19th century buildings, finally ending at the famous opera house, the Wiener Staatsoper. Mixed among the buildings are English-style gardens and huge manicured green spaces.
Rome has churches. Vienna has palaces. The House of Habsburg was predictably huge, as you would expect of one of the most powerful ruling families in Europe, so they needed some space to spread out. In the middle of Vienna just off the Ringstrasse is Hofburg Palace.
Hofburg is staggeringly huge; it almost makes the Louvre look small. On the outside, closest to the Ringstrasse, is the Neue Burg, one of the palace’s newest wings that today houses several museums and the Vienna Library. It’s enormous and imposing, dwarfing the huge square, the Heldenplatz, that spreads out before it.
As you move toward the center of the city, there are various arms and wings of the palace added on over several hundred years, where there’s now still a lot of government offices, the royal jewel collection, several more museums, and restaurants. It’s not a particularly cohesive building—it feels more like a complex of several buildings with connecting courtyards and central squares. You can see the general haphazardness of the design.
Next up is Belvedere. This is actually two separate buildings that face each other over a long rectangular garden. Built in the 17th and 18th centuries, Belvedere was constructed as the summer palace residence for an important military general who helped the Habsburgs win some wars against the Ottoman Empire. You can tell how well things were going that this was the palace built for the military leader.
Today, both Upper and Lower Belvedere are museums, and do they ever do a terrible job of advertising their collection. Completely inadvertently, I stumbled into a room in Upper Belvedere that on one end had Klimt’s The Kiss, arguably the most famous work of art produced by an Austrian painter. I just want to take a moment to let you know that if you Google “famous Austrian painter,” one of Google’s suggestions in the top scroll thing is Hitler. So that’s unfortunate.
Anyway, the point here is this is really bad marketing if I’m just happening upon what is probably the most valuable work of art in the country. But that’s not even the worst part. Considering the chaos around the Mona Lisa or in the Sistine Chapel, the crowd in front of The Kiss was very civilized. But in the next room was something so obscene I’m not quite sure how to react to it.
The rest of the museum is a mixed bag. They have a great collection of Impressionist and Expressionist paintings, a handful of works from Picasso, Manet, Monet, Degas, Renoir, Cézanne, Van Gogh, Millet—the usual suspects—along with some unattractive early Christian stuff and the predictable nonsense from various contemporary artists. In the main entrance are a bunch of purple chains hanging from the ceiling, a “piece” from Rudi Stanzel. As far as modern art goes, this is better than most, but Monet it is not.
The big one, though, is Schönbrunn Palace. Versailles-level big. This place is not messing around. According to Wikipedia, it has 1,441 rooms, which, at some point, how do you even count up the rooms in these places when they all kind of blend together anyway? Hallways were not a big thing in the 18th century.
Per the usual rules, I couldn’t take pictures inside, but it’s exactly what you’d expect. Totally tricked out royal apartments, luxe furnishings, huge banquet halls practically sagging under the weight of the chandeliers. Schönbrunn was the Habsburg summer residence for a few hundred years, getting a major facelift in the 18th century under Maria Theresa. The last Habsburg Emperor, everyone’s favorite Franz Josef, primarily lived here until his death in 1916, so his office space, bathroom, and bedroom are relatively modern in a way that seems anachronistic with the very regal palace. Creepily, they have the bed he died in on display, but this is the only place in Europe I’ve been that knows how to do an audioguide in that they don’t talk about every tapestry and highlight every pillow and windowsill in the entire building. All we want are the salacious bits about what furnishings are stolen from where and what random people were shacked up in which rooms, and the good people at Schönbrunn get it.
The gardens are predictably insane. Though not yet in full bloom—the entire Continent is still waiting for spring-like weather, it seems—the scale of the grounds is staggering: fountains everywhere, topiaries in abundance, statues all over the place. At the top of a hill opposite the palace is the Gloriette, more or less a Habsburg Arc de Triomphe celebrating the “just wars” the Habsburgs got involved in. It had to be rebuilt after World War II.
So, that all makes Vienna sound very formal, but it definitely has another side too. One of the things I like about Vienna is that it can’t keep up the stodgy, we-are-the-sons-of-the-Empire business for too long. Another big part of Austrian culture is the Alpine culture, all yodeling and cows with bells and blooming Edelweiss. You’ll be standing in front of some stately building or other, and then you’ll come around the corner and run into this:
It’s also, of course, a young, modern, cool city. Just outside the very central part of the city is the Naschmarkt, originally a milk market that began 500 years ago. Most of the offerings here are mostly of Middle Eastern and Italian descent, but it’s hip in a Chelsea Market goes to Zabar’s kind of way. There’s great shopping, good sushi, hip cocktail bars, and of course, the coffee houses.
Vienna’s coffee house culture is more from their petticoats and top hats side of things. It’s hard to say definitively on things like this, but allegedly Vienna was the birthplace of the coffeehouse in the 17th century. Several of the coffee houses are very formal affairs, with huge arched ceilings and waiters in black ties. There’s then of course the modern interpretation: minimalist decor, brightly lit, almost sterile in appearance with pops of color here and there. Then there’s the grunge side with its dirty intellectuals and urban hippies. The problem is that so much of this has become a bit of a performance so it can feel a bit like you’re acting when you go to these places, playing the part of the starving artist or a member of the bourgeoisie, but there’s still something charming in the charade.
Vienna delivers. It has everything a big, historic city should have and nothing it shouldn’t. It can certainly take itself too seriously at times, but what city doesn’t? It’s beautiful and historic, but also modern and practical.
There is something a little deflated about Vienna, sort of like Venice. You have this city that was once the seat of greatness and now it’s had to take a backseat. It sort of feels like they’re waiting for the emperor to come riding back into town at any moment.
Unlike Venice though, which can feel a bit like a lovable dinosaur plopped the northern corner of Italy, Vienna is still a very dynamic modern city. I was walking around Hofburg Palace one night and by the Neue Berg, there was some kind of stoner, ska music fest going on with a group of bored looking cops keeping an eye on the tame crowd of the tattooed and the dreadlocked and the pierced. I walked 200 yards through the various palace courtyards, toward the center of the city and the palace’s other entrance, and there was a guy in a tux playing “Time to Say Goodbye” on a cello while a bunch of Sherlock Holmes-ian covered horse drawn carriages waited for takers nearby. What a modern city should be: two things that shouldn’t exist on the same planet existing within 500 feet of one another.
Vienna—Salzburg, 111 miles
They love two things in Salzburg: their Mozart and their chocolate.
Perhaps best known as Mozart’s birthplace and longtime residence, Salzburg is Austria’s second city, and it definitely feels like Vienna’s junior. It’s both smaller than I was expecting, and deceptively big. Let me explain.
Salzburg definitely markets itself as a city, as in you come to see cultural sights, enjoy food, museums, etc. It’s actually a good base for exploring this section of the Alps, but it doesn’t play itself up that way. So I was a little surprised when I arrived in an overgrown mountain village. All the shops in the town center are in the old stone buildings with the original wrought iron signs, which have now been turned into logos for things like Samsonite and United Colors of Benetton. Like so:
But just when you think, “Oh this place is tiny, I’ll cover the whole thing on foot in an hour,” it just keeps going, rambling on in its quaintness.
So I don’t know what the problem is, but when it comes to Mozart and museums, Austria just cannot get it right, which is baffling because they love Mozart. He’s everywhere. They do concerts with his music every night in Vienna and they send out armies of guys in red velvet coats and wigs to sell tickets all over the city.
I’ll actually circle back to the museum in Vienna first, the Mozarthaus. Mozart lived in Vienna for a few years and the museum is in his former house, which is cool. Things kind of go wrong from the get-go. The museum starts on the top floor and works down, so I go to the top floor, press 1 on the audioguide and it begins with, “When Mozart was 25…” That was a nonsensical start to things, and it only got more confusing and jumbled from there.
There’s a bunch of rooms with tons of letters Mozart wrote and an audioguide that does not in any way correspond to anything. Then you come to a room where they have several TVs all showing different productions of The Marriage of Figaro in different theaters all over the world, which is actually quite cool and a great idea so you can see all the different stagings simultaneously.
Next is this room that has a diorama of Vienna and 3D holograms of various people in 18th-century garb running around, which is somehow related to Mozart and bourgeois life or something. There are also four little peepholes with what look like microscope eyepieces on the far wall, which obviously everyone is going to go for immediately out of curiosity. When you look in, surprise! There are these Kamasutra drawings of cartoonish, 18th-century people wearing powdered wigs and big skirts and formal military jackets engaging in various lewd acts. There is no explanation for what this has to do with anything, and meanwhile the audioguide is going on about Mozart’s gambling debts.
I loved hanging out in this room because literally everyone did the exact same thing, myself included. You come in and see these weird peepholes and immediately go over and take a look. Then, you quickly walk away and try to act nonchalant, but then you think, “Wait, what the hell was that?” and you wander back over and inevitably linger at this “exhibit,” and then everyone just kind of looks around blushingly at each other and we all saunter into the next room like that was a totally normal and expected part of the museum experience.
They must have gotten a deal on their hologram technology because in the last room, they have this kind of psychedelic production of The Magic Flute going on that has holographic people running around in an actual diorama that’s been constructed with this weird, LSD-influenced design aesthetic.
As this museum is also in Mozart’s house, they try to talk about the house itself, but even that is such a mess. Strangely, there are very poor records of the house so they don’t know much beyond a catalogue of furniture they found at one point. I appreciate their honesty with the lack of information, but it means that every time you step into a room, the introductory plaque basically begins “Well we don’t know what went on in here either, but we think this was used for…”
After that strangeness, I thought surely Salzburg would get it right for their hometown hero. And they screwed it up too!
I began to realize that I think the problem with a Mozart museum is that he doesn’t have a lot of personal effects that are really worth looking at, so it’s hard to fill the museum with stuff. Salzburg has some of his instruments and some chairs and whatnot, but unfortunately sheet music and letters don’t look that great in museum cases after the first 20. They try to incorporate the actual music in various ways, but listening to Mozart in one of those ridiculous, 90’s-era audioguide systems is just rude.
Like in Vienna, it’s kind of hilarious to see how badly they muck this up, and I feel like visiting these places depleted my knowledge of Mozart because I was so confused the whole time. One thing I did learn is that apparently Mozart used to give piano lessons to make a little extra cash. If he was one of these geniuses who wasn’t appreciated in his time, that would be one thing and we could laugh at them with the distance of a few hundred years. But Mozart was the Austrian celebrity in his life. He performed for the royal family when he was six, so it is inconceivable to me that he had to spend afternoons telling aristocratic children to practice their scales and “Chopsticks.”
It unfortunately seems like everything in 2016 that involves Mozart borders on ridiculous. Enter the Mozartkugel. This has nothing to do with Mozart except that it was named after him when it was invented 100 years after its death. Mozartkugel is the pride of Salzburg, a small chocolate candy made with nougat, marzipan, dark chocolate, and pistachio paste. Keep in mind this is something the size of a truffle with an ingredient list that takes longer to read than it does to eat it. It just tastes like chocolate. All the screwing around with the pistachio and marzipan is so unnecessary.
Anyway, aside from Salzburg’s poor attempt at a Mozart museum, there’s also a castle on a hill, as you would expect, and some other museums, but none so entertaining as the Mozart debacle.
Salzburg is an interesting little city, and had the weather been nicer, it would have been a great place to linger for a while. A good side trip from Munich, which is just 50 miles across the border.
Salzburg—Alpbach, 95 miles
The Alps are, to me, a very intimidating mountain range. They seem particularly huge and daunting, with their massive expanses of sheer rock face and perennially snow covered peaks. Maybe it’s a matter of familiarity, but the Colorado Rockies always looked so friendly to me, fitting of the “purple mountain majesties” descriptor. The Alps, by contrast, look so aggressive. I also had to read Frankenstein three times in my academic career, so I forever associate Mont Blanc with the site of man’s ultimate confrontation with his arch nemesis, the fruits of his own hubristic creation. Dun dun dun.
But there’s a reason Frankenstein happens in the French Alps, and the von Trapps lived in Austria. Because these are your friendly neighborhood Alps.
This is not a scientifically supported claim. The tallest mountain in Austria (12,461 feet) is not significantly shorter than the tallest mountain in the entire Alps—Mont Blanc at 15,771 feet, hardly Himalayas territory—but this region of the Alps looks infinitely less menacing than the French or Swiss regions, or razor-like the Dolomites further south.
Alpbach is one of a whole mess of towns in the Tyrol region, and that’s only a subset of the Austrian Alps. You do begin to appreciate the limited living space Austria and Switzerland are working with when you consider just how much of those two countries are huge mountain ranges. Alpbach strikes a good balance between touristic and realistic. There’s a shockingly good grocery store—the best Spar I saw anywhere in Europe in this hip, all-glass building with a grass roof—and restaurants that don’t feature menus in 17 languages. But it’s obviously an area that sustains itself on tourism. There’s some pretty sorry looking ski slopes in the immediate vicinity, but the whole area is covered in ski lifts and hiking trails.
If you want red geraniums in window flower boxes and wood-sided houses with endless fields of wildflowers, Alpbach is your man. Though that sounds flip, that’s obviously a good deal. It’s a beautiful little town and it does not give off even a whiff of artificiality. Never did I fear that a troupe of people in dirndls and lederhosen would materialize and do some kind of hokey dance. The hiking in this general region is great, but you could probably find a better base if only because there aren’t a tremendous number of trails that lead directly out of Alpbach. But if you find yourself in the area, it’s certainly not a bad place to stop and stay for a bit.
Despite making fun of Vienna’s snootiness, I actually really enjoy it and thoroughly recommend it. Vienna is a famous, well-known city, but I don’t think it gets the airtime of other European capitals, and it should. It’s expensive, but not exorbitantly so, and while it’s not so unique and different as to be utterly transportive, it has a lot of the benefits of other European cities—so many cultural diversions, museums, shopping, gastronomy—but without a lot of the BS; it’s not very touristy. It’s very clean and easy to navigate. People are very friendly and everyone speaks 3+ languages perfectly.
As for the rest of Austria, I have nothing bad to say. I prefer Switzerland for its outdoorsy stuff, but there’s no real objective backing I can provide for this. One of the best things about Austria is that it’s really easy to drive into and out of the mountain towns there. Switzerland, not so much.
The final descent into Interlaken looks like this:
The reward at the end is pretty spectacular. More on Switzerland soon.