By Richard Levy
Music is the most enduring legacy of the magical city of Vienna, Austria, where Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johannes Brahms, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Schoenberg and Waltz King, Johann Strauss once lived, composed and performed.
Vienna was home to the Austrian branch of the Habsburg dynasty from 1276-1780. Upon the death of Empress Maria Theresa, her eldest son, Joseph II ascended the throne, representing the Vaudemont branch of the House of Lorraine through his father, Francis Stephen, the Holy Roman Emperor, Francis I. Joseph II’s descendants styled themselves the House of Habsburg-Lorraine and ruled up to 1918.
Unless one was fortunate enough to play an instrument or know someone who did, music was initially a luxury enjoyed mostly by the privileged members of the aristocracy, but eventually became an important part of bourgeois life for the growing middle class.
Music is always in the air in Vienna and visitors can attend a musical performance somewhere in the city every night of the year. The city boasts an estimated 15,000 performances annually. Visit ViennaConcerts.com to find tickets for everything from Operas, including those at the Vienna State Opera, Operettas and Musicals, to varied Classical Concerts, dedicated Mozart programs and Ballets.
Many of the musical events you’ll want to experience take place at the Vienna State Opera, one of the leading and most beautiful opera houses in the world.
The Vienna Mozart Orchestra performs at Vienna’s most famous concert halls. The Mozart Ensemble Vienna plays in the city’s oldest concert hall, Volksper Vienna, Vienna’s main stage for opera, operettas, musicals and ballet.
Dine like a true aristocrat and treat yourself to one or more Dinner & Concert packages available at Schönbrunn (a gourmet dinner followed by a concert) or the Salonorchestra Alt-Wien, offering a combination of musical delights and a gala dinner at Kursalon.
And if you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna on New Year’s Eve, the Vienna Philharmonic has a concert in the Golden Hall of Musikveren. They always conclude their concert with my very favorite piece of classical music, “Radetzky March,” by Johann Strauss. The audience claps loudly to the music creating a festive musical experience. My girlfriend and I watch the Vienna Philharmonic concert every New Year’s Eve on Channel 13. We turn up the volume as they start playing the March and clap along with the audience.
After dinner or a concert one evening, take an enchanting horse-drawn carriage (Flaker) through the beautiful ancient inner city. There’s a Flaker stand near the magnificent, historic and haunting St. Stephens Cathedral on Graben. Josef Hayden sang here as a choir boy and Mozart married Costanze Weber at St. Stephen’s in 1782.
One of the tallest and most impressive Gothic structures in Vienna, St. Stephens has been the center for Catholic worship here for over 700 years. Climb the 343 steps of the tower for a magnificent view of the old city.
Spend a couple of hours strolling down Graben, Vienna's most popular walking street filled with fabulous shops, gallery’s, cafes and restaurants. Right in the middle of his famous walking street is the huge Statue of the Plagues dedicated the millions of people who died from the plague during the Middle Ages.
Music lovers must visit the Haus der Musjik Museum and Figaro House, where Mozart composed one of his operas.
The magnificent Schönbrunn Palace is one finest examples of baroque architecture in Vienna. Now a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, it was the summer palace of the Habsburgs and the center of court life during the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.
Other must see places to experience in Vienna include, Mozarthaus, where Mozart lived for two years: a charming little museum filled with interesting musical items Mozart fans will adore.
Be sure to visit Hofburg, the astoundingly gorgeous palace and home to the ruling Hofburgs. Empress Maria Theresa was born here in 1717 and died at Hofburg in 1780.
The Kunsthistorisches is one of the most unforgettable museums in the world, a spectacular neoclassical palace with one of the finest collections of Old Masters of any museum, since it was assembled by one of the richest ruling families in history.
You’ll love strolling down the Naschmarkt, the largest open-air market in Europe filled with countless stalls of meats, fruits, vegetables, spices, wine, cheeses and fabulous food. You’ll want to “nosh’ endlessly as you stroll (Yiddish word “nosh” must have come from German word “nasch”, which is the name of this market.)
If you have time, catch the breathtaking show at The Spanish Riding School where beautiful white Lipizzaner horses perform an equine ballet.
Klimt fans will want to check out the Klimt gallery store filled with everything covered in Klimt reproductions to bring home.
For a delicious lunch in Vienna go to my favorite restaurant, Gast Haus Posche, one block off Graben, on Werburggane 17. Be sure to make reservations a few days before, as this is a popular place for local artists and writers. Order the smoked fillet of Char with trout salad to start and then their famous Wiener Schnitzel, which when served, looks like a huge sizzling violin; one order is enough for two.
Another restaurant I liked a lot was Brezl Gwöld, for traditional Austrian fare. It’s hidden down an alley and has lots of atmosphere. For dinner, one night, order, Tafelspitz, a boiled beef casserole served with knudel potato dumplings, a traditional Viennese dish. For dessert, order warmed up apple strudel with ice cream.
You absolutely must visit the Sacher Café, at the Hotel Sacher, and devour at least one decadently delicious Sachertorte, consisting of two layers of very dense semi-sweet chocolate cake, a thick layer of apricot jam in the middle, covered with dark chocolate icing and a large dollop of fresh whipped cream; expensive, but worth it. The Sachertortes you’ll find elsewhere are tasteless imitations.
For breakfast one morning order the local favorite kasierscharm, a sweet shredded pancake with plum compote. Vienna has a very sophisticated coffee culture, thanks to the fleeing Turkish armies who left behind their treasured coffee beans in 1683. Vienna opened Europe’s first coffee house in 1685 that have become legendary hangouts for famous writers, artists, composers and intellectuals, ever since. My favorite was the famous Tomaselli Café, frequented by Mozart and other musical mavens. A few packages of "Mozart Balls" (small chocolate balls filled with marzipan and wrapped in foil which Mozart is said to have favored) from one of the chocolate shops are a delightful souvenir to bring home. Another charming souvenir is small violin music box that plays "Mozart's Greatest Hits" it slowly rotates.
Take an astounding ride on the gigantic Prater Ferris Wheel for spectacular vistas of Vienna and hope that it doesn’t get stuck when your car is on top!
Where to stay? I enjoy the exquisite Palais Hansen Kempinski, built in 1873 and located on the Ringstrauss. I also liked the lovely Park Hyatt Vienna which is also perfectly located.
Austria Air offers non-stop flights from JFK to Vienna but if you’d like to save money, do what I did, and fly one of my favorite airlines, Norwegian Air to any nearby city and then take a short connecting flight.
Spending a week in Vienna is like going back in a musical time machine to another era where music, art, beautiful architecture and sophistication ruled. As soon as your flight lands and the Captain says "Welcome to Vienna", it will be music to your ears…and you will be sure to experience one of the most memorable musical weeks of your lifetime.
Go to AboutVienna.org and also download Lonely Planet’s Vienna app on your mobile phone.