As I sit here in indefinite isolation, I’ve been reminiscing a lot about the last trip I took, one that was spontaneous and that now, with all future travel plans on hold, I’m so grateful I went on.
When I stumbled upon a $350 round-trip ticket to Paris in December for January and realized I even had the points to cover it, sans $85, I jumped on it. A good friend of mine lives in Paris, but likely not for much longer. “When are you ever again going to have a free place to stay in Paris?” my friend asked, to which I realized, maybe never. My husband would be working a wine harvest abroad, and well, it was $85 to get to Europe. My friend also suggested we (she, her husband and I) spend part of my trip elsewhere, so we settled on Austria, a country none of us had visited.
I pictured myself in Vienna, leisurely sipping Grüner Veltliner in the sun alongside locals at the city’s famous heurige—rustic wine taverns that are similar to Germany’s beer gardens—for Austria is one of, if not the only, capital city where grapes are grown within its borders.
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But my vision didn’t take into account that it was January, and I quickly discovered that every heuriger would be closed until April. Panicking, it dawned on me that I was choosing to leave mild-weathered California for the freezing Europe winter, something I had actively avoided since 2008 when I studied abroad in the Netherlands between January and April. No wonder this flight was so cheap.
Paris was violently windy but not too cold. Yet when we got off the plane in Vienna the next day, there was no sign of the sun behind the densely-thick layer of clouds and it was, in my opinion, absolutely freezing. Scarf-over-your-mouth-and-nose freezing. Luckily, there was a way to at least temper this feeling and it was both readily available and affordable: glühwein.
We first got our hands on this hot, spiced wine, known as mulled wine in America, while perusing Vienna’s famous outdoor market, Naschmarkt. We strolled past vendors hawking hordes of dried fruit and pastries, tall wooden barrels full of sauerkraut and others full of pickles soaking in a murky liquid, multi-colored and flavored cheeses—orange for paprika, purple for lavender, green for basil—packaged together like a rainbow, and every block or so, we’d find a thermos full of glühwein, sold for roughly three euros a mug.
Maybe it was the frigid air and my desperation for anything to warm me from the inside out, but I found the glühwein to be pleasantly palatable. It was hot, fruity, boozy, and went down easily. The spiced notes made me nostalgic for the spiked cider I make every Thanksgiving and Christmas and had enjoyed en masse with my family just a few weeks before. It wasn’t exactly the quality wine pilgrimage I had planned on, but it was just what I needed and I couldn’t get enough of it.
My friends and I sought out warmth by way of glühwein throughout our visit to Vienna, wherever we could find it while taking in the city’s impressive, historic architecture. Like many old European cities, Vienna is like a massive, outdoor museum, where the architecture, sculptures, and fountains are the art and admission is free unless of course, you want to go inside. For that, we chose to climb to the top of St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Like salmon swimming upstream, we squeezed our bodies past others making their way back down the narrow, spiraling staircase. At the top, we were rewarded with views of the church’s stunning and unique, multi-colored tiled roof, yet there was poor visibility of the city on that day.
We also chose to explore the Belvedere, though only after first enjoying a flight of beers at Stöckl im Park, the brewery located next door. The Belvedere’s famous gardens left much to be desired in their wintered state, but the majestic baroque palaces impressed both inside and out. Inside the Belvedere museum, we got to view Vienna’s Mona Lisa: The Kiss by Gustav Klimt. This massive and famous oil painting incorporates gold leaf throughout and depicts a sensual embrace between lovers. I later purchased a postcard featuring a silly interpretation of The Kiss to send to my husband. Instead of humans, it depicted a pair of kissing cats.
At the height of my cold-induced desperation, I ran over to the nearby Würstelstand (sausage stand) and asked for glühwein while my friend held our place in the 30-minute line winding out the door of Café Sacher, but was told, devastatingly, that it wasn’t ready yet. Ordering the original Sacher-Torte from Café Sacher, a lavish, velvet-walled, classic coffeehouse in the center of the city, is one of the things you do when in Vienna. But while I’m glad to have checked it off the list, I found this simple chocolaty cake — a secret recipe that was first created for a prince in 1832 — to be rather rich, dense, and a little dry for my taste, though don’t put too much stock in my review. I’m not much of a cake fanatic to begin with and even had a cheese tower at my wedding instead.
It feels sacrilegious to admit I was slightly let down by the Sacher-Torte, but it was just one thing on my short list of things to do in Vienna, which also included schnitzel, sausages from a Würstelstand, experiencing the kaffeehaus culture (when we weren’t drinking gllühwein) and music, Vienna’s cultural claim to fame.
The best schnitzel ever
On the recommendation of a friend who has spent significant time in Germany and Austria and who texted me, “The wiener schnitzel is the best I’ve ever had,” we went to EF16 Restaurant for dinner one evening. But when we walked in, I discovered that I’d accidentally made the reservation for the wrong day and they had no availability until long after we were set to depart Vienna. For some reason, the server took pity on us and found us a table near the door. And how lucky we were; countless people after us were subsequently turned away as we gleefully ate.
Not only was the restaurant incredibly accommodating to my gluten-free travel partner, even bringing out her own special basket of bread, but they produced the best and biggest schnitzel I’ve ever had. I wish I could tell you why it was the best I’ve ever had, but I was too busy enjoying it to take notes, even mental ones, which is perhaps the most telling thing about it. We paired it with a bottle of Gemischter Satz, an Austrian white field blend, which I also don’t remember much about, other than I wasn’t disappointed. The restaurant was intimate, cozy and appeared to be a go-to date night or special occasion spot for locals. More than once, the staff came out to sing Happy Birthday, in German, I presume, and one couple even got engaged.
Revisiting the classics
The World’s Music Capitol has been home to more famous composers than any other city, including Beethoven, Mozart, and Schubert. Like the Sacher-Torte, attending some sort of concert or performance is one of those things you do in Vienna, and there are many options to choose from nightly. We settled on a relatively cheap ($30) chamber concert from a string ensemble inside a tiny and opulent church.
St. Anna’s Church is located off an inconspicuous side street and has the feeling of the city’s best-kept concert secret (we even purchased our tickets just a few hours before show time). Seated in the back, I couldn’t see the performers very well, but there was plenty else to look at. The historic church is dripping in gold and colored marble and the ceiling is covered in fresco paintings a la the Sistine Chapel. I mean no disrespect, but the best way I can think to describe it is that it’s as if the Baroque period threw up in the place.
I’ll admit, my severe case of jet lag combined with the calming lull of the classical music had me nodding off at times, but it was indeed a one-of-a-kind experience that felt deeply connected to Vienna’s culture. Clocking in at 70 minutes, it was also just long enough for those of us who aren’t classical enthusiasts.
Saving the wurst for last
It may sound silly, but my biggest priority in Vienna was sausage. I’d chosen this specific Würstelstand, Bitzinger, based on an article in an airline magazine that I’d read on the plane over. Located right next to the Opera House, this small, metal box is easily identifiable by the large, lit-up hat protruding from its roof.
I knew before arriving for lunch that I was going to order the käsekrainer, a brot filled with hot, melted chunks of cheese, both because I’m a cheese-a-holic and because it seemed to be the top recommendation from friends and review websites. And boy was I glad I planned ahead, too; it’s the kind of high-pressure situation in which you had better know what you want when it’s your turn to step up and order. Things move quickly at the Würstelstands, which stay open until the wee hours of the morning, and the staff didn’t appear to have much patience for indecisive, English-speaking Americans. It’s all business, no chit-chat, but I suppose that’s part of the charm of the experience.
My käsekrainer was served sliced with a side of white bread, mustard and ketchup. I’d also been advised ahead of time that the proper way to enjoy your weiner at a Würstelstand is with a side of Champagne, so I ordered an over-priced, mini bottle of Moet Imperial Brut to split with my friend. We were lucky to find space on the side of the stand to belly up, eat, and people watch.
Unlike the Sacher-Torte, this simple, local street food surpassed the hype and was the single-most delicious thing I ate that weekend. If you can believe it, I found it even more satisfying than the glühwein.