Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
For my three day Christmas holiday I chose to venture to Vienna, Austria as well as a half-day side trip to Bratislava, Slovakia. There are few nonstop flights from Vienna to the United States, which is actually a nice thing in my humble opinion because there definitely were not as many American tourists in Vienna or Bratislava (as an American, this is a welcome thing compared to many other Western European cities).
Vienna has long been on my list of European cities to visit. Many family and friends have visited and have always returned with great things to say. One of the main reasons for me though is the world famous Original Sacher Torte, found only at the Hotel Sacher. When I was still in lower school, my mom returned from a trip to Vienna and brought back a box of Sacher Torte and ever since those few heavenly bites of Sacher Torte as a child, I have craved to try it again or to pay homage to its birthplace. Now the opinions on the Sacher Torte are quite divided. Personally I love it, its not overly moist but not dry, not overly chocolatey but still rich and delicious and that apricot jam between the layers adds the final kick. But beyond the chocolate cake, I have always wanted to check out the Baroque and Rococo architecture and art as well as the famed Vienna Opera House and classical music scene there. Also a good Wiener Schnitzel and Apple Strudel never hurt either.
Bratislava was a more random after thought. Looking at the maps I realized how close Bratislava was to Vienna and learned that for a affordable 18EURO roundtrip train ticket (valid for any train to and from, one train every hour) I could get to Slovakia’s capital city in just over an hour. So I opted to go in the morning and leisurely explore until I felt ready to head back to Vienna. It turns out that visiting on Sunday December 24th requires very little time because nothing other than a handful of touristy restaurants were open in town, in fact I barely saw any locals out and about!
Both cities are stunning and have very wonderful architecture. Vienna is definitely a worthy place to visit, full of history, art, culture and tasty food. Austrian people are also very friendly/ Bratislava I would probably choose a day or season when more things are open to really get to see and know the city and country. The sites I saw from the outside were all great, the waiters/ owners of the handful of open restaurants were quite rude which I believe is not an accurate representation of the Slovak people. Nonetheless I’m glad I visited and it was actually rather nice to visit on a quieter day.
I stayed both nights in Vienna. First night I booked a last minute stay via hotel tonight app at K+K Maria Theresa Hotel which was fine, practical and a good location but rooms were dated/ tired and stuffy. The next night with more time to plan and knowing for sure I’d be in Vienna, I booked a stay at Hotel Beethoven Vienna, equally good location but much friendly and more helpful staff, nicely appointed rooms with good amenities and similar priced as my first night’s hotel but better value.
Vienna: Very easy to navigate and get around. The extensive subway, bus and tram system gets you everywhere you need to go, if not just a few short minutes walk. You can get 24, 48 or more hour passes which are the most affordable way to get around the city. If you stay near the downtown city center area, then its also fairly walk-able to just about everything as well. Airport to the city is also a easy commute. You can take a bus, local train, or my personal advice is to take the 11-12 EU one way City Airport Train (CAT), nonstop in 16 minutes each way, wifi and charging stations included.
Bratislava: Bus and Tram system runs across the city and gets you to where you need to be to easily walk around the UNESCO old town or up the hill to the Bratislava Castle. Ticket system is a tad confusing but cheap, machines are located at each station, and you buy by 15 minute interval tickets for either full adult fare or minor/ senior. a 15 minute full fare is 0.70 Euros.
- I arrived in Vienna just past noon, bought my CAT train ticket and headed into the city. I bought a 14 EU ticket that included subway transfer from the CAT station in the city. I headed first for the Hotel Sacher and went to the Sacher Eck, which I soon learned is different from Cafe Sacher, but still all from Hotel Sacher and sells the same Original Sacher Torte (but oddly the ones at Cafe Sacher tasted better, despite coming from the same kitchen). Sacher ECK is also the main shop where you can buy Hotel Sacher gifts as well as packaged Sacher Tortes. I had myself an original Sacher Torte (only Sacher Tortes made at Hotel Sacher can be labelled as Original) with whipped cream and a Coffee Sacher Melange, delicious.
- I then took the subway two stops and after a short 3 minute walked arrived at my hotel and checked in.
- My original plan was to first visit Schloss Schonbrunn (Schonbrunn Palace) but upon researching and discovering they have a Christmas Market in the palace grounds (featured image on the left) I opted to go here later in the day after settling in. From the hotel I took the subway to Schonbrunn station and walked to the main entrance and was stunned. Schonbrunn Palace is a beautiful yellow Baroque palace with an equally magical garden in the back. The entire atmosphere was regal, magical and wonderful with the Christmas Market set up in front of the palace.
- For 17.50 euros you can get the Imperial Tour of the palace which allows you access to every state room and bed chamber rather than just half of them on the slightly cheaper Grand Tour. Tours are all self-guided with complimentary audio guides. Well worth the Imperial Tour if you ask me as the rooms on this tour are more unique and beautiful.
- After touring the palace, I walked around in the gardens at sunset and into the dark before spending the rest of the evening at the Christmas Market.
- I ate some Tiroler Kaspressknodel (Austrian potato cheese pancakes with Riesling sauerkraut), Liberkase (Austrian meatloaf with cheese), and Nougat-schmarrn (Austrian pancake with nougat served with plum sauce) and of course paired it all with mulled wine.
- I then took the subway back to the Vienna Opera House. Earlier in the day in a spur of the moment decision I bought a second-hand ticket to The Nutcracker performed at the Vienna Opera House with an orchestra comprising of Vienna Philharmonic players, I got my ticket from official resales but was nonetheless ripped off quite a bit. The other option is to line up a couple hours before the show for standing room tickets at 3 Euros each. Given my lack of time and spur of the moment decision making pay 50 Euros for an originally 13 Euro seat in the back corner seemed just barely acceptable. But it was a chance to experience the gorgeous and acoustically stunning Vienna Opera House and the music that night was amazing, the ballet production itself was just all right, I’ve seen better Nutcracker productions.
- After the 7:30PM show which ended at 9:30PM, I walked 15 minutes through downtown and past the Hofburg Palace to Brezlgwolb Cafe Restaurant Wien for an official dinner. This is a wonderful traditionally decorated restaurant with local Austrian cuisine and among many lists for the top Schnitzel in town. I ordered some Garlic Cream Soup, Wiener Schnitzel with potato salad and cranberry sauce, and of course Apple Strudel, paired with Austrian beer and then a glass of Austrian white wine. Delicious.
- Took the subway back to my hotel and a good night’s rest.
- Woke up very early to check out and then leave my belongings at the Hotel Beethoven. Then proceeded to take the subway to the train station to take the train to Bratislava. Only to find out later that google maps took me to both the right and wrong station, The station I originally went to turned out to indeed be a stop for the Bratislava train but upon arriving at first it did not seem like a large enough or legit enough station and I didnt know where to get tickets for Bratislava. So I took the subway all the way back south to the Vienna Central Train Station, where the Bratislava train originates and terminates. All in all my day was off to about an hour’s delay. On a positive note I got a scenic sunrise tour of Vienna from south to north.
- After a one hour and six minute train ride we pulled into Bratislava Main Station.
- Upon exiting the train station I saw the main area for the trams and buses and multiple ticketing machines, it took me a few seconds to figure out how to buy and which ticket to buy but eventually went with the safest bet of full fare 15 minute ticket.
- Two stops away from the train station on bus 93 I hopped off and walked uphill towards the Bratislava Castle. The hilltop castle offers incredible panoramic views of the entirety of Bratislava (new and old town) on both sides of the Danube River as well as the famously “ugly” UFO Observatory and Most SNP Bridge spanning the river. The Castle itself houses a couple of museums including a History Museum that were all unfortunately closed for the holidays. Many pathways around the castle are also closed in the winter months. Nonetheless on this clear-blue-sky day it was lovely to walk around and soak in the city views.
- I then walked downhill to try and see if a local restaurant I read about was open, none of the three local restaurants I wanted to try were open this day. Hopefully you’ll get a chance to sample better local food than I did at the following places: Modra Hviezda, Prasna Basta, and Mestiansky Pivovar.
- Seeing as no local restaurant was open I just wandered the UNESCO Heritage Site of Old Town Bratislava. Stopped by the St. Martin’s Cathedral, The Main Square (with an eerily dead Christmas Market, as in no booths were occupied), Micahel’s Gate, The Man at Work statue.
- By noon I was getting really hungry and just surrendered to a very touristy spot Slovak Hause for a taste of Slovak food, which tasted quite good but something tells me the same dishes at the other three places I had on my list would taste better. I had some Slovak Sour Cabbage Soup and the Slovak National Dish of Bryndzové Halušky (Potato dumpling with sheep cheese topped with bacon). A very hearty meal but quite tasty honestly. Paired with a glass of Slovak white wine from the Slovak-Hungarian wine region.
- There is a popular and famous dessert shop called Konditorei Kormuth near Slovak Hause with a very cool puppet window display. The interior is beautiful and the desserts are just simple cakes nothing local or special but its popular for the interior. The manager/ owner though is quite rude and demanding. I did not go back after being rushed out and yelled at for not reading the “full sign” but I just wanted to try my luck as a single traveler as a lot of times places like this do make exceptions for single folk, but nope he just yelled at everyone to get out and proceeded to lock the door on everyone. Honestly looked at the dessert display and didnt seem any to go crazy about.
- I then walked about 10 minutes to the far side of old town to check out the St. Elizabeth Church, more commonly known as The Blue Church. Of course it too was closed, but the exterior was stunning and I spent a good amount of time just taking the building in.
- I then walked along the Danube past some memorials and statues along the way before proceeding to the bus station to catch bus 93 back to the main train station.
- After a mid-afternoon train ride back to Vienna, I proceeded to Vienna Rathaus (City Hall) where the main Vienna Christmas Market is held. The Vienna Christmas Market is quite large and just as festive and magical as the one in Nuremberg. Although I liked the vibes at the Schloss Schonbrunn Christmas Market more as it felt more intimate, magical and regal and the food was definitely better and more local at that one than the main market. Nonetheless a festive time and place to be.
- I took the subway a couple stops to check in to Hotel Beethoven and checked with the clerk to see if any of the local Vienna restaurants I wanted to try were open, and of course the were not.
- Since none of the local spots were open I opted to line up and have dinner at Cafe Sacher Wien since I realized when I was in Sacher ECK that I had gone to the “wrong” spot to have Sacher Torte. I had some Wiener Schnitzel again with a potato salad and Austrian white wine it was delicious, followed by another Sacher Torte this time paired with Sacher Hot Chocolate served with Sacher Liquor.
- After dinner I decided to have a glass of Austrian red wine and a night cap cocktail made with cognac and Sacher Brut Champagne at the beautiful Blaue Bar in Hotel Sacher’s lobby. The drinks at this hotel bar are not badly priced for this standard of hotel in Europe.
- Finally I returned to my hotel for a relaxing night before going to bed for another early start to head to the airport and depart Europe on Christmas Day.
- Early morning start. took the subway (which actually runs almost 24 hours, just at shorter intervals between midnight and 7AM) and then the first CAT Train leaving at 5:37AM.
- 7AM flight to Frankfurt for my onward connection to the United States.
I absolutely loved Vienna and would go back to explore some more and visit more museums and attend another concert, opera or ballet. I would give Bratislava another chance or even check out another Slovak city just because I want to believe the country and its people are most definitely different than the emptiness I experienced the day I went. The city itself I think its quite beautiful and Slovak food is not bad either, quite hearty much like its neighbor Hungary. Plus Bratislava is an easy day trip from Vienna!
Cheers to more adventures in 2018.
Happy New Year and Bon Voyage!