Vienna was originally just meant to be a stopping point between Prague and Budapest (we’d been advised that it was more interesting than Bratislava) but having been to the city saying that feels like verging on blasphemy now. As you’ll gather from this post we loved Vienna, and I honestly feel that it is very underrated amongst interrailers, particularly those in their 20s who don’t see it as a ‘happening’ place.
We had a very pleasant and efficient 4 hour trip for €24 each from Prague via OBB trains which I would whole-heartedly recommend. Second class is unreserved seating so make sure you’re on time to grab a spot, but we got a table with minimal rushing and definitely made the most of it. There’s free wifi on the train, a handy electronic screen letting you know which stop you’re approaching and ETAs, and the fact our tickets were checked twice by two different conductors was the only indicator we’d crossed the border from the Czech Republic to Hungary.
We booked 2 nights in Wombats City Hostel, opposite the Naschmarkt, the main market square in Vienna. Location wise was pretty good, but our experiences in Prague and Budapest were better – it was about a 10 minute walk to the Opera house and National Galleries, and near the Museum quarter, but probably closer to 20 minutes to the centre of town. To be honest though, I think anywhere would be far from something due to the fact that Vienna is huge, and there is so much to see you have to walk. We were however right next to a ‘Hofer’ supermarket which was ideal for 50 cent croissants in the morning.
First impressions of the hostel were good. Wombats is a chain – they have 5 hostels around Europe – and even though that isn’t a massive number, we definitely felt it had quite an industrial, budget-hotel feel as opposed to a hostel. There’s lots of focus on hipster-style interior design, but compared to my previous hostel experiences, it’s certainly not ideal for the solo traveller. The entrance space feels very much like a reception, and the seating area is spaced so far apart there’s no encouragement to end up chatting to someone you don’t know. In fact, on arrival we were a bit surprised by just how many people were glued to smartphones.
Our room was clean and spacious with a fancy locker-come-door keycard which was very handy, and we didn’t notice any sound coming from other rooms. We also had our own ensuite bathroom to share between the 6 of us which seemed to work well. The people on reception were not quite as warm and welcoming in the ‘here let’s give you a tour via the map’ way we’d experienced in Prague, but on prompting they were happy to give us recommendations. There’s a hostel bar attached as well which is a bit naff (especially with the S-Club Era playlist) but a decent enough space to chat and drink with hostel friends.
However, despite the industrial-efficiency feel of the hostel we encountered a number of issues. For a start we were woken up on the first night at 4:30am when a member of reception (very loudly) came to stop one of our roommates from showering as it was leaking through to reception. Who knows why she was showering at that time but waking us all up in the process felt a little unnecessary. In the 48 hours we were there the shower wasn’t fixed and we had to use the spare ones in the basement. Also, we came back from our first day out to find someone else’s things all over Tim’s bed – you’re meant to strip your own bed, but the maid had stripped Tim’s and given it to an American guy moving in. Thankfully he hadn’t left any belongings in his bed (the fact it was made was indication enough it was being used) but it was an unpleasant surprise. We were compensated with free drinks vouchers (in fact I ended up with 4 free drinks) but still, it wasn’t a great experience, and we had to seek out the compensation as opposed to it being offered, which again felt a little unprofessional. Those kinds of mistakes might be forgivable in a small, super cheap hostel – but Wombats is not that.
(Sorry, rant over! TLDR; it was definitely an alright hostel which we just happened to get unlucky with, but regardless of our experience I don’t think I’d go back again personally.)
Oh man, where to even start.
- Free Walking Tour (from the hostel) – There was no system of writing your name down for this, so I was not at all surprised when the foyer was filled with some 40-50 people waiting for the tour at 10am. Fortunately we made the effort to keep close to the guide, Charles I think he was called, and he was honestly wonderful. Incredibly well-informed, offering interesting and insightful stories and information about the palaces, museums and statues we walked past. The tour took us through the museum quarter, round the Hoffburg Palace (which is very easy to walk though the courtyards without a ticket!) and up to St Stephen’s cathedral.
- Kunsthistorisches Museum – One of world’s best art museums and my goodness you can tell. We went late on a Thursday night (most museums are open until 9pm on Thursdays) and it was very atmospheric and definitely less touristy. The building itself was incredible, with the most stunning entrance hall and sweeping staircase up to the galleries (look out for the Klimt above the stairs!) There’s a café/restaurant on the first floor beneath the huge domed roof which seemed to be the height of sophistication. The art collection is staggering, from Vermeer to Reubens to Bruegel. Awesome exhibition on jousting too, which original helmets. I feel if we’d had more time I’d have appreciated an audio guide as the info by the paintings wasn’t extensive, but even then it was all very impressive. A must from my perspective for sure.
- Secession Building – Incredible and slightly bizarre to look at (the Viennese were Not Fans when it was first built and called it ‘Krauthappel’ (cabbage head)) the building is a stereotype of art nouveau, and houses Klimt’s famous Beethoven Freize (could you get any more Viennese that that.) A quick trip but a worthwhile one.
- Vienna’s Traffic Lights – After Conchita Wurst aka the Bearded Lady won the Eurovision in preparation for hosting it Vienna changed 120 of their traffic lights to images of same-sex couples, holding hands and with love hearts above them. They were so popular they stayed, and now they can be found all over the city. I feel like they might be more a hinderance to traffic than a help (everyone wanted a photo of them) but a really lovely touch.
- Café Central – We really wanted to experience the ‘cafe culture’ and as we’re both history nerds of course we opted for the one that has been frequented by Freud, Lenin, Trotsky and Hilter in the past. Incredibly pricey, but a beautiful building and lovely experience – the cakes looked exquisite and my iced chocolate drink was fab.
- Albertina Museum – Pretty small and quite pricey but some beautiful works – we saw Monet, Picasso and plenty of other names. Lovely way to escape the heat and plenty of English notices next to the art.
- St Stephens Cathedral Tower – We paid €4.50 and I honestly think I would have preferred an ice cream. The view is a relatively disappointing and dull view of rooftops, as you’re a bit far away from other major tall buildings (hint: you’re in it.) Just wouldn’t bother really.
- The Leopold Museum – There was a whole lot of posters advertising Klimt but very little of his work. A Siegel exhibition was which wasn’t really my thing and alongside some frankly creepy modern sculpture there was a bizarro ‘human art’ display which was incredibly uncomfortable and I very nearly interrupted by going and asking the man writhing on the floor if he was alright. Bit too modern and pretentious for me.
- Hundertwasserhaus (The Art House) – Looks cool but a trek, oh my goodness, and very little apart from a cafe and overpriced gift shop to do when you get there. Buy a postcard and save yourself the metro trip.
On the recommendation of receptionist at the hostel we went to Swing Kitchen which was about a 10 minutes walk away and just what we needed. The restaurant is completely vegan (there’s a bit of an all-or-nothing approach to being vegetarian on the continent I feel, especially in the city!) and despite looking pretty upmarket decked out in black and lots of potted plants, it’s cheerily cheap too. In fact, my vegan cheese burger at €5.20 was probably the cheapest meal I had in Vienna, and it was divine. Nutritious, filling and incredibly tasty.
- Just Wander – There’s so much art nouveau just around the city and I was geeking out about it so much. Just getting from a to b we went in and around the most lovely streets and through old shopping arcades. Especially in the centre, there’s something around every corner. We wandered all the way to the Belvedere which was beautiful (from the outside, it was closed when we got there :() but just going through all the parks on the way was lovely.
- Waiter Etiquette – Our walking tour guide was very helpful in filling us in on Viennese cafe etiquette, which included how to treat waiters. Essentially, going for a coffee in a proper coffee house is supposed to be relaxing experience; it is not one to be rushed. The main consensus of that is that it’s seen as very impolite (and very tourist-y) to call over waiters, you wait for them to come and check on you. We saw this at first hand in Cafe Central when we overheard a waiter really mocking an American couple who had tried to grab his arm to pay with a fellow staff member. Just don’t do it guys.
- Opera Season – if you fancy seeing an opera, the season runs from September to late Spring, there are no operas in the summer!
I really don’t know why my expectations of Vienna were so low, but visiting the city has completely blown any of my previous ill-founded ideas out of the Danube so to speak. It’s a beautiful, historic and art-filled city, which seems to avoid being pretentious in many of the ways you might expect. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of Vienna and would love to return, especially as we missed out on major sights like the Schönbrunn Palace.