Winter break: Vienna

I had been told that there is no more magical place to be in the wintertime than in Vienna. As I flew into Vienna from Brussels a week before Christmas, I made it a point to power walk through the inner city before returning two weeks later. I wanted to hit the main markets and gain some understanding as to why Vienna has such a reputation.

I understand.

I also understand why others say Vienna is a commercial nightmare around the holidays. Because it is. It’s a beautiful commercial nightmare.

Vienna’s main markets have surely become too touristy and buy-sell-oriented, but they’re still the most picturesque I’ve ever seen. Vienna knows how to decorate, and its main streets throughout the inner city are draped with everything from ornate chandeliers to crown-shaped twinkle lights. However, the decor is never gaudy — Vienna is all class, all the time.

Take the city’s world-famous coffee culture, for instance. Forget Paris for cafes (okay, don’t forget Parisian cafes), the traditional “kaffeehaus” is a social ritual. The cafes have excellent coffee of course, but also international newspapers and fine Austrian pastries. Most importantly is the atmosphere — elegant and potentially over-the-top, with service that makes Parisian waiters look friendly. Well, maybe not friendly

Lastly, it is normal and expected for a customer to linger for hours and hours, alone, to read, enjoy the intellectual vibe, and simply be.

If I had one more day in Vienna, you can be assured that it would have been spent in several different coffee houses. Since Vienna’s cafes provide a glass of cold water with each beverage, I wouldn’t have to worry about dehydration!

But, I only had two nights, and I wanted to soak up more than just Vienna’s coffee culture. Vienna has lots of culture to offer. Too much, really, to adequately assess in a mere few days. There’s so much history, so much art — capitals across Europe pale in comparison.

Plus there’s the simple joy of wandering the inner-city, an UNESCO World Heritage site, and being transported back in time. At night, without the throngs of people, the quiet streets are tinged with a warm glow, and it’s all just too pretty for its own good.

Plus there’s the food. Wonderful, enormously portioned Viennese food.

Most famous is Wiener Schnitzel (Vienna is “Wien” in the local tongue), super-thin veal escalope, bread crumbed and fried with lemon slices. Ideally, the schnitzel should be hanging off the serving plate on all sides. Don’t forget the side dish, which almost upstages the veal — Erdäpfel Salat a vinegary, cold potato salad with onion.

Then there are all the sugary confections. The infamous Sachertorte was born in Vienna, with its thin layer of apricot jam engulfed by chocolate. In my humble opinion, and in the humble opinion of every local I spoke with, the Sachertorte is a wee-bit overrated and usually a wee-bit dry.

Apfelstrudel is a local favorite, as is Kaiserschmarrn, a dessert of shredded pancakes and stewed fruit that I unfortunately never got the chance to try.

Just be prepared to take in a bit of ash with your edibles. Smoking is permitted, and common, in cafes, bars and restaurants.

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