My son Devan’s and my arrival into Vienna on December 23 was efficient as the Student Agency bus deposited us on time at Stadion Center near the Danube. From there, we jumped on the U2 U-bahn and transferred at Taborstraße at the advice of the TripAdvisor Vienna destination experts to Tram 2 which stopped at Marienbrücke, a short walk to the relatively utilitarian Hotel Mercure Wien City, just north of the Danube Canal. Since it was already mid-afternoon by the time we checked into the hotel, we decided to wander into the city center to get our bearings and an early dinner. Speaking for my son, we were looking forward to spending the Christmas holiday in such an amazing and festive setting. Coming from the heat and humidity that prevails in South Florida for the majority of the year, the chilly temperatures in Vienna at Christmastime were a welcome departure.
We found our way to the city center using Stephansdom’s ornate towering spire to guide us in the right direction, grabbed a quick dinner and took a tour of the resplendent cathedral .
From there, we opted to make good use of our 72 hour public transport card and give ourselves a brief respite from our usual incessant hoofing it around town. We rode both tram Lines 1 and 2 to complete the Ringstraße circuit and take in the city from the relative warmth of the streetcar in between hops on and off to check out various points of interest and give Devan time to up his caloric intake with some local fare.
I can’t imagine a more festive place to spend Christmas than Vienna. Everywhere we turned looked like Christmas, from the Christmas markets all around the city to the beautiful decorations in the stores and restaurants around the city to the actual streets adorned with shimmering lights. Fortuitous timing brought us back to Mariahilfer Straße to wander around the shops until we came upon a celebratory lighting of the Menorah at Kartner Straße.
After a long day and possibly a wee bit of visual overload at the endless spectacle of the Christmas season on display, we hopped the U-bahn U1 Line from Stephanplatz back to Schwedenplatz so we could take the short walk across the canal to our hotel to rest up and get ready for Christmas Eve the next day.
We decided to get up and at ’em early on Christmas Eve morning to visit Schloß Schönbrunn a bit southwest of the city center. We arrived too early for entrance, so we visited the open stalls of the Christmas market in the palace courtyard for a coffee and sugar covered waffle before we headed in and selected the abbreviated Imperial Tour of 22 rooms of the massive 1441 room Baroque summer palace of the Habsburgs. Devan and I’ve seen a good many palaces in our days, but the royal extravagance never ceases to amaze.
We headed back to the city center to have lunch at Naschmarkt and browse the market offerings which ranged from touristy souvenir items to meat, cheese, produce. spices, local delicacies and other food products whose booths are frequented by locals. (Okay, I admit I didn’t JUST browse). Since this trip was more loosely structured than most of my travels , we missed out on having the chance to tour the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum (Military Museum), as the opening hours were limited during the Christmas holiday, and we didn’t have our visit specifically on the agenda.
Missing out on opportunities like this is more reinforcement that my future travels should revert back to my typical way of planning a “schedule skeleton” and then adjusting from there. While this trip was different than most for me due to its complete lack of agenda and was also enjoyable due to flexibility, we did miss out on a few attractions we’d hoped to visit in each of our destination cities of Prague, Vienna and Budapest. We did wander the Military Museum grounds which along with the castle-like architecture of the many buildings in the complex were impressive in and of themselves. We spent the remainder of the afternoon checking out the Museumsquartier, various churches around the city such as Votivkirche and Karlskirche and the Hofburg Complex, of course, stopping for a Glühwein along the way for an occasional warm-up (and because it just tastes good).
As evening approached we continued our walking tour of the city to enjoy all of the sights and sounds of Christmas Eve prior to our dinner reservations at Restaurant Chamäleon, near Stephansdom, for a Swiss-style fondue Christmas dinner. After dinner, we headed to Stadtkirche (Lutheran City Church), just a short walk from the restaurant to attend midnight mass. We thought it might be interesting to attend a Lutheran Christmas Eve service to see if we could follow along based upon liturgy even though the service was to be conducted in German.
My German is better than Devan’s (since he doesn’t speak any), but we barely got to try our hand at following along with the service as, upon our presumed early arrival at 11:30 pm, we quickly discovered that “midnight mass” at this Evangelische church inexplicably starts at 11 pm. Apparently, Viennese Lutherans like to get an early jump on Christmas. At least we were able to find pew space since there isn’t an overabundance of Lutherans in Austria and were able to enjoy a little Stille Nacht and the last twenty minutes of the misnamed midnight mass. We were able to find a Christmas Day service the following morning in English at Christ Church, an Anglican church not too far southeast from the Ring Road. We learned that holiday church attendees in Vienna are no different than the congregants at our home church, meaning that people pile into the church even on major church holidays about one minute before the service is set to start, expecting to find a seat; so the first 15 minutes or so of the service were spent squishing the late arrivals into the already-cozy pew space. The game of musical pews didn’t detract from the beautiful service and friendly nature of this church’s staff and attendees.
The next order of business on Christmas Day was our mission to visit Mozart’s burial monument to add to our previous visit to Chopin and Jim Morrison’s grave sites during our 2010 trip to Paris. Yes, it’s kind of morbid, but we were a bit curious as to how Mozart’s presumed burial site at Friedhof St. Marx (apparently there is some uncertainty as to his exact resting place) compared to that of Chopin and Morrison at Père Lachaise Cemetery. After our eventual arrival after hoofing it a good distance from the public transport stop we selected (likely not the nearest or most convenient) through the chilly drizzle, we learned that Friedhof Sankt Marx itself was certainly a fraction of the size of Père Lachaise and not nearly as grand. Mozart’s monument is an interesting one, considered to be an angel in mourning, given that Mozart died way too young. The monument clearly shows the angel’s dismay; Devan wondered if the angel was meant to signify Mozart’s guardian angel showing remorse that he didn’t do a better job preserving Mozart’s existence. We at least got a little giggle out of Devan’s apropos description of the monument, making the schlepping our way to St. Marx and the subsequent uphill hike via the gravel path to Mozart’s monument worthwhile.
We spent the remainder of our time wandering around the Hofburg complex and the rest of the Museumsquartier with a visit to the Haus der Musik (Das Klangmuseum), which was an interesting stop. The museum provided music history as well as interactive displays. Devan was even able to play the piano in the museum lobby for a bit to keep himself from getting too rusty during our vacation.
The exit to the museum spit us out at the entrance of the 1516 Brewing Company where Devan and I were able to enjoy some delicious spaetzel (mmmm spaetzel!) before our train ride from the new Hauptbahnhof (train station) to Budapest the next day. I can’t imagine a better place to have spent Christmas with my son; Vienna was truly a magical place (although my son always makes Christmas special, regardless of the location).