Two-day Vienna itinerary:
Day One: Historical city tour (tickets pre-booked). St. Stephen’s cathedral and lunch at Do & Co, Haas Haus. Steffl department store and a chocolate stop at Demel’s. Kohlmarkt stroll. Opera House, Museum Quarter, Parliament House and walk around the picturesque Ringstrasse. Naschmarkt visit. Mozart concert at the Schönbrunn Palace Orangery (tickets pre-booked). Night out sampling trendy bars along the Gürtel (as recommended by the hotel concierge).
Day Two: Viewing of Klimt paintings at the Belvedere. Hofburg Palace tour of the Imperial apartments, silver collection, treasury and Sisi Museum. Spanish Riding School. Sacher torte at The Sacher Hotel. Shopping at Mariahilfer street. Drinks at The Grand Hotel Wien.
I am armed with an ambitious list of must-sees, must-dos for my first visit to Vienna. My girl gang and I pinch ourselves awake on the short early morning drive from the airport to the Grand Hotel Wien where an old-worldly chintz and rosewood room has been kept ready for our shower and change. Post croissants and fluffy omelettes, we enjoy the short walk to the Opera House for our historical city tour pick-up.
We make it to the main attraction, the Schönbrunn palace, with 20 minutes of free time to spare before our guided tour begins. Lost in the charming setting of the outdoor square and the fascinatingly quaint horse carriages that trot around the façade in accordance with traffic signals, we miss the call time and the group proceeds without us. (In our defense, who wouldn’t be distracted by that sight?)
We manage to enter the premises and in our bid to locate our guide, we race through the connecting rooms of lush brocade bedchambers, gold gilt dining room ceilings and cascading silk and mahogany tearooms in a blur. The only consolation of this absolutely dreary tour is the sale of Christmas carols from the Vienna Boys Choir. I look at the cherubic faces on the cover and wistfully wonder why we have chosen to miss the live performance mass at the Hofburg palace tomorrow and opt for a day-tour to Prague instead.
Next is the St. Stephen’s cathedral where the surrounding square is buzzing with animated life – a welcome change from the usually dignified quiet of Viennese streets. Steffl Department Store offers no retail treats other than a Manish Arora M.A.C counter where we splurge on bubblegum blushes; we quickly settle for chilled drinks at the Sky Bar atop the building and head out towards Gerstner café where the real exchange of Euros begins.
Realising that Vienna is more a city of gourmet finds than fashion buys, we spend several minutes homing in on plump macaroons, marzipan figurines and an assortment of local candy. The gastronomic journey leads us to a Verve recommendation for a luxe lunch – Do & Co at Haas House. The elegantly posh ambience and exquisitely prepared seafood sends our senses into a swoon; a few quirkily designed matchboxes are deftly pocketed from the entrance and we’re on to Demel’s at Kohlmarkt. It is in deference to this mouth-watering couture confectionary that we ignore the high-end designer stores surrounding us and focus on the prettily packaged macadamia nut chocolate bars, robust chocolate beans and slivers of fine milk chocolate.
We head back to the Opera House, where the last tour of the day to explore this historical monument is long over; a bit dejected at the lost chance to see another lauded sight of the city, we nevertheless begin our walk around the Ringstrasse. The tranquil beauty of Vienna is such that one tends to stop at every public garden, gaze at each architectural delight and aimlessly stroll through any tree-lined bylane, while pausing to admire some more sleek, polished horse carriages along the way.
Lost in this spell of peaceful timelessness, we miss the last call to check out the food stalls of Naschmarkt as well as the preserved treasures of the Museum Quarters. Our revised plan to return to the Café Leopold for an evening wine is abandoned in the rush to reach the Schönbrunn Palace Orangery (a greenhouse-cum-concert venue for erstwhile Austrian empires) for a pre-booked Mozart concert.
The soothing lilt of the piano, cello and violin is an irresistibly restful balm to our jet-lagged nerves; dozing off at regular intervals, we eventually make a hushed exit. Dinner reservations at the Palais Coburg are cancelled and we sleepily grab a roadside kiosk meal of cheese stuffed hotdogs before regretfully striking off the club-hopping agenda as well.
The next day is hectic to the extreme – five a.m. wake-up calls, seven a.m. train departures, a four-hour Prague tour mostly by foot and a return journey to Vienna in the late hours of the night.
We are understandably a bit blur-brained the following morning while exploring the vibrant gardens of the Belvedere Museum. But our senses are sharply jolted to life on coming face-to-face with the vivid hues and stylishly progressive themes of Gustav Klimt’s mesmerising paintings. Making it to this exhibit is our one indisputable instance of being at the right place at the right time. I do, however, take forward our string of mess ups by purchasing a selection of Klimt prints, none of which on unwrapping turn out to be the ones I had chosen!
We head back to our hotel for a speedy bento box at Unkai, then onwards to the Hofburg Palace. All sense of time vanishes again as the city’s charm overwhelms us; needless to say, we don’t make it for the last viewing of the Spanish Riding School. But we do pass the stables where the striking white stallions retire for the evening. Their almost magical aura and calm curiosity captivates us and we happily forego the opportunity to view the silver collection and palace treasury. The Imperial apartments await us though! This time we gaze and gasp at the glorious trappings of the old royals in leisure.
Shopping at Mariahilfer street proves to be a disappointment. Its total lack of snob appeal has us scurrying to the Sacher Hotel for what else, the Sacher torte.We feel right at home nestled in the red velvet couches and then the dainty wood tables, as we nibble on pâté and crackers and watch the rush of harried feet dashing home from a day of work.
Back at the Grand Wien, we decide to browse through the Ringstrassen-Galerien mall that connects to our hotel. A couple of hours later, armed with enough pieces from the lifestyle section to redecorate an entire home, we enjoy our last hour before departure at the hotel’s lounge bar, reminiscing on this woefully short Viennese experience.
As we resolve to return soon to see what we have missed, Florence, our next destination, just a two-hour flight away, beckons. Hopefully, a similar comedy of sightseeing errors won’t be repeated again!
GRAND HOTEL WIEN
Pride of Vienna
As central as it gets, The Grand Hotel Wien stands proud amid great architectural and historical monuments on Kärntner Ring. Retaining a royal aura about its thickly carpeted and richly upholstered rooms, the hotel also features world-class restaurants like the gourmet Le Ciel – a terraced haven of European delights and Unkai – a trendy hub for Vienna’s latest fixation, sushi. The ever resourceful concierge offers great dining and night out tips, while the general service is expectedly faultless, cocooning you in a luxurious embrace that is easy to get used to. Enjoy a sumptuous buffet breakfast at the Grand Café or a superlative house wine at the Rosengarten bar before heading onwards to witness the best of Austria just a short walk away; you may spot faces like Cindy Crawford, Sir Paul McCartney or the U2 group stepping out with you!
VILLA SAN MICHELE
Ultra Luxe Retreat
Built on a hilly monastery site whose façade was designed by Michelangelo and rooms and corridors that retain an old austere edge, Villa San Michele is a fitting testament to the uniquely exclusive quality that every Orient Express Group hotel aims to offer. Antique wardrobes and chests, grey stone floors and a quaint chapel greet you with their ancient charm while Bvlgari toiletries and Egyptian cotton spreads entice with their modern luxurious appeal. The hotel’s gourmet restaurant provides impeccable service and connoisseur style meals to titillate and satisfy every discerning taste bud. On good days, sit along the softly welcoming verandah that overlooks Florence city for a candlelit dinner of fine wine, delectable lobster and an unusual chestnut mousse dessert. So acclaimed is the cuisine that The Villa San Michele School of Cookery regularly presents short courses to educate and refine the talents of chefs and amateurs alike. Whether you’re planning the honeymoon of a lifetime or a superlative getaway like no other, this little piece of heaven will be happy to comply.