Sunday, October 11, 2015

Vienna: Art and Chocolate Cake

With a long history of royal families, Vienna has several palaces worth seeing. The last time I visited Vienna, I went to the Schönbrunn Palace, the sprawling former Habsburg summer home. You can tour some of the 1,000+ room residence and the massive gardens to get a glimpse of imperial life. 

This time, I planned to go to the Belvedere Palace and Museum. The Belvedere Palace is also the former stomping ground of the Habsburg family. This royal residence is closer to the city center. The grounds are broken up into two palaces (the Upper and the Lower Belvedere), the gardens, the Orangery, and the Palace Stables. Now all of these parts can be seen individually or purchased together on a group ticket. 

Most of the permanent exhibits are housed in the Upper Belvedere. They have a large collection of Austrian art. I don't always enter art museums when I travel, but I had extra time so I went for it. The star of the gallery is Gustav Klimt. His "The Kiss" is probably the most recognizable piece in the museum. It's so popular that they put a replica in the lobby of the museum with a sign promoting selfies. (No flash photography is allowed of the real painting.)  

From there I walked by Karlskirche and the Royal Opera to my next destination, one that I was really looking forward to: Hotel Sacher for a piece of the original Sachertorte. The Sachertorte chocolate cake is a well established institution in Vienna. History has it that the Sachertorte was created in the 1800s as a special treat for Austria's Emperor. The cake is chocolate sponge with apricot jam and chocolate icing. The cake became a big hit, and still is. Fun Fact: December 5th is dedicated National Sachertorte Day. Needless to say, when I arrived to the Hotel Cafe, there was a line out the door. 

When I finally got in, I ordered the orginal Sachertorte and an espresso with milk. (PS- there are loads of delicious looking desserts if you're feeling adventurous.) The interior of the hotel cafe is elegant and proper. While you are waiting for your cake, you can even read all about the history of the hotel and the secretly guarded recipe. Then the cake arrived. It was moist and sweet, but not overkill. A leisurely afternoon having a coffee and cake is just what you need in Vienna to replenish you from all the museums you've been visiting. 

To conclude my final afternoon in Vienna, I passed by the University of Vienna. Unlike the business university I had been to the day before, this campus was much more traditional. There was a terrace/courtyard in the middle of the rectangular-shaped building where students were reading and socializing outside. I wandered down some halls, trying to imagine what it would be like to be a student here. I studied in universities in the U.S. and Spain, so I always like to compare other campuses. I think I would like it. :)

Belvedere Palace grounds
Upper Belvedere

View of Lower Belvedere and the city center
"The Kiss" Selfie Point
Royal Opera House
Sacher Cafe

University of Vienna
University of Vienna courtyard

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Vienna: One Big Museum

When you're a person who loves to explore, you feel the complusive need to force your companions to see every sight there is when traveling. I usually spend time pouring through TripAdvisor and city tour sights before departing to get a feel for what I "must see and do". I love studying maps and routing potential sight itineraries for each day.

In the afternoon following the release of the academics from their finance conference, I met up with my husband and a few friends from the university to drag them around Vienna. I navigated us through the metro to St. Stephen's Cathedral, and from there, took us along the main tourist route to the Hofburg Imperial Palace. I had made this same route before during my previous visit to Vienna some three years earlier. It's amazing how one time in a city and you will still recognize your way around the next time you visit.

In front of the Hofburg Palace, we stopped to have a coffee because I said that was a Viennese thing to do (and also the professors needed a pick-me-up).

We continued our jouney past the Palace, the Sissy Museum, the famed Spanish Riding School, and the National Library to the Maria-Theresien-Platz. The Maria-Theresien-Platz is flanked on either side by two almost identical looking buildings, The Museum of National History and the Fine Arts Museum.

Walking south from the Maria-Theresien-Platz, you'll cross the Museumplatz to discover.... even more museums! Museumquartier is a cool grouping of various museums, along with bars, restaurants, and open outdoor space for nights out. We saw a Tiki foodcart selling mojitos, which we figured we needed.

To end our tour of Vienna sights, we headed to the Rathaus (Town Hall). Exactly the same as my trip before, they were playing outdoor movies on a screen placed over the Town Hall building. There were plenty of people about, enjoying the movie showings the city puts on each summer.

When we got back to our hotel, I felt quite accomplished by what we had covered. It would really have been a shame for these colleagues to have missed all these sights!

St. Stephen's Cathedral

Cool street art
Hofburg Palace
Making the museum route, outside the National Library.
The Natural History Museum... or the Museum of Fine Arts. They look so similar! 
Professors on the town.
Summer Movie Festival!

Monday, September 21, 2015

Vienna's Tech City

Most people come to Vienna to see the museums and the Opera (amongst other things).

One thing you might not expect to see in Vienna is a modern technology village. While J was in his first conference session, I went exploring as I always do. Instead of heading straight to the city center, I decided to walk north to UN city. There is a large UN office and technology hub in Vienna Donau City. Young business professionals with company badges breeze in and out of high rises. There are gyms, restaurants, trendy coffee shops, and lots of technies. This little city is very modern looking and quite a contrast from the traditional Vienna landscape across the Danube.

To get to Donau City, you need to walk across the bridge over the Danube River. There is a pedestrian walkway under the bridge for non-motor vehicle travellers (like myself). Upon beginning my walk across the bridge, I was a little nervous that maybe I'd gone the wrong way. There was a lot of graffiti on the pedestrian walkway and I didn't see anyone else walking around me. Later, I passed a group of tourists with bulky cameras around their necks and I knew I was okay.

Once I reached the Donau City, it sort of reminded me of Washington, D.C.'s outskirt cities like Rosslyn in Northern Virginia. There is even a metro stop in D.C. called Vienna. Donau City must be the new up-and-coming place to work in Vienna. I certainly saw a lot of well dressed yuppies.

Because I like to really get to know a place when I travel, I spent some time wondering around Donau City. I took the pedestrian walkway on the other side of the bridge and this time passed many more people walking to work. There is a well connected Metro stop right at the center of Donau City, but I choose to walk whenever possible.

My next stop was the equally modern looking Vienna University of Economics and Business where the finance conference was being held. The campus is composed of bright, futuristic buildings. The Vienna University of Economics and Business could not look more different than my southern U.S. university.

Passing the St. Francis of Assisi Church walking the bridge to the Donau City.

Life as a yuppie techie in Donau City.

Leaving the Donau City back to Vienna center.
Graffiti galore along the bridge.
I would hate to be his ex-girlfriend, or current girlfriend.
The Vienna University of Economics and Business.

More to come on the museums of Vienna and Sacher chocolate cake!

Monday, September 7, 2015

Prater Park, Vienna

At the end of August, we travelled to Vienna, Austria for the European Finance Association annual conference. My husband and several of his colleagues were attending the conference from the university. I always like going on conference trips because I can sightsee while my husband is in his meetings.

I'd been to Vienna before, three years ago while I was finishing my first year in Spain. My American rommmate and I were taking a train trek through Europe on an InterRail Pass. The two of us arrived in Vienna from Munich. I remember thinking Vienna was a very regal city. Very 'old European' style.

This visit I was staying slightly further out of the city center, close to the university that was hosting the conference. Our hotel was conveniently right next to Prater Park, one of the oldest amusement parks in the world! We had great views from our window. At night you could even hear people screaming from some of the scarier rides. We had to walk through the park to get to the Metro, so we got to know it pretty well by the end of the trip . It's really an interesting mix of attractions: roller coasters, waterslides, merry-go-round, freefalls, horror houses, spinning teacups... you name it, they've got it. In summary, it's one part cheesy county fair, one part legit thrill rides.

View from our window of the Vienna Prater.
A few old-school roller coasters.
Spinning sombreros.
Carnival games.

J and one of his colleagues even felt bold enough to try the scariest ride in the park: The Turbo Boost! The description for this ride guarantees a 'zero-gravity' thrill. (

I volunteered to take pictures.

Smiles and thumbs-up at the beginning...
About to be slung upwards at incredible speeds.
The ride makes multiple 360 rotations, occasionally pausing mid-rotation, leaving riders sitting for several minutes suspended at the top. No thank you.

Upon doing further research of the park, I discovered that the Vienna Prater has the world's tallest chair swing! Every night when we passed through the park, I felt the pressure. I had to ride it. I mean, how often would I have this chance? Anyone who knows me knows that I don't ride thrill rides. Traditionally, chair swings aren't per se 'thrill rides', however one that rotates 383 feet above the air, I'd classify as scary. (To put that in real life terms, that 29 stories up!) 

On our final night in Vienna, I knew it was now or never. Against J's disbelief, I strapped myself in next to him on the highest swing of our lives. The combination of the chairs rotating and ascending is slightly unnerving. I thought I could handle it because I enjoyed the chair swing in Six Flags Over Georgia. Child's play.

From the top, you could see the lights from the city. The views were beautiful. But realistically, you're too busy trying to mentally distract yourself from the knowledge of just high up you are to really take it all in. Once we had reached the top and were making our rotations, I realized that I had barely breathed the whole way up. J also noted the tight death squeeze I had on his hand. Once I relaxed a little to breathe, I could momentarily enjoy the ride. I could make out a few of the iconic buildings we had visited earlier in the day. It was certainly an experience. I'm glad I can say I've been on the world's tallest chair swing! It's not something you get to do everyday! 

The Praterturm, all 29 stories!
Those tiny white dots are the chairs. Yikes.
Check off another experience off the bucket list!
Would you dare to do this swing?

Prater Park is also known for it's famous ferris wheel, an icon of the city built 1896/7. It's a slow moving rotation and you can even eat in the restaurant inside some of the cars. Check out more info about Vienna's favorite amusement park here:

Friday, August 28, 2015

We go to Vigo!

After our late arrival to Madrid, we spent two more days in the city. We both still have friends living there so we use our visits to meet up with them. It's always nice to have friends in places where you used to live. You can laugh about shared memories and all the new places that have popped up since you moved away. Spain was at the end of the hottest summer on record, with temperatures well into the high 90s and low 100s. The days we were there were very warm, but thankfully not as bad as earlier that month. Nothing that can't be cured by a Tinto de Verano (red wine and fanta mix) in Retiro Park. The name in English means "Summer Wine" and is enjoyed over ice.

We took the train to Galicia to J's hometown. We had a week-long visit to catch up with his family and friends. August is the vacation month in Spain and the atmosphere was pretty relaxed. We had open-air barbeques and days at the beach.

Every time we visit Galicia, we usually take a day or two to see some new city or sight in his region. We've been to Santiago de Compostela, the city famous for the St. James Cathedral and pilgrimage trail, 'El Camino de Santiago'. We've visited the furthest western point of Europe at Cape Finisterre, soaked in thermal baths, participated in a medivial festival, and stopped in a number of other cities along the coast. The closest major city to where my husband's family lives is Vigo. There's an airport there, with regional connections and a few international destinations. Too bad no flights from Manchester or Atlanta. There are also reknowned beaches in Vigo. The beaches in Vigo are always packed; finding a place to park is a real art.

Also, Vigo is a pretty cool town, as I just discovered. Besides flying into the airport and visiting the beaches, we'd never gone together into the city center. I guess it's like growing up in the suburbs of Atlanta, you don't go into the city every day. We normally hang out in my husband's town, but I enjoyed seeing the busier Vigo. It had a mix of modern metropolitican avenues with an old, historic part of town.

The old town connects to the city's port and has lots of fresh seafood. There's a famous street for eating oysters that were just caught from the sea. The day we went to Vigo, there was a large BMX competition going on near the port. From Vigo, you can also visit the Las Islas Cies, a protected Nature Reserve with National Park status. There is a limit to how many people can visit the island each day and the only way to overnight is camping; there are no hotels. I'm voting for this to be the sight we see on our next visit!

(Shameless plug for my husband's home region.) For more information about seeing Vigo, visit their website at:

Upcoming travel tales: Vienna, Bratislava, and Budapest

Friday, August 14, 2015

Return to Madrid

We ended our summer in the US, and then we embarked on a quick trip to Spain to see J's family.

One of the best things about visiting J's family in northern Spain is that we have to pass through Madrid on the way. Have is more like we luckily get to stay in Madrid before we take the train to Galicia.

Just thinking about flying to Madrid makes my heart beat faster; in a good way. Madrid is my favorite city in the world. I spent two wonderful years living in Spain's capital, meeting all sorts of characters, traveling the continent on budget airlines, improving my Castellano (Spain's Spanish), studying a Master degree, drinking sangria..... and oh yeah, meeting my future husband.

Needless to say, the city holds countless memories for me. Each street reminds me of some earlier adventure.

It's so nice to touch down in Madrid because I know how to arrive anywhere in the city. The metro works like a dream and almost any hotel is reachable within short walking distance from a stop. 

I was anxious to get our journey on the way. However, our 9:00 PM flight from Manchester was delayed. 2 hours. Sigh. To make matters worse, the "very crowded" Ryanair flight forced us to check our carry-on bags under the plane. Upon boarding, I couldn't help but notice all the open overhead storage bins. After landing in Madrid at 2 AM, we had to wait around in baggage claim because the Ryanair luggage handlers were on strike. Just the Ryanair luggage handlers.

Our only bit of luck was catching the 24 hour airport shuttle to the city right before it left the airport. As it was the middle of the night, there was no traffic and within minutes we were unloading at Cibeles Plaza. The usual crowd of rowdy night-goers were out. I smiled. We were back.

We instinctively started making our way on foot to our hotel in Puerta del Sol. We tossed down our luggage and walked right back out into Sol. If you've got to arrive at 3 AM in any city of the world, it might as well be Madrid. We walked around the streets adjoining Sol, declining offers for free entrance to the bars and discos. It just felt so nice to be outside in the warm air and people-watch. 

Climbing the stairs to our hotel, I saw a sign for an English teaching company located on the bottom floor. Tempting...

Madrid by night.
My Madrid!
3AM arrival to Madrid? No problem!
Puerta del Sol!