Vienna, the city of Opera, Mozart and…smoky jazz bars?

In a deep-set basement, smoke curls around tumblers of inexpensive Viennese wine. An eager young woman deftly strokes each ivory key, making the piano sing a sultry jazz melody. Discerning old men in dated fedoras nod approvingly while rowdy college boys cheer her on. A pink-faced bartender in suspenders, bow tie and a nose ring happily doles out generous portions of tasty 2 euro wines to the rustic crowd. It’s something reminiscent of a swank gin joint but with a hipster flair. This is Vienna, music capital of the world. But this isn’t Mozart. This is not quite the Vienna I pictured. I came to this little underground joint by means of my in-the-know German roommates. Perfectly safe, but it’s in a local neighborhood no guide book will ever take you to–not even my trusty Rick Steves. But it’s a perfect showcase on how Vienna bleeds music. Whether fine-tuned classicists, operatic baritones or a young pianist with a passion for making the house dance, music is at the heart of this city.

Austria’s capital was one of those cities I wasn’t DYING to see. My thoughts were that it was stuffy and snooty and you’d only get the most of it if you had the money for box seats at the Opera House. And yes, it’s pricier as a whole than say Prague, but it’s a very livable city with plenty of sights to see and things to do that won’t crack your budget. Viennese wine is tasty and cheap, street food is plentiful and classy pubs catering to local youth and young professionals are in abundance. Maybe you’re meal won’t be $2, but you can easily have a sizable meal with wine for under $8.

On my quick two day visit, I started by walking the city’s old town. Like all of Europe, of course it suffered at the hands of Nazi occupation. But did you know that Hitler was Austrian born? He was actually a failed artist in his youth–perhaps his shortcomings in such a glorious mecca of achievements gave him a complex. During the war, instead of occupying and annihilating Austria, Hitler just absorbed it as part of Germany. Like Berlin, the country was divided up into U.S. and Soviet territories following the war. They earned their sovereignty in 1955. Today, Viennese are very sensitive about it if you refer to them as Germans as they have been a powerful European force for 1,000–long before Germany was even on the map.

Although most Viennese would probably like to forget Hitler once called it home, the city boasts a legion of other great minds: Mozart, Beethoven and Freud to name a few.

I visited the palaces of the remarkable Hapsburg dynasty–a family that ruled for roughly 400 years, shaping much of Europe. The ill-fated Marie Antoinette was the youngest daughter of ruling Hapsburgs, for example. I peeked at some thought provoking art and toured the world-famous opera house. Sadly, because of the Easter holiday, there were no shows. Although, aside from first-come standing room tickets (for an incredible $4) tickets are pretty much sold out a year in advance. My tour guide told me there are some Viennese who attend the opera nearly every night. Yikes–that’s a city that loves music!

A side note on Easter in Europe: Whatever your divine beliefs, there is something quite powerful about being in a strongly Catholic place like Vienna on Good Friday. The extravagant cathedrals are brimming with teary-eyed pilgrims overwhelmed with humility and joy by this significant time of year. It’s something to see.

Today, Vienna is a thriving, bustling city with high-end shopping, pristine streets, sumptuous architecture and a sophisticated youth culture. Young people attend classical concerts and frequent museums not because of a school assignment, but because…well, doesn’t everyone?

Locals are polite, excited about life and curious about the world. They want to know where you’re from, why you’re there, what you do. Street peddlers are aggressive here and avoiding them is an art form. Men dressed in half-assed 18th century coats aggressively recruit you to their “classical” concerts (over priced tourist shows where inexperienced musicians in Mozart costumes put on a show).  Shop keeps selling touristy trinkets will all but chase you if you say you’re not interested.

If you’re ever here, don’t miss the Naschmarkt. Dating back to the 16th century, this one-mile bazaar features 120 stalls of produce, spices, food vendors, wine bars, shopping, fish markets and more. It’s packed with gawking tourists and serious local chefs out to pick up their supplies. Eager vendors thrust samples in your face as you walk by and compete with the guy across the aisle for your business. It’s a great place to buy delicious local snacks, or just sit and sip a wine and people watch.

Although I saw the sights I came to see, I slightly wish I’d given Vienna another day or so just to take in the pleasant, relaxed lifestyle. It’s refreshing to sit down and be able to write a happy post after the gravity of my previous experience.

Tomorrow I’m headed to Slovakia!

The Imperial Palace.

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Inside the Opera House.

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Couldn’t resist. This is the FANCIEST McDonald’s I’ve ever seen. This actually doesn’t even do it justice.

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