Melissa's Travels

Vienna for the Holidays

Indagare founder Melissa Biggs Bradley shares intel from her festive visit to Vienna, which literally sparkles over the holidays.

My family wanted a festive Christmas away this year, so we chose to spend the week in Vienna, which we discovered may be the best city in Europe for visitors looking for a joyful, cultural-filled celebration. Yes, Vienna literally sparkles this time of year—the extravagantly lit Christmas markets in front of City Hall and twinkling lights suspended over the avenues resemble constellations of stars, brought down to earth—but what made our experience so special is that the city's cultural offerings don't close for the holidays. Even on Christmas Eve and Christmas day we could explore the great museums and attractions.

When we arrived on the 23rd of December, the many pedestrian-only streets in the center of town were festooned with wreaths and ribbons and ropes of Christmas lights. The city’s Christmas markets teemed with people shopping for decorations and sampling traditional holiday treats, from gluhwein and cider to Christmas buns and bratwurst. Our hotel, Hotel Sacher Wien, pulled out all of the stops, with a towering toy train set chugging in the foyer to a massive Christmas tree in the main salon. Even the lines of tourists waiting to get into the Café Sacher for a slice of its famous chocolate torte added to the sense of holiday anticipation.

On Christmas Eve morning we headed to the Hofburg Palace to see the Sisi Museum and the Imperial apartments for an immersion into the family of Emperor Franz Joseph, the legendary ruler of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Constructed from the 13th to the 20th centuries and with more than 2,600 rooms, the seat of the Habsburg family is its own lesson in European history. Then, we walked through the palace gardens to Austria’s largest art history museum, the Kunsthistorisches, which was opened by Franz Joseph in 1891, where we had lunch in the café under its palatial dome. An art historian gave us a fabulous tour of many of the collection highlights: Titians, Rembrandts, Bruegel’s Tower of Babel; Arcimboldo’s vegetable heads; Durer’s Adoration of the Trinity and Parmigianino’s self-portrait in a convex mirror, among them.

In Austria, Christmas Eve is the day when “Christkind,” or the Christ child, which is neither a boy nor a girl, brings presents, not Father Christmas. So the evening of the 24th is the big celebration. Similar to New Year’s, in Vienna this is the night when restaurants have special menus and seatings, and you must have a reservation. At Fuhrich, we feasted on Wiener Schnitzel surrounded by Viennese families and walked home beneath a dazzling array of Christmas lights.

Christmas morning, we headed to the Leopold Museum in the Museumsquartier. The streets and the museum were virtually empty, but our guide was as excited as we were to celebrate Christmas admiring the incredible passion project of Elisabeth and Rudolf Leopold, eye doctors who amassed 6,000 works of 20th century Austrian art, including amazing Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele pieces. Its Vienna "1900: Birth of Modernism'' exhibit brought the intimacy of the city’s intellects to life, underscoring how Vienna’s visionary scientists, painters, musicians and architects influenced each other and together laid the foundations of 20th century progress.

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One of the perks of staying at the Sacher is access to the Café Sacher, so we had Christmas lunch in one of the city’s oldest cafes, ending with a slice of Sachertorte. We spent the afternoon with another fabulous guide on a walking tour of the city that included St. Stephen’s Cathedral and former homes of Mozart and Beethoven. That evening we went to see Hansel und Gretel at the historic Vienna Opera House. Another Vienna cultural-must accomplished on Christmas.

The following morning, while stores remained closed, cultural sites were open. We went to see a performance of the famous Lipizzan horses at the Spanish Riding School. Located within the Hofburg Palace, the baroque riding ring resembles the grandeur of the opera house, and the “Ballet of the White Stallions” has been declared a cultural treasure by UNESCO. After the show, we were able to visit the stables, where some of the stallions were being warmed up by infrared lights. We learned about their pedigrees, training and vacations in the countryside and met the barn cats and one rare black stallion.

That afternoon we went to Belvedere Palace to see Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss, which is on permanent display, and discovered a wonderful surprise: The Woman in Gold. The only woman ever painted twice by Gustav Klimt was Adele Bloch-Bauer. Thanks to the movie starring Helen Mirren about the battle by her descendant, Maria Altmann, to regain the family portrait from the Austrian government, Adele and her portraits became symbols of art restitution. Both portraits of Adele (Adele II, 1919, from Klimt’s modernist period and Adele I, 1907, from his Golden Period) are on display in the Belvedere for another month. The special circumstance, as explained by the museum: “Adele Bloch Bauer Il is now back in Vienna for technical analysis and extensive conservation treatment at the Belvedere workshops. As a result, until February 2024 visitors have the unique opportunity to see this outstanding privately owned late work in the original.” Next to the portrait was a quote from Maria about her great aunt: “Adele was always very elegant. She wore a long, white flowing dress, and she was very thin. She constantly smoked, which was very unusual for a woman in those days. I always say that she was a woman of today who lived in a world of yesterday: She would have loved to go to the university. She would have loved to work. But it wasn’t done at that time.”

Vienna evolves but it also clings to its tradition.”

The next day we saw more Klimts and Schieles as well as Michelangelo and Rembrandt drawings on a special tour of the Albertina, where we also visited more royal apartments, and I realized that part of Vienna’s cultural magic is how present the past can feel. In 1900, Vienna was at its pinnacle of importance on the world stage. Its unique cauldron of intellectualism that brought the greatest minds of the empire together in café sessions and salon evenings was seeding the 20th century, as Richard Crockett lays out in his new book Vienna: How the City of Ideas Created the Modern World. And less than twenty years later, the empire vanished and the city’s prominence with it. Vienna today has a population similar in size to what it was a century ago. It evolves but it also clings to its tradition and to that time, which is why visiting its past feels somehow more accessible. Even now, the ideas explored and debated in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century—about art, identity, war, race and creativity and consciousness—still reverberate today, and very consequentially, for all of us. I came away feeling that right now Vienna might be more modern than ever.

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