March 7, 2019 – Despite four decades of work travel to Europe, I never had a business gig in Vienna until this past January when our son resided there for a month studying music and performing with his college’s 86-piece orchestra. My wife and I visited Vienna to take in one of his performances and to explore the city. In retrospect.
I can’t believe in a lifetime of global travels that I neglected paying close attention to this most elegant, urbane, and civilized of cities. I loved the place! This is the first of several posts on our experience in Vienna, or Wien, in German (“auf Deutsch”).
British Airways may be stingy, but their flight arrived Vienna early. Immigration was a breeze (one person ahead of us in the queue), and we took the City Airport Train (Why is its name in English?) from the airport to Wien Mitte (center of town). It was expensive at €12 each, but a fast 16 minutes nonstop, and convenient (easy to find, easy-to-use ticketing kiosks, and runs every 30 minutes). Cheaper trains are available that make several suburban stops, and taxis are about €36 (I paid €40 for a cab returning to the airport).
We got our bearings and walked 15 minutes to the Mercure Biedermeier Hotel . Wouldn’t have been bad except for the freezing cold drizzle, gusty wind, and cobblestones beating up the wheels on our heavy bags. Nonetheless, we were psyched just to be there.
The Mercure had our key ready since I’d easily checked in online before leaving Raleigh. It is part of the Accor hotel chain. I had never heard of it, but they boast 750 properties worldwide (“weltweit” in German). We chose it because our son and his entire college orchestra was staying there.
Turns out Mercure is a mid-range brand of Accor, sort of Hilton Garden Inn-Hyatt Place-Courtyard, although it claims to be full-service in the European way. Accor as a group includes Raffles, Fairmont, Swissotel, and Sofitel—all fine brands. The problem, of course, is none of those brands is strong in the USA and the Accor frequency program is weak, a compound negative for attracting American business travelers.
Room 373 was called a “Prestige” accommodation. Very comfortable and solid in the way Germanic hotels often are. Modern and traditional at the same time. If this level of accommodation was meant to be competing with Hilton Garden Inn, I would choose a Mercure every time.
Jetlagged, we quickly unpacked and went back out for a cold, wet walk to stay awake. In our purposely aimless wanderings we came across a Vienna transit ticket kiosk and purchased 3-day transit passes good on all modes in the city, including the two underground railways, S Bahn and U Bahn.
We stopped at a fancy, modern patisserie to enjoy an espresso and broetchen (fresh, out-of-this-world-delicious bread as only the Germans and Austrians can bake it). The Austrians love their dogs, and the mutts go everywhere with them. As we left, I snapped a photo through the window of a dog in its Viennese owner’s arms.
Right beside the hotel we entered a Hofer grocery store (the Austrian version of Aldi) to stock up on beer and more fresh bread before returning to the hotel.
This Mercure was very nice, just what we wanted. Not luxurious, but unpretentious and very solid and comfortable, with the usual hotel nits (e.g., mediocre shower pressure and the shower head kept tilting down, the latter problem remedied within 30 minutes of letting the front desk know). I’d definitely stay with them again on business or leisure.
Being back in a European city reminded me of how great it is to be car-free because public transit works so well. The 3-day Vienna Transit passes were €17.10 each, about $21, which is a paltry $7/day for all the transportation anyone needs. With the dense network of underground rail, tram, and buses, who needs a car? Just get on a tram or underground or bus, with no need to fight traffic, no need to fill a car with gas, no need to find and pay for parking, no need to pay for auto insurance, no need to pay for licensing and registering a vehicle, no need to pay for maintaining a car, and no need to pay vehicle property taxes. Why don’t Americans understand how costly and tiresome owning a car is?
We got everywhere easily and quickly thanks to the spiderweb of transit services and their high frequency. For example, the Vienna U Bahn trains run 24 hrs, with 4 minute headways early morning until late at night. And the trains are always packed, even running every 4 minutes.
It’s fun and relaxing to get around when public transit works this well, something almost every American city lacks.
What’s more traditional Viennese fare than wienerschnitzel and homemade wurst (sausages) with sauerkraut and Roesti (roasted potatoes)? We enjoyed those dishes, served our first night at a restaurant the locals favor (so local, in fact, that it only took cash in payment), and washed down with local Goesser lager and a glass of Gruener Veltliner in the company of our son and his friend. Perfect!
Afterwards, we all walked through beautiful St. Stephensplatz. My wife and I later visited the 150 year old opera house before jetlag got the better of us.
But before ending this epistle recounting our first day in Vienna, I have to comment on the e-scooter revolution. It has reached Vienna, with Bird and Lime scooters competing hard for Viennese first and last mile connectivity to public transit.
Given how dense the urban transit network is in Vienna, it is quite easy to walk to a bus, tram, U Bahn, or S Bahn stop from just about anywhere downtown. Thus I was surprised the scooters were so popular. Cost starts at €1 ($1.14), about the same as in the USA. Perhaps people are using them for short trips more direct and faster than using transit.
On our second night in Vienna, we attended a performance of Giuseppe Verdi’s “Falstaff” at the magnificent Opera House and had quite an unexpectedly luxurious evening, about which more later.