Five faves: Things to do in Vienna

5 fave things to do in Vienna

The gardens at Belvedere Castle, Vienna

Vienna surprised me. Born of a long history of wealth and empire, modern-day Vienna struck me as likable, livable, underrated—a city that wears its historical, artistic and cultural treasures with an easy, quiet grace. Though I was there 10 years ago and stayed a full week, I don’t remember liking it as much as I did on my recent trip to meet up with my friends from the Ateneo Chamber Singers.

Apart from being a choir groupie, I got to explore Vienna on my own and was pleasantly charmed. A list of things to do in Vienna should be way longer than this, but for a quick city trip or weekend break, I’ve chosen my personal top five.

See Klimt’s The Kiss at Belvedere Castle.

As a lifelong fan of both Art Nouveau and Gustav Klimt, I couldn’t miss seeing Klimt in his hometown. Nestled among manicured gardens, Vienna’s Belvedere Castle houses the largest collection of oil paintings by Klimt, including Lovers, more popularly known as The Kiss.

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Image via Wikimedia Commons

Taking photos of The Kiss is forbidden, but I couldn’t stop the goosebumps. Seeing Klimt’s masterpieces up close, it’s amazing how bright and bold they are—just as if they were painted yesterday.

Gustav Klimt The Bride Belvedere Castle Vienna

Detail from “The Bride”, Gustav Klimt

The Belvedere Castle is also a wonderful introduction to the art of the Vienna Secessionists, and the haunting pieces of another famous Austrian artist: Egon Schiele.

Egon Schiele The Family Belvedere Castle Vienna

Detail from “The Family,” Egon Schiele

The Belvedere consists of an Upper and Lower part, with separate admission fees for each. If it’s Klimt you’re after, head straight to the Upper Belvedere.

Have a Viennese kaiserschmarrn and a Turkish coffee at Cafe Central.

Vienna is a star of turn-of-the-century European cafe culture, like Paris, Prague and Budapest. Built over 130 years ago, Cafe Central is the city’s most famous cafe, where intellectuals such as Freud, Lenin and Trotsky were regulars.

For a royal experience, combine a visit to this empress of cafe culture with the emperor of Vienna’s dessert scene: the Kaiserschmarrn.  Plainly said: you have to try the Kaiserschmarrn, and you have to have it here.

Vienna kaiserschmarrn at Cafe Central

The modest description “shredded pancake” did not prepare me for this fluffy mountain of cake, crowned with crunchy jewels of burnt caramel and a glossy, ruby-red sauce of stewed plums. It was my first meal of the day, so I attacked it with gusto; however, faced with a serving platter that could easily feed two or three (for just €8.50!), eventually I surrendered to the mighty Kaiserschmarrn.

Why a Turkish coffee and not a cafe Vienna? Personally, I found the Wiener Melange, a kind of Viennese cappuccino, kind of bland. This Turkish coffee, served in a copper pot, is the real stuff—a potent brew worthy of the magnificent Kaiserschmarrn.

It’s also a nod to Viennese history: at the height of its power, the Ottoman Empire attempted to capture Vienna twice, with two sieges 150 years apart. If the Turks had managed to capture and rule Vienna, who knows how Europe might look today?

Oh, and hey, Cafe Central is gorgeous too.

Vienna Cafe Central interior

It’s a celebrity in the cafe scene, but there are many others worth visiting in Vienna. Check out this great guide to Vienna’s cafes—I’ve bookmarked it for a return visit.

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Stedelijk Museum bookshop & ABC3D

For me, no museum visit is complete without a stop at the bookshop. Amsterdam’s museums have terrific ones, and the ever business-savvy Dutch have cleverly ensured that at the major museums (the Van Gogh, Rijksmuseum and Stedelijk), visitors can access the bookshops without having to buy a ticket to the museum itself.

Our family trip to the Stedelijk ended, naturally, with a visit to the museum’s stunning shop.

Stedelijk Museum bookshop

Not only does it look like a really nice place to just sit and browse art books…

Stedelijk bookshop

but it also has a great little selection of design gifts and goodies. I had my “mommy glasses” on (the parental equivalent of beer goggles) and zeroed in immediately on the children’s section, which has design-y books in English, Dutch and—my personal favorite—children’s books that can be read in any language.

This is how I found Tala’s first alphabet: a pop-up book called ABC3D by Parisian graphic designer Marion Bataille.

Marion Bataille ABC3D

The holographic cover alone promises something different. This isn’t your ordinary alphabet!

Marion Bataille ABC3D holographic cover

I love pop-up books for the sense of fun and surprise they bring to reading, and ABC3D combines those elements with some seriously cool type design. I looked for our family’s initials and took a few shots to show you.

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Stedelijk Museum

My visit to the Berlinische Galerie with Tala last June gave me the confidence to try something a bit bigger, closer to home. One weekend, Marlon and I took the baby to the Stedelijk Museum, the Netherlands’ largest museum of contemporary art and design.

The Stedelijk reopened in September of 2012 after an eight-year renovation, with a new visual identity and somewhat controversial new architecture. Personally, I can’t help but think “bathtub” or “kitchen sink” every time I pass by, and I know I’m not the only one!

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam

But once inside, it’s easy to appreciate the rethinking of the entire space.

Stedelijk Museum lobby2

Parts of the old brick building from the 1890s are still visible in the lobby, successfully merging the past and future.

Stedelijk Museum lobby1

Shall we step inside?

Stedelijk Museum ticket

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Berlinische Galerie

After Tala’s birth, I find myself approaching things that I used to do pre-baby almost as if I was doing them for the first time. Whether it’s going out on a date to traveling, part of me is now more cautious and curious—can I still do this or that thing that I loved to do? How will that experience change for me now that I have a baby?

So I really wanted to visit a museum while in Berlin. Marlon and I love museums—as boyfriend and girlfriend, we used to have sketching dates at the Asian Civilisations Museum in Singapore, and we always try to include a museum in every city trip that we do.

We love art museums in particular. An art museum seems like a quiet and contemplative temple, where silence is required for the thoughtful consideration of art. You never want to be the mom with the screaming baby anywhere, much less in a cavernous space that’s prone to echoes. But, inspired by Jenni Fuchs’ awesome post on kids in museums, I decided I had to try.

Berlinische Galerie

For my starter museum-with-baby visit, I chose the Berlinische Galerie, a museum of modern art, photography and architecture in Kreuzberg.

Berlinische Galerie-foyer

It’s a beautiful space, all cool, white concrete, definitely a good one to be in on a sweltering summer day. With just two floors, it’s a small and manageable museum, perfect for a few free hours in Kreuzberg.

Berlinische Galerie architecture stairs

Some of my favorite works from the museum’s collection included Emilio Vedova’s Absurd Berlin Diary, which was like walking in a landscape of paintings that had been freed from walls.

Absurd Berlin Diary by Emilio Vedova

At the time of my visit, the collection showed 100 years of art in Berlin, from 1880 to 1980. Turn-of-the-century Berlin was almost innocent in its art…

Lying Nude (1889) by Lesser Ury

Lying Nude (1889), Lesser Ury

… but the two World Wars changed all that.

Berlinische Galerie The Conformist-Mourning Mothers

The Conformist Turned Wild (1920), George Grosz & John Heartfield;
Mourning Mothers (1948), Fritz Cremer

The belle epoque of languid, glowing nudes disappeared, and the broken soldiers and mourning mothers of wartime took its place. I was struck by how politically charged the art became, and what a dark and complex history Berlin’s artists had to wrestle with. Another layer of this amazing city, peeled back and revealed for me to ponder.

I savored a couple of good, contemplative hours in the Berlinische Galerie—and when Tala started to cry, I didn’t get any dirty looks from anyone! I just sat facing a wall without any art, facing away from people, and nursed her in that cool, white space. It was pretty relaxing, actually. On my way out, one of the museum staff even helpfully pointed out the changing room for me to use.

So, museum with baby: check! I think I have the confidence to attempt a bigger one next time. The newly renovated Rijksmuseum, perhaps?

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Maritime Museum

A visit to Het Scheepvaart Museum, or the National Maritime Museum, was something Marlon and I have had on our Amsterdam must-do list for some time. Since it was just a few minutes’ walk from our date night restaurant, we decided to go before dinner.

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The museum is housed in a gorgeous building called the Arsenal, a massive warehouse built in the 1600s, when Amsterdam was the world’s largest, wealthiest and busiest port. It was closed for extensive renovations in 2007, and reopened just this year. Inside, it still maintains the look and feel of a 17th-century warehouse…

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… with the exception of the stunning glass ceiling over the Open Courtyard, inspired by the stars that old-time sailors used to navigate the seas.

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True to form, Marlon and I were late and only had one hour to explore before closing time at 5pm. So if your trip or stopover in Amsterdam is a short one, and you find yourself with only one hour to spare for this museum (which is just one bus stop from Centraal Station, by the way), this is what you should do:

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