Thinking about Vienna, I thought of touristy clichés: Sissi, opera, Mozartkugeln. Naff, quaint, boring. Not to worry. I wasn’t going there to have an exciting time but to see my brother. Expecting a calming city break, I really should have known better. Time spent in the company of my brother, who is as extravert as I am introvert, is never boring.
Vienna proved to be quite different than I expected. To start with, the Mozartkugeln sold in every souvenir shops aren’t even Viennese. They are a product of Salzburg and therefore sniffed at by genuine Wiener people. Männerschnitten – crispy waffles with a hazelnut or chocolate filling – are considered the real deal and, in my opinion, far more delicious.
Tourists, I soon discovered, go wherever other tourists go. I found them taking selfies inside the magnificent Stephansdom cathedral, queuing outside Café Sacher for an overpriced slice of chocolate cake, and looking faintly ridiculous as they rattled past in a Fiaker carriage. With the crowds gathering in a handful of places, the rest of the city was free to be discovered at leisure. Just the way I like it.
Of course I had my own bucket list of things I wanted to see. I was keen to visit the Leopold Museum, as it houses the largest collection of Egon Schiele paintings in the world, as well as the Hundertwasser Haus, a block of flats redesigned by the controversial Austrian artist.
Have I seen these highlights, and were they worth it? Absolutely. But when it comes to the most memorable moments of the trip, both places rank fairly low on my list. Funnily enough, though I had a great time exploring them, they did not impress me as much as I had expected they would.
If they didn’t, then what did? Allow me to elaborate. I photographed a power station. I visited an aquarium in an abandoned nuclear bunker where tiny fish nibbled my hands. I had breakfast in a hospital. I played crazy golf in an old railway building. I drank homemade lemonade in a secret rooftop bar. I sunbathed alongside the Donau canal next to a graffiti-encrusted concrete wall with an ice cream in my hand.
Many tourist attractions are famous for a reason. Schloss Schönbrunn is pretty, that’s for sure, and its expansive gardens do not disappoint. But if you stick to the beaten path you’ll end up selling yourself short. There’s much more fun to be had when you go where the locals go, eat what they like to eat, listen to the music they listen to, and abandon the idea of a bucket list altogether. Do weird and illogical things. Be prepared for adventures. And for heaven’s sake, leave that phone in your pocket for once.
Image my own – Façade of the Hundertwasser Haus