The last stop on our whirlwind Tour-de-Eastern-Europe was Vienna. Although this was our original destination, it was probably the place I was the least excited about going. Not that I wasn’t excited – it just seemed the least unique, for lack of a better description. Let me publicly state that I am an idiot and I could not have been more wrong. Vienna is the capital city of Austria, which is located directly west of Slovakia and east of Germany.
We arrived in Vienna in the early afternoon after taking a bus from Budapest, which took about 2.75 hours (pro tip: it’s cheaper than the train, takes the same amount of time, and doesn’t require a reservation in advance). We would be there for New Year’s Eve, so we decided to stay at Wombat’s City Hostel in hopes that this would mean we didn’t have to actually figure out what to do for NYE and someone would just make plans for us. While hostels can certainly be crappy, this one was gorgeous, which was a good thing since it was AJ’s first time ever staying in a hostel and he was a bit apprehensive. We got a private room on the top floor – the penthouse! – and had amazing views of the city.
As usual, we headed right out the door and off to sightsee. We were staying near the Naschmarkt, which is a long row of merchant stalls, restaurants, and bars. It was here that I discovered that nearly every menu in all of Vienna is clearly marked with allergen information, and almost every restaurant has gluten-free options! I got gluten-free gnocchi and almost cried, it was so good. It was so nice to have the anxiety of finding food wiped away!
We didn’t have much of a plan for the day other than to head in the general direction of “the palace;” but as it turns out, there are multiple palaces and this was not the one I thought it was. It ended up working out even better, because we found the Christmas Markets at the Museum Quarter and I had to physically pick my jaw up off the floor. Seriously. I didn’t get the Christmas Market hype before. I get it now. OMG.
Stall after stall of delicious food and drinks (including more mulled wine than you could ever possibly comprehend) and tons of vendors selling gifts, cheese, sausage, and more. Not only are the stalls adorable and all lit up, they are also in places with the most incredible backdrops and beautiful settings.
AJ said it was like being in a movie, and it really was. Everywhere we looked, there were huge, stately buildings and statues with holiday lights, Christmas trees, and the markets themselves. I could not get over it.
Even more impressive than the markets at the Museum Quarter were the markets at Rathausplatz. The first thing we saw was the massive ice skating maze (yes, not a rink – it’s like an entire course) and the giant City Hall in the background with the stalls, lights, and a huge tree nestled underneath. I may have shed a single tear, it was so beautiful. I stopped at every single stall and just wanted to take in everything. Also, I have never seen so many people taking selfies in my entire life, and honestly, no judgement. It was necessary.
In a city that marks every menu with allergen information, it should come as no surprise that there were a bevy of restaurants catering to the gluten-free crowd. I really wanted to try some traditional Austrian food, so we headed across the river to a local place that I had read about. We happened to luck into getting the last table despite not having a reservation, and there was no waiting list – they literally just turned people away! I had an amazing gluten-free schnitzel stuffed with cheese and salami, as well as gluten-free crepes and easily the best gluten-free beer I have ever had in my life. Like, ever. It was up there with one of the best beers ever (AJ agreed), let alone gluten-free beer. Vienna, I think I love you.
After a bit more exploring, we decided to head back to the hostel to check out the hostel bar. It turns out it was stand-up comedy night, which led to me having to explain my fear of stand-up comedy to AJ. See, I really love stand-up, but I only like watching it on TV because I have a tremendous amount of anxiety watching people perform comedy specifically. I always worry that they are going to bomb and no one will laugh and they will feel bad, so I laugh at everything, even when I don’t think it is funny, which then makes me feel awkward and exhausted. AJ absorbed this explanation and then silently turned back toward the stage, which is really the only appropriate reaction to such a ridiculous conversation.
We were feeling a bit hungry at this point, so we decided to try and find some late night food. We were hoping for tacos, but nothing is really open super late in Vienna that we could find. McDonald’s was the only option, so we walked quite a long way to get there. I was annoyed, because there is really nothing at McDonald’s that I can eat. And then I saw the sign. THEY HAD GLUTEN FREE BUNS AT MCDONALD’S, YOU GUYS. I ATE A MCDONALD’S CHEESEBURGER FOR THE FIRST TIME IN 2.5 YEARS. Yes, I know fast food is disgusting, but I literally never eat it anymore because I can’t. BUT IN VIENNA, I CAN!!!! What a country, OMG.
The next day was New Year’s Eve, and we wanted to make the most of our day. We started the day with another free walking tour that told us the history of many of the sights we had seen the day before. Just 15 percent of Vienna was destroyed in World War II, so the city has a lot of really beautiful buildings. Honestly, the whole place looks like a movie set and it is just spectacular. The Hapsburg family, which ruled Austria for something like six centuries, did everything big, and it is all gorgeous. We stood in the square where Hitler announced the annexation of Austria (our guide played a portion of the speech and it felt very real and scary), saw Mozart’s house, and saw a church dating from the ninth century. The tour was so interesting that I didn’t even take that many pictures because I just wanted to listen!
We had just enough time to grab some lunch before headed to Schonbrunn Palace, which is about three miles from the city center (this is the palace we thought we were going to the first time). The palace was the summer residence of the Hapsburg family and we were able to see 40 rooms of it with the tickets we purchased. Although we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside, just envision gold everywhere and giant portraits. The famous empress of Austria, Maria Theresa, had 16 children, and their pictures are everywhere. All the kids looked exactly the same and honestly, if you told me it was a hundred portraits of the same kid at various ages, I would have believed you. It was fascinating to see the opulence they lived in and learn about the reforms the family made over the years. They were deeply loved by their people and that was obvious throughout our time in Vienna. The grounds of the palace were equally breathtaking, and of course, there was another Christmas Market!
By this point in the trip, we were feeling pretty worn out and daunted by the idea of a huge NYE celebration. A pub crawl definitely wasn’t happening after the Budapest incident of 2016, but I knew that we would regret not going out and experiencing the city for at least a little while. It had been absolutely freezing cold that day, which made the walking tour pretty unpleasant at times, so neither of us were super psyched about heading out into the cold again. Still, we forced ourselves out the door and grabbed some dinner and headed back to the city center.
I’m so glad we did! Vienna really does NYE right. They set up stages throughout the city and you basically walk a trail between each of the large landmarks, starting at the Rathausplatz Christmas Markets. There are special commemorative NYE cups that you get your drinks in and all of the stalls are open. It was such a fun atmosphere that we decided to walk the entire trail! There was a huge variety in musical acts but such a fun, festive and happy mood everywhere we went. Of course, the city was all lit up with beautiful holiday lights and décor, and we had a few of those “pinch me” moments where we just couldn’t believe we were there!
We did end up heading back to the hostel around 11 pm to finish packing, and AJ passed out pretty much immediately. Thankfully, our “penthouse” room had huge windows that went up into the ceiling, so I had an amazing view of the city at midnight. He ended up waking up just in time to see the big fireworks and watch the clock strike 12, and there was no place else I would have rather been. It was the perfect ending to a great trip and an incredible year.
Yes, Vienna definitely stole my heart and ended up being our favorite stop on the trip – not even just because of the gluten-free McDonald’s. I can’t wait to go back someday! Billy Joel was right – Vienna waits for you.
LEAVE A COMMENT: What was your #1 travel food moment? Have you ever visited Vienna or the European Christmas Markets?