For Prague-based visitors, the Austrian capital is more accessible than ever before
Forget the stereotypes.
There's more to the Austrian capital than stuffy museums, expensive cafés, and men in feathered hats.
With a multicultural population of around 1.7 million, Vienna is a vibrant European capital, chock full of things to see and places to go.
The city's imperial past remains a large part of its identity, and its historic center, like Prague's, is a UNESCO-protected World Heritage site.
But Vienna doesn't seem to have been hamstrung by its heritage, with imaginative new uses found for historical sites, and contemporary art decorating ancient buildings.
During our trip, for instance, the Hofburg imperial palace was the venue for a gay pride event. Right Said Fred played live in a thunderstorm.
It's hard to imagine Prague Castle staging something similar.
The strong crown, Schengen, and high-speed trains also mean it's never been easier for visitors based in the Czech Republic to get to Vienna.
Introduced in 2005, České drahy's SuperCity Pendolino service means the Austrian capital is little more than a four-hour ride away, and offers levels of comfort rarely experienced on Czech railways.
The downside, of course, is that Pendolino tickets are 200 CZK more expensive than regular ČD services, but group discounts mean the journey is still surprisingly affordable for larger parties.
For a party of four, for instance, a group ticket costs 3,017 crowns each way -- just under 755 crowns each.
We stayed at the Hotel Kugel, in the quaintly bohemian Spittelberg district, where a double room with canopy bed, plus breakfast, cost 110 euros (around 2,790 CZK) per night.
A great option to avoid high hotel costs is to stay in a private apartment. Try AirBNB for great deals.
Located just off Mariahilferstrasse, Vienna's main shopping street, the Kugel is also well located for MuseumsQuartier Wien, an impressive agglomeration of galleries, workspaces, cafés and, of course, museums.
Combining converted historical buildings with purpose-built contemporary spaces, the MQ has a wealth of attractions for anyone interested in modern art and design.
Maria-Theresien-Platz, across the street from the MuseumsQuartier, offers a more traditional side to the city and begins the magnificent spread of buildings that make up the Hofburg.
Straddling the Ringstrasse, which circles Vienna's old town, this huge complex also houses major museums dedicated to natural history (Naturhistorisches Museum) and fine art (Kunsthistorisches Museum), the national theatre (Burgtheater), the national library (Österreichische Nationalbibliothek), the imperial treasury (Schatzkammer), the current Austrian president's offices and a variety of other buildings, including the world famous Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School).
Beyond the Hofburg lies the center of Vienna's immaculately restored old town, the Innere Stadt.
Among the pedestrianized shopping streets, the main landmark here is Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral), whose Gothic tower and patterned roof are among the city's most recognizable sights.
Outside the Ring, but still within easy walking distance of the center are the Secession building and the nearby market, the Naschmarkt -- both of which have to be seen to be believed.
Crowned with a dome of golden laurel leaves, the Secession, an Art Nouveau exhibition space, was a statement of intent from a group of radical artists who'd broken away from the Austrian establishment.
At the time, its radical geometric design was described as "a cross between a greenhouse and a blast furnace"; today, it's a popular attraction, and widely regarded as the Jugendstil ("Young Art") movement's most prominent symbol.
The Naschmarkt, across the road, ranks among the world's greatest food markets, offering an overwhelming array of produce from around the world.
Where else could you find four different types of hummus (regular, chili, curry, wasabi), a stall dedicated entirely to vinegars, and exotica such as jackfruit and dried strawberries?
On Saturdays, there's also a large flea market.
Only a short walk from the Naschmarkt, the Karlskirche (St. Charles' Church) provides the unexpected highlight of our trip.
Completed in 1737, the church's unusual design incorporates a large dome and two Roman-style columns.
Inside, the church's frescoes were undergoing restoration at the time, and while that work continued, a lift had been installed, allowing visitors to reach a scaffolding viewing platform 35 meters above the ground.
From the lift, you can climb some (slightly wobbly) stairs for an awe-inspiring view of the artwork within the cupola...
...and a heart-stopping look down at the pews far below.
From Karlskirche, it's possible to walk to the Belvedere, a complex of palaces and gardens that now houses a major art museum, the Österreichische Galerie Belvedere.
The permanent collection, featuring the museum's most famous pieces, can be found in the Upper Belvedere (Oberes Belvedere) building, entrance to which costs 11 euros.
The ground floor features Baroque and Medieval pieces but the highlights are upstairs, in the museum's collection of paintings from the turn of the 20th century -- the star attraction being Gustav Klimt's Der Kuss (The Kiss).
If your appetite for imperial finery hasn't already been sated, you might also consider a trip out to the Schönbrunn palace.
Designed to rival Versailles, with gardens that contain the world's oldest zoo, is one of Vienna's biggest tourist attractions but we didn't have time to visit on this trip.
When you're worn out by sightseeing, Vienna has plenty of green spaces where you can rest and recuperate.
On the other side of the Ringstrasse from the Hofburg, the small park outside the Rathaus (Town Hall) is a good place to relax, and plays host to a free outdoor film festival on summer evenings.
Also in the center, the Stadtpark ("City Park") is an ideal place to sit in a beer garden, sunbathe or stroll among the greenery and statues.
Across the Donaukanal waterway lies the Prater, a far larger public park.
To the north, the Wurstelprater amusement park offers a cheesy-but-fun collection of theme park rides, including the Wiener Riesenrad ferris wheel immortalized in The Third Man.
To the south, beyond exhibition grounds and a racecourse lies the Ernst-Happel-Stadion, the football stadium that staged the final of Euro 2008.
2012 MAJOR VIENNA EVENTS
Music Film Festival at City Hall Square
30 June - 2 September 2012
MQ Summer of Fashion
Vienna Operetta Summer: Open-Air
Klimt and the Birth of Modernism in Vienna
With 24 pieces by the artist, Vienna's Belvedere is home to the world's largest Klimt collection. There are also major works on display at the Leopold Museum, the Wien Museum and the Albertina. Contemporary documents and other exhibits at the MAK and the Austrian National Library reveal yet more about Klimt and his life.
During 2012, Klimt's anniversary year, visitors to Vienna can experience how the artist and his Wiener Moderne contemporaries shape our thoughts and lives to this day, and discover why this era has lost nothing of its allure over time.
• Under Austrian law, most stores have limited opening hours on Saturdays and are closed on Sundays. Try to get any shopping done midweek
• For great beer and good Austrian food, try the 7 Stern Bräu brewpub at Siebensterngasse 19 A, not far from the MuseumsQuartier
• Tram tickets must be bought in advance, typically from a trafika (newsagent/tobacconist)
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