Why Vienna is the Perfect City To Visit in the Off-Season

Traveling in the off-season has its perks; the low airfares and discounted accommodation enables you to travel abroad without spending a fortune and sights are often less crowded. Also, workers can sometimes be nicer and more helpful because they aren’t dealing with the craziness and large amounts of people that accompany the tourist season (okay, this isn’t guaranteed either way, but I definitely noticed a difference). But it can also mean that activities that are normally available in the touristy season are not offered in the low season, sights are closed, and tours are not operating. So, if you choose to travel in the off-season, you need to be cautious about where you go and ensure that it has plenty to do during the less-visited time of year.

I began my backpacking trip in December, so most of my travels so far have been during the low season. When planning my route around Europe, I did my best to choose cities that would have plenty to offer even during the winter months. Vienna, the vibrant capital of Austria, sticks out in my mind as one of those cities. The large capital has a vast royal history, gorgeous architecture, more than enough museums, and a variety of restaurants and cafes to choose from. It reminded me of Paris, with its wide streets, big parks, grand buildings with styles from different time periods, and a river flowing through it. Except, it felt a bit more laid back and undiscovered. I was there with my parents for two weeks, and we were busy sightseeing each day despite it being the middle of January (so busy that I needed to take a few rest days!).

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Some of the stunning buildings lining the streets

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Heldenplatz in front of the Hofburg

 

Here are all of the reasons Vienna makes the perfect destination for travel in the off-season:

It’s Easy to Get Around

During the winter months, you don’t want to be outside walking for very long in the cold weather. Luckily, the Vienna public transport system is advanced and includes trains, buses, and trams that can get you anywhere need to go. Though I stayed in an apartment outside the city center (money saving tip), it was no problem because the closest metro stop was a 5 minute walk and could get me downtown in 10 minutes. There are a variety of different travel passes that can help you save money and are valid on all forms of local transport, such as a weekly pass or 72 hour pass depending on your needs. This site does a great job explaining the various options. I was there for two weeks, so I opted for the weekly pass which made travel easy as I didn’t have to buy a ticket each time. I could just hop on and go.

The City’s Main Sights Offer an Escape from the Cold Weather

Because of its complex history associated with the powerful Habsburg monarchy who ruled from the city for more than six centuries, Vienna has grand palaces, exemplary churches, and high-quality museums to explore that are all open during the low season. Here are just a few of the many places you can visit to avoid cold, snowy, or rainy weather in the city:

Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg

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The Habsburgs were one of the most prominent royal dynasties in Europe. Known for increasing their power across countries through marriage rather than war, the Habsburg’s influence spread from Eastern Europe into Germany and Spain and even as far as Mexico. They were connected to the French royal empire as well, as Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI who was famously beheaded during the French Revolution, was a Habsburg.

The Habsburg’s palace in the city center reflects the grandeur of their reign. Visiting the Imperial Apartments gives you a glimpse into the massive wealth and way of life of the Austrian monarchy. And visiting the apartments during the off-season is even more enjoyable. I’d imagine touring the apartments in the summertime can get as crowded as the famous Palace of Versailles in Paris. However, when my family and I visited the apartments, there were so few people there that the guided tour we decided to join ended up being a private tour with our own personal guide! We could take our time, ask as many questions as we liked, and gain a deeper understanding of the Habsburg’s complicated royal lineage.

Schönbrunn Palace

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The Schönbrunn Palace was the Habsburg’s summer residence and like the Imperial Apartments, its splendor is not to be missed. Again, we were able to stroll through each room of the palace with few crowds, which made the experience much more pleasant. I’ve visited many popular tourist destinations in the summer like Versailles and the Vatican, and each time it’s been so packed that we were literally shuffled from room to room like herds of cattle. It’s so much better when you don’t feel rushed and you have the time to really take in all of the gorgeous decor around you.

Of course, the only downside to visiting in the off-season is that the gardens are not blooming. However, instead of roaming the gardens we had coffee and cakes at the palace’s café, Café Restaurant Residenz, which was one of our favorite cafés in Vienna!

Imperial Treasury

As one of the longest ruling monarchies in Europe, it’s no surprise that the Habsburg’s have one of the most impressive treasuries in the world open to visit in the low season. You can see ornate crowns dating back to the 10th century, intricate relics, swords made of “unicorn” (narwhal tusk), and glittering jewels collected by the Habsburgs over centuries.

Kunsthistorisches Museum

The Habsburgs were great admirers of art and their vast collection of masterpieces can be seen in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The museum exhibits paintings by artists such as Raphael, Titian, Rubens (one of my favorites), Rembrandt, and Vermeer. In addition to the splendid works of art, the museum building itself mimics a royal palace with a gorgeous grand hall and massive staircase. You can spend hours here escaping the chilly winter temperatures.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

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The famous cathedral towers over the city’s main pedestrian street, Graben. You can marvel at its stunning mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and pop inside to see where Mozart was married. Rick Steve’s offers a self-guided tour on his app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, that I recommend downloading before your visit to give you a better understanding of the historic cathedral.

You can listen to music at year-round performances in one of Vienna’s many music venues

Known as the City of Music, Vienna has a renowned musical history and many famous composers such as Mozart and Beethoven once lived in the city. It’s reputation for being the center of music has only increased with time and has led to the construction of beautiful concert halls where you can watch a variety of performances.

My family and I had a wonderful time seeing Cinderella at the famous opera house, the Staatsoper. There are performances happening year-round and the opera is even translated on a screen in front of your seat so you can easily follow along. I recommend looking into the various performances happening not only at the opera house, but across all of the venues Vienna has to offer and booking your ticket ahead of time, as they might sell out even in the low season.

You can warm up with a cup of coffee and delicious pastry in a Viennese coffee house

Coffee is a big part of Viennese culture, and a trip to Vienna is not complete without visiting a Viennese kaffeehaus. It’s very common and encouraged to order a coffee drink, read a newspaper, and sit for hours enjoying the slower side of life. The Viennese take their coffee culture very seriously, and the waiters even wear full black and white suits— it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time to the 1930s! The cafes also serve extravagant pastries. You can try the classic sachertorte (though not my personal favorite as I’m not a big fan of chocolate), a fruity apfelstrudel, or one of the many other delicious creations on the menu.

If you want a typical traditional experience in a café whose interior looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, try Café Bräunerhof. For a bit more modern take on the tradition, (and my favorite) try Café Diglas. Of course, coffee houses are open year-round, and it’s the perfect way to warm up during the colder months that will leave you feeling like a true Viennese!

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The Danube Canal

During my two weeks in Vienna in January, there was only one activity I was interested in that I wasn’t able to do, and that was see the Lipizzaner horses in action at the Spanish Riding School. This was because they were taking a short break from shows the two weeks I was there (not the whole winter, don’t worry). But, like my mom says, you always need to have a reason to come back to any place you’ve visited (smart woman, my mother)!

Overall, traveling in the low season has some awesome benefits like saving money and less crowds. But, you shouldn’t have to compromise anything when planning your vacation, either. Vienna is a city that offers beautiful sights, significant history, delicious cuisine and plenty of activities regardless of the time of year you visit, which makes it a great choice for travel in the off-season.

 


 

 

Charming Sachseln

I sat in awe, staring out of a wide, clear window as our train weaved through massive snowcapped mountains past glacial-blue lakes. I knew that Switzerland is one of the most beautiful countries in Europe; it’s a popular destination favored by travel accounts and I’d seen it on my Instagram feed many times. But even the best photograph doesn’t compare to being there in person. Everything was so green. So blue. So vivid in color that it didn’t look real. And so clean! It was one of those moments where I thought to myself, wow… the world we live in is so damn beautiful. I could feel the excitement bubbling up inside me as we pulled up to Sachseln’s tiny train station.

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Dewey and I found Sachseln by chance when we were looking for Airbnbs. I did a quick Google Image search of the place and was immediately sold. Sachseln is a small town in the Swiss countryside nestled in a valley next to Lake Sarnen. It’s about a 30 minute train ride from Lucerne, which we thought was perfect. While we could enjoy the benefits of a city, we could also escape to an undiscovered place and relax in the serene mountains. Little did we know, Sachseln offered so much more than we expected.

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Our hosts picked us up from the station and drove us up… and up… until we reached our apartment which was situated at the top of a steep private road. The houses in Sachseln are dispersed from the bottom by the lake all the way up along the side of the towering mountains. Our apartment was located high up on the mountainside, overlooking the center of town and the lake.

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View from our apartment

We immediately felt the charm of Sachseln. It’s tiny, but has everything you need: one grocery store, one pharmacy, two banks, and about three restaurants. We were definitely the only tourists, and we got the sense that everyone there knew we were foreigners. Yet, whenever we passed by someone on our walk into town each day, they would always smile and greet us with a kind hello (or in Swiss German, “Grüezi”).

We strolled passed neighbors salting and shoveling their driveway, pink-cheeked children sledding and playing in the snow, an older woman feeding carrots to her pet bunnies, and farmers tending to their cows. We became regulars at the local café, drinking our coffee amongst older men reading the paper and enjoying a lunchtime beer. There was no sense of urgency here.

Dewey and I were eager to embrace the quieter life. Having just spent 10 busy days in Paris, we were ready to relax a bit. One afternoon, we walked out to the edge of a snowy hill just across the street from the entrance to our private road. There were no benches, so we laid down plastic trash bags to sit on. We sipped on our $1 beer brewed in Lucerne and purchased at the local grocery store and watched the sun set behind the Alps. It was the happiest of hours!

Another time, we brought a picnic down to the lake and watched ducks dive for food in the turquoise water. It was the first time in awhile on this backpacking journey that I didn’t feel pressure to do anything. I didn’t have to jam a bunch of activities into the day. I didn’t have to sightsee or go to museums to feel like I was getting the whole experience of visiting the country. If you have ever traveled for a long time, you know that breaks like this are important. They give you the rest you need to continue.

Staying in Sachseln provided an intimate view of life in the Swiss countryside. The only downside to staying outside the city was the price of train tickets; it cost $10 one-way into Lucerne. However, the benefits of getting to live amongst locals in this quaint village definitely outweighed the costs for us, and we were still able to spend a day in Lucerne, another day visiting the summit of nearby Mount Pilatus, and even took a day trip to Bern.

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View from the top of Mt. Pilatus

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The beautiful city of Bern

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Lucerne’s charming old town

If you know me, then you know I am the type of traveler who enjoys exploring lesser-known destinations across the world. I believe that traveling is about getting to know new cultures, and that can be difficult to do in super touristy places. Even when I am in a touristy place, I try to seek out those restaurants or parks or other experiences enjoyed by locals. That’s why I fell in love with Sachseln; it gave me a glimpse into the real life of a small Swiss village.

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If this sounds like the type of experience you would enjoy, you might want to consider staying outside of a major city when visiting Switzerland. There are countless smaller towns located just outside cities like Lucerne, Bern, and Geneva that could give you more of an authentic trip. Who knows what other charming places in Switzerland are just waiting to be discovered by the curious traveler!