vienna, austria: the ringstrasse, st. stephen’s cathedral & hundertwasserhaus

Thursday, September 28:  This morning, we enjoy a lovely buffet breakfast in the Pannonia Hotel in Sopron, Hungary.  Then it’s time to pack up our stuff and head to Austria.

breakfast at Pannonia Hotel in Sopron

After breakfast, we catch a ride with Comfy Tour to Vienna, Austria. It’s only about an hour drive, and we probably should have taken a bus for a cheaper journey, but it is certainly hassle-free and convenient.  Our young driver, Joe, is easy-going and talkative, telling us of his love of travel.  He and I share a love of Sintra, Portugal and Cappadocia, Turkey, where we both took sunrise balloon rides over the moon-like landscape. He also loves Plitvice Lakes National Park in Croatia, a place I long to visit.  He is heading to Barcelona soon, another favorite of mine.

We arrive at around 9:45 a.m. and leave our bags at our hotel, Cordial Theaterhotel Wien, where it’s too early to check in.

Cordial Theaterhotel Wien

We immediately head out to explore Vienna, as we have only 3 days here, and one of them will be spent on a bicycle wine tour of the Wachau Valley.  Of course, we have to stop for coffee and a pastry.

Mike in a Vienna bakery
Our street in Vienna

We are using the Rick Steves book Vienna Salzburg & Tirol to be as efficient as possible with our time. Our plan is to first take the Ringstrasse Tram Tour, a self-guided tour using the book.

The first thing we do is buy the two-day transit pass for about $27; we put the tickets in the machine the first time we use them for a time-and-date stamp and then keep the tickets with us the rest of the time we’re in Vienna in case someone asks to see them.  Apparently, if officials ask to see your ticket and you don’t have one, they can fine you a large sum right on the spot.

We start the Ringstrasse Tram Tour in front of the opera house.

Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera

We get on tram #2, heading against the direction of traffic, and follow Rick Steves’ advice to sit on the right side of the tram.

The Ringstrasse Tram

There are a lot of sights to see on the Ringstrasse, created when Emperor Franz Josef tore down the city’s medieval wall and replaced it with the wide boulevard in the 1860s.  It circles nearly three miles around the city’s core.

Tram #2 doesn’t go the full circuit; we must transfer to tram #1 at the Schwedenplatz stop.  We do so, and continue around the circuit.  As it’s difficult to take pictures from a moving tram, I don’t bother, so if you want to take the tour and see the sights, you’ll have to visit Vienna on your own! 🙂

From tram #1, we get off on the northwest part of the circuit to see the Neo-Gothic “votive church” sitting across a small park; it is currently under renovation.  This type of church was built to thank God for his help, “in this case when an 1853 assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Josef failed,” according to Steves.

votive church

Back on the tram, we continue around the circuit, ending up back in front of the Opera House. Here, we begin the “Vienna City Walk” from the book.

The tram

Vienna is a very polished city, maybe a little too polished for my taste. The architecture is stunning though: Neoclassical, Neo-Gothic, and Neo-Renaissance. I find some beautiful tiles as we begin our walk.

tiles in Vienna

The Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper), built in 1869, is one of the world’s premier concert venues.  Typical of Vienna’s 19th century buildings, it is Neo-Renaissance in style. On May 25, 1869, the opera house “opened with Mozart’s DON JUAN in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth,” according to Wiener Staatsoper: History.

The years 1938 to 1945 were a dark chapter in the history of the opera house. Under the Nazis, many members of the house were driven out, pursued, and killed, and many works were not allowed to be played.

On March 12, 1945, the opera house was devastated during a bombing, but on May 1, 1945, the “State Opera in the Volksoper” opened with a performance of Mozart’s THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO. On October 6, 1945, the hastily restored “Theaters an der Wien” reopened with Beethoven’s FIDELIO. For the next ten years the Vienna State Opera operated in two venues while the true headquarters was being rebuilt at a great expense.

Vienna Opera House

As we cross over to the opera house, among statues and fountains, we’re approached by a young man in costume trying to sell tickets to a Mozart and Strauss Concert at Palais Palffy.  We’re not sure about buying tickets from someone on the street, but he offers to walk with us to the venue’s ticket office to prove he’s legit.  We buy tickets for a concert for Friday night. What we find so appealing about these tickets is that we don’t have to get dressed up to enjoy a concert in Vienna.  We don’t really feel like doing the whole opera thing and we don’t really have the clothes to get all gussied up.

statue at the Opera
fountain at the Opera

As we walk with the costumed ticket salesperson, we walk past Cafe Sacher, home of the 1832 “Sacher torte: two layers of cake separated by apricot jam and covered in dark chocolate icing, usually served with whipped cream,” according to Steves.  We don’t partake because we already had breakfast in Sopron and a pastry near our hotel, and now it’s almost lunchtime.

We also walk past Albertinaplatz, a square in the midst of the Hofburg Palace and the Albertina Museum.

Right across from the concert venue, Palais Palffy, on Josefsplatz, is where a scene from the 1949 black and white film noir, The Third Man, was filmed. In the movie, American Holly Martins is offered a job in Vienna after WWII by his friend Harry Lime.  When Holly arrives in Vienna, he finds that Lime is dead from a traffic accident. Martins meets with Lime’s acquaintances to investigate what he considers a suspicious death.  The scene we see today is the spot where Harry was hit by a car.

We see a lot of horse-drawn carriages in Vienna, which add to the city’s royal charm.

horses in Vienna

As we walk back through Albertinaplatz, we pass The Monument Against War and Fascism, which memorializes all victims of war and “commemorates the dark years when Austria came under Nazi rule (1938–1945),” according to Steves.  You can read more about it here.

Monument Against War and Fascism

We continue our walk up the pedestrian-only street, Kärntner Strasse.  Though a shopping street today, it is the same road Crusaders marched down as they headed to the Holy Land in the 12th century, according to Steves. Fragrant flower shops adorn the street.

flower shop in Vienna

Under the Capuchin Church lies the Imperial Crypt.  Austria’s once powerful Habsburg royals lie buried here in pewter coffins, including Franz Josef and Empress Sisi.  According to Wikipedia: Capuchin Church, “the bodies of 145 Habsburg royalty, plus urns containing the hearts or cremated remains of four others, are deposited here, including 12 emperors and 18 empresses.”

Capuchin Church

Neuer Markt is one of the oldest squares in Vienna, although many of the buildings around it were built after WWII.  Churchill made it a point to bomb Vienna’s inner city as he found the Austrians to be too enthusiastic over the Nazis.

The Baroque Donnerbrunnen Fountain, also known as the four rivers fountain, shows Lady Providence surrounded by figures that symbolize the rivers that flow into the Danube. This fountain was featured in the 1995 film, Before Sunrise, starring Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.  In the movie, two young people, Jesse and Celine, meet on a train in Europe and end up spending one night together in Vienna.

Empress Maria Theresa found the sexy statue offensive and formed commissions to preserve her city’s moral standards, according to Rick Steves.

Of course I have to stop at a shop to add to my scarf collection, while Mike waits patiently on a bench.

After stopping for lunch at a modern cafe in which about 30 priests are congregated, we find ourselves at Stephansplatz, the square where the Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral sits.

Around Stephansplatz, we find the Aida Cafe and other impressive buildings.

Aida Cafe

The cathedral’s massive 450-foot tall south tower is its highest point and a dominant feature of the Vienna skyline. Its construction lasted 65 years, from 1368 to 1433.  The highlight is its ornately patterned, richly colored roof, covered by 230,000 glazed tiles, according to Wikipedia.  There is no special symbolism to the zigzag tiles, which are purely decorative.

After already climbing so many steps in numerous cathedrals in Hungary, we decide to forego this one.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

It is the mother church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vienna and the seat of the Archbishop of Vienna.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral

We circle the entire cathedral before going inside.  We find more pretty flower shops behind the cathedral.

The Capistran Chancel, the pulpit which sits outdoors to address crowds too large to fit inside, is where the Franciscan friar and Catholic priest St. John Capistrano and Hungarian general John Hunyadi encouraged a crusade in 1456 to repel Muslim invasions of Christian Europe.

Capistran Chancel at St. Stephen’s Cathedral

We continue our walk around St. Stephen’s Cathedral, some of which looks a little soot-covered.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

Inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, it is dark and crowded and much of it is blocked off to visitors. The nave is nine stories tall and as long as a football field, according to Steves. The main part of the church contains 18 altars, with more in the various chapels.

inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral

The Wiener Neustädter Altar at the head of the north nave was ordered in 1447 by Emperor Frederick III, whose tomb is located in the opposite direction.

After our tour of St. Stephen’s, we get back on the tram with a plan to visit the Hundertwasserhaus, an apartment complex designed by painter and environmentalist Friedensreich Hundertwasser (1928-2000).

the tram

It’s quite a long walk from where we exit the tram.  First we pass the Kunst Haus Wien Museum with its checkerboard facade.

Kunst Haus Wien Museum
Kunst Haus Wien Museum

We walk past the museum, still heading for the apartment complex.  There are so many colorful and beautifully designed buildings in Vienna.

pretty green building

Friedensreich Hundertwasser advocated natural forms of decay in architecture. He advocated for forested roofs, “tree tenants” and the “window right” of every tenant to embellish the facade around his windows.  He wanted harmony between man, nature and architecture.  You can read more about the architect’s philosophy here.


Within Hundertwasserhaus, there are 53 apartments, four offices, 16 private terraces and three communal terraces, and a total of 250 trees and bushes. It has become a part of Austria’s cultural heritage (Wikipedia: Hundertwasserhaus).


The Hundertwasser Village was built both inside and out by the concepts of artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser during the years 1990 and 1991. The building was used as car tire factory before that time.

Hundertwasserhaus Village
inside Hundertwasserhaus Village
inside Hundertwasserhaus Village

Hundertwasserhaus was built between 1983 and 1985 and features undulating floors, a roof covered with earth and grass, and large trees growing inside the rooms, with limbs extending from windows. Hundertwasser designed the house for free to prevent something ugly from going up in its place (Wikipedia: Hundertwasserhaus).


Hundertwasserhaus is certainly a colorful and unusual place to see in Vienna, especially compared to the city’s classical architecture.

me at Hundertwasserhaus

On the way back, we stop in briefly at the Kunst Haus Wien Museum, where we admire the artist’s work in the gift shop, on the patio, and on the bathroom doors.

Kunst Haus Wien Museum
Kunst Haus Wien Museum

After the long walk back, we take the tram again, getting off near the Burg Theater to walk the rest of the way back to our hotel.  The Burg Theater was created in 1741 and has become known as “die Burg” by the Viennese population. It is one of the most important German language theaters in the world.

Burg Theater

Across the street from the Burg Theater is the Neo-Gothic City Hall, or Wiener Rathaus. Built from 1872 to 1883, it houses the office of the Mayor of Vienna as well as the chambers of the city council and Vienna Landtag diet, the representative assembly in German-speaking countries.

City Hall, Vienna
City Hall, Vienna
City Hall, Vienna

We walk back to our hotel as the sun goes down, stopping at a grocery store to get some light cheese and crackers for dinner.

Steps today: 13,338 (5.65 miles).

a stopover in sopron, hungary

Wednesday, September 27:  Early this morning, we pack our bags and head out to the tram stop on a main road in Budapest; from there, we take the tram to Budapest Keleti Railway Terminal and buy our tickets for the 9:10 train to Sopron, Hungary, on the border of Austria.  The ticket salesperson doesn’t tell us to which platform we should go, so we stand with a crowd of people studying an electronic board, all in Hungarian, trying to make sense of things.  As we’re waiting, we run into John, the jolly Irishman we met in Esztergom when we took the cruise up the Danube. He has been staying in Budapest for a week and taking day trips out to the countryside, and today he’s going to a town we haven’t heard of.  Since he’s taken the train already, he helps us figure out the proper platform.

We say our goodbyes to John, thinking what a pleasure it was to have met him, even if only briefly.  We board the train, settling into seats #85 and #86, on car #142.  We take off at 9:10, hoping we’re on the right train.

At one stop not far along the line, some local folks come to our compartment, looking at us questioningly and pointing to their tickets. The conductor comes along to resolve the issue and we find we should be in car #141 rather than 142.  So we pull our bags from the overhead and lug them to the next car, where we take our seats among a group of friendly ladies.

There’s an electronic board in the compartment that lists the stops along the way, and Sopron doesn’t show.  We have some discussion of this with a friendly Hungarian woman who speaks English.  She and her mother, wearing dark glasses, are returning to their home in Sopron after the mother had cataract surgery in Budapest.  She assures us we’re on the right train, even though the board doesn’t list it.  After a bit, she seems to wonder about our destination herself, and she asks the conductor about it when he comes by.  The story is that the train will split at some point, and some of the cars will go to Sopron and others will peel off in an unknown direction.

This nice lady walks out of the Sopron train station with us when we arrive at 11:38 a.m.; she directs us down one of the main streets in Sopron, Malyas Kiraly; she points and tells us to keep walking until we find the Pannonia Hotel, our lodging for the night.  It’s nearly a mile walk, but before long, we find the hotel.  It’s too early to check in, but we store our bags and head out to the Inner Town to find Forum Pizzeria where we can eat lunch.

looking down Szent Gyorgy u. to the Firewatch Tower
Church on Szent Gyorgy u.
church on Szent Gyorgy u.

At Forum Pizzeria, we enjoy a pizza and a glass of wine.  Mike has a beer.  I don’t often drink wine in the afternoon as it makes me sleepy, but we feel in a celebratory mood having successfully navigated our way from one town in Hungary to another.

After lunch, we make our way to the main square, called Fő tér.  Along the way, we pass some interesting doorways, flower boxes, Roman ruins, bookstores and colorful cafes.

We return to the Pannonia Hotel to check in and we also check out the spa, which we hope to visit later.

Pannonia Hotel

We decide we’ll make a quick detour outside the Inner Town to visit a ruined Orthodox Synagogue and Holocaust memorial.  The synagogue is boarded up and in disrepair, but I love ruins.

Construction began in 1891 according to plans by Janos Schiller.  Until 1944, it was used as a house of worship.  Then it belonged to the local ghetto.  According to Lonely Planet Hungary, a plaque says that “‘1640 martyrs’ were taken from here to Auschwitz on 5 July 1944.”  We don’t see that plaque ourselves.

In 2004, it was declared a historic monument.

Synagogue ruin east of the Inner Town

The Holocaust Memorial, a sculpture of jackets with the Star of David and a pile of shoes, was built in memory of the Jewish victims of the Holocaust from Sopron.  The work of Laszlo Kutas symbolizes the undressing room at the entrance to the gas chambers, according to a plaque we do find near the site.

Holocaust memorial

Returning to the Inner Town, we make our way to the main square and the Firewatch Tower.

curved buildings in Sopron
Firewatch Tower in Sopron
Firewatch Tower in Sopron
Cafes near Storno House

The Goat Church, on the south side of Fő tér, is a mostly Gothic church originally built in the late 13th century.  It gets its name from a legend that the church was built thanks to the treasure dug up by a goat.

In front of the church is the 1701 Trinity Column, an example of a “plague pillar” in Hungary, erected by two Sopron residents to celebrate the end of the plague at the end of the 17th century.

Fő tér and the Goat Church in Sopron

The church has a mostly Baroque interior with a red-marble pulpit in the center of the south aisle.  It dates from the 15th century.

inside the Goat Church

We walk a bit more around the Inner Town, admiring the colorful architecture and the fancy carved doors.

If it were a nicer day, we’d certainly be enticed by the outdoor cafes along the way.

cafe on Fő tér
Sopron Town Hall

We then go inside the Firewatch Tower to climb the 60 meters to the top.  The tower guards watched the area and signaled a fire’s position with lanterns at night and colored flags in daytime, according to

Lonely Planet Hungary says it was used by trumpeters to warn of fire, mark the hour, and watch for salespeople trying to smuggle in non-Sopron wine. The 2-meter thick square base was built on a Roman gate from the 12th century and the cylindrical middle and Baroque balcony are from the 16th century.

The Firewatch Tower is the symbol of allegiance from 1921, celebrating a referendum in which Sopron and eight neighboring villages expressed their wish to remain part of Hungary (instead of Austria), according to

Firewatch Tower
yellow building on Fő tér

When we finally climb the 200 steps to the top, we have a tremendous view of Sopron and the Lövér Hills to the southwest.  Supposedly, one can see the Austrian Alps to the west, but we can’t see them on this overcast day.

Fő tér from the Firewatch Tower
Sopron from the Firewatch Tower
Sopron from the Firewatch Tower

Near the Town Hall, we find the love locks that seem to be present everywhere these days.

love locks in Sopron

Behind the Town Hall are the Roman ruins.  Sopron was once an important town along the Amber Road, the ancient trade route for the transfer of amber from the coastal areas of the North Sea and the Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.

The most important sights of the mosaic-like “Archeological Park” in Scarbantia are the town fortifications, Roman roads, the Forum and the Amphitheatre.

Roman ruins

The Forum of Scarbantia was completed according to typical Italian patterns in the mid-2nd century A.D. during the time of Emperor Antoninus Pius (138-161), although the stone buildings were made under Traianus (98-117) and Hadrianus (117-138).

Roman ruins

We walk a bit more around Sopron’s Inner Town, a great deal of which seems to be under construction or renovation.

Sopron’s Inner Town
Sopron’s Inner Town
Sopron’s Inner Town
Sopron’s Inner Town

Our last stop is the Old Synagogue, built at the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 13th; it contains two rooms, one for men and one for women.  According to the Soproni Muzeum website, it was a tabernacle, an assembly hall and a school also. The Jews living here dealt with trade and finance and were not really rich people although they managed to build up this Gothic-styled synagogue, which is fairly unique in Central Europe.

According to Lonely Planet Hungary, the Jews were evicted from Sopron in 1526 after being accused of plotting with the Turks.

The two centers of the synagogue are the Torah niche and the pulpit, or “bima.” The niche is richly decorated with bunches of grapes and leaves in natural colors on the stone frames and pediment. The stained glass windows around the top of the room seem oddly out-of-place. The inscriptions on the walls date from 1490.

Finally, we walk back through the Inner Town to rest in our hotel a bit before finding a place for dinner.

While relaxing in our room, Mike researches a good restaurant and finds one outside the Inner Town called Vadászkürt Panzió és Étterem.  It’s a long walk southwest, past the train station.  The reviews are so good that we decide we’ll take the trek.  We pass through the parts of town where the locals live, enjoying the flower shops and parks along the way.

Our walk takes us past churches, parks, colorful buildings and statues.

church we pass on the walk to the restaurant
Deak ter
statue in Deak Ter
statue in Deak Ter
orange bicycle

We finally arrive at Vadászkürt Panzió és Étterem, or Hunting Horn Guest-House and Restaurant, a pension and restaurant run by a husband and wife, Mr. And Mrs. Bausz.

Mike at Vadászkürt Panzió és Étterem
Vadászkürt Panzió és Étterem

We are the first ones to arrive and Mr. Bausz greets us warmly, speaking fluent English.

We enjoy our meal here so much!  Not only is the food delicious, but the owner is super friendly and attentive to our every need.  He also keeps bringing us wines to taste, and by the end of the meal, we have tasted at least five wines from the Sopron Road of Wine.  The whole time, I’m needlessly worried that we will be charged for these numerous wine tastings, and with every glass he pours, I imagine Hungarian Forints being added to our bill!

For appetizers, Mike orders the cream soup of the day, and I get stuffed cabbage.  At least I finally get my stuffed cabbage before leaving Hungary, and it is spectacular! Mike has Pike perch fillet with parsley potatoes and I have chicken paprika with home-made gnocchi.  Each bite is like heaven.  We both enjoy delicious pastry desserts with ice cream.

When we get our bill, we are shocked, but NOT by its exorbitance.  I can’t believe after ordering one glass of wine each, appetizers, desserts, and dinner, plus tasting five different wines, our meal is only 31.96 euros, or about $38!!

This restaurant is a two-person operation, with the wife doing all the cooking and the husband serving.  After dinner, we ask the wonderful owners of Vadászkürt Panzió és Étterem if we can take a picture of them.  They are happy to oblige.  I am still in shock over the bill and I tell them they need to charge more money!!

Mr. And Mrs. Bausz

Walking back to our hotel, we pass a playful SOPRON sign.  The church is all lit up.

church lit up

When we return, we have just enough time to squeeze in a half-hour visit to the spa before it closes.  We sit in a hot tub with a couple going to town kissing and rubbing against each other.  I’m thinking, “Get a room!”  But it is quite entertaining.

Tomorrow, we’ll head to Vienna.  It’s only an hour away, but this time we’ve arranged a driver.  After our easy and cheap trip to Sopron this morning, we should have had more confidence and just taken a bus or train!

Steps today: 16,851 (7.14 miles).