The act of toasting in Austria is a custom with its own set of rules. As a visitor to this land of sophistication and unassuming elegance, it’s important to know the correct protocol. You must make eye contact with each and every person at the table, loosely hold your wine glass by the stem and solidly clink on a slight diagonal plane to achieve the ideal ring. And, remember to never cross paths with someone else’s toast, as this would be considered rude. Following these guidelines is trickier than you might imagine, particularly the aspect of eye contact. Austrians believe it’s essential to acknowledge everyone individually, as that gives special meaning to the toast. It’s all about making a personal connection. Know that you’ll get plenty of practice, as it’s common to toast multiple times during the course of a social gathering.
There’s so much to love about Austria, from its imperial grandeur and famed cultural attractions to its fabled Alpine peaks and pristine natural settings. This is a country that embodies the great European traditions with a rich and colorful history that has been well preserved over the years. It’s also a destination that boasts a noted culinary scene, with internationally acclaimed restaurants, innovative chefs and farm-to-table traditions that have age-old roots.
Austrians take great pride in the preparation and presentation of food, and dining is an experience to be savored one bite at a time. Meals present an opportunity to socialize, as well as to appreciate the act of eating good food in a convivial ambiance. This holds true, even when it comes to “grabbing coffee,” a concept that is foreign to most Austrians, who rarely rush their java time. For them, coffee means life. This perspective is responsible for the well-established coffeehouse culture that reigns supreme here. Its origins date back to the 17th century when only men were allowed inside the hallowed coffee salons. In Vienna, the coffeehouse is a veritable institution that has achieved World Heritage status. Such places are welcome oases, ranging from formal establishments steeped in tradition to cozy cafes and tiny espresso bars.
You could spend days checking out the coffeehouses in Vienna. Each has its own unique character. For a neo-Renaissance style décor with beautiful frescoes, there’s Gerstner, across from the Opera House. If you want to drink your cup of joe where Trotsky, Lenin and Freud are purported to have done, make a beeline for Central Café. And if you wish to enjoy having your afternoon pick-me-up in a place that bears the distinguished title of being a Purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court, then Demel’s in the Old City is a must. This popular café is also famous for its scrumptious pastries and sweets that you can observe being made in the glassed-in kitchens. The wait staff are formal in manner and attire here, but they allow you to get up and leisurely peruse the cakes to make your selection. Know, however, that white tablecloths come at a cost if you’re not ordering a meal!
You’ll be tempted to accompany your coffee with a Viennese pastry. Vienna has a long and delicious tradition of patisseries and a trip to the capitol would not be complete without sampling some of these delectable goodies. Each café you enter has an eye-popping display of cakes that are hard to resist. I experienced that “kid in a candy shop” feeling as I ogled these masterful creations. Apple strudel is the most widely known dessert outside of Austria and is typically on every visitor’s bucket food list. There’s also the famed sachertorte, the iconic cake invented for the royal family in 1832 that consists of two layers of chocolate sponge with a thin layer of apricot jam between them, then covered in chocolate ganache. The legendary Hotel Sacher, behind the Opera House, is said to prepare this cake according to a secret recipe dating back to 1832. There’s even a day to celebrate this dessert, National Sachertorte Day, where it’s assumed that all Austrians spend the day partaking in their chocolatey national heritage. The Mozart-torte is another popular sweet, which was named after the renowned Austrian classical composer. It’s a concoction of chocolate, pistachio and marzipan, and is often topped with a small chocolate disc displaying Mozart’s face. My favorite pastry, though, is mohnzelten. It’s less refined than strudel, consisting of a sweet poppy seed paste encased in a potato pastry.
For an excellent introduction to the culinary scene in Vienna, join a walking and tasting tour with guide extraordinaire Bianca Gusenbauer. You’ll visit the Naschmarkt, a popular open air marketplace with a variety of food stalls, cafes and wine bars. Stop for lunch at Umar, where fresh fish is the specialty, typically carp, either fried or char-grilled. Do as the Austrians and say, “mahlzeit,” or “blessed mealtime,” before commencing to eat. Later, head to Zotter, a bean-to-bar, organic, fair trade chocolate company with interesting concoctions like chocolate with blue poppy seeds, vinegar with chocolate and even pork fat with, yes, you guessed it, chocolate! Nearby, you’ll find vendors selling Mountain cheese, which has been aged in a tunnel in the mountains from six to twenty-four months. Wash everything down with Sturm, a partially fermented, sweet wine that’s only available in harvest season. Drink it pure or add sparkling water to it. You’ll discover it goes down way too easily!
Viennese cuisine has its roots in Austria’s neighboring countries, which is really not surprising given that Vienna was the heart of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy for centuries. Influences from Hungary, Italy, the Czech Republic and the Balkans are responsible for numerous famous Viennese specialties such as Wiener Schnitzel and Goulash, which are staples on most menus throughout Austria. Clear beef broths with semolina dumplings or finely sliced savory pancakes are common starters, though in fall, pumpkin soup is very popular. And then there are sausages, which are often eaten as fast food at one of the countless sausage stands in the city. The U.S. equivalent of a hotdog in this part of the world is the Frankfurter, typically served with sweet or spicy mustard. For something different, try the Käsekrainer, a pork sausage stuffed with cheese. Save room for dessert and order the Kaiserschmarren. These shredded, doughy pancakes, sprinkled with powdered sugar and served warm with a fruity compote, are heavenly. Amusingly, the translation for this dish’s name is “Emperor’s crap!”
Though meat is standard on most menus, vegetarians need not despair, as the number of vegetarian restaurants is growing in Vienna. The outstanding example is Tian, the only Michelin-star vegetarian establishment in Austria. Executive Chef Paul Ivić is an artist when it comes to crafting innovative dishes with fresh, seasonal ingredients. His multi-course meals are a celebration of the senses. My taste buds exploded with new flavors and textures from a bowl of roasted oyster mushrooms with leek oil and natural puffed rice to a pumpkin apple salad with cardamom, and a cauliflower cream, poached egg yolk, pesto and edamame creation. Dining here is the ultimate experience and it’s worth every penny…or euro in this case.
As you eat your way through Vienna, walk off some of those torte-induced calories by visiting the city’s many cultural attractions, including its grand palaces, world-renowned museums, amazing art collections and more. Journey back to the days of the Hapsburg Empire and submerge yourself into the lifestyle of the royalty. History is omnipresent and it’s easy to imagine princes and princesses in horse drawn carriages dominating the cobblestone streets of the Old City. Head to the Imperial Chapel for Sunday Mass to hear the angelic voices of the Viennese Choir Boys, an enduring symbol of Austria for over 500 years. Or attend a performance at the prestigious Spanish Riding School. It’s the only institution in the world which has practiced for nearly 450 years and continues to cultivate classical equitation in the Renaissance tradition of the Haute Ecole, based on the natural movements of the horse. The school uses Lipizzaner horses, Europe’s oldest cultural horse breed, which dates back to 1580. Performances are held in the Winter Riding School, an austere 18th century hall. All riders wear the traditional uniform of brown tailcoats, white buckskin breeches, white suede gloves, black top riding boots and two-cornered hats. The program, which is accompanied by classical music, is a mix of challenging movements and jumps, displaying the prowess of both riders and horses.
If you’d like to explore some of the city’s off-the-beaten-path sights, there are plenty. For the quirky and unique, check out the 3rd Man Museum, which is dedicated to the film noir classic of the same name. The movie, which was shot in Vienna in 1948, stars Orson Welles and Joseph Cotten. Exhibits illustrate the film’s international success, as well as daily life in post-war Vienna. Head to St. Rupert’s Church for a glimpse of the oldest stained glass window in Vienna, circa 1370, as well as of the sarcophagus of St. Vitalis, a martyr from the Roman catacombs. You’ll also want to check out the murals alongside the Danube Canal. Many make political statements on a variety of issues. It’s street art at its most colorful and fully sanctioned by the powers that be. At the Palais Coburg, originally a palace, now a posh hotel, you can see part of the medieval Old City wall incorporated into the design of the building. Stop in for a drink at the bar, or better yet, head to the upstairs pocket garden to enjoy your libation. This little-known gem makes a perfect hide-away from the hustle-bustle of city life.
There are many unique shops in Vienna, but one of the more unusual is Supersense, where the goal is to provide experiences that tap into each of your senses. Located in what was once a Venetian palazzo, this store is a treasure trove of vintage products and analog equipment, including the largest instant Polaroid camera and a 200 year-old printing machine that’s still in operation. There’s also a recording studio, where you can cut your own records using a Voice-O-Graph machine in an old, refurbished elevator cabin. If you want to exercise your olfactory sense, check out the Smell Lab, where you can purchase your own personal Smell Memory Kit to evoke special moments in your life.
Another special store is Blühendes Konfekt, where owner Michael Diewald has turned his passion into a profession. An avid hiker, Diewald has collected and sampled all of Austria’s wild herbs and edible flowers over the years. He then turns them into delicate pieces of confectionary art, with combinations like black current and sweet clover, rose and bergamot, orange flowers and quince, and lilac and strawberry. They’re not only aesthetically beautiful, but delicious.
Though Vienna is certainly a showcase for many of Austria’s wonders, there are a number of other cities that spotlight different regional specialties, especially when it comes to food. Among them is Graz, Austria’s “Capital of Delight.” Located in the southern part of the country, about 95 miles from Vienna, in an area known as Styria, Graz has long had a reputation for its robust culinary scene. Everywhere you go, you’ll encounter gastronomical pleasures, from food festivals and guided food tours to cooking demos and special events like the Long Table of Graz. Held once a year in August, this unique culinary experience takes place in the historic center of the city, where long tables are set up as a giant open air restaurant. Guests, of which number 700, enjoy a multi-course dinner paired with specific wines, which has been planned by noted chefs and master sommeliers.
In Austria’s mild climate, fruit, veggies and vineyards thrive, and farmers markets abound in Graz. For an introduction to the products of this region, stroll through Kaiser-Josef Market, where a colorful bounty of scarlet runner beans, apples, farmer’s bread, smoked sausages, homemade cakes, tomatoes and more is on display. In the autumn, pumpkins dominate along with bottles of pumpkin seed oil. Known as “green gold,” Styrian pumpkin seed oil is world famous. It’s so special that it was declared a protected product by the EU-Commission, with a strict set of guidelines and criteria to assure authenticity. The best way to learn about this acclaimed oil is to participate in a tasting session at Gasthaus Stainzerbauer, a local restaurant that has a tradition of fine food in Graz. You’ll learn about the history, cultivation, processing, nutrients and usage of the oil via a memorable sensory experience. I became an instant convert upon sampling this magical substance, with its dark green color, rich roast aroma, nutty kernel taste and light, fresh sensation. Dinner at the restaurant followed with plenty of pumpkin-related dishes, including a heavenly pumpkin soup, curd cheese with pumpkin seed oil, pumpkin seed oil ice cream and even pumpkin tiramisu. As you travel through this region in fall, you’ll quickly become aware of how pumpkin, in all shapes and forms, makes its way into everything.
Visitors might also notice that many restaurants have fried chicken on their menus. Styrian fried chicken is in a class of its own, made with bread crumbs and typically served on a bed of greens with potatoes and scarlet runner beans. And, of course, it’s marinated in pumpkin seed oil! Landhauskeller is reputed to be one of the best places in Graz for this dish. You’ll dine in cozy style amid 16th century pillars in an old government building.
Styria has a reputation as the Tuscany of Austria. More grape varieties are cultivated here than in any other winegrowing area in Europe. The region produces characteristically light, dry wines, with the fruity taste of ripe grapes. The most popular is Welschriesling. With its fine, full-bodied touch, it’s a wine for any occasion. Beer lovers don’t despair, as Graz is home to several breweries and brewpubs. Styrian beer is reputed to be the best in Austria, with Reininghaus and Puntigamer at the top of the list. And if you think you need to drink one of those ginormous steins, rest assured, you can order just a “pfiff” or a “whistle,” which is a small glass, ideal for midday consumption.
Graz boasts an Old Town that counts as one of the most well-preserved city centers in Central Europe. Nowhere else will you find outstanding architecture of all styles in such a concentrated area, from the Middle Ages through the 21st century. This UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site on the banks of the Mur River is a treasure trove of palaces, romantic inner courtyards, elaborate frescoed facades, stately churches and charming squares. It’s also a mecca of museums showcasing art, archaeology, science and military history. Taking center stage, though, is the Kunsthaus Graz, an architectural icon that serves as an exhibition center for contemporary art. The unusual biomorphous structure is known locally as the “Friendly Alien,” thanks to its unusual shape and the one thousand plus acrylic glass elements that form its skin.
The town’s traditional landmark is the medieval Clock Tower, which is located atop the Schlossberg hill, the highest point in the city. You can reach Schlossberg on foot up a series of 300 stairs, via the funicular, or by taking a ride in a glass elevator that ascends inside the mountain. Atop, you are greeted with a dramatic panorama of the surrounding mountains and red-tile roofscape of the city below. Take time to walk along the network of footpaths around this lovely spot and when you feel the need for sustenance, head to the Schlossberg Restaurant, where the food and views are divine.
Salzburgerland is another culinary hotspot in Austria. This region, known as “top chef country,” has nine self-guided culinary paths or tours for food aficionados. Each pathway has a different theme and is suited for those with a specific food interest like “gourmets,” “fish fans,” “meat eaters,” “organic connoisseurs” and “cheese freaks.” Information and maps are provided indicating designated farms and restaurants geared toward the area of focus. On the “gourmet” route, for example, you’ll stop at Wirtshaus Döllerer, an award-winning restaurant and hotel of the same name, located in the delightful town of Golling. Dining here is akin to having high culture on a plate and in a glass. Chef Döllerer has a reputation for using regional products and melding tradition with innovation in dishes like blackened leeks, salt-baked fennel, venison fillet tips in cranberry pepper sauce, and pumpkin ginger soup.
If you’re a cheese lover, you need to put Fürstenhof Dairy and Cheese Factory on your list. It’s an organically-run operation that welcomes visitors interested in learning about the cheese making process. Your tour begins with a stop in the barn to meet the resident Jersey cows and eventually finishes in the shop, where you can sample some of the thirty plus delicious raw-milk cheeses made on site such as double malt, blue mold and Camembert with pepper. Those looking for a hands-on opportunity can become a cheese maker for the day.
Within Salzburgerland is the world renowned city of Salzburg, often referred to as the “Baroque jewel on the edge of the Alps.” The name Salzburg means salt-town. For thousands of years, the people around this area have been mining salt and for most of that time, this “white gold” has been incredibly valuable, as it was the only means of preserving food without refrigeration. Consequently, the city accumulated wealth, power and fame, which helped make it a place of extraordinary beauty and fine culture.
Salzburg’s historic Old Town is a UNESCO World Heritage site characterized by an ensemble of medieval town houses, baroque sacred buildings, splendid palaces and sprawling squares. It boasts impressive museums, galleries, concert halls and theatres, while offering a whopping 4,000 cultural events each year. Home to the internationally acclaimed Salzburg Festival, it’s also a magnet for musicians and music lovers. The city’s celebrated son is Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who was born and raised here. His birthplace is now a museum dedicated to his life and work. It is one of the most photographed buildings, as well as one of the most highly frequented museums in the world.
Tourists also flock to Salzburg because of its connection to the 1965 film, The Sound of Music, which was shot on location in the city and its environs. Ironically, the movie was not popular in Austria and most Austrians didn’t see it until years after it was released in the U.S. They were unaware of its popularity until people began coming to Salzburg specifically to visit the film locations. Locals felt the story had been “Hollywood-ized” and lacked authenticity, as it had a number of historical inaccuracies. Today, however, Salzburg has fully embraced its Sound of Music fame, offering tours, productions of the show and plenty of trinkets to satisfy the throngs of rabid fans.
When it comes to culinary highlights, Salzburg shines with award-winning restaurants and chefs. Take a food tasting adventure with guide Astrid Zehentmayer of Salzburg For You. During your tour, you’ll stroll through traditional food markets and family-owned shops to sample different homemade local products like Monastery Bread, Liver Cheese and Mozartkugel. The bread, which is made only at Alteste Bakery, is mostly rye and baked in a log fired oven. Contrary to its name, Liver Cheese is neither a cheese nor is it made of liver. It’s actually comprised of ground pork, bacon and corned beef, which is then baked as a loaf in a bread pan. Mozartkugel is a special confection that was created by Salzburg master confectioner, Paul Fürst, in 1890 in honor of the famed composer. These sweets are in the shape of small balls that are filled with green pistachio marzipan and surrounded by a layer of nougat, then dipped into dark melted chocolate. Although there are many places in the city that sell Mozartkugel, only the four Fürst shop locations in town can claim to have the Original Salzburg Mozartkugel, which is still made today according to the old recipe and method.
Another specialty of Salzburg is Eachtlingsuppe or pretzel soup, which can be made with beer and cheese, and then topped with pretzel pieces. Pretzels themselves are ubiquitous in all of the markets in town and are most noticeable by their humongous size. One is definitely sufficient for several people! And while on the subject of bigger-than-life foods, the Salzburger Nockerin is in a class of its own. It ranks as one of the most popular desserts and has evolved from a recipe that dates back to the 1800s. The dish is basically a soufflé consisting of three large golden-brown “mounds,” sprinkled with powdered sugar and served on a silver platter. The mounds represent the three hillsides surrounding Salzburg. One order easily serves three.
For a meal with a dynamite view of the city, eat at M32 atop Mönchsberg Mountain near the Museum of Modern Art. And if you want to pull out all the stops, don your best dirndl or lederhosen and take a ride to nearby Lake Fuschl where you’ll dine in style at Schloss Fuschl Resort & Spa, a legendary fairy tale chateau built in the 15th century by Prince-Archbishops of Salzburg. You’ll feel like a queen or king for the evening, as you sup amid this royal setting.
If you stay:
In Vienna – Hotel Altstadt: www.altstadt.at/en
In Graz – Hotel Wiesler: www.hotelwiesler.com
In Salzburg – Hotel Gmachl: www.gmachl.com