After a 7-day river cruise on the Danube with my 10-year old daughter, we had about 24 hours on our own to linger before departing home to the states. While most of the passengers from our cruise went on to Prague, Munich, or Berlin, it was an easy decision to return to Vienna (and only a two-hour train ride from Passau, Germany where our ship docked), one of several brief stops on our cruise.
Vienna has always held a special meaning to me. My ancestors date back four generations from Vienna, most but not all who managed to escape the horrors of Nazi persecution during Austria’s annexation and rule under Hitler. Some pre-trip sleuthing through genealogy websites where so many historical records are now available, opened up a treasure chest of discoveries for me – I now knew a little more about my heritage and where my ancestors were born, married, lived and buried – and I wanted desperately to visit some of those spots.
The city was also my first introduction to Europe – my first real ‘exotic’ destination that I ever traveled to when I was 11 years old. Memories of walking down the festive main pedestrian shopping street of Kärntner Strasse on a snowy night in December and seeing my first real palace – the Schönbrunn – on that family trip made an impactful lasting impression on me. Without a doubt, that trip sparked my life-long travel wanderlust.
Then, almost 40 years ago, we stayed at the historic and luxurious Hotel Sacher and there was no question that it was there where I wanted to return for our last night of our vacation. While I had no real memory of the hotel (other than fighting with my sister over my misplaced passport which she doesn’t let me forget to this day), it is rightly recognized as one of the truly grand historic hotels remaining in the world.
The history of Sacher is fascinating in its own right and deserves some acknowledgement here. Many people would believe the Sacher Torte – the most famous (and insanely rich, I might add) chocolate cake in the world – was conceived after the hotel opened in 1876. In fact, a 16-year old Franz Sacher created the cake in 1832, over 40 years before the hotel was opened by his son, Eduard Sacher and then run by his wife Anna for over 50 years after Eduard’s death.
Over a Viennese coffee (of course) in the Sacher Café, I read through The Sacher Treasury, a fascinating small book in the hotel’s boutique that provides a brief history of Vienna and the hotel. I learned some interesting stories of the hotel: such as this is where author Graham Greene penned the screenplay, The Third Man (this should be mandatory film watching for anyone traveling to Vienna). And that the Rote Bar (the hotel’s restaurant serving fine Austrian cuisine) temporarily served as a horse stable for the Russians in the liberation of the city in 1945. And that when Allied Forces divided the city into four zones, Sacher was under British rule and functioned as a British senior officers club for several years. On a less serious note, this is also where John Lennon and Yoko gave their interview naked in bed (eating Sacher torte)!
Today in fact, Sacher is one of last privately owned luxury hotels in the world and the only privately-held hotel in Vienna (the Gürtler family purchased the hotel in 1936 and still runs it, four generations in). The hotel has expanded physically through the years considerably since it’s opening in 1876 and now is housed in six connecting buildings in a quintessential central location of the city. Directly facing the State Opera (I’m told that often you can hear the music wafting in the streets when the Opera is in session), overlooking the Imperial Palace and abutting the Albertina Museum and famous pedestrian Kärtner Strasse, its easy to imagine what pre-war Vienna must have been like. For obvious reasons, the area attracts many tourists but it never felt crowded to me.
The completion of an eight-year refurbishment of all of the public areas and guests rooms has brought new life along with modern conveniences to the hotel without sacrificing its historical character. It almost feels as you are passing through periods of time as you move from space to space around the lobby – each room has a distinct style whether it be Victorian, Baroque or Beaux Arts. Sacher’s historical significance was very much evident as we walked through the hotel and perused the seemingly endless array signed photos of famous patrons lining the walls from Queen Elizabeth and Duke of Windsor to Ernest Hemingway and Oscar Wilde. The hotel is very much weaved into the fabric and history of the city.
All 149 guest rooms of the hotel were renovated by interior designer Pierre-Yves Rochon (who also redid the George V in Paris, Savoy in London, the Peninsula in Shanghai and so on). We were thrilled to be upgraded to the new enlarged rooftop suites on the 7th floor of the hotel. Ours, named Samson & Delilah (all the suites are named after Operas) was a real treat after spending the last seven days in a small cruise cabin. In fact, the bathroom (with a separate shower, tub, double sink, TV and private terrace) was larger than our cabin. Chocolates and fresh fruit greeted us in a this beautiful, feminine suite with a wrap-around terrace overlooking all the major landmarks of the city.
I had the opportunity to briefly inspect a few other rooms and suites, many which house the impressive private art collection of over 1,000 paintings of the Gürtlers. The ‘historic’ rooms, which finished renovation in 2012, are located on the 1st-4th floors.. Traditionally decorated, monochromatic soft hues help lighten up what could have been over wise felt too heavy and formal. Each room and suite is entirely different – no two are alike but some are more contemporary in design then others. All the rooms embrace its Viennese heritage with the right blend of modern amenities and technology.
I found the public spaces stunning – particularly Rote Bar, Blaue Bar and Anna Sacher Restaurant (where a delicious and expansive breakfast buffet is served for guests and included in our rate). The sumptuous display of emerald, navy and scarlet red colors in the public spaces provided a nice contrast to the creamy light hues of the guest rooms. I would have liked to spend more time in them. In addition to these guest spaces, there are three public options accessible from the street including Café Sacher (for your torte and caffe), Sacher Wine Bar, Sacher Stübe for meals, and Sacher Confiserie to buy Sacher-related products.
I was most impressed with the service from our greeting in reception where my 10-year old was treated like a princess (The Petit Sacher program offers tots their own fun directory to the hotel in addition to children’s meals, robes, slippers and treats) to the excellent 24/7 concierge team who could not have been more helpful with guiding us to restaurants as well as assisting us when our flight got cancelled.
Some of the grand ‘classic’ hotels could feel outdated, stuffy or tourist-ridden these days I but did not feel that with the Sacher one bit. Sacher has effortlessly managed to embrace its past, maintaining a very Viennese feel and bring it into the modern age. The result is pure class and elegance.
For all my praise of the Sacher, Vienna is the real star attraction and instantly became one of my favorite cities in the very brief time I was there. The magnificent architecture and cultural activities alone in this beautifully preserved city is enough to lure anyone. I loved that, even in the height of summer, it never felt crowded and everything so spotless. It came as no surprise when I learned that Vienna ranked #1 – seven years in row- in a Quality of Life survey out of 230 worldwide cities. I was fortunate to experience the city in perfect weather when it felt like the whole world was outside. The cafe culture prevails here: Landtmann, Prückle, de Europe, Demel, Sperl, Hawelka …take your pick amongst these well-regarded cafés.
Most everything in Vienna is within walking distance along the Inner Stadte (1st district and original historic Vienna before 1850). Taxis are easy to find at marked areas and I found them very reasonable and easy to get to other areas of the city. Below are some places I recommend but as I was there too briefly it is a very limited list (see more suggestions here). There were so many places – museums, the Opera (off in July), concerts, the markets – that I missed. I MUST go back.
Stadttempel – Just north of St. Stephens Cathedral on small side street Seitenstettengasse, you will find the oldest surviving synagogue dating back to 1826. This synagogue is the only one of 94 synagogues in the city to escape burning during Krystallnacht in 1938. This beautiful beaux-arts style temple, built by one the most eminent architects, Josef Kornhäusel, still has an active 500-member congregation. Guided Tours are offered only Monday – Thursday (11:30 am and 2:00 pm). Note there is tight security and you must bring your passport to gain access.
Schoenbrunn Palace – The summer residence of the imperial family, this baroque palace is spectacular. I found it more enjoyable (and much less crowded) than Versailles and you can easily spend half a day here indoors and in the gardens. I learned alot about Maria Theresa, the female ruler of the Hapsburg dynasty (and mother to Marie-Antoinette, just one of her 16 children!) and Sissi – the former Empress of Austria whose beautiful visage is plastered all over the city and in souvenir stores. If you are traveling with young children, don’t miss the on-site Marionette Theater and Apple Strudel Show at the demonstration bakery at the Cafe Residenz on site (you get to eat a piece along with a copy of the original recipe). Both were huge hits with kids during our tour there.
Belvedere – This stunning palace, the former summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, is a museum where you can see the stunning works of Gustave Klimt. Save time and purchase your tickets online beforehand. The grounds are as equally beautiful as the interiors.
Lodmeyer – Founded in 1823, this 6th generation family-owned shop makes the most exquisite hand-blown glass (Lobmeyr co-developed the first electric chandelier with Thomas Edison and you can see one of the their most famous chandeliers hanging in the Metropolitan Museum in NYC). There are great gifts to buy here which all can be shipped directly to the States. We couldn’t resist this set of hand-painted Promenade glasses.
Dorotheum – Just around the corner from Sacher, on Dorotheergasse, this is one of the world’s oldest auction houses and it has a new auction almost daily. Where the Viennese let go of their jewels, furniture and art. It’s worth just browsing through the cases. The back room gift shop has items for sale that didn’t sell at auction at extremely good prices.
An icon in Vienna is the old-fashioned Ferris Wheel – Weiner Riesenrad at the entrance of Prater amusement park. Constructed in 1897, it is the oldest ferris wheel in Europe and was the world’s tallest ferris wheel until 1985. 15 of the original 30 Large gondola cars are still intact and its worth going in a ride in one just for the spectacular 360 degree view of the city. My grandmother, Grete Matzner, used to talk about how she went on this ferris wheel all the time as a child and it brought up wonderful memories – so we did an honorary ride on her behalf. Prater is now a small amusement park with bumper cars, carousel, roller coaster and Madame Tussauds to entertain children. You can also buy tickets to the amusement park or just the Riesenrad online to avoid lines.
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Hotel Sacher Vienna
For 2016, Virtuoso Rates at Hotel Sacher through Classic Travel/Inviato includes:
• Upgrade on arrival, subject to availability
• Daily Buffet breakfast, for up to two in room guests
• One ‘Time to Chocolate’ 30 minute treatment per room
• Early check-in/late check-out subject to availability
Why book Virtuoso?
- Personalized travel assistance
- 24/7 online booking
- Special rates & exclusive offers
- Guaranteed Room upgrade*
- Complimentary full American breakfast
- Early check-in, Late check-out*
- Exclusive on-site amenities (varies by hotel)
- * based on availability on time of arrival