TRAVEL: Oh Vienna! Austria gets ready for Eurovision

The 60th Eurovision Song Contest will take place in Austria in May and fans from all over the world will be gathering for this colourful spectacle to be held at the Wiener Stadthalle. So what can people expect from Vienna? Claudia Redmond went to find out.

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With my mum’s special birthday approaching I was trying to find the perfect place to take her on a short break – somewhere with style, history and panache.

Vienna seemed like the ideal destination. I booked a very reasonable hotel, the Exe Vienna Hotel and flight with British Airways from Heathrow, during one of their sale periods, it is something worth looking out for.

The flight was at the crack of dawn so rather than risk a sleepless night I booked into the Sheraton Skyline Hotel which is a short coach ride to the airport. It felt like the holiday had started early when we were greeted by very charming staff on reception. The hotel is bright and airy and our twin room felt very spacious and modern but not without character.

Ballet programme inside The Vienna State Opera House PNL-150313-132900004

The best surprise was when we decided on a night cap and looked for the cocktail bar; we headed out a side door at the hotel and stepped straight into a scene from the French Riviera or Club Tropicana video. Palm trees and soft lighting surrounded a large swimming pool with a wooden bar in the middle – we enjoyed some cocktails and felt totally relaxed and ready for our early flight.

With a flight time of just over two hours we arrived in Vienna refreshed and raring to go. The City Airport Train – CAT – takes you into the heart of Vienna in sixteen minutes and at 12 Euros is a cheaper, and equally comfortable option, to a taxi.

The transport system in Vienna is very efficient with the choice of underground trains and frequent trams. There was a tram stop right outside the hotel and it was easy to navigate the system. We bought a 72 hour travel pass that could be used on all transport.

After unpacking and freshening up we headed back into town to meet our very charming and knowledgeable tour guide for the day Alexandra Brauner which can be arranged through the Vienna Tourist office.

A statue honors Austrian composer Johann Strauss, the Waltz King. PNL-150313-132910004

We embarked on a three hour walking tour of the city taking in both the modern and historical sights of the city. The new and the old seem to blend so well here with new buildings blending in a sympathetic way to their older surroundings.

First stop was an Aladdin’s cave of crystal chandeliers. Lobmeyr is a family company established in 1823. Here the modern is suspended alongside the traditional designs and the sparkle must be seen to be appreciated.

Our tour guide told us that the most popular site for many visitors is the oldest riding academy in the world: The Spanish Riding School.

The horses were originally brought over from the Iberian Peninsula during the sixteenth century, as they were considered to be spirited and suited for classical horsemanship. The Lipizzaner stallions are the current-day descendants of the Spanish breed and are now a cross between Spanish, Arabian and Berber horses.

The next stop was a very moving memorial called The Gates of Violence Monument against War and Fascism. This stands behind the Opera House on Albertinaplatz and consists of four thought-provoking statues which remember not only victims of wars, but also the 1938-1945 Nazi rule of Austria, more commonly known as The Anschluss.

During our walk we also did some window shopping including a visit to the world famous Swarovski Crystal which was originally founded in Vienna.

The following day we visited Cafe Central for a special ‘elegant’ champagne breakfast. Opened in 1876, this cafe was a popular meeting destination for leading figures in art, literature , science and politics including such names as Sigmund Freud and Leo Trotsky.

We enjoyed smoked salmon, croissants, eggs and tea. The surroundings are stunningly opulent and it feels like stepping back in time. You can almost hear the ghosts of the past discussing the events of the day over tea and newspapers. Delicious cakes are also made on the premises which we could not resist and took back to our hotel in beautiful little boxes.

Some pampering at a hair salon a short walk from the hotel and a tram ride back to town we arrived at the beautiful Opera House, Wiener Staatsoper. This historical building was opened in 1869 in the presence of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth. The theatre was devastated during a bombing in March 1945, and the building underwent a major reconstruction before finally being reopened in 1955.

Here we watched the romantic ballet Romeo and Juliet by Sergei Prokofiev. The costumes were sumptuous, the dancers graceful and the orchestra outstanding. We sat in a box and felt like royalty for the evening, a very special event.

If an evening opera or ballet is not for you, a forty minute guided tour of the theatre during the day may be more agreeable. Fascinating facts about the history of the building are shared by experienced guides and it is well worth a visit.

Another famous landmark in Vienna is the Giant Ferris Wheel situated in Prater amusement park in Leopoldstadt and visible across the city. The wheel was rebuilt in 1945 following a fire the previous year. It was arguably made famous in the film noir classic The Third Man, plus appeared in Timothy Dalton’s debut as James Bond, The Living Daylights.

Vienna’s Ringstrasse billed as the most boulevard in the world was officially opened in 1865 by Emperor Franz Joseph. The street, which is 5.3 kilometres long and 57 meters wide, was an elegant promenade for the upper classes. There are special events to mark its 150th birthday this year.

So whether you enjoy sipping coffee in historical surroundings, watching ballet and opera, soaking in some history or simply shopping Vienna has something for everyone.