Rick Steves Travel Blog: Blog Gone Europe
I'm sharing my travel experiences, candid opinions and what's on my mind. If you think it's inappropriate for a travel writer to stir up discussion on his blog with political observations and insights gained from traveling abroad, you may not want to read any further. — Rick
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We’ve added 23 new tracks to Rick Steves Audio Europe™, the free smartphone app that organizes my audio content (radio interviews, audiobook chapters, and self-guided tours) into country- or city-specific playlists. So far, 200,000 travelers have downloaded our app for free access to nearly 300 radio interviews and 37 self-guided audio tours via their iPhones or Android mobile devices.
This free travel information service, with much-improved features in its newest version, will continue to grow. We add batches of Europe-related radio interviews twice a year. And I’ll be producing four new audio tours on Munich and Amsterdam this winter.
This newest batch of interviews from my radio show includes conversations with some well-known folks who share my passion for travel: legendary photographer Annie Leibovitz, NPR host Steve Inskeep, and teen actor-turned-travel writer Andrew McCarthy. I also talk with European travel experts about crafting the perfect Tuscan picnic, appreciating postwar Sarajevo, enjoying Paris after dark, and much more. And if you’re planning a trip to Europe soon, the app has hours of trip-enhancing material of great value for anyone traveling with a mobile device. If you don’t already have the Rick Steves Audio Europe™ app, you can find it here: Rick Steves Audio Europe™
Last week on Facebook I announced our support for an innovative anti-hunger initiative, and promised we’d send Bread for the World a check for $100,000 as soon as I reached 100,000 “likes” on my Facebook page (which I guessed would take about a week). We hit that goal in just a few hours, so I extended the challenge through October 1st. The friends kept coming, and at midnight we reached 104,222 total “likes.” As promised, this week I’ve happily written a check for $104,222 to Bread for the World.
I’m also thrilled to let you in on this week’s launch of a key piece of this initiative: “The Line,” a new 40-minute video documentary produced by Bread for the World and its partners. You can be among the first to watch this important, eye-opening, VIDEO PREMIERE: The Line.
“The Line” tells the stories of a former banker, a single mother, a Louisiana shrimper, and a head busboy as they’ve struggled to move out of poverty. They’ve managed to turn their lives around with God’s help, some assistance from their families and the federal government, and their own hard work. I think this film brilliantly humanizes this issue. It’s so easy to enjoy the blessings of being relatively affluent Americans — and not realize the harsh reality that exists for so many in our country.
Last week we posted three-minute videos from President Obama and Governor Romney, each spelling out in his own words how he intends to deal with the problems of hunger and poverty in America. All during October, Bread for the World will coordinate emailing these video links to 10 million voters in 18 key states, urging them to view the presidential candidates’ videos. Their call to action is for people to remind the candidates that hunger is a non-partisan issue that is vitally important to people of faith across the political spectrum.
At the same time, Bread for the World is sending DVDs of the candidates’ statements to about 2,000 churches throughout the country, to stimulate a discussion addressing hunger from a Christian perspective.
The next component, which starts mid-October to coincide with the presidential debates, is the airing of 900 radio spots on Christian radio stations in Florida and Colorado. The message will remind the listeners to not only view the videos, but to urge the incoming president and Congress to create a “circle of protection” around programs that are vital to hungry and poor people.
After the election, Bread for the World will send 5,000 DVDs of the president-elect’s statement to key faith leaders and churches, along with a study guide aimed at holding the next president accountable for his promise to work to end hunger and poverty during his term in office.
It is only through your support of my travel business — buying guidebooks, travel gear, DVDs, rail passes and tours — that we’ve had the wherewithal to generously fund Bread for the World’s ground-breaking initiative to bring hunger and poverty to the forefront of this presidential campaign in an effective, non-partisan way. These efforts will bring about positive change in our country. Thanks — not just to our Facebook fans — but to all of you who have helped us become a force for thoughtful travel, and social good.
With all the intensity in our domestic and political worlds lately, it’s a fine time for an escape — sunset glinting through the drink in your hand. Let’s fantasize about the best seaside bars in Europe. Whenever researching a guidebook chapter covering a port or seaside resort, I work hard to find the most romantic place to swizzle stick your vacation cocktail. Feel the breeze, smell the sea, enjoy the cry of the gulls, and let me share my favorites. These are each worth seeking out. (BTW, I’d love to read about your favorites. Please share.)
In Dubrovnik, Croatia
Cold Drinks “Buža” offers, without a doubt, the most scenic spot for a drink in Dubrovnik. Perched on a cliff above the sea, clinging like a barnacle to the outside of the city walls, this is a peaceful, shaded getaway from the bustle of the Old Town…the perfect place to watch cruise ships disappear into the horizon. Buža means “hole in the wall” — and that’s exactly what you’ll have to go through to get to this place. Filled with mellow tourists and friendly bartenders, Buža comes with castaway views and Frank Sinatra ambience ($4-7 drinks, summer daily 9:00-into the wee hours).
In Rovinj, Croatia
Valentino Champagne and Cocktail Bar is a memorable, romantic, justifiably pretentious place for an expensive late-night waterfront drink with jazz. Fish, attracted by its underwater lights, swim by from all over the bay…to the enjoyment of those nursing a cocktail on the rocks (literally — you’ll be given a small seat cushion and welcomed to find your own seaside niche). Or you can choose to sit on one of the terraces. Classy candelabras twinkle in the twilight, as couples cozy up to each other and the view. Patricia opens her bar nightly from 19:00 until as late as there’s any action. While the drinks are extremely pricey, this place is unforgettably cool ($8-11 cocktails, Via Santa Croce 28).
In Vernazza, Cinque Terre, Italy
Ristorante Belforte’s tiny, four-table balcony lets you sip your vino della Cinque Terre overlooking the Mediterranean from the edge of a stony castle. You can feel the mist from the surf crashing below on the Vernazza breakwater. And the views of the ancient vineyard terracing all around you makes the experience a highlight. From the Vernazza breakwater, follow either the stairs or the rope that leads up and around to the restaurant.
In Hydra, Greece
Kodylenia’s Taverna is perched on a bluff just over Kaminia’s pocket-sized harbor, which shelters the community’s fishing boats. With a glass of ouzo and some munchies, as the sun slowly sinks into the Saronic Gulf and boats become silhouettes, you can drink to the beauties of a Greek isle escape. It has my favorite, irresistible dinner views on Hydra: This scenic spot lets you watch the sunset with Kaminia’s adorable port in the foreground. Owner Dimitris takes his own boat out early in the morning to buy the day’s best catch directly from the fishermen. For meals, you can sit out on the shady, covered side terrace above the harbor. For drinks, sit out front on the porch. Relax and take in a sea busy with water taxis, hydrofoils that connect this oasis with Athens, old freighters — like castles of rust — lumbering slowly along the horizon, and cruise ships anchored as if they haven’t moved in weeks.
In Istanbul, Turkey
The double-decker Galata Bridge spans the Golden Horn, a historic inlet that separates the old and new towns of Istanbul. And all along both the horn and the bridge, you’ll find dozens of inviting, no-name bars. Find a place to nurse some Turkish specialties: Drink an unfiltered, highly caffeinated “Turkish coffee” (which leaves a thick coating of “mud” in the bottom) or a cup of tea, and suck on a water pipe — called a nargile (NAHR-gee-leh) — filled with flavorful dried fruit. As you enjoy your drink and your hookah, be sure to play backgammon with (or at least among) the locals. If you’re on the lower level of the bridge, you can look up for a fun view of dozens of fishing rods twitching along the upper railing. Watch your head — sometimes an amateur fisherman carelessly lets his catch swing under the top deck. And keep an eye out for the flicker of a little silvery fish, thrashing through the air as it’s reeled in by a happy predator.
In Salema, Portugal
One bit of old Algarve magic still glitters quietly in the sun — Salema. It’s at the end of a small road just off the main drag between the big city of Lagos and the rugged southwest tip of Europe, Cape Sagres. Quietly discovered by British and German tourists, this simple fishing village has three beachside streets, many restaurants, a few hotels, time-share condos up the road, a couple of bars, English and German menus, a classic beach with a paved promenade, and endless sun. The Atlântico — noisy, big, busy, and right on the beach — has long dominated the Salema beach scene. It’s known for fun drinks, friendly service, and a wonderful beachside terrace.
At Burriana Beach, Near Nerja, Spain
Ayo’s is famous for its character of an owner and its beachside all-you-can-eat paella feast at lunchtime. For 30 years, Ayo — a lovable ponytailed bohemian who promises to be here until he dies — has been feeding locals. Ayo is a very big personality — one of the five kids who discovered the Caves of Nerja, formerly a well-known athlete, and now someone who makes it a point to hire hard-to-employ people as a community service. The paella fires get stoked up at about noon and continue through mid-afternoon. Grab one of a hundred tables under the canopy next to the rustic, open-fire cooking zone, and enjoy the beach setting in the shade with a jug of sangria. For $7.50, you can fill your plate as many times as you like. It’s a 20-minute walk from the Balcony of Europe, at the east end of Burriana Beach — look for Ayo’s rooftop pyramid (daily “sun to sun,” paella served only at lunch).
In Villefranche-sur-Mer, France
In the glitzy world of the Riviera, Villefranche-sur-Mer offers travelers an easygoing slice of small-town Mediterranean life. Luxury sailing yachts glisten in the bay — an inspiration to those lazing along the harborfront to start saving when their trips are over. The Chapel of St. Pierre, decorated by artist Jean Cocteau, is the town’s cultural highlight. Le Cosmo Bistrot/Brasserie takes center stage on Place Amélie Pollonnais with a great setting — a few tables have views to the harbor and to the Cocteau chapel’s facade (after some wine, Cocteau pops). Manager Arnaud runs a tight-but-friendly ship and offers well-presented, tasty meals with good wines (I love their red Bandol).
In Conwy, Wales
This Welsh town, watched over by its protective castle, has a particularly charming harbor. Conwy was once a busy slate port (back when much of Europe was roofed with Welsh slate, Conwy was a boomtown). But today the harbor is a laid-back area that locals treat like a town square. On summer evenings, the action is on the quay (pronounced “key”). The scene is mellow, multigenerational, and perfectly Welsh. It’s a small town, and everyone is here enjoying the local cuisine — “chips,” ice cream, and beer — and savoring that great British pastime: torturing little crabs. Facing the harbor, The Liverpool Arms pub was built by a captain who ran a ferry service to Liverpool in the 19th century. Today it remains a salty and characteristic hangout.
In Staithes, England
A ragamuffin village where the boy who became Captain James Cook got his first taste of the sea, Staithes (pronounced “staythz”) is a salty jumble of cottages bunny-hopping down a ravine into a tiny harbor. This refreshingly unpretentious town on the North Sea is gloriously stubborn about not wooing tourists. The town has changed little since Captain Cook’s days. Seagulls seem to have picked the barren cliffs raw. There’s nothing to do but stroll the beach and nurse a harborside beer or ice cream. The Cod and Lobster, overlooking the harbor, has scenic outdoor benches and a cozy living room warmed by a coal fire. In nice weather, the best option is to enjoy a drink, snack, or light meal (i.e., fish-and-chips) sitting at an outdoor table fronting the harbor.
In Solvorn, Norway
Walaker Hotel, a former inn and coach station, has been run by the Walaker family since 1690 (that’s a lot of pressure on eighth-generation owner Ole Henrik). The hotel, set right on the Lustrafjord, has a garden perfect for relaxing and, if necessary, even convalescing. In the main house, the halls and living rooms are filled with tradition. (Patriotic hymns sit at the piano.) While great for its accommodations, the hotel also serves dinner and drinks. I love to savor my coffee and dessert on the balcony with a fjordside setting — mesmerized by Norwegian mountains. Rather than jagged, they’re bald and splotchy, with snowfields on top and characteristic cliffs plunging into inky fjords. One night I took my strawberries à la mode onto one such porch and sat there long after my coffee cooled and ice cream melted. After dinner, I strolled through the village enjoying the blond cherubs running barefoot through the stalled twilight. Cobbled lanes led past shiplap houses to rock cliffs — their gullies and cracks green with trees.
In Barcelona, Catalunya, Spain
Before the 1992 Olympics, Barcelona’s waterfront was an industrial wasteland nicknamed the “Catalan Manchester.” Not anymore. The industrial zone was demolished and dumped into the sea, while sand was dredged out of the seabed to make the pristine beaches locals enjoy today. The scene is great for sunbathing and for an evening paseo before dinner. It’s like a resort island — complete with lounge chairs, volleyball, showers, bars, WCs, and bike paths. Every 100 yards or so is a chiringuito — a shack selling drinks and light snacks. Originally these sold seafood, but now they keep locals and tourists well-lubricated. It’s a very fun, lively scene on a balmy summer evening. This is a nice way to escape the claustrophobic confines of Barcelona to enjoy some sea air and the day’s final sunrays. A double-decker boardwalk runs the length of the beach, with a fine walkway up above. There’s a series of great seafood restaurants and cocktail bars with romantic, candlelit, beachfront seating tucked down below.
Wow, our “$100k for 100k friends” hunger initiative has inspired a frenzy of friending. I thought it would take days (not hours!) to reach this goal. You blindsided me. Thank you…and let’s keep going!
The full scope of Bread for the World’s innovative campaign against hunger and poverty launches on October 2nd, and that’s when I’ll write them the check. So, let’s make it out for this amount:
$1 for every “like” I have on the Rick Steves Facebook page as of midnight, October 1st.
How far above $100,000 will we go? That’s up to you…with a little help from your friends. As I post this, we’re at $102,200.
Please share the Facebook post, and make me write a bigger check.
To learn more about this exciting initiative, see the September 26th post on my Blog and Facebook Timeline.
Watch the 3-minute videos from Mitt Romney and Barack Obama that explain their plans for fighting hunger and poverty in America. (You won’t find the candidates talking directly about this important issue elsewhere as it doesn’t “poll well.”) I found it fascinating to examine each candidate’s carefully chosen words on this subject. You can, too.
Share this post, watch the videos, and let’s get more “likes.”
We’re about to hit 100,000 friends on our Rick Steves Facebook page (like us to help me reach that number) — and I’ve decided to celebrate that milestone by funding a $100,000 initiative to protect the poorest Americans from cuts in government programs.
The first step in this project has been to have President Obama and Governor Romney each create a three-minute video that explains what he plans to do as president to fight hunger and poverty. These videos have been completed, and you can view them now.
Here’s why I got involved: An organization I admire, Bread for the World, has joined a coalition of Christian organizations across the political spectrum — from both conservative churches and liberal churches — to encourage our next president, whether Obama or Romney, to maintain a “Circle of Protection” around our nation’s hungry people as necessary cuts are made in government programs.
Their ingenious initiative establishes that hunger is neither a Republican nor a Democratic issue. And it will keep “hunger in America” on the agenda in a constructive way regardless of who occupies the White House after the election.
The $100,000 gift from Rick Steves’ Europe Through the Back Door will help promote these video clips in addition to funding a special hunger education program for thousands of churches in America. Through this program, we hope to hold our next president accountable for promises made about ending hunger. It will also pay for Bread for the World staffers to follow-through in the months after the election, working in our nation’s capital to protect the programs most vital to our poorest citizens.
We believe our travelers have a world view and care about hunger. The stark truth is: one in four American children is “food insecure” and the number is growing. We’ve long supported Bread for the World, and their Circle of Protection campaign has already prevented deep and egregious cuts to programs vital to the poorest people in America and around the world.
Please help us get to 100,000. Visit my Facebook page and “like” us. Share this with your friends. Together we can impress upon our next president and congress that fighting poverty and hunger needs to be a top priority.
Last month, while filming our new Travel Skills Special, I was at the beloved-among-beer-drinkers Andechs Monastery an hour south of Munich. Our intent was to talk about “going local” when eating. And in Bavaria, what’s more local than a knuckle of pork, spiral-cut radishes, sauerkraut, a huge pretzel, and a liter of beer. We had fun shooting me buying all of this and then delivering my lines. But eating the entire thing would have done me in. So, the big on-camera lunch actually ended up feeding our entire crew. But each man, of course, got his own big beer.
By the way, of all the great German beers, Andechs is my favorite. You can eat at an Andechs beer hall in downtown Munich or, more memorably, take a side-trip to this church-capped hill at the foot of the Alps and enjoy an amazing scene right at the monastery.
(Photos by Didrik Johnck, our second cameraman on this shoot.)
Seattle’s KCTS recently produced a TV special celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Seattle World’s Fair (and our Space Needle). Because I enjoyed the fair as a seven year-old back in 1962, the producers sat me down for an interview. It caused me to think about the random events in a person’s life that open them up to our world, and the long-term blessings that can result. Check out this 84-second video. Then think of what in your childhood may have contributed to your appetite for getting out of your comfort zone to enjoy and learn from other cultures. Then, if you like, share it with a comment here.
If you can’t see the video below, watch it on YouTube.
It was the last day of my trip — 25 days of guidebook research followed by 20 days of TV production. Finally, my crew flew home with the footage (not actually “footage” anymore — three weeks of filming is contained on a single, massive hard drive). I was free to do one of three things: stay in the room and edit the research I had done; just go out, relax, and have fun in London; or do all my London audio tours. With so many people using my free audio tours, I decided to do that.
It was a strangely entertaining day. I spent it doing the five London audio tours from my Rick Steves Audio Europe app. For six hours I listened to my voice narrating the very best of London, while my brain was finding ways to make these tours better.
My day went like this: Buy a £7 all-day tube/bus pass (a great deal at about $11), catch the Tube directly to Westminster, do my Westminster Walk (Westminster Bridge to Trafalgar Square), walk The Strand to St. Clement Danes Church, and do my City of London Walk (St. Clement Danes to London Bridge) — interrupting it midway to do my St. Paul’s Cathedral Tour. Then have lunch at the Counting House, taxi to the British Museum to do that tour, and then catch a bus to Euston Station to do my British Library Tour. Finally, catch the Tube for the direct ride back to my hotel in South Kensington. Time management was key: The British Library closed at 6 p.m., but my “off-peak” transit pass wouldn’t let me start until 9:30 a.m.
London’s subway was Europe’s first great system and is consequently the ricketiest — but it still works marvelously. With earbuds in my ears as I walked the streets, the constant churn of London — people, local professionals, big tour buses, taxis, and so on — was strangely more apparent. I was a keen observer. With my buds in, no one talked to me. I was invisible. I noticed what a great percentage of people on the streets were also lost in their buds.
Listening to my tour, I caught a few mistakes. Many of them reminded me of the dangers of travel writing anywhere. For example, I just assumed the Thames flowed. But looking into the river, I realized it is tidal and, when things are slack, it just sits there.
My goal for the audio tours is to make them “real time.” I found, for instance, there is a two-minute stretch on the walk from the Westminster Bridge to Parliament Square that could be filled with informative narration so people wouldn’t have to press stop and walk to the next spot.
The monuments of London have never looked so good. It was fun to be here in the wake of the Olympics. Everyone we talked with commented on how the games went swimmingly — but for tourism, restaurants, taxis, tour guides, and so on, it was a quiet three weeks. As is so often the case, profiteering (the threat of prices jacked up during an event) caused many people (like us, who made a point to arrive after the games finished), to stay away during the anticipated, overpriced commotion.
Whitehall — London’s Pennsylvania Avenue — was grand. Security was almost military — guards with machine guns at the ready strolling in front of the gate at #10 Downing Street (and at train stations and Heathrow Airport). Judging by the traffic, it seems the standard, big-bus sightseeing day trips seem to have been driven out of business by the double-decker, Hop-on Hop-off tour buses. In fact, “HOHO” buses seemed as numerous as regular city buses.
Reaching Trafalgar Square, I concluded that the Westminster Walk is nearly perfect. I’m very happy with it. From that point, I realized it would have been convenient if the City of London Walk started there rather than a mile east at the edge of The City. But walking The Strand to that starting point, I realized we left this stretch out for good reason — it’s boring.
It rained as I walked through The City, the one-square-mile, old town center now consumed by the financial district and Christopher Wren churches. It’s liberating to not care about the weather. For three weeks I needed sunshine to make good TV. Now, with the crew gone, I was singin’ in the rain.
For lunch, I dropped by the Counting House, a former, elegant bank building converted into a fancy pub that’s popular with the neighborhood’s professionals. I confirmed my feeling that, while there are plenty of “cheap and cheery” modern eateries in London, this is a great spot for a memorable lunch.
After touring St. Paul’s, I hopped into a cab thinking that would save me time as it was getting late. I was wrong. Traffic was slow, the meter reached £12, and I could have got to my next sight faster — and free — with my all-day transit pass. Still, I enjoyed the British Museum and British Library. Then, brain drained, I hopped the Tube and zipped directly back to my hotel in South Kensington.
It was an exhilarating day — not unreasonable for first timer to do it, too. And it was cheap: about £20 for transportation, the audio tours were free, and the sights were free (except St. Paul’s, which costs £15). Lunch cost £15 with a beer. The total: about £50 for a very full day in London.
All over Europe, great cities are adding great new buildings to their skylines. And great cities are taking old industrial zones — left derelict when shipping moved out to more modern quarters — and gentrifying them. I’ve noticed that what we call “the wrong side of the tracks” is, in Europe, often the wrong side of the river (think London, Rome, Florence, and Sevilla). Amsterdam is digging up its center to build a new north-south subway line which will move much of the transportation clutter across the IJ River to its (until now) undeveloped North Bank. And this side of the river — which will get a huge new boost when the new transit hub opens — is on its way to becoming a smart, new people zone. Free ferries shuttle mostly bikers back and forth from immediately behind Amsterdam’s big central train station. Now when you look over the river you see a striking new building — the Film Museum on the IJ. Here’s my new guidebook listing:
The Film Museum on the IJ
The big news for the skyline of Amsterdam is the arrival of the new Film Museum on the IJ, nicknamed “The Eye.” This striking, sleek modern building heralds the coming gentrification of the north side of the IJ River, immediately across from Amsterdam’s Central Station. The building is a complex of four theaters playing mostly art films with a particular theme that changes throughout the year. There’s also a monthly program of silent films with live musical accompaniment and exhibitions on film-related subjects, a free permanent exhibit in the basement, a gift shop, and a trendy café with great riverside seating on its terrace. Helpful attendants at the reception desk can get you oriented (Free entry, movies-€10, exhibit-€10, credit/debit cards only; daily 10:00-24:00, exhibits open daily 11:00-18:00; from behind the Central Train Station catch the free ferry labeled “Buiksloterweg” across the river and walk 200 yards, www.eyefilm.nl).
When I’m researching in Europe, the challenge is to stop my in-the-street work while there’s still enough time to input what I ‘ve learned, and then fine-tune the writing. From the first day of this trip, back in early July, I’ve been in a hole. I’m still digging out, as I’ve had so much fun traveling that it’s been impossible to completely keep up on the writing end of things.
With a hard-working crew of editors back home — and a publisher awaiting their work — I am but a happy cog in a wonderful guidebook-creating wheel. And if I miss a deadline, it’ll mess up a lot of people. With my Vienna text due this week, I’ve finally finished those chapters. Here are a few major new additions:
The Third Man: A Movie, a Museum, and a Cultlike Following
The Third Man is a classic film set in post-WWII Vienna. There’s a fascinating museum dedicated to the film and the story it tells (open only Saturday afternoons). The movie still plays regularly in Vienna — or you can see it before coming to town.
This is not just another movie. The British Film Institute voted The Third Man “the best British film ever produced.” It’s set in 1949 Vienna — when it was divided, like Berlin, between the four victorious Allies. (After the war, Austria was divided between the U.S., France, Britain, and Russia until 1955.) With a dramatic Vienna cemetery scene, coffeehouse culture surviving amid the rubble, and Orson Welles being chased through the sewers, this tale of a divided city rife with smuggling and under the threat of Soviet rule is an enjoyable, two-hour experience. The movie plays at Vienna’s Burg Kino (€8, in English; 3-4 showings weekly — usually Friday evening, Sunday afternoon, and Tuesday early evening; a block from the Opera at Opernring 19, burgkino.at).
The Third Man Museum is the life’s work of Karin and Gerhard Strassgschwandtner. They have lovingly collected a vast collection of artifacts about the film, Vienna in 1949, and the movie’s popularity around the world. (In 1999 Japan voted it the best foreign film of all time.)
Third Man fans will love the quirky movie relics, but even if you are just interested in Vienna at the start of the Cold War, this is worthwhile. Sections cover the 1930s when Austria was ripe for the Anschluss, the reality of 1.7 million “DPs” (displaced persons) in Austria after the war, the challenges of denazification after 1945, and candid interviews with soldiers. As a bonus, the museum also gives a fascinating look at moviemaking and marketing around 1950. Don’t be shy about asking for a personal tour from Gerhard or Karin (€7.50, Sat only 14:00-18:00, a long block south of Naschmarkt at Pressgasse 25, www.3mpc.net, Facebook: thirdmanmuseum).
Otto Wagner’s Postal Savings Bank
The Austrian Postal Savings Bank, built from 1904-1912, offers a fascinating look into the society as well as the architecture of that age. This was a bank for working-class people. The very concept of a postal savings bank makes storing your hard-earned income less intimidating for laborers than the palatial banks of the 19th century. The bank’s design makes the service it provides feel almost sacred. Wagner believed, “Necessity is the master of art.” He declared, “What is impractical can never be beautiful.” Everything about the design — so gray, white, and efficient — is practical. While it’s textbook “form follows function,” the form is beautiful nevertheless. A product of its age — so giddy with advancement — the building dignifies the technological and celebrates it as cultural.
Study the sleek, yet elegantly modern facade: Angles high above — made of an exciting new material, aluminum — seem to proclaim the modern age. The facade, with unadorned marble siding panels held on by aluminum-capped bolts, gives the impression that the entire building is a safety deposit box. The interior is similarly functionalist. The glass roof lets in light while the glass floor helps illuminate the basement. Fixtures, vents, and even the furniture fit right in — strong, geometrical, and modern. The main building is open to the public and still functions as a savings bank. In the back, a fine little museum is dedicated to the architect Wagner with a slideshow providing a visual review of his work (free entry to main building, museum-€6, Mon-Sat 9:00-17:00, just off the Ringstrasse near the Danube Canal at Georg-Coch-Platz 2, www.ottowagner.com).
The Museum of Military History
While much of the Habsburg’s empire was built on strategic marriages rather than war, a big part of Habsburg history is military. And the Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, a.k.a. HGM — built in 1860 by Emperor Franz Josef as an arsenal — tells the story well with a thoughtful motto (apparently learned from the school of hard knocks): “War belongs to museums.” You’ll wander the wings of this vast museum practically all alone. On two floors you’ll see a rich collection of artifacts and historic treasures from Empress Maria Theresa to military genius Prince Eugene to Franz Josef. I found the 20th-century section particularly interesting. It includes an exhibit on Sarajevo in 1914 (with the car Archduke Franz Ferdinand was riding in — and the uniform he was wearing — when he was assassinated). For WWII buffs, there’s a look at Chancellor Engelbert Dollfuss (and the pre-Hitler Austrian fascist party), the Anschluss when the Third Reich absorbed Austria, and the devastation of World War II (€5, includes audioguide, daily 9:00-17:00, located inconveniently outside the Ringstrasse, a 10-minute walk behind the Belvedere Palace near the new Central Station at Arsenal Objekt 1, www.hgm.or.at).