I just returned from a whirlwind familiarization tour of Berlin & Austria. I flew over on Austrian Airlines via Toronto to Vienna in Business Class. Business class on Austrian is very comfortable. They provide a large entertainment screen and a very comfortable lie flat bed. The entertainment selection wasn’t quite as extensive as I have seen on other airlines, but it was certainly adequate. The food was outstanding. They have a “chef on board” program – which is a dedicated person who prepares the meals for business class. Appetizers are served from a trolley – so you can to try one or all of the selections. The main courses were delicious! After dinner a Viennese “coffee house in the sky” lets you choose from a list of a couple of dozen different types of coffee. Unsurprisingly I went with the one that included Baileys and whipped cream!
Upon arrival in Vienna we had a tour of the Austrian Airlines headquarters. Following that we toured the Vienna airport. The terminal building is new, however, there were apparently some cost issues and the terminal building does have some quirks. It can be difficult to navigate and travelers were getting lost when the terminal first opened. More signage has been added but you still have to keep your wits about you or you can easily end up in the wrong spot. This is particularly true when you get off a flight and have to follow signage for connecting passengers (Schengen and non-Schnegen passport holders) or for baggage pick up and exit.
Next up we took a short hop on Austrian Airlines from Vienna to Berlin (about an hour long flight).
I stayed at the Adlon Kempinski in Berlin, which is a very stunning hotel right beside the Brandenburg gate. The Adlon is a Virtuoso property so it is eligible for the upgrade based on availability and they also include breakfast and free local calls.
Berlin was not at all as I had imagined it would be. It is home to about 3.5 million people – the fifth largest city in Europe. It has a good transit infrastructure and is a very modern and vibrant city with a very laid back attitude. As I understood from speaking with my tour guide that “shabby chic” is the way to go in Berlin. Too much polish/perfection is looked down on but rather individuality is more prized. The city itself was heavily bombed in the past – so buildings are generally new – although some historic sites have been rebuilt in their original style. Berlin’s fascinating history shines through and visits to the few sections of the Wall that have been preserved are a must see – as is ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ although it has become a gaudy tourist trap.
Their first night in Berlin we went to Alpenstueck for a private cooking class. The results (no thanks to us) were delicious and it’s certainly a fun thing to do with a group and it is definitely best with a maximum of 6 people.
Just around the corner from the Adlon was the memorial to the murdered Jews of Europe. You have to walk through it to get the full effect. The artist who created the monument has been very careful not to comment on his reasons for creating the piece as it is but rather wants each person to bring their own feeling and meaning when they experience it. I found it to be a surprisingly powerful and moving site as I walked through it – something that is not necessarily apparent on first glance.
We toured on foot and by coach and saw the East Side Gallery which is the longest remaining stretch of the wall. From there we continued to Museums Island (a UNESCO world heritage site), which is home to five museums. We only had time to explore the Neues Museum and specifically the Egypt exhibit which has the mask of Nefertiti as its centrepiece. The building was severely damaged in WWII and restored in 2003. They have left some reminders of its painful history though and you can even see bullet holes in the walls of the structure.
We had lunch at the Me Collectors Room – an interesting spot which combines a café with a gallery of rotating artworks.
After lunch we had a private tour of the Boros Bunker. The bunker was built in 1943 to protect up to 3,000 people from Allied air raids. After the war it was used to store fruits and vegetables for the East German government and eventually was turned into a disco. It is now privately owned and has been turned in to a showcase of modern art.
Dinner was at Lutter & Wegner – a well known and long established Berlin restaurant.
Next day touring was again on foot and by coach – we toured more of the city and saw some of the architecture that had developed since the end of WWII. We had another all too brief tour – this time of the Jewish Museum which opened on September 9th, 2001.
That was followed up by lunch and a cruise on a boat that was rented out for just our group – it’s a lovely way to see the city and there are certainly bigger boats that you can purchase tickets for. If you’ve got a small group though – the private boat rental is the way to go.
We had an evening beverage tasting at the Preussische Spirituosen Manufactur – a very interesting spot and the oldest spirit manufacturing factory in Berlin. We learned about the various flavours that are added to spirits, the process and the amount of time and raw ingredients it takes to produce the various liquors. The factory also has a small shop where you can buy the fruits of their labour.
Dinner was at the Grand Restaurant – another beautiful venue and superb meal.
If high-end shopping is more your thing there is lots available on Friedrichstrasse – one of the city’s main arteries and a short walk from the Adlon Kempinski.
Our last day was spent doing a series of hotel tours via bike rickshaw. My route covered four hotels: Das Stue, the Hotel am Steinplatz, the Hotel Kempinski Bristol and the Hotel Sofitel Kurfurstendamm.
Das Stue was by far my favorite hotel in Berlin. It’s impeccably designed and boutique in nature. They even have an entrance to the zoo right off their terrace!
The Hotel am Steinplatz was also lovely and a boutique property.
The Kempinski Bristol and Sofitel were much larger hotels but both very nice!
I unfortunately did not get to see the Rocco Forte Hotel de Rome which was extremely popular with many of my fellow tour participants.
Perhaps befitting its tumultuous history, Berlin is a city of contrasts. The German capital boasts a creative soul inspired by its multicultural population and a thriving underground scene. Berlin's clubs are legendary, one could even say the best in Europe and they are easily the most liberal.
Although the city has moved on from being the defining symbol of the Cold War, which it was for more than 30 years, the scars of the war are still visible on some of the iconic monuments. Sections of the Berlin Wall still stand as does Checkpoint Charlie. There are lots of world class museums which document the time spent as a city divided under first Nazi then Soviet rule.
The city offers a mosaic of different cultures, bringing a young, chic and hip vibe to the music restaurant and club scenes. The East Berlin district of Kreuzberg is nicknamed "Little Istanbul" – legend has it that the doner kebab was born here. Takeaway shops selling kebabs and the iconic "currywurst" can be found on almost every street corner.
Whether you're looking for world class shopping, arts & culture, history & museums or just plain old fun – then Berlin is the city for you!
My first impression of Vienna was from looking out the airplane window and being struck by how green the countryside was. I have a vivid image of a patchwork of fields in varying shades of green – interspersed here and there by what looked like tiny villages. I was surprised when we started our descent in to Vienna as it didn’t seem like we’d reached a city at all.
Vienna is home to about 1.8 million people and is divided in to districts. The first district – which is surrounded by the Ringstrasse is where we spent most of our time and where most tourists would probably choose to stay. The key sites are all within walking distance in the first district: the Opera House, St. Stephen’s cathedral, the Imperial Palace, the Museums Quartier, and more.
Our home in Vienna was the Hotel Grand Ferdinand. The boutique hotel is very well located on the Ringstrasse and newly opened (Fall 2015). Some of the room were quite small and they had the sink and shower in the room- because of this I would say they are best suited for solo travel or if you were with your partner or a close personal friend.
The hotel does offer a pretty unique product and that is a “dorm room” style accommodation. They have two dorm rooms – each with six beds (upper and lower bunks). They feel very much like a high-end train compartment. Each bed gets its own locker and there are two bathrooms for the guests to share. The dorm beds cost only 30 EUR per night which is an absolute steal. It would be a fun option for a family travelling together as you could buy out the entire dorm for 180 EUR a night and have space for everyone at a very reasonable cost.
On our first day we set off on a walking tour of the city. Our first stop was the Vienna State Opera. The opera house offers different programs every day with about 300 days per season of opera and ballet performances. In April, May, June and September performances are screened live in front on the opera building on a huge screen. The Hotel Bristol has “opera suites” which overlook the opera and you can sit in your room and watch the giant screen.
Next We viewed St. Stephen’s Cathedral from the outside (no time to go in). This is the symbol of Vienna – construction started in the 12th century and it is one of the most important Gothic structures in Austria. We then passed Graben and Kohlmarkt, which are exclusive shopping streets.
Our first “stop” was at the Austrian National Library – an impressive building with over 200,000 volumes on display. The 200,000 are just a small part of the million plus books, magazines, maps, etc. in the library’s collection – most of which is stored below the library in vaults, which cover several blocks. Private tours of the library can be arranged and if you are looking for a special thing to do – the library has a special fundraising project they do whereby patrons can adopt books or other items from the museum collection. If you have someone looking for a gift for someone that is hard to buy for – you can work with the library to choose an item that might resonate with them and arrange to ‘adopt’ the item in their name.
We moved from the Library on to the Imperial Palace and then across the Ringstrasse to the MuseumsQuartier. We were only able to go in to the Leopold Museum and have an all too brief tour of the Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele exhibits (permanent displays of two famous Austrian artists – I happen to be a fan but their work is not to everyone’s taste). The MQ is on the border of the old city and is located in the former Imperial stables. It combines institutions of different art fields, restaurants, cafes and shops in an area over 640,000 square feet. The main two are the Museum of Modern Art and the Leopold Museum.
Lunch this day was at Tian Restaurant – a Michelin star vegetarian/vegan restaurant and it was one of the best meals I’ve ever had.
The evening was taken up with an “urban adventure” by Nesterval. It was like an amazing race type concept where you had to figure out clues which led you to various spots throughout the city. A nice idea and a fun way to see the city – they have regularly scheduled events as well as being available for group buyouts.
Dinner was at Labsetelle - another amazing meal. We really were treated to the best culinary experiences in both cities – all the restaurants were simply just phenomenal.
The next morning we visited Schoenbrun Palace and had another whirlwind tour of a site that you could spend a couple of days exploring! Schoenbrun was modelled after the Palace of Versaille but on a smaller scale, it only has 1,400 rooms. The Palace is the former summer residence of the Imperial family and is one of Europe’s most impressive baroque complexes. The gardens are just stunning and there is a coffee house on top of a hill overlooking the gardens and the city that is well worth a visit. Cool fact – there is a suite inside the palace that you can rent! It would be a very unique place to spend a honeymoon night or special anniversary.
Lunch this day was at our hotel, the Grand Ferdinand in the lobby restaurant called the Grand Etage.
We had an afternoon waltz lesson – because you can’t go to Vienna and not waltz!
Tonight's dinner was at the Hotel Bristol, which overlooks the Opera House.
In the evening we went to a Johann Strauss concert at the Sofiensale. From 1850 to 1898 Johann Strauss performed with his orchestra more than 200 times in the Sofiensale which is now a heritage protected building.
On our final day we did a couple of hotel inspections – namely the Hotel Imperial and the Hotel Sacher. Both are very traditional luxury hotels. The Hotel Imperial was created in 1863 and was the private residence of the Prince of Wurttemberg. Both hotels lay claim to famous tortes (samples of which I brought back for the team to enjoy!). Both hotels had grandeur, old world charm and impeccable service.
We then moved on to the Spanish Riding School at the Imperial Palace which is home to the world famous Lipizzan stallions. I saw a performance of the Lipizzaners when I was a teenager (that would be back in the 1970’s) and it still resonates with me today – so I was very excited to see the school. The school receives in excess of 350 applications a year for potential riders and accepts on average only 3 to 5 per year (some years they accept no one!). Apprenticeship lasts 12 years before you are ready to be a show performer. We had a private tour of the stables and got to see the beautiful stallions up close. Unfortunately photos were not allowed, nor were we allowed to touch the horses.
We had a lovely lunch at a newly opened restaurant ‘Restaurant Buxbaum’, which is located in a charming courtyard of an old monastery.
The afternoon some of the group went to the Prater and the Giant Ferris Wheel. The Prater is a large public amusement park. The Prater's Giant Ferris Wheel was built in 1896/97 for the World Exhibition in Vienna. On the Ferris wheel you are able to rent out private cabins for drinks/dinner etc.
On our last night in Vienna we attended another cooking class - you can arrange a private cooking class plus a pre-dinner shopping excursion with the chef through the market if you are interested.
Vienna had the “old world” feeling that I quite enjoy. The history was more visible as the city was not heavily bombed during WWII so more of the beautiful public buildings and palaces still stand in their original form. Culture – art, ballet and music are an integral part of the soul of this city and you’d be hard pressed to find a day without some sort of performance to enjoy.
We were pretty much always in the first district of the city, but there’s lots of outdoor activity available nearby (hiking/biking) in the Vienna woods. Christmas markets in Vienna are very popular. In January and February there are the famous Vienna balls. Vienna has been rated the number one most livable city for several years in a row – quality of life, environmentalism and sustainability are key features of the city – it’s also one of the safest major cities in the world. I’d certainly go back in a heartbeat.