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A Magical Tour of a Magical City: Vienna!

By Owen C. Hardy

Eleanor and I met this young Korean man at a restaurant near the Sans Souci

The closest I got to a train during our recent family trip to Vienna was a streetcar.

But it wasn’t just any streetcar. It was the famous tram #71.

The #71’s tracks lead to Vienna Central Cemetery, whose “permanent residents” include Beethoven, Brahms, Schubert and Johann Strauss. (Mozart was buried nearby in an unmarked pauper’s grave.)

Streetcars — like almost everything in this lovely city — are efficient, quiet, safe and get you to almost any place you’d want to go.

And they can be a huge advantage—especially if you’re touring with a three-year-old train fan.

Years ago, I’d visited Vienna several times as a nearly penniless exchange student armed with a Eurail pass. I’d always wanted to return to Vienna — in style — for the New Year’s holidays.

And with so much to see and do, I realized I couldn’t enjoy Vienna in just a day or two. Two or more weeks should do the trick, I thought.

Vienna is fairly equidistant between Louisville, KY, where IRT and half of the Hardy clan live, (4,796 miles away) and Delhi, India, where the other half resides (3,464 miles away).

If you’re staying in one of Vienna’s fine hotels, such as the Hotel Sacher Wien or the Sans Souci, you won’t need streetcars, other than to take a joy ride (which we did several times). Vienna’s charms are everywhere, many of them within a 10- to 15-minute walk from the center city.

But don’t expect to get to all of them. Although Vienna’s population is just 2 million, the city boasts over 100 major museums. And if you’re an aficionado of caffeine and all things sweet, you’ll go wild with Vienna’s myriad — and centrally located — coffee houses, cafés and restaurants.

Eleanor and I started our journey on an Austrian Airlines non-stop, 8-hour Washington, D.C. to Vienna flight. The young cabin crew, decked out in their white, starched chef hats, were a fitting introduction to Viennese hospitality and delicious food.

We arrived Dec. 22—well before Christmas Eve—and several days ahead of our Louisville and Delhi families. So Eleanor and I had time to relax before “the main show” arrived.

As owners of our 41-year-old luxury rail travel agency, we tested Vienna’s “best of the best” and had a ball.

Vienna, Boys Choir

Prime on our list was the morning Christmas Eve mass at the chapel of the Hofburg Palace, which has served dozens of royals over the years. The Vienna Boys’ Choir, clad in their sailor suites, sang splendidly.

Over the next few days, we took in two of our most beloved operettas — Hansel & Gretel and Die Fledermaus — at the “Staatsoper” (Vienna State Opera house). The theaters were packed, as was the Staatsoper café, which was doing a brisk business. (We’re glad we ordered champagne and cakes ahead!)

We first stayed at the less well-known, but fantastic, Sans Souci Hotel. Its location was wonderful, with a team of true professionals to match.

And it was just minutes from the city’s major museums as well as many shops, restaurants and cafés. We also sampled the Sacher Hotel, fantastic with its old-world style and history. But what really delighted us were those things we didn’t expect to see (or, for that matter, pay for).

How about a 20-piece snare drum and brass band, all clad in red and white Santa outfits, complete with floppy hats and white fringe?

They were honoring Christmas Eve with a lively rendition of Paul Simon’s “El Condor Pasa” (aka “If I Could”) before a large crowd just outside the famed Café Demel.

Gazing into the Café Demel windowOther holiday delights included the beautifully lit City Hall, the children’s “reindeer train” at a nearby Christmas market, plus generous portions of “Glühwein” — red wine with cinnamon, clove, star anise and other spices.

We topped off Christmas Eve with a warm and memorable dinner with a young man from South Korea.

We were sitting two tables over at a restaurant near our hotel. Not wanting him to be lonely on Christmas Eve, we invited him to our table.

A kindergarten teacher from a village south of Seoul, he told us he was on a whirlwind trip to Austria — and rushing back to South Korea — for the wedding of a friend. He emailed us later that our dinner was more memorable than all of Vienna. We won’t forget him, either.

Finally, several days later, our two daughters, their husbands and our three-year-old grandson, Madhu, arrived.

From the start, Madhu loved riding Vienna’s trams — and how easy they made visiting Vienna. He spoke for all of us when he exclaimed, holding out his arms to the interior of the tram: “The city is a gift for everyone!”

Almost as much as he loves anything on tracks —  he also loves music. And the festive season in Vienna is made for people who adore music.

Broadcast around the world, the 2024 New Year’s Day concert was conducted by General Music Director Christian Thielemann. Good single tickets were going for 5,000 Euros — $5,500 — each.

So we copied the locals. We listened to the concert from one of the major squares. Our grandson was entranced — as were the large crowds (mostly Viennese, it seemed) gathered around the “Jumbotron” screens in the St. Stephansplatz.

The show was broadcast live from the concert hall. As the orchestra played, the show included romantic ballet snippets on the giant screens. The dancers soared across the screen like swans. So did a certain small member of our family.

We filled the rest of our Vienna visit with cafés, museums, visits to Schönbrunn Palace, art museums, history museums — even a ride on Vienna’s ferris wheel, made famous in “The Third Man,” the 1949 film noir starring Orson Wells.

We visited Mozart’s house and Beethoven’s tiny 4th-floor walkup. We took a horse and carriage ride and enjoyed champagne and tea cakes as we clip-clopped along. We admired everything about Vienna — its architecture, city design, transit system — and its warm, welcoming people.

In short, you’d be hard-pressed to find another single location where so much fun can be had in such a short amount of time.

Our family was together for about a week. We highly recommend the idea of staying put in one wonderful place, especially with a wee one.

And we highly recommend traveling in the winter. It was a magical experience that we’ll never forget.

Note: If you want to replicate our Christmas/New Year’s Day extravaganza, please email us at for a complimentary appointment to learn about our travel planning process. Or, if you want to join a wonderful small group luxury train departure, consider the annual New Year in Vienna journey aboard the Golden Eagle Danube Express.

As a Virtuoso travel agency, we have the connections to get you almost anything you want, but we can’t sell a sold-out house! For our trip, we included the services of an excellent guide — we highly recommend it. We packed in a lot, including the famed  Lipizzaner horse show as well as the opera and dining reservations at special places across the city.

The Sacher’s New Year’s Day Gala luncheon was fabulous — and very popular.

But the most fun was free: waltzing around the squares to celebrate the beginning of a great New Year as well as Vienna, a gift for everyone.