Vienna was one of the first European capitals I visited as a young adult, but for many years after I ignored it. I’m not sure why, maybe it was because I didn’t fall in love with it on my first visit but, thankfully, in recent years I’ve had the opportunity to return and to finally get to know this beautiful city even better. My most recent chance to see a different side of Vienna came on a river cruise with Avalon Waterways. We had two full days in the city, and thanks largely to the unique excursions available on the Active & Discovery itinerary I was on, I finally learned to love Vienna.
But First…Avalon Waterways & Active Itineraries
Routinely named one of the world’s best river cruise companies, I was an Active & Discovery itinerary. Offered several times throughout the year on different rivers and ships, these itineraries are definitely not your average river cruise experience. These cruises are for guests who want to do and not just see and offer a wide variety of included-excursions that enable passengers to be active and fully engaged with the local cultures. As I learned, Active is no understatement and on my cruise guests had plenty of options.
Insights from Locals
With two full days in Vienna, there was plenty to see and do. Every day there were several included and incredibly interesting excursions offered to passengers from running in the morning to an evening concert. I’ve never seen such incredible activities offered to guests as part of their cruise fare, and it’s an added benefit that I know completely transformed my trip. The ship was also conveniently docked near the city center, which made exploring on our own just as easy and a lot of fun. I did though take advantage of those included excursions, including opportunities to spend time with local guides learning more about their city not just in the touristy areas, but throughout Vienna.
The first activity I joined was a Vienna insider’s tour; led by a local this walk through Vienna changes with the guide whose only goal is to share parts of the city they enjoy. The idea is to get away from the tourist center and to delve deeper into the neighborhoods, learning more about Vienna and Austrian culture along the way. Questions are strongly encouraged, and people asked about everything from the cost of housing to the guide’s favorite spot to meet friends for a drink. We did indeed find one of those residential neighborhoods, creating a fair amount of curiosity among locals as our small group wandered around lively outdoor markets and coffee shops. I enjoyed the experience so much because of how unusual it was, how immersive it was and how hard the guide tried to share everything she loved about her city. That love for Vienna came shining through and that, more than anything else, made me rethink my own experiences in the city.
My immersion into all things Viennese was furthered the next day on an early morning walk around the city center. Visiting one of Vienna’s many famous coffee shops, the guide patiently shared the etiquette involved in this most storied of Viennese institutions, before letting us enjoy our own leisurely breakfast and wake up with the other residents of the city. One reason that I wasn’t enamored with Vienna on my first visit in 2003 is because I didn’t take the time to fully appreciate the many historical treasures found throughout the city. Whether it was visiting a small, but important, church off the beaten path, or escorting us around the Habsburg Museum before it officially opened for the day, this early morning jaunt around the city satisfied my own historical curiosity and painted for me a much more vibrant image of Vienna’s past.
One of the best ways to learn about any new destination is through food. There’s no better way to understand culture, history and traditions than through the stomach, and in Vienna that meant joining a local chef as he spent the afternoon teaching us how to make a traditional Austrian meal. We were welcomed into the demonstration kitchen by our leader for the day, Nabeel. It’s no understatement when I say that he was one of the most entertaining people I’ve ever met and his sense of humor made the day the delight that it was. We were there to work though, and for several hours he led us through each step to create perfect examples of apple strudel, Wiener Schnitzel and all of the accompaniments. The best part came at the end though when we all sat down to enjoy the delicious meal we had created. I’ve consumed my fair share of schnitzel over the years, but this was one of the best perhaps because I had such an active hand in creating it.
Into the Country
Guests onboard the Avalon Impression capped off their time in Vienna by leaving the city center, going into the countryside and enjoying a Friday night out just like so many other Austrians. Heuriger is a type of wine tavern at which local winemakers serve their new wine under a special license. It’s also a fun, convivial atmosphere that is, I think, at the heart of Austrian culture. Not just for the wine, but also for that feeling of inclusion, having a good time and simple delights, that’s what makes it Austrian for me. I’m also thankful that Avalon arranged this experience for those interested, whether you wanted to hike through the fields on the way to dinner or simply take a bus, everyone was there to enjoy an evening out with family and friends, try some great wine and eat more than their fill of rustic but delicious food. This wasn’t a tourist trap either, this was a local restaurant serving many non-tourists in addition to our group which made the experience so much more special. I felt like I was part of the community, if only briefly, and it was a fantastic way not just to learn more about Austria, but to truly live it.
River cruises are often unfairly maligned for not spending enough time in a new destination. Not only do I disagree, but in Vienna nothing is further from the truth. With two very full days, I know that I was able to experience a different side to the city, to learn and laugh more than I thought possible and to leave with a newfound respect for Vienna. I’m not alone either, I chatted with many of my fellow passengers who also took advantage of their time in the capital. Whether they borrowed a bike from the ship to do their own explorations, or simply went for a swim in the river, I’m fairly certain everyone also left with a deep affection for the city.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time sailing the rivers of Europe, but so far none of my experiences were quite like the week I spent with Avalon. Their Active & Discovery itineraries are well planned, active, immersive and fun. It was the ideal mix of experiences, ones that I got to choose myself and, in the process, they created a trip that so far is one of my all-time favorites.