The International Living Podcast

Episode 48: A Night at the Opera—High Culture in Vienna for €15 Each

October 25, 2023 International Living
Episode 48: A Night at the Opera—High Culture in Vienna for €15 Each
The International Living Podcast
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The International Living Podcast
Episode 48: A Night at the Opera—High Culture in Vienna for €15 Each
Oct 25, 2023
International Living

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This week, podcast host Jim Santos, and his wife, Rita, are in Vienna, Austria checking out the city’s historical and cultural highlights, as they make their way through Europe in their own version of the Grand Tour.

Once again, in this episode, Jim himself takes to the mic. Soaking up the sights and sounds of a European city that has even more historic twists and turns than the usual, Jim navigates through the eclectic streets of Vienna, a long-time crossroads of cultures, with influences from Eastern points mingling with the more familiar nuances of Western Europe. Finding much to feast on beyond the expected schnitzel and sausages, Jim discovers a city rich with international flavor, and deeply carpeted in the glitter and magnificence of generations of power and wealth.

Join Jim as he talks us through the sights, sounds and smells of Vienna, from the grand palaces of the Hapsburg empire to the glorious Baroque stylings of the Opera House; to the mirrored surrounds of the Café Savoy, to the crypt of the Austrian royal family, and much more in-between. Where to go, what to see, and how to do it all on Vienna’s efficient public transport network…it’s all included in the latest episode of the International Living Podcast.   

If you’re enjoying the podcast, we would really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform: https://lovethepodcast.com/internationalliving.

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Show Notes Transcript Chapter Markers

Send us a Text Message.

This week, podcast host Jim Santos, and his wife, Rita, are in Vienna, Austria checking out the city’s historical and cultural highlights, as they make their way through Europe in their own version of the Grand Tour.

Once again, in this episode, Jim himself takes to the mic. Soaking up the sights and sounds of a European city that has even more historic twists and turns than the usual, Jim navigates through the eclectic streets of Vienna, a long-time crossroads of cultures, with influences from Eastern points mingling with the more familiar nuances of Western Europe. Finding much to feast on beyond the expected schnitzel and sausages, Jim discovers a city rich with international flavor, and deeply carpeted in the glitter and magnificence of generations of power and wealth.

Join Jim as he talks us through the sights, sounds and smells of Vienna, from the grand palaces of the Hapsburg empire to the glorious Baroque stylings of the Opera House; to the mirrored surrounds of the Café Savoy, to the crypt of the Austrian royal family, and much more in-between. Where to go, what to see, and how to do it all on Vienna’s efficient public transport network…it’s all included in the latest episode of the International Living Podcast.   

If you’re enjoying the podcast, we would really appreciate it if you could leave us a review on your favorite podcast platform: https://lovethepodcast.com/internationalliving.

Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | YouTube


Jim Santos 00:11 
Hello, everyone. I'm Jim Santos, and this is the International Living Podcast. In this podcast series, we introduce you to a bigger world, full of communities that are safe, welcoming, beautiful and sometimes undiscovered. A better world, too. A friendly, warm, great value world where you can live richer, travel more, invest for profit and enjoy a better life. So let's get started.

Jim Santos 00:42 
Hello, everybody, and welcome once again to the International Living Podcast. Now, as our regular listeners already know, my wife Rita and I have been on the road sampling the roving retirement lifestyle after six years of living on the coast of Ecuador and a long COVID-caused delay in our plans. 

Last week I talked about our experience in Istanbul, and today I'd like to tell you about the next stop on our planned nine-week tour: the majestic city of Vienna, Austria. And spoiler alert, there's an ironic twist at the end of this tale. 

We flew out of Istanbul on Turkish Airlines, a comfortable flight that served an excellent lunch and took just over two hours. A word about the new airport in Istanbul. It is huge and beautifully designed, sweeping high terminal ceilings built to allow natural light during the day, and plenty of stores and restaurants to keep you occupied. Also, plenty of information boards and easy to follow signs. 

Now, I mentioned the signs because there was a noticeable difference when we arrived at the Vienna airport. Also large and attractive, but they definitely went minimalist on the signage. Still, since all airports provide the same basic functions, it wasn't that difficult to find our way through to passport control, onto our baggage, and then out to our waiting driver.

Jim Santos 02:06 
Soon we were right there in the City of Music, as our driver pointed out highlights on the way to our Airbnb. Once again, we were staying pretty much in the heart of the city. Actually, we eventually found out that we were also in the heart of the Gay district of the city. But whatever. We were just a couple of blocks from the Naschmarkt, which is a stall open-air market that dates back to the 16th century. 

Walking down its pathways in the plaza space between two roads almost felt like we were back in the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul. Vendors were displaying everything fresh fruits and vegetables, candies, pastries, nuts, spices, meat, fish, teas, coffees, souvenirs. And, of course, there were restaurants as well. Speaking of restaurants, we expected to be a bit overwhelmed with places offering Wiener schnitzel, sausages and other foods you think of when you think of Vienna, and there were plenty of those. But we were surprised to find that there seemed to be more restaurants featuring Chinese food, Korean barbecue, sushi, Italian osterias, Greek Mediterranean fare. 

You know, in hindsight, I shouldn't have been that surprised. Vienna's long been a cultural mixing bowl and was, after all, one of the stops on the famed Orient Express.

Jim Santos 03:28 
Anyway, after a short walk to get some breakfast supplies for a new home and to get our bearings around our new neighborhood, we picked a local restaurant for our first meal: the Café Savoy, mostly because of the impressive and expressive statues that form parts of the building façade. Figures dramatically straining to hold up the balconies. 

It turned out to be a great choice, I found out later the Savoy has been in operation since 1896. It's beautifully decorated in that 19th century style and features two large mirrors that are the second largest single sheet glass mirrors in all of Europe. I found that only the Versailles Palace has one that's larger. 

Our waiter, Stefan, was friendly and helpful and the food was superb and surprisingly affordable. We ended up eating there several times as we made friends with the staff and it was just such a welcoming environment. Stefan always greeted us with a hug like it had been years since he'd seen us last. The bills for our meals, including drinks and two rounds (because Vienna has really good beer) was never over €40. Funny story too, although it was pretty obvious that some of the waitstaff was gay, it didn't really dawn on us until the second visit that it was also the center of the gay community.

Jim Santos 04:42 
We found out later from Stefan that it was actually the oldest gay meeting place in Vienna. But not to worry, because it was straight-friendly, which we found hilarious. Anyway, that evening we planned our assault on Vienna. For the next morning, we would be using our Vienna pass, which we purchased online, giving us three days of access to the hop-on hop-off busses and 70 different museums and attractions around town. 

There will be more details about the Vienna Pass in a future article on the InternationalLiving.com website but for now, just know that it made our visit much easier and cheaper. Now, Vienna called for a different strategy than the one we used in Istanbul. Although Istanbul is much larger, the sites we wanted to explore were relatively close together and mostly walkable in Vienna. 

However, the palaces, museums and other points of interest are scattered all around the city so the hop-on, hop-off bus and later the public transport system were very crucial to our plans. We caught the bus in front of the Vienna State Opera House and enjoyed a ride around town with the included audio guide pointing out highlights and potential stops for us we were on our way to one of the sites farthest from our base the Schoenbrunn Palace.

Jim Santos 05:52 
This was the main summer palace for the Habsburgs, a major dynasty in Europe in the 15th to the 20th century. In fact, Habsburgs have been ruling Austria as far back as the 13th century. Today it's a major tourist attraction and if you visit, be prepared to spend most of the day there as the grounds cover over 400 acres and there's plenty to see and do when our passes were scanned. 

We were given a 1.20 entry time for the palace tour, so we spent the morning walking around the extensive gardens, admiring some fake Roman ruins and taking pictures of some incredibly beautiful fountains. We were working our way uphill and by lunchtime we were at the highest point on the property in the beautiful stone and marble structure called the Gloriete. 

It's rather ironically named, since the Gloriete derives from the French for little room, and it's far from a little room. It's an imposing structure in itself. It has sweeping archways, mammoth statues, and from there you have a beautiful view of the garden and the palace, as well as the city of Vienna in the distance. It's been converted to a cafe, and we took advantage of that to enjoy a lunch and a radler, which is a refreshing mix of beer and lemonade.

Jim Santos 07:02 
The palace tour was just as impressive as we had imagined, and you're provided with a free audio guide for details about each of the rooms. I have to admit, I felt a bit of a tingle when I heard that I was in the room where a six year old Mozart first performed for the Empress. Again, this is an all-day stop, not just a quick palace tour. There's a small train and horse drawn carriages for riding around the property, a marionette theatre, there's a hall where concerts are still held. There's statuary gardens, there's even a zoo and much more to keep you occupied, not to mention our favorite attraction, a 20 minutes class on making the perfect apple strudel. 

While we missed the class, we did make sure not to miss sampling some of the output in a nice shady outdoor patisserie. The rest of our stay in Vienna was a whirlwind of palaces, museums, artwork, churches and just the generally impressive architecture of virtually anywhere you looked. In fact, I think the architecture is the biggest draw to Vienna for me. Rita and I both commented that sometimes it seemed like the building housing the art was more impressive than the art on display.

Jim Santos 08:07 
So I won't go into a lot of details about most of the things we did while in town, but there are a few things I would like to highlight. One is rather creepy. It's called the Kapuzinergruft, or the Imperial Crypt, and it's just what it sounds like. Since about 1632, over 150 people, mostly members of the Hapsburg family, have been placed there in sarcophagi ranging from simple copper coffins to elaborately decorated tin, brass and bronze monstrosities. 

I say placed rather than interred, because they're all just arranged in neat rows or tucked into cubbies so visitors can walk through the many rooms of the underground facility. There are 12 emperors and 18 empresses, some children and even five heart urns in the complex. Best not to say too much about the heart urns. Incredible enough, anyway, to me, is that it's still being used. In fact, the first day we tried to visit, it was closed because they were having a ceremony to install the latest tenant, the Archduchess Yolande of Austria, wife of Archduke Carl Ludwig. Several main streets were closed to traffic to allow the guests and sarcophagus to arrive by horse-drawn carriages.

Jim Santos 09:18 
Second thing I wanted to mention is we were both a little surprised by the interior of the famous St. Stephen's Cathedral. It's the most important church in Vienna, dating back to 1578 and built on the ruins of an even older 12th-century church. And its soaring 450-foot spire and multicolored tile roof makes it instantly recognizable. The exterior is meticulously decorated with carvings and statues. Truly an impressive vision. 

The interior, however, while admittedly ornate, struck us both as rather dark and depressing. There is very little color, mostly shades of gray, although, to be fair, looking back over the pictures we took there, the more sensitive camera eye did pick up more color and light. But I think it was the contrast between the church interior and the interior of the mosques we had visited the previous weeks that made it seem so stark in comparison. 

For example, a church generally has rows of pews which take up most of the interior, making it feel a bit cramped or crowded when walking around. The spires and steeples require support columns, which also break up the space. Typically, there are wood, tile or stone floors which combine with the stone walls to give you that kind of echoey feeling.

Jim Santos 10:27 
The mosques we visited, on the other hand, tended to have spires as external structures around a large central dome. This gives you a large, uninterrupted interior. Further, there are no pews to take up space, and since shoes are forbidden, the interiors are carpeted, reducing the echoes. The ones we visited all had lots of natural light as well as plenty of elaborate electrical lighting. Extensive use of color and gold in the decor and painted tiles. Combined with the light, the open space and the carpets gave them a rich and warm interior, just a small example of how travel and exposure to different cultures can really be an incredibly rich experience if you open yourself up to it. 

And speaking of culture, that brings me to the other stop in Vienna I need to mention: the Vienna State Opera House. Opened in 1869 as a home for the hot Vienna opera and ballet scene, this is an imposing and beautiful building. On the outside, you can wander about and take pictures of the exterior, and we did. But if you want to see the inside, there's only two ways: either buy a ticket to the opera or ballet, or pay €13 for a scheduled guided tour.

Jim Santos 11:34 
Well, I guess the third way would be to perform there, but I didn't pack my tutu. Guided tours must be signed up for in advance on the Vienna Opera website and are only offered when they will not interfere with rehearsals and performances. Even though our guided tour was included with the Vienna Pass, we still had to schedule it online. It's definitely worth the €13 (less than $15 at the moment). 

To take the tour takes about 40 45 minutes, and you're led through intermission rooms and special waiting areas, get to sit in premium box seats, and get up close and personal with the orchestra pit and the stage. Now, most of us have probably seen the interior of the opera house in movies, but as usual, nothing compares to actually being there. It's even more beautiful than you can imagine, and the seats were surprisingly comfortable. 

A few things also surprised me. The building itself is huge, but the house holds only just over 2,200 audience members, including 547 as standing room only. So it seats just 1,709 people, which is only about 80 more than our Tennessee theater back in the US. Also, the stage was surprisingly large, twice the size of the auditorium, to allow for fast set changes during intermission.

Jim Santos 12:47 
After our tour, we were so impressed that over lunch, we decided it would be foolish to pass up the opportunity to see an opera while we were in town. Now, neither of us have ever been to an opera before. In fact, like most of my generation, when I hear the word opera, I hear Elmer Fudd in the back of my head with his spear and magic helmet, singing, ‘kill the wabbit, kill the wabbit’. 

Now, opera tickets in Vienna can run €200 each or more, but all seats for this night's performance of Tosca were sold out. However, during our tour, we learned that standing room tickets could be bought for as little as €13, which is why the idea of buying a ticket instead of taking a tour is actually a real option. 

In fact, we met a couple from England during the first intermission who did just that. They bought their standing room tickets, then arrived a half hour early to wander around taking pictures. So after a quick verification that there was no dress code for the opera house—I'd also forgotten to pack my white tie and cloak—I jumped online and bought us two standing room tickets for €15 each, reasoning they would be better than the el cheapo €13 ones.

Jim Santos 13:50 
When we got to our assigned places, however, we were literally in the very last row in the highest point possible, backs against the wall and heads brushing the ceiling. Worse, we were skewed to one side and had a pole partially blocking our already restricted view of the stage. Oh, well, we were still in the most famous opera house in the world, about to witness one of the most popular operas. 

What you're hearing in the background now are the sounds of the crowd settling in and orchestra members warming up. Now, all was not terrible, as there were screens you could set up to get English translations of the lyrics being sung, and we had read a brief synopsis of the plot before attending. And despite the viewing problems, the acoustics were perfect. We could hear the music and the performers perfectly. 

And although our legs were a bit tired, it was a wonderful experience, one we will always remember and a reminder of why we were out and about in Europe in the first place. Before we leave Vienna here, I'd be remiss if I did not give a shout out to the Vienna Public Transportation System.

Jim Santos 14:56 
They have a network of subways, electric, trams and busses that cover the whole metro area. You can buy a pass just for a ride between point A to point B, a yearly pass that allows unlimited use and everything in between. For instance, we bought  two 48-hours passes that allowed us to use any conveyance as often as we wanted during that period. You can buy a physical card at various locations or just download an e-ticket, like we did, on your phone. Pretty standard for most modern metro areas, right? 

Well, here's the interesting part. There are no turnstiles and no ticket scanners. True, if you bought a physical ticket the first time you use it, you're supposed to insert it into a handy blue box at the entrance to get your initial timestamp, but that's it. Otherwise, it's all on the honor system. If you've ever used a subway in the US before, you understand how much time that saves you and how it cuts down on lines of people fumbling with their tickets or passes and trying to get them to scan. Right? Even the train we took from Vienna to Prague for the next leg of our trip had no one taking tickets.

Jim Santos 16:02 
There was a conductor to help you on and off the train or if you needed help finding your seats, but they never came around asking to see our tickets. So why buy tickets at all? You may ask? Well, I'm told that once in a while, a conductor or a transit person will actually do a spot check. And if you're caught without a valid ticket, there's a fine and some considerable public shaming from the folks around you. 

So to sum up here, we loved Vienna, and we wish you could have spent a few more days there. Indeed, we may plan to return someday for a longer visit. So, as we get to the end of this episode, I did promise you a plot twist, and now it's time to deliver. 

You may recall that Rita and I had decided to try roving back in 2019, but by the time we were all ready to begin, COVID was shutting down travel. Well, irony of ironies, as I write this now we are in isolation in a hotel room in Prague and preparing to cut our trip short and return to the US. Because, wait for it, we both have managed to contract COVID-19, despite each having two vaccines and two boosters.

Jim Santos 17:05 
We most likely picked it up in the crowds of Istanbul, as we started feeling some symptoms. Towards the end of our stay in Vienna, I had a high fever once that caused us to take a one day rest break, but I assumed it was just fatigue from all of the exploring. 

However, on our transfer day, we both were feeling worse with fevers and sore throats. Rita much worse than me. We managed to make it on the train and relax for the next 5 hours, but by the time we got our Uber to the hotel and checked in, we were both ready to drop by morning. 

Rita was too weak to get out of bed, but I found a local doctor who made hotel calls. He came out with a nurse and diagnostic equipment and quickly confirmed we both had COVID-19 as well as a separate bacterial infection. Istanbul, I'm looking at you. 

Fortunately, he had all the medications we needed, including the Paxlovid, to treat the COVID infection, and we're both doing much better. It didn't come cheaply though, as Paxlovid is quite pricey in the Czech Republic now. In future articles and episodes, I'll have a lot to say about the wisdom of buying trip interruption and trip cancelation insurance, which we thankfully did during our planning stage.

Jim Santos 18:12 
We hope to be fit enough to head back to the US to recover completely in a couple of days, and I hope my voice will return enough so that I can record this episode. So far, so good. What did we learn? Well, we should have worn masks more often in crowds and should have been more careful about drinking water or using ice in Turkey and Greece, any place with plumbing systems more than a couple of thousand years old. You should probably consider that. 

Also, you have to remember that these things can happen, especially for seniors, and insurance is always a good idea. We also know that next time we will plan longer stays in fewer locations to minimize the stresses of packing and moving, and some strategies for planning our packing a bit better. 

And there will be a next time. We have our winter scheduled already, with a month in Panama City, Panama, and six weeks in Playa de Coronado. We'll regroup, decide when to try and make it to Croatia and the other points we missed on this trip. As with everything when it comes to life as an expat, roving or otherwise, you've got to be ready and willing to roll with the changes.

Jim Santos 19:14 
All right, before I go all REO Speedwagon on you, it's time to bring this episode to a close. So thanks for listening and thanks for traveling vicariously with us.

The International Living Podcast is a production of International Living. If you enjoyed this episode and you'd like to help support the podcast, please share it with others, post about it on social media, or leave a rating and review. If you have an idea for an episode or a question you'd like us to answer, email us at mailbag@internationalliving.com. And don't forget to put podcast in the subject line of your email. That's mailbag@internationalliving.com. We created the International Living Podcast to help showcase the ideas we explore in the magazine and our other publications each month, and to grow our community of travel lovers, expats, and experts who believe, as we do, that the world is full of opportunity to create a more interesting, more international life. You don't have to be rich and famous to do that. You just need to know the secrets. And that's what we bring you at International Living. If you haven't become a member yet, you can do it today with a special discount offer for podcast listeners. You'll receive our monthly magazine, plus a bundle of special extras. You'll find the link in our show Notes, where you can go to intliving.com slash podcast. That's intliving.com slash podcast.

Jim Santos 20:49 
Next week, we're back to our usual interview format. I'll introduce you to a young man on the island of Rhodes in Greece, trying to make the cut as a professional footballer. That's soccer to you heathens. Until then, this is Jim Santos with the International Living Podcast, reminding you there's a bigger, better world out there just waiting for you.


Airport Contrasts—Not The Efficient Austria We Expected
An Easy Ride to the City of Music
The Savoy Café—Historic, Stylish, and a Much-Loved Gay Venue
Streudel, Radler, and Fake Roman Ruins at The Schoenbrunn Palace
Creepy Crypts and Heart-Urns. Nothing’s Simple When You’re Royalty
The Vienna State Opera—A Hack to See it For Less Than the Tour Price
A Shoutout to Vienna’s Excellent Public Transport System
An Ironic Twist in the Tale
Panama For The Winter—Where We’re Going Next