Shoring up the old while ushering in the new, Germany and Austria invests major bucks to renovate sights, improve transit hubs, and bring soaring viewpoints and opera within easy reach of the public.
Berlin, Germany's capital, is whittling its air traffic down to a single airport as construction continues on the new Willy Brandt Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, slated to open in 2012.
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Also in Berlin, the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church is under reconstruction through 2012. This compelling church, still bearing the scars of WWII bombs, will have its foundations strengthened, making it possible for visitors to get to the top of the church for the first time in 60 years. Until then, the church will be swathed in an aluminum tent to prevent dust and allow work during inclement weather.
The headquarters of the Reich Main Security Office was once the most feared address in Berlin. Today the site houses the Topography of Terror, which recently opened an exhibition hall focusing not on the victims, but on the perpetrators. The exhibit provides a chilling but fascinating look at just how seamlessly and bureaucratically the Nazi institutions and state government merged to become a well-oiled terror machine.
Visitors to Berlin's popular Neues Museum — featuring the famous bust of the forever-young Queen Nefertiti (circa 1340 B.C.) — now must book a 30-minute window to enter. Once you're inside, you can stay as long as you like.
Tougher smoking laws
In Germany's peaceful Mosel Valley, plans are under way to construct a mile-long, 500-foot-high expressway bridge (called Hochmoselbrucke) near the town of Urzig, just upstream from Cochem and Beilstein. The 270 million-euro project will likely mar the pristine scenery here, and local winemakers — and wine-lovers worldwide — worry that the construction and heavy use of the bridge will damage the delicate ecosystem that produces some of Germany's most beloved grapes.
After being damaged by floods in 2002, Dresden's historic Albertinum museum complex has reopened. It houses two good museums: the Sculpture Collection and the New Masters Gallery, giving this underrated German cultural capital even more of a sightseeing kick. Meanwhile, the medieval town of Rothenburg, on the touristy Romantic Road, has lost some of its kick after banning horse-carriage rides, due to concerns about safety and animal welfare.
A recent change may clear the air in Austria, Germany's southeastern neighbor. Known for having some of Europe's loosest restrictions on smoking, Austria finally toughened up its law on smoking in public places, though travelers should still expect the possibility of some smoke in restaurants.
Train station renovations are disrupting travel in Austria's two big destinations. Vienna's multiple stations are in disarray for several years as a central train station is being built. Salzburg's station is also a messy work-in-progress, and for the next few years its services will be operating out of temporary structures in the parking lot. While bus stops out front might shuffle around a bit, they are clearly marked and serve the center and airport very well.
The city of Vienna has recently upgraded its Citybike Wien program, which lets people cheaply rent bikes from public racks all over town. The new three-speed bikes are clunky and difficult to maneuver, but they're perfect for a short, practical joyride in the center or for a fun pedal on the bike paths that run along the Ringstrasse, the wide road encircling the historic core of the city.
Opera and art
At Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Kunstkammer, a collection of medieval and Renaissance jeweled wonders that includes Cellini's famous gold-plated Salt Cellar table sculpture, is closed for restoration through 2012. It isn't the first time that Cellini's exquisite masterpiece has been out of view — it was stolen in 2003 but recovered three years later.
For a fun opportunity to float in the clouds with cupids and angels, Vienna's Karlskirche provides elevator rides up into its dome. The industrial lift, installed for restoration work, takes you to a platform at the base of the church's 235-foot dome; from here you can climb stairs to the very top of the church. The scaffolding and elevator will likely be dismantled in late 2012, when restoration is complete.
The Vienna Opera continues to demonstrate its commitment to bringing opera to the masses. Every summer for the past couple of years, it has broadcast several of its performances live on a huge screen on the side of its building. Entry is free, and chairs are provided, making this one of the most pleasant and affordable ways to enjoy Vienna's world-class music scene.
Whatever your interest — thrilling opera, World War II memorials, frolicking cupids, urban biking, or sublime art — these Teutonic neighbors have treasures in store for you.
(Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)
© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.