Cameron Hewitt
The iron-and-glass pavilion at the Burggarten houses a good restaurant and a small butterfly exhibit.
Tribune Media Services
updated 4/14/2011 4:17:02 PM ET 2011-04-14T20:17:02

Vienna is a city with a rich culture you can almost inhale and a vivid history you can practically touch. As I walked out of my hotel on a Sunday morning, I decided to skip the sights and immerse myself in Vienna's wealth of cultural offerings.

I kicked off my day with Mass at the Hofburg Palace's Imperial Music Chapel, where the Vienna Boys' Choir sings each Sunday morning throughout their season. I didn't actually see the boys — no one in the church did — as they sang like angels from the loft in the rear. But, just like you don't need to see the sun to know it's there on a gorgeous day, you don't need to watch the boys to enjoy their delicately beautiful music. Their voices blended perfectly with the scene in front of us: sunlight streaming through the windows, making it seem as if the Baroque starburst of gilded statuary was bursting over the altar.

Energized, I ducked through a royal passageway to see a performance of the much-loved Lipizzaner stallions at the Spanish Riding School, in the emperor's Baroque riding hall. Known for their noble gait, these regal horses have changed shape with the tenor of the times: They were bred strong and stout during wars, and frilly and slender in more cultured eras. But they're always born black, fade to gray, and turn a distinctive white in adulthood.

As I watched the stallions prance to classical music under lavish chandeliers, it occurred to me that they move in 4:4, not 3:4 time — even though this is the city of waltz. From my 25-euro ($35) standing-room spot, I realized I was enjoying the show as much — and with a view just as good — as those who booked more expensive seats months in advance.

After the show, I strolled about 100 yards to the Augustinian Church, where silver urns containing the hearts of centuries of Habsburg emperors are stored in the vault. This being Vienna, the Mass came with a complete choir and an orchestra, wowing worshippers with the spiritual confidence of Anton Bruckner's Mass No. 3 in F minor.

I headed to the Burggarten for lunch. Once the backyard of the Hofburg, the Burggarten is now a grassy people's park. After eating lunch under the palm trees in the emperors' conservatory (at Cafe Restaurant Palmenhaus), I dropped into the adjacent hothouse containing a wonderland of butterflies. Enjoying the fluttering antics of these butterflies — most of which seemed drunk on the fermented banana juice they licked from sweating banana slices in their breakfast dish — is a Vienna tradition for me.

Keeping historical company
Another ritual is a stop at Cafe Hawelka for coffee and cake. With its circa-1900 decor, this smoke-and-coffee-stained cafe looks as if it's been frozen in time. The chair I was sitting in could have been occupied by any number of historical figures rattling around Vienna at the time — Trotsky, Hitler, Stalin, Freud — every one drinking a mélange (as they would have called their cappuccino).

Not only did Vienna host some of the greatest (or evil) thinkers of the time, but it was also home to many famous composers — from Beethoven, walking lost in musical thought through the Vienna Woods, to "Waltz King" Johann Strauss, who kept Vienna's 300 ballrooms spinning during the city's 19th-century belle epoque.

This musical tradition continues into modern times. Even now, you'll find melodic treats wherever you turn. For instance, at the Kursalon, in Vienna's City Park, you can enjoy crowd-pleasing Strauss concerts featuring a mix of ballet, waltzes, and a 15-piece orchestra. The tradition goes back more than a century, when Strauss himself directed concerts in the very same building.

The Vienna Opera is arguably the world's greatest. Even if you don't have time or money for a performance, a visit here is a must. Built in the 1860s, the sumptuous opera house is the pride of Vienna. You can simply admire the Neo-Renaissance building from the outside or take a guided tour of the grand interior, with its chandeliered lobby and carpeted staircases.

On this particular Sunday, the Opera was doing an afternoon performance of Richard Wagner's Tannhauser. Not wanting to splurge on a ticket, I decided to join the throngs of people outside the opera house, where the performance was to be projected live on a huge screen. Awaiting the start of Tannhauser, I marveled at how accessible all this was. Two musical Masses and this opera experience: free. Horses: $35. Butterflies: $8. Lunch under the palms: $20. Coffee and cake: $7. Seventy bucks in all — not bad for a day of cultural indulgence.

( Rick Steves writes European travel guidebooks and hosts travel shows on public television and public radio. E-mail him at rick@ricksteves.com, or write to him c/o P.O. Box 2009, Edmonds, Wash. 98020.)

© 2011 Rick Steves ... Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.

Photos: A European tour

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  1. Venice, Italy

    Gondolas line the bank near Venice's grand canal with the San Giorgio Maggiore church in the background. (Peter Deilmann Cruises via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Rome, Italy

    The Colosseum is one of the best-known attractions in all of Italy, and is the largest elliptical amphitheater built in the Roman empire. (Tiziana Fabi / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. London, England

    The Houses of Parliament and Big Ben clock tower, located along the River Thames, are seen at dusk from Westminster Bridge. (George Rose / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Berlin, Germany

    Tourists take pictures of themselves at the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin. The memorial, designed by U.S. architect Peter Eisenman and inaugurated in May 2005, is made up of more than 2,700 concrete steles that form a curved landscape in the heart of Germany's capital. (Barbara Sax / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. Granada, Spain

    The Alhambra palace in Granada, although one of 21 finalists, missed out on being named one of the new seven wonders of the world. (Jose Luis Roca / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Paris, France

    This bird's-eye view of Paris at dusk, with the Eiffel Tower and L'Hotel des Invalides prominent, show why the capital's nickname is the "City of Light." (Mike Hewitt / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. Lindos, Greece

    The ancient town of Lindos is famous for its Acropolis, which stands on a 380-foot-high hill overlooking Lindos and the Aegean Sea and is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Eyeswideopen / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Dublin, Ireland

    People walk past The Temple Bar, which should not be confused with its neighborhood, also called Temple Bar, in central Dublin. Ireland's capital has been voted one of the top 25 cities of the world to live in. (Chris Jackson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Lisbon, Portugal

    Belém Tower was built in the early 16th century as a ceremonial gateway to the city, and to serve as a defense at the mouth of the Tagus River. It is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. (Sebastiano Scattolin / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Barcelona, Spain

    Columns and arches of the Sagrada Familia rise high in this Roman Catholic church, which has been under construction since 1882 and remains incomplete. (Christophe Simon / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Florence, Italy

    A woman looks over Florence from the dome of Santa Maria del Fiore. Construction on the city's cathedral church began in 1296 and finished in 1462. (Guido Cozzi / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. County Mayo, Ireland

    Ashford Castle, which dates back to the 13th century and sits on 350 acres of manicured gardens and land, now ranks among the finest hotels in Ireland. About a two-hour drive from Dublin, the castle has played host to myriad high-profile events, including actor Pierce Brosnan's wedding. (Tourism Ireland via AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Kaag, Netherlands

    A cyclist pedals along rows of tulips near the village of Kaag, outside of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The Dutch often use cycling to get around, and Amsterdam is considered one of the most bike-friendly large cities in the world. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Amsterdam, Netherlands

    A tourist smokes at a coffeeshop "de Dampkring," or "Atmosphere," where a part of the "Ocean's Twelve" movie was filmed, in the center of Amsterdam, Netherlands. The city is famous for its nightlife, cultural activities and red-light district. (Peter Dejong / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. Stockholm, Sweden

    Boats line up on the shoreline in Stockholm, the capital and largest city in Sweden. The city is built on 14 islands connected by 57 bridges. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Krakow, Poland

    The Church of St. Mary of the Assumption in Krakow, Poland, is one of the most well-known tourist spots in the city and noted for its gothic, medieval architecture. However, most people come to Krakow because of its proximity to Auschwitz, the largest of the Nazi's concentration camps, which is now a memorial to the victims of the Holocaust. (Jon Hicks / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Nice, France

    Hundreds of people enjoy sunbathing on the beach in Nice on the French Riviera. (Valery Hache / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Brussels, Belgium

    The Grand Place in the heart of Old Town in Brussels, Belguim, is marked by many 17th-century buildings and flower markets. (Jean-Pierre Lescourret / Corbis) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. Greek islands

    Oia, on the island of Santorini, Greece, is on a clifftop village filled with white structures and gorgeous sunsets. Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean Sea. (Saundra Virtanen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. Pamplona, Spain

    Revelers hold up their red scarves during the start of the San Fermin Festival in Pamplona, Spain. The annual festival is best known for its daily running of the bulls. (Susana Vera / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Prague, Czech Republic

    The buildings in Prague, the capital of the Czech Republic, are constructed in many architectural styles from Romanesque to gothic to art nouveau and modern. (Michal Cizek / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Reykjavik, Iceland

    Tourists stand in the Blue Lagoon outside Reykjavik, Iceland. The Blue Lagoon's waters come from natural hot water springs flowing through rocks of lava. Many also believe the mineral-rich waters may have health benefits. (Olivier Morin / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. St. Petersburg, Russia

    The Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul is seen on the bank of the Neva River in St. Petersburg, Russia. (Dmitry Lovetsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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