There is not a single city that I have found myself in that devotes itself so fiercely to the arts as Vienna does. With the military decline of the Habsburg empire, Vienna suddenly found itself pushed to look inward and cultivate its own culture, and it certainly shows. In the span of a hundred years, the city produced countless geniuses in the areas of music, art, city planning, architecture, literature and psychoanalysis, among others. What makes Vienna special is that the lives and works of these artists still exist all around me.
The morning we toured Sigmund Freud’s old apartment, I found myself in Cafe Landtmann, sipping an “Einspänner” in typical Viennese fashion. Across from me, the ghost of Freud sips one too. It was his favorite coffee house. To get practically anywhere in the city, I take the U-Bahn, entering through a marvelous structure designed by the one and only Otto Wagner, known as the grandfather of city planning. In the Secession house, I marvel at Gustav Klimt’s “Beethoven Frieze” painting while listening to the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, which is based on the painting. The museum even provides headphones for us so we may understand the Secessionists’ idea of “Gesamtkunstwerk,” which is that art is an all-encompassing experience, from the building to the music, to the art itself.
Walking down Ringstrasse Boulevard, the influence of Baroque architecture is immense. As I pass the Hofburg imperial palace, parliament building, Rathaus town hall, Votivkirche church, university buildings and Wiener Staatsoper opera house, I feel the power of the past washing over me in potent waves. Living in Vienna, it is obvious and refreshing to feel the love that everyone, past and present, has for beauty. As a classics major, I particularly enjoy the fact that almost every single building in the first district is lined with Greek columns.
Perhaps most of all, the Viennese love their music. While here, even just for three weeks thus far, I have heard Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” in the Stephansdom and several piano concertos, including “Eine Kleine Nachtmusik” and “Für Elise” in the crypt of St. Peters. I’ve also heard the Slovakian Philharmonic play in the Musikverein and Mozart’s opera“Die Entführung aus dem Serail” in the Volkstheater. The total cost for these magnificent performances was just 31 euros.
Perhaps the most transformative experience I’ve had in Vienna has been the Vienna Philharmonic’s annual Summernachtskonzert, or summer night concert in the gardens of Schönbrunn Palace. Standing amidst thousands of Viennese listening to one of the world’s greatest orchestras play Johann Strauss II while couples in front of me waltz away the night was the most memorable thing to ever happen to me. I have never felt such a deep connection and appreciation for music, nor could I fathom that I was getting this incredible concert, set in a spectacular palace, for free.
I have a furious love of travel and have been fortunate enough to have visited many countries at the age of 19. I can confidently say that Vienna has taught me more than any other place I’ve visited. I learned how to passionately appreciate the arts and, learning from the true Viennese lifestyle, I learned to live life slowly, yet deliberately. This gets at the heart of the study abroad experience. During my travels, I have yet (until now) to completely immerse myself in a culture and learn from the lifestyle and history of a place. It is an experience unlike any other, one that opens your eyes to not only the different ways people live but also what makes their lives worth living.
While I have learned an impressive amount about this city, including its triumphs and downfalls, my biggest takeaway is that every once and a while, you must sit in a park with a good book and listen to “The Blue Danube” by Johann Strauss II and just be. I could say that a little bit of me will stay in Vienna when I leave, but that is simply not true. Every place I’ve visited has ignited a small part that has lain dormant until now, and I am leaving here a more complete person than before.
This post was contributed by Nathaniel Cook Heffron, a Global Ambassador for Summer 2023. Nathaniel is a freshman Classics studies major studying abroad in Vienna, Austria.