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Vienna transcends language

Published Oct. 1, 2005

For many first-time travelers to Europe, the hard part is not the planning, packing or even the eight-hour cram session that is the trans-Atlantic flight. It is the trepidation caused by an embarrassing lack of language skills.

In Vienna, however, you can put your anxieties to rest. The city is quite user-friendly to the typical American.

Of course it's always beneficial to be able to say "Vo ist die toilette?" and "Danke." But while Austrians appreciate foreigners who try to learn their language, an American with a limited German vocabulary can see the sights and order meals without much trouble.

And there is much to see and do in Vienna, one of Europe's most laid-back, yet progressive, cities.

Vienna made a decision long ago to maintain its history, while keeping up with the times, and has made this one of few cities to successfully blend the old with the new.

In medieval times, Vienna was Europe's bastion against the Ottoman Turks. While the ancient walls surrounding the city were strong enough to keep out the Turks, World War II bombs destroyed an estimated 22 percent of the city's buildings.

Today, Vienna is an even combination of historical events and construction platforms, flower-filled parks and subway lines zipping thousands of people across the city beneath its quaint cobbled streets.

Even the city's Rathaus, or city hall, is not afraid to put up three-story posters of the Muppets over its Gothic design to advertise a coming show. A 30-foot Kermit the Frog is sure to put any novice American traveler at ease.

Actually, those travelers might be surprised at how much American culture influences this historical city.

A neon sign outside a noisy pub, nestled between stylish coffee houses, advertises "Hollywood Dancing." Many restaurants have an English version of their menu. Shopkeepers on Karntner Strasse _ an impressive pedestrian and shopping street _ are accustomed to English-speakers. As long as you can point, you need never worry about ending up with the $80 umbrella instead of the $25 one you want.

Even locals who don't speak English will work with non-German speakers. In a taxi leaving the airport, for example, a driver can usually get you where you want to go if you use a guidebook or map to indicate the destination.

Curious tourists wandering the streets of the city are common to locals, who will eagerly guide you to such sites as the Opera House and the Zoo.

For travelers seeking a touch of the the historic past, a trip through the famed Schonbrunn Palace is a must. There, English-speaking guides conduct hourlong tours (100 schillings, or about $10), taking you deep into the grandeur of the powerful Hapsburg empire, which ruled Austria from 1273 to 1918.

Tiered chandeliers gilded with 24-carat gold light each of the 1,441 rooms of Schonbrunn, 40 of which you can see on the tour. Aside from showing the ornate ceramic stoves, hand-stitched tapestries and furniture, the tour guide offers perspective on the lives of several family members.

English-speaking tours also are available at the immense Kunsthistorisches Museum, showcase of the Hapsburg collections that include an impressive display of Egyptian artifacts, a large clock exhibit and works by Brueghel, Rubens, Titian and Raphael.

Vienna, of course, is widely regarded as Europe's classical music capital. In the 12th century, it was a mecca for troubadours and sacred musicians. Centuries later, such luminaries as Mozart, Haydn, Brahms, Schubert and Beethoven composed and performed here.

Today, residents and visitors enjoy classical concerts in the grandiose Opera House. Stephansplatz, the public arena surrounding the 11th century St. Stephan's Cathedral _ shortened to "Steffl' by some locals _ is the venue for musicians who regularly give free concerts on a colorful stage.

Vienna has a population of about 1.6-million, or 20 percent of Austria's population. But despite the city's size, its residents have succeeded where those of other cities have failed _ embracing change while cherishing its past.

If you go

Staying there: Pension Suzanne, at Walfischgasse 4, is a B&B with several single and double rooms with private baths. Located a few yards from the Opera House and Karntner Strasse, Suzanne is run by Frau Birke. A breakfast consisting of coffee and rolls with butter and jam is served each morning. Rates range from $78 for a single with bath to $117 for a double with bath. Phone 43-1-513-2507; fax 513-2500.

The Deutschmeister, Grunentorgasse 30, is a four-star hotel offering rooms at an average rate of $180. Continental breakfast is included. Phone 310-34-04.

Hotel Harmonie, Harmoniegasse 5-7, is another large four-star hotel charging about $180, including breakfast. Phone 317-66-04-0.

Eating there: Zum Scherer, Judenplatz 7, offers Austrian meals in a cozy atmosphere. Phone 533-5164.

Cafe Bistro, Mahlerstrasse 7, is the perfect place to relax at night with coffee and an apfelstrudel dessert. Phone 513-5335.

Seeing Vienna: Schonbrunn Palace is open daily from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m., $8 for an independent tour through 22 rooms, or $10 for a guided tour of 40 rooms. Phone 811-13-238.

The Kunsthistorisches Museum, in the city center, showcases the Hapsburg collection of art works. Admission to the museum costs $10 and is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. until 6 p.m.; Thursday from 10 a.m. until 9 p.m.; closed Monday. Phone 521-770-489.

St. Stephan's Cathedral, on Karntner Strasse, offers daily tours in German, but you can wander through the Gothic church for the price of a donation to the church. Phone 515-52-526.

Hofburg Imperial Palace housing the Imperial Apartments, the treasury and the Neue Burg (New Palace). These attractions, off Michaelerplatz, have daily guided tours and vary in price. Phone 587-555-4515.

Getting around there: Passes to ride Vienna's buses, trams and subways are available at station machines and tobacco shops. Taxis are readily available.

For information: Call the Austrian Tourist Office in New York City, (212) 944-6880.