For a concentrated dosage of old style splendor, you can’t go past Vienna. Now Austria’s capital, it was once the center of an empire that encompassed huge swathes of central and eastern Europe, a legacy which has endowed the city with as many palaces as there are weeks in the year. And Vienna still gazes east as much as west: the borders of Hungary, Slovakia and the Czech Republic are all within an hour’s drive.
Despite conservative leanings, Vienna has been the birthplace of forward-thinking ideas and art forms that have traveled the world. This push and pull of tradition and innovation continues to the present day, lending the city a dynamism that belies its serene exterior. For anyone with an interest in history, music, art, architecture, literature or psychiatry, Vienna is a must-see destination. And along with all that brilliance, it also offers the simple pleasure of coffee and cake in congenial surroundings.
What to see and do in Vienna
First things first: get on the number 1 or 2 tram. It doesn’t matter which one, you’ll end up where you started anyway. Because you’re now on the Ringstrasse, a grand looping boulevard that sprang up after the city walls were torn down in the 19th century, triggering a construction boom. And nothing better symbolizes Vienna’s self-importance than the neo-Gothic Rathaus (city hall), towering over the nearby national Parliament. Meanwhile the Staatsoper is one of the most prominent landmarks on the Ring, and one of two utterly essential destinations for classical music fans (the other being the Musikverein, a few blocks away).
Adjacent to the Ring, two great institutions face each other in a Mexican stand-off of grandeur: the Naturhistorisches (Natural History) and Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) Museums. The adjacent MuseumsQuartier is a hugely impressive conversion of the imperial stables. Its gallery spaces are filled with 20th century masterpieces and contemporary works (and if you need a break from the culture, Mariahilfer Strasse, Vienna’s main shopping street, is just around the corner).
Once inside the old town, the streets are narrower, many of them pedestrianized. The enormous palace complex of the Hofburg dominates; if you’re pressed for time make sure you see the Schatzkammer (treasury), the apartments of troubled Empress Elisabeth (“Sisi”) and the Nationalbibliothek, one of the most beautiful libraries in the world. A stone’s throw away, witness the pinnacle of horse breeding and training with a tour of the Spanish Riding School. And of course at the heart of the historic center is Stephansdom, the city’s cathedral. Climb the north spire (or take the lift) for breathtaking Viennese vistas.
North and south of the old town are two symbols of Vienna’s early 20th century pre-eminence in psychiatry and art, respectively. They are Sigmund Freud’s apartment (complete with couch), and the once revolutionary Secession building which boasts a frieze by Gustav Klimt. For more of Klimt’s gilded masterpieces, including his most famous painting The Kiss, head for the Upper Belvedere, one of a pair of palaces joined by an outstanding landscaped garden. A world-class collection of old masters and sumptuous interiors make the Palais Liechtenstein another must-see.
The ultimate palatial getaway, however, is Schoenbrunn, in the city’s southwest. A vast building of some 1400 sumptuously decorated rooms set in a sweeping park, this is where the imperial court summered.
Moving east, meanwhile, you’ll find the eccentric buildings of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, the Prater, Vienna’s huge park stretching between the Danube Canal and the Danube itself, and on the far side of the river, the modern UN quarter; don’t miss the Donau-Citykirche, a stunning contemporary church.
What to eat and drink in Vienna
Eating and drinking are serious activities in Vienna. Servings tend to be large; the city’s signature veal dish, Wiener schnitzel, often spills over the plate. Elsewhere pork predominates, complemented by goulash, paprika and other more exotic reminders of Austria’s eastern neighbors. Austrians drink much more wine than their beer-loving German neighbors, and a fall specialty is sturm, a young, light, pleasantly sweet drop.
Once the main course is cleared away, Austrian cuisine really comes into its own. The most famous sweet treat is heavy, chocolate-y Sachertorte, named for the luxury hotel where it was first conceived. You’ll need to save room for kaiserschmarren, a doughy mash-up, but for a lighter bite there’s always mohnkuchen, poppy seed cake.
Unique Viennese dining destinations include the Palmenhaus, a brasserie/bar in a beautiful greenhouse setting, and the MuseumsQuartier’s Corbaci, where reasonably priced modern cuisine is served up under a tiled, vaulted ceiling. If money’s no object, make for the regal surrounds of Gerstner Beletage, or Le Loft, overlooking the old town from a spectacular glass box atop a hotel. But if all that sounds a little high gear, the Viennese institution of the “beisl” provides homey, unfussy dining, while the stalls at the Naschmarkt, near the Secession building, offer a lively mix of cuisines. On Saturdays they’re joined by a huge flea market.
The cafés of Vienna were once meeting places for artists, writers, intellectuals and radicals from across Europe and they continue to caffeinate the capital. They embrace a range of moods and styles, from the grand Café Central and refined Demel through the mid-century modernism of Prückl and the younger, more relaxed Hawelka. Milky, frothy mélange is many customers’ brew of choice.
Vienna insider tips
The best way to save money is to get the “Wien-Karte” which gives you three days unlimited public transport and reductions at most museums and many restaurants – all for around 20 euros.
If you only have one day in Vienna, make sure you cover the Ringstrasse. Drop in at any café, museum or church that takes your fancy, and dip into the old town at whim.
An overlooked gem is Haus des Meeres, an aquarium housed in one of Vienna’s indestructible World War II flak towers.
The best thing to eat in this city is Kaiserschmarren.
Editor’s Note: Viator recently held a contest to “Win Your Dream Travel Job” where we selected 4 finalists to travel the world shooting video. For 60 days, these teams traveled and filmed in some of the world’s top destinations, documenting their experiences along the way. Go here to read more about their Vienna adventures!