Vienna is the grandest of the European capitals, offering so much exterior visual gratification that you may be wholly forgiven for never stepping inside any of its edifices, palaces, or museums. In fact, I feel that you can do Vienna justice with only a few major-time-investment stops. Conversely, if you decide to explore in depth every single point of interest and museum, you may require an uncommonly long stay in the Austrian capital.
It follows from the above that you should absolutely try to see at least from the outside as many of the city’s sights as possible. That means, first and foremost, walking all around the Innere Stadt (or, if you are so inclined, substituting some of the walking with the horse-driven carriage ride). The squares in the city center all offer visual delights: the bustling and opulent Graben; the somber and elegant Judenplatz; the regal Am Hof; the irregularly shaped Freyung; and a few others.
You should definitely take a stroll – alternating with riding a tram – around Ringstrasse. There is an incredible number of architectural highlights located along this leafy ring of boulevards. The most famous are: the soaring Rathaus; the magnificent Burgtheater; the classical Parliament; the imposing Staatsoper.
Off Ringstrasse, you will certainly see stately Schwarzenbergplatz, which extends towards the Red Army Memorial. Setting aside present-day political friction between Russia and the West, as well as the dark side of the Soviet post-war occupation of parts of Europe, if your ancestors fought against fascism in the World War II, this is a “should” point of interest. The memorial is fronted by the impressive Hochstrahlbrunnen.
You will not pass Hofburg unnoticed on your walks through the Innere Stadt, and will probably stop to admire the eye-catching Schweitzertor on its premises. You should visit one or more of the exceptional expositions in different wings of the grand complex. Schatzkammer is among the most splendid collections of jewels and sacral treasures in the world. Silberkammer is an superb collection of tableware. Nationalbibliothek is simply stunning. Emperor Franz Joseph’s apartments, Reichkanzleitrakt, are not without interest. Time investment: between 1 and 4 hours, depending on how many exhibitions you decide to see.
Wonderful churches are among the city’s most impressive sights. It normally does not take a lot of time to admire a place of worship entrance to which is free, so you positively should step inside a few. Among the most remarkable are: Stephansdom, with its colorful tiled roof (going up to the viewpoint on the roof will require extra time and money); the blindingly luxurious Peterskirche; the Gothic Votivkirche, which boasts the most vivid stained-glass windows; the stern on the outside but exuberant inside Dominikanerkirche. The fascinating Karlskirche requires a larger time investment, and an entrance fee, offering a unique opportunity to see cupola frescoes up close.
You should combine exploration of the interior of a splendid palace with viewing an art exhibition by visiting Albertina. The State Rooms are magnificent, and the temporary exhibitions are always captivating. Time investment: At least 2 hours.
You should linger in the green spaces in the city center: Stadtpark, Volksgarten, Burggarten. Besides being awfully pretty, they each offer an oasis of serenity in a big and busy city.
You should take a bit of time to admire the prime examples of Jugendstil: Sessession building; Majolikahaus; Otto Wagner’s Stadtbahn Pavilions on Karlsplatz; Anker Clock on Hoher Markt (if you can time your arrival for 12noon, you will enjoy the musical procession of all figurines).
You should attend a musical performance. Or two. Some of them are less touristy than the others, and they differ in quality and setting. I prefer the intimate feeling (such as in Sala Terrena) to a large hall (such as at Kursalon); there are many churches and specialized performance venues that host concerts around the year. Unless you actively dislike Mozart and Strauss – and who does, anyway? – you will likely enjoy any performance chosen at random. Time investment: an hour or two in the evening.
Staying consistent with my opening statement, I only have about a dozen points of interest in this section that I myself have taken time to see on my visits to Vienna.
If you tend to make major art collections a priority, you could visit Kunsthistoriches Museum. It is one of the largest art museums in the world. Old Masters of different schools are represented rather well, plus there are fascinating sets of antiquities, decorative objects, etc. Time investment: At least 2.5 hours.
If you have an affinity for equestrian exhibitions, you could go to Spanische Reitschule for either the daily horse-training exercises or the weekend-only big performance. The former is unstructured and loses the fascination factor for a chance visitor within ten minutes, but true horse-lovers – and children – are bound to enjoy it. The latter is akin a circus performance, and requires a significant advance planning to attend. Time investment: about an hour and a half.
If you are a fan of the history of royal dynasties, you could stop by to see Kaisergruft at Kapuzinerkirche. The church itself is not especially remarkable, but the crypt holds remains of almost 150 members of the Hapsburg family. Many of the tombs are finely elaborate. Time investment: 30 minutes.
If you are drawn to the famous performance venues, you could visit Staatsoper. True opera lovers may splash on tickets to an actual performance, but there are daily tours offered in all major European languages. I actually do not find the interior of Staatsoper comparable to that of other famous opera houses – it has never been fully restored to its former imperial glory after the destruction of the second World War – but there are more than a couple of features worth checking out. Time investment: about an hour.
For other similar experiences, Burgtheater and Musikverein are reputedly magnificent on the inside.
If market browsing is an agreeable proposition for you, you could spend a fair amount of time at Naschmarkt. It’s big, it’s busy, and you can buy nearly anything there. Time investment: about an hour for a brisk walk-through.
If you are into gorgeous palace grounds, you could explore Belvedere. The two palaces at the lower and upper boundaries of the gardens are moderately interesting (a few grand rooms at each, and several art expositions highlighted by Gustav Klimt at the Upper Belvedere). The three-level formal garden, laid out on a sloping hill, with fountains, pools and statuary, is free to enter and by itself an attraction, opening great views over the city from its uppermost level. Time investment: an hour if you only walk around the gardens, up to 3 hours if you explore both palaces.
For a signature piece of royal opulence, you could take a trip to Schönbrunn Palace. It has a rightful place among the most lavish royal residences purpose-built away from the capital cities (think Versailles or Peterhof). Nowadays it finds itself within the boundaries of the greater city and is reachable by a few-stops ride on the metro. The palace itself is well worth the effort to visit, and the grounds are impressive as well. Time investment: 4 hours or more.
If you find delight in architectural innovations, you could go see Hundertwasser Haus. The colorful residential complex is reached by a 15-minute tram ride from the city center. You can only admire it from the outside, but you can also explore the shopping arcade called The Village, designed by the same architect. Time investment: about an hour and a half, including the tram rides there and back.
For a fairly unique and traditional food-and-wine experience, you could venture to the northern suburb of Grinzing in search of a Heurigen. Heuriger is the name for the new-vintage wine, which over the generations gave rise to wine-taverns typical of Vienna, where wine and other drinks are served at the table while the food can be bought at the self-service buffets. At the most popular establishments, there is live music and the unending atmosphere of good times. Grinzing is reached by a combination of metro and tram. Time investment: give it an entire evening.
If you want to combine a non-museum diversion with a visit to one of the oldest amusement parks in the world, you could spend some time in Prater. The iconic Ferris Wheel is the main attraction here, but there are also a number of other interesting rides. Opening times vary throughout the year. Riding the wheel after dark for those who expect an elevated perspective over the city may be disappointing – go up before the park floodlights come on. Time investment: at least 2 hours, including getting there and back, if you do no more than the wheel and one or two other rides.
For specialized interests, there are plenty of other museums in Vienna. I never prioritized visiting them and cannot expressly recommend any, but you could go to:
- MuseumsQuartier, for modern art, innovation, and fun special events;
- Vienna Museum, for city history;
- Leopold Museum, for an in-depth look into Jugendstil and Expressionism;
- Naturhistorisches Museum, for one of the best natural history collections in the world;
- Academy of Fine Arts, for another collection of Old Masters;
- Clock Museum;
- Imperial Carriage Museum;
- and quite a few others.
I cannot really think of any truly negative experience in Vienna that would be the basis for a negative recommendation.
I wouldn’t stand in a long line at Café Sacher in order to get in and have a piece of their famous cake, but then I have absolutely no sweet tooth anyway. I also heard from locals that it is no better here than at other establishments. One late night I actually did go to the café when there was no line – and I cannot say that the experience was in any way remarkable (although I can say that the prices were somewhat higher than elsewhere).
That’s the sights of Vienna categorized. If your opinion differs from mine or you think that I omitted something of importance, I would love to hear from you.
My original Vienna Travelog entry.