Vienna (Wien)

In 5 words: Stately, elegant and imperially magnificent.
For your first visit you need no less than 4 full days to be able to fully appreciate the city and all of its major sights while keeping pleasantly unhurried pace.
Distances are walkable in many cases, but you will need use of public transport to venture to some destinations.
Love its stunning architecture, enthralling squares, beautiful gardens, relatively unhurried pace.
Don’t miss: Walking the circle of central squares – Graben, Hoher Markt, Judenplatz, Am Hof, Freyung; making a trip to Grinzing for heurigen experience [further afield]; going to a Mozart or a Strauss concert, or both.
Worthy attractions: Alte Burg, especially Schatzkammer and Nationalbibliothek; Stephansdom; Schönbrunn palace [further afield]; several arresting churches, such as PeterskircheDominikanerkircheKapuzinerkirche (with Kaisergruft), Karlskirche, Votivkirche; horse training at Spanische Reitschule; Albertina; StaatsoperKunsthistoriches Museum; Stadtpark with its popular Strauss statue (as well as several less popular others); Belvedere; Schwarzenbergplatz and the Red Army monument; Hundertwasser-Haus; Prater.
Left for another visit: Burgtheater [did not tour inside]; MuseumsQuartier; Vienna Museum; Leopold Museum; Academy of Fine Arts; Clock Museum; Imperial Carriage Museum; Museum für Volkskunde; Museum Judenplatz; Stadttempel.
Last visit: December 2016.

View from Vienna Cathedral tower

Vienna is one of the most majestic cities in all of Europe and a top contender for my personal The Most Beautiful City award. The magnitude of its architectural grandeur and the wealth of its cultural heritage is impossible to cover in print – you need to see it.

Things to See

Vienna’s old town, known as Innere Stadt, contains several dozen of remarkable points of interest. It is more or less encircled by the chain of boulevards known as Ringstraße ♥♥, lined with stately buildings. A trip on tram line #1 will take you all around Ringstraße.

The squares of the Inner City are delightful, picturesque and well-preserved.

Graben ♥♥, pedestrianized and busy, is one of the most fashionable shopping areas in town. It is adorned with two identical fountains and is also home to the elaborate Baroque Plague Column, erected at the end of the 17th century. There are several notable houses on Graben, both original Baroque and modern.

Hoher Markt ♥ is the oldest square in Vienna, in medieval times both the home of various markets and the venue for executions. Its biggest attraction here is the Anekruhr ♥, a sculptural clock that features 12 historical figures who contributed to Vienna’s development. Each hour, one of the figures emerges for all to view, and at noon, the entire set parades around.

The quiet and even contemplative Judenplatz ♥♥ is the center of a tangle of narrow streets constituting the earliest Jewish quarter in Vienna. Aesthetically, it is one of the prettiest squares in the city. A monument to the victims of the Holocaust sits at the centre of the square. There is little here left of the Jewish ghetto, but Museum Judenplatz (which we did not visit) commemorates medieval Jewish life. The lavish present synagogue, Stadttempel, is hidden on a side street and not easy to get into.

The large and elegant Am Hof ♥♥♥ is one of the most impressive public spaces in Vienna. There are several architectural gems around it, including the Chapel of the Nine Angel Choirs ♥♥, from the terrace of which the dissolution of the Holy Roman Empire was proclaimed in 1806. In front of the church stands Column of Our Lady, erected at the conclusion of the Thirty Years’ War.

The alley called Schulhof, which connects Am Hof with the residential area on Kurrentgasse, is home to two potentially curious little museums, Clock Museum and Doll and Toy Museum. We walked past both without visiting.

The irregularly-shaped Freyung ♥♥ is a beautiful square in its own right, with a church, a former abbey, which is now an art gallery, and a couple of magnificent palaces facing it. At the centre of the square, in a glass-roofed atrium, stands the Austria Fountain, showing the allegorical figure of Austria surrounded by mermaids that represent the major rivers of the Hapsburg Empire of mid-19th century.

Viennese cathedral, Stephansdom ♥♥♥, suffered extensive damage during the World War II, but has been restored to its former glory since. Its colorful mosaic roof, made of 250,000 glazes tiles, is a rather startling feature for a church of this stature. The interior is not as impressive, although the altarpiece is noteworthy. The high tower is worth the ascent for a look over the city. The nearby Dom- und Diözesanmuseum reputedly contains an interesting collection of sacral objects and folk art, but we did not go there.

There are more than a handful of impressive and interesting churches in the old town.

The Gothic Deutschordenskirche St Elisabeth ♥ is decorated with the coats of arms of the Teutonic knights and has an impressive altarpiece. The Order Treasury is open only a couple of hours every day and we did not chance to be nearby during those.

The Baroque Dominikanerkirche ♥♥ has a very impressive, if stern, façade with statues of Dominican saints. But if you step inside, you will discover an exuberantly richly ornamented nave, surrounded by the ring of no less exuberant chapels.

Kapuzinerkirche by itself is not too remarkable, but the imperial crypt located here, Kaisergruft ♥♥, is a top attraction. The tombs hold partial remains of almost 150 members of the Habsburg family (it should be noted that, on their death, Hapsburgs were dismembered, with various parts of their bodies then held in different places; Kaisergruft tombs are where the largest parts of the remains are). A number of the tombs are quite impressive.

We also stepped into blindingly luxurious Peterskirche ♥♥, as well as Michaelerkirche ♥ and Augustinerkirche ♥ (the hearts of departed Habsburgs are held here in silver urns). Also potentially worth a look are Franziskanerkirche and Maria Treu Kirche.

Votivkirche ♥♥♥, at the edge of the central ring, is dark and impressively Gothic.  It also boasts the most vivid stained glass in every window.

The grandiose Karlskirche ♥♥♥ is a richly eclectic amalgamation of architectural styles, from the Neo-Classical giant dome and portico to two minaret-like towers and the Oriental-style gatehouses. It is a sight to behold. Inside, the magnificent altarpieces are the most striking features, but most importantly the cupola frescoes can be viewed very closely by ascending the scaffolds in the center of the church by elevator and then on foot. This singular experience yields mixed impressions – up close the frescoes look inexplicably amateurishly painted (or, maybe, it’s my lack of any academic training in fine arts) – but it is certainly worthwhile. You can further ascend the stairs into the dome lantern for views of the city through the windows.

The Hofburg ♥♥♥ complex, the former Emperor’s residence, is a permanent reminder of the glory of the Empire, consisting of several regal palaces and buildings, and incorporating entire squares and streets. The somewhat nondescript Burgtor is actually a veritable triumphal arch, built to commemorate the victory over Napoleon and later serving as the Monument to the Unknown Soldier. On the other side of Heldenplatz, away from Hofburg, is the very pleasant Volksgarten ♥, where you can relax on a bench in a rose alley in sight of the towers and domes of the city.

Alte Burg ♥♥♥ is the majestic castle that is the heart of the complex. The huge multi-wing building has a large inner courtyard, In der Burg ♥, and an eccentric 16th-century Baroque Schweitzertor ♥♥ among its exterior attractions. The part of the castle facing Michaelerplatz ♥ is very beautiful as well.

The castle offers several different tours, among which the most fascinating are Schatzkammer ♥♥♥, a collection of the sacral and secular treasures that is widely regarded as one of the most magnificent of its kind in the world, and the Nationalbibliothek ♥♥♥ in the opulent Prunksaal. Emperor Franz Joseph’s apartments, Reichkanzleitrakt ♥, are moderately interesting. Among other draws in the castle are the Silberkammer ♥♥, a stunning collection of tableware, and Amalienburg, the Renaissance wing built in the 16th century with a museum devoted to Empress Elisabeth that we basically walked through without stopping. In the small and peaceful Burgkapelle ♥ on Sundays, the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir performs (we were not able to see that).

Spanische Reitschule is a famous riding school founded in 1572. The daily horse-training performances ♥ are a popular and quite curious attraction. On Sundays, there are big circus-like performances, which are much harder to get tickets to.

The entrances to Prunksaal and Augustinerkirche are from Josefsplatz ♥♥, another of the regal squares around Hofburg.

Further at the edge of the complex is Albertina ♥♥♥, where you can tour the lovely Neo-Classical State Rooms. The palace also offers fine graphics, photography and architectural collections and holds temporary exhibitions. At the time of our last visit, there were two excellent impressionist and pointillist exhibitions.

Across the Ring from Hofburg is the biggest concentration of Vienna’s museums. They are centered on Maria-Theresien-Platz ♥, with its great monument to the empress. The most important here is the Kunsthistoriches Museum ♥♥, which is said to be a contender for the title of one of the top art galleries in the western world (it is the fourth largest in size). The picture collection takes the entire first floor and part of the second, and concentrates on 15th to 18th centuries, with Flemish, Dutch, Italian, French and Spanish schools all well represented. For some unknown reason, we were less impressed than we often are after visiting major art collections. There are also fascinating sets of antiquities, decorative art, coins and medals at the museum.

Across the square from the Kunsthistorishes Museum is its architecturally almost-twin Naturhistorisches Museum, and nearby is the complex known as MuseumQuartier, which contains three separate contemporary art collections, plus a museum of tobacco, an architectural exhibitions venue and a center for dance arts. Our itinerary did not allow for visiting any of these.

Neues Rathaus ♥♥♥ is a spectacular building, more palace-like than some of the palaces we’ve seen, that lies in an attractive park. Touring the building is possible only with group reservations, so we did not have a look at the reception hall that takes the entire length of the first (above ground) floor. The grand Parlament building lies to the side of the town hall park, and we did not have it in our plans to tour it (a couple of guided tours per day). We wanted to tour the stunning Burgtheater ♥♥♥, which sits opposite the Ring from the town hall, but our luck brought us into its vicinity at the time of rehearsals when touring was not allowed. We did manage to tour Staatsoper ♥♥, which turned out to be not as majestic on the inside as some of the other opera houses that we have seen; it does have a number of worthy features nonetheless; come 15-20 minutes before the scheduled guided-tour time and you can join a tour in one of several languages.

There are several places in Vienna to see examples of Jugendstil, the Austro-German version of Art Nouveau. One such example is the Secession Building, although I prefer the two adjoining apartment blocks ♥ on Linke Wienzeile, at Naschmarkt. No. 38 and No. 40, the latter known as Majolikahaus, are both remarkable, one with gilt ornaments, the other with subtle multi-color flower patterns. A reputedly exceptional Jugendstil museum, Leopold, never fit into our itineraries before.

Naschmarkt ♥♥, coincidentally, is the liveliest of Vienna’s year-round markets, especially on Saturdays, selling pretty much everything.

If you happen to be in town in the year-end festivity period, you’ll find all major squares converted to Christmas Markets ♥♥♥.  Although they all sell roughly the same things – there are certainly exceptions, especially when it comes to unique art or crafts – they are a delight to peruse.  Get a mug of glühwein to keep you warm.

When you are on Karlsplatz ♥, take a look at the several interesting constructions around it, including Karlsplatz U-bahn pavilions by the prominent city architect of the late 19th century Otto Wagner, Künstlerhaus and Musikverein. There is also a possibly interesting Historical Museum of the City of Vienna, which we did not visit.

Another one of the city’s grandest spaces is the elongated Schwarzenbergplatz ♥. It is home to the impressive Hochstrahlbrunnen (high jet fountain), which is floodlit in summer. Behind the fountain is the heroic-style Soviet Monument to the Red Army ♥, commemorating the Russian liberation of Vienna. Viennese do not have positive memories from the years of occupation that ensued, but the monument remains.

The quiet and leafy Stadtpark ♥♥ is dotted with statues to the famous Austrians, along with several grand portals designed in Secession (Jugendstil) style. One of the most photographed spots in all of Vienna is within the park – the gilded statue of Johann Strauss the Younger.

At the edge of what is considered central Vienna located the summer residence of Prince of Savoy, Belvedere ♥♥. The two palaces of the complex are not significantly remarkable, although there are a couple of grand halls and some potentially interesting exhibitions in various wings and outhouses. The three-level formal garden, laid out on a sloping hill, with fountains, pools and statuary, is quite fetching, and from its uppermost level, a great view of the city opens up.

A curious apartment block slightly outside of the city center, Hundertwasser Haus ♥ is a whimsical construction built in 1985, combining elements of a Moorish mosque with features of Spanish villages and Venetian palaces. There is also the shopping center opposite the block, called The Village, designed by the same artist. The public toilet inside that mini-mall is utterly peculiar.

We made not one, but two separate excursions to the northern city district of Grinzing for Heurigen experience ♥♥. Heuriger is the name for the new-vintage wine, which over the generations gave rise to heurigen, 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, for a comparatively small monetary outlay. Grinzing is reached by a combination of metro and tram, fairly straightforward.

We also went to the Prater ♥, one of the oldest and grandest funfairs in all of Europe. Its giant Ferris wheel, built in 1896, is the top attraction. We took a ride on it, but were somewhat disappointed: The floodlights that come on after dark are directed at the wheel itself, preventing you from seeing much as far as the city sights are concerned. It could be better during the day (if the park is open).

Among other attractions in Vienna city center worth consideration for our future visits are Museum für Volkskunde and Academy of Fine Arts.

Schönbrunn palace ♥♥♥ is a bit further afield, reached by metro, and requires several hours of your Vienna itinerary. The royal apartments are luxuriously impressive, although the free audioguide is a bit sketchy in accompanying descriptions.  The huge sloping park has several additional points of interest.

Going to a musical performance ♥♥♥ is an integral part of visiting Vienna. Unless, of course, you cannot stand either Mozart or Strauss, whose works will be prevalent at any concert.

We went to two concerts in 2005. One was at the small Sala Terrena at Mozarthaus in the Deutschordenskirche complex. Great acoustics. The performance by a string quartet included works by Mozart, Heydn, Dvořak and Bach. It was probably a bit shorter than I expected a concert to be (45 minutes at most), but it was still greatly enjoyable.

The second affair was at Kursalon, a large hall at the edge of Stadtpark. This was a bigger performance in all aspects, from the size of the band (a mid-size orchestra) to the number of spectators (several hundred, among them big tourist groups). The lineup consisted almost entirely of Strauss, whom I like very much, so the overall impression was positive.

The moral of the story: Musical performances differ in quality and setting; your own preferences of a small vs. big venue and planning ahead for a trip to a well-known performance vs. deciding on a whim to buy tickets for a concert at a nearby church will shape your appreciation. If you end up disappointed, I strongly suggest that you try another performance at a different type of venue.

Transportation

Vienna’s underground system is ok, but many destinations are easier reached by utilizing the tram network. Combining the two, you should be able to get to any of the points of interest within not just the central city area, but the Greater Vienna as well.

Places to Eat

TripAdvisor nowadays offers pretty good collective-wisdom guidance for any meal selection, so I am only mentioning the places I ate at in December of 2016 and leaving you to your own research: Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper ♥♥♥ (Austrian, near Opera), Brezl Gwölb ♥♥♥ (Austrian, Judenplatz/Am Hof), Lola ♥♥♥ (tapas, near Schottenring), Griechenbeisl ♥ (Austrian, near Schwedenplatz), Stadtboden ♥ (Austrian, off Kärntnerstraße), Sole ♥ (Italian, off Kärntnerstraße), Go Gourmet (Thai/Asian, near Opera), Steak Point (steaks, near Opera).

You will almost invariable see a line to get into Café Sacher, near Opera, as people go for the famous Sacher Cake. My opinion is it is not worth the effort; furthermore, I have seen the cake on the menu at various restaurants and cafés and I am told the “original” is not really better.

A couple of additional recommendations from our first visit to Vienna, in Fall of 2005.

Restaurant Plachutta ♥♥, on Wollzeile off Karl-Lueger-Platz, is quite renowned. The food was excellent, especially the garlic beef consommé. The cost of the meal was considerably higher here than in any other place that we ate at while in Vienna. Our damage: €120 for two, including wine.

Figls ♥♥, on Grinzingerstr. in Grinzing, is not exactly a heurige, but when we went in, we were not sure what a heurige was supposed to look like. Regardless, we had an excellent meal, with a friendly and speedy service. Potato soup and pork schnitzel were especially well-received. Our damage: €50 for two, including a bottle of young wine.

Lodging

As in any large city, the options for a hotel or an apartment are nearly endless on major online platforms. Any location in Innere Stadt will put you within walking distance to most of the points of interest. The excellent tram network makes staying somewhere outside of city center workable as well.

An apartment recommendation is an Airbnb rental ♥♥ (listing) in a nearly unbeatable location around the corner from Opera. A well-stocked kitchen, all necessary amenities, quiet and comfortable.

 


Other notes for Austria