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.
In addition to the summary below, you can also check out my Shoulda, Coulda, Wouldn’t essay on Vienna.
The old town of Wien, known as Innere Stadt, contains a vast trove 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 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. An understated monument to the victims of the Holocaust sits at the center of the square. There is little here left of the Jewish ghetto, but Museum Judenplatz (not visited) 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 the 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.
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 center 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 the mid-19th century.
Viennese cathedral, Stephansdom ♥♥♥, suffered extensive damage during 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.
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.
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.
I 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. 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 Hofburg. 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 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. In the small and peaceful Burgkapelle ♥, which is worth a look on any day, the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir performs on Sundays.
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 my 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 the 15th to 18th centuries, with Flemish, Dutch, Italian, French, and Spanish schools all well represented. 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 MuseumsQuartier, which contains three separate contemporary art collections, plus a museum of tobacco, an architectural exhibitions venue, and a center for dance arts. These will remain targets for future visits.
A cluster of spectacular buildings, Neues Rathaus ♥♥♥, the Parlament ♥♥, and the Burgtheater ♥♥♥, all owe their heart ratings to their exterior views. Touring each is possible on a limited schedule (in the theater’s case, dependent on rehearsals and shows), and I never managed to align with those scheduling constraints.
I did tour the Staatsoper ♥♥, which turned out to be not as majestic on the inside as some of the other opera houses; it does have a number of worthy features nonetheless. Several language tour options are available at every scheduled slot.
There are many 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 my itinerary.
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 ♥♥♥. They are always a delight to peruse. Get a mug of glühwein to keep you warm.
When you are at Karlsplatz ♥, take a look at the several interesting buildings around it, including Karlsplatz U-bahn pavilions by the prominent city architect of the late 19th century Otto Wagner, as well as Künstlerhaus and Musikverein. There is also a possibly interesting Historical Museum of the City of Vienna.
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; Viennese do not have positive memories from the years of Soviet occupation, but the monument remains.
The quiet and leafy Stadtpark ♥♥ is dotted with statues of the famous Austrians, along with several grand portals designed in the Secessionist style. One of the most photographed spots in all of Vienna is within this park – the gilded statue of Johann Strauss the Younger.
At the edge of what is considered central Vienna is located the summer residence of the 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. 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 and may be worth the visit all by itself.
In 2005, we made excursions to the northern city district of Grinzing for the 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 Prater ♥, one of the oldest and grandest funfairs in all of Europe. Its giant Ferris wheel, built in 1896, is the top attraction. The ride on it after the fall of the darkness was fairly disappointing: 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 daylight (the park is usually not open until evening on weekdays).
Among other attractions in Vienna city center worth consideration for future visits are the Museum für Volkskunde and the Academy of Fine Arts.
Schönbrunn palace ♥♥♥ is a bit further afield, reached by metro, and requires several hours to properly enjoy. 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, and will almost certainly include pieces by either Mozart or Strauss, or both. In 2005, we went to two different concerts. At the small Sala Terrena at Mozarthaus in the Deutschordenskirche complex, the performances are usually shorter, by smaller ensembles, with amazing acoustics. At the Kursalon, a performance venue at the edge of Stadtpark, everything will be larger – the audience, the size of the orchestra, the length of the performance – and certainly much less intimate. Overall, musical performances certainly differ in quality and setting, so use your own preferences whether to plan ahead for a well-known performance or spontaneously buy tickets for a same-day performance at a nearby church; if you end up disappointed, I strongly suggest that you try another performance at a different type of venue.
You will almost invariably see a line to get into Café Sacher, near Opera, as people go for the famous Sacher Cake. My opinion is that it is not worth spending the time in line; furthermore, I have seen the cake on the menu at various restaurants and cafés and I am told that the “original” is not really any better.
Vienna’s underground system is ok, but many destinations are easier to reach 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.
Accommodation-wise, any location in Innere Stadt will put you within walking distance of most of the points of interest. The extensive transport options make staying somewhere outside of the city center workable as well.
As far as eating out is concerned, whether you reserve a table in advance based on online ratings or just pick a restaurant at random, it is hard to have a truly disappointing meal in Vienna. I personally prefer local vibes in less touristy areas, but sometimes sitting down in an eatery on a crowded square can have its rewards.
Worthy of specific recommendations are: Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper (Austrian, on Walfischgasse near Opera), Brezl Gwölb (Austrian, Judenplatz/Am Hof), Plachutta Wollzeille (Austrian, on Wollzeile off Karl-Lueger-Platz).
Well-connected with the rest of the country by the train network, Vienna can serve as a springboard for visiting other destinations. Graz and Linz are among the options.