Visitors come to Vienna with high expectations of lavish palaces, ornamental parks, cakes piled high with whipped cream and the strain of Strauss waltzes. They’re rarely disappointed; this is a city that trades on its glorious past, reveling in its heyday, when Gustav Mahler was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, Sigmund Freud was inventing psychoanalysis and the coffee houses were abuzz with the banter of middle-class intellectuals.
Yet as much as it lives in the past, Vienna has hauled itself into the present with elegance and style. Visitors will discover a compact but diverse, multicultural city, with a thriving art and design scene, some truly fabulous shopping, superb contemporary art collections, and acres of gorgeous parks and gardens. Here, you’ll find a happy devotion to the good life, whether it’s sipping a cocktail at one of the hip bars on the Danube Canal or the gemutlichkeit (the Austrian term for “coziness”) of tasting wines grown on the hills around the city in a traditional pub garden in the village of Grinzing.
Because most of the big attractions are around or inside the Ringstrasse, the circular boulevard that encloses the first district, or city center, Vienna is easy to explore. In fact, you could spend days in the first district alone, shopping on the elegant Karntnerstrasse, exploring St. Stephen’s Cathedral and countless other Baroque churches, devoting time to galleries and museums, and immersing yourself in the famous coffee culture.
The gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) defines the skyline of Vienna, with its huge bulk and colorful tiled roof, bearing the Habsburg coat of arms. Visit the catacombs, or climb 343 steps to the top of the south tower to enjoy 360-degree views of the city to the Vienna Woods beyond.
The Museumsquartier, a redevelopment of the 18th-century imperial stables, is a collection of superb museums. The cultural district features the Leopold Museum, the Museum of Modern Art and the Kunsthalle, an exhibition center. The whole complex contains bars, restaurants and grassy areas, and during the summer, it hosts live events, from bands to fashion shows.
The Haus der Musik is one of the finest interactive museums in Europe, exploring the history of Vienna in the context of classical music. There are scientific rooms to demonstrate the physics of sound; rooms where you can compose your own melody and have it played by an orchestra; rooms dedicated to famous composers (including a poignant exhibit where you can experience Beethoven’s decline into deafness); and the highlight, a chance to “conduct” the Vienna Philharmonic. Warning: If you’re not up to snuff as a conductor, you could be booed off by the virtual orchestra.
At Schonbrunn Palace, you can tour dozens of rooms, including the magnificent apartments once occupied by Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth, as well as those that belonged to Maria Theresa, the powerful Habsburg ruler. Outside the palace are sweeping Baroque gardens, fountains, a maze, greenhouses, a carriage museum and even a zoo.
The Spanish Riding School, one of the world’s most famous schools of equestrian art, is closed in July when the renowned Lipizzaner stallions go out to grass, but you can get tickets online for training sessions and performances at other times of year.
Hear the Vienna Boys’ Choir sing every Sunday at the Hofburgkapelle apart from in July and August, when they’re on summer break. Tickets are in great demand; visit ViennaTicket.com for details.
In April, May, June and September, anybody can watch one of the approximately 150 performances at the Vienna State Opera for free on a giant screen outside the opera house on Herberg-von-Karajan-Platz. Attendants even provide rugs for spectators to sit on.
Take a trip out of town to the Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery), one of Europe’s biggest cemeteries, with more “residents” than Vienna itself. This is not as macabre as it seems. The cemetery is exceptionally tranquil and beautiful, with impressive Art Nouveau architecture, and all the graves of the city’s famous musicians are clustered together: Beethoven, Schubert, a memorial to Mozart (who was buried in a pauper’s grave) and the entire Strauss family.
Visit the Prater, the world’s oldest amusement park. The park is a huge green space used by the Viennese for outdoor recreational activities, such as picnics and cycling, as well as for the many rides. It’s open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Individual attractions have their own opening hours, and you pay for each ride individually with fees starting around 1.50 euros. The biggest attraction is the giant Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, for spectacular views across the city.
Take a “Third Man” tour, following the locations of the famous 1949 Orson Welles film, including the city sewers and the famous Riesenrad (Ferris wheel) in the Prater. See DritteMannTour.at for tickets and information.
Vienna is all about the food, whether it’s the exquisite pastries beckoning from glass display cabinets in every cafe, or a giant platter of Wiener schnitzel, the city’s trademark dish of lightly breaded veal served with parsley potatoes and a twist of lemon. In recent decades, the city also has seen an explosion of alternatives, with Michelin-starred restaurants, Indian, Thai and Turkish outlets, and gourmet vegetarian venues.
Locals queue up outside Trzesniewski, a Polish sandwich shop on Dorotheergasse. You buy bite-sized open sandwiches on black bread, each one packing a punch thanks to liberal doses of paprika and pickle, washed down with a tiny glass of beer. The place is a city institution.
Sample the perfect Wiener schnitzel at Plachuttas Gasthaus zur Oper, near the opera house. As well as being famous for its schnitzels, this elegant spot is a favorite for power-lunching locals.
Don’t miss the experience of a traditional Viennese coffee house. They’re everywhere, and each one has its own following. Every coffee house serves coffee from an extensive menu and cakes from a mouth-watering display, but many have wider menus for lunch or dinner. Some are rich in history; Cafe Leopold Hawelka is a tiny, dark, crowded room, the walls plastered with sketches and drawings offered by artists too poor to pay for their coffee. Cafe Frauenhuber claims to be the city’s oldest, where Mozart made his final appearance as a pianist on March 4, 1791. Walk to the rear of Demel and gaze through the glass wall at the show kitchen, a mesmerizing and mouthwatering experience for the baking enthusiast.
Note: In a coffee house, never, ever ask for a take-out cup. The Viennese like to take their time, and coffee drinking is considered sacrosanct, unless you’re in Starbucks.
If you’re on schnitzel overload, clear your palate with the organic vegetarian fare at Tian. Many of the vegetables are grown in the restaurant’s own garden, and they’re used to create colorful dishes like avocado mango salad, yellow beans with goat cheese, truffle noodles and coconut-curry soup. Menus change seasonally.
Shopping in Vienna
It’s possible to buy all manner of tat in Vienna bearing likenesses of Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart or the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park. Practically every shop in the center sells Mozartkugel, chocolate-covered marzipan balls in a gold wrapper adorned with Mozart’s face. Riedel glass, Augarten porcelain, Austrian wine and handmade Christmas decorations rank among the best-quality items to buy in the advent markets. Or check out the museum shops for art deco vases, art books and classical music CDs.
Keep an eye on shop opening hours; stores are closed on Sundays, and some shut for lunch every day. It’s customary to greet shopkeepers when you walk in and to say goodbye when you leave.
Got money to burn? Head for Lena Hoschek in Spittelberg for classical dirndl costumes with a twist (and designs for Katy Perry and Dita von Teese), or Nina Peter Hautnah, just off Karntnerstrasse (the main shopping street), whose exquisite gloves are worn by all manner of celebs, including Lady Gaga.
Check out the Naschmarkt, the city’s most colorful food market, with all kinds of artisan products. Try a balsamic tasting or munch on Vietnamese spring rolls. In summer, buy giant peaches and bunches of plump cherries for snacks. There are some great, quirky shops nearby, such as Saint Charles Pharmacy on Gumpendorferstrasse, where you can find handmade herbal remedies.
Stroll the streets of Spittelberg, the up-and-coming district just beyond the Museumsquartier. The neighborhood features beautiful Biedermeier houses and hidden squares. This is one of the city’s main art and design districts, with trendy cafes and small, one-off boutiques. Plan your visit with the website 7tm.at, which lists all the hippest shops.
–written by Sue Bryant