As a first time visitor to Vienna, it makes good sense to visit the main landmarks, but it doesn't mean you can't also venture a bit away from the historic city center (District 1). The list below includes a mix of both options, and this map will help you find each specific location mentioned below.
1. Visit the three great museums of Vienna: No doubt, a Vienna visit for the museums alone is worth it. Thanks to the Habsburg legacy and to the Viennese modern art movement of 1900, the city is home to some of the world’s top collections. Above all stands the Kunsthistorisches, showcasing Raphaels, Tintorettos, and an entire hall dedicated to the paintings of Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Not far behind is the Albertina, heavy on Renaissance drawings (Dürer’s Young Hare!) and post-impressionism, while the Leopold Museum is home to Austrian moderns, primarily Egon Schiele. Wall texts are informative and written in perfect English across all museums.
2. Experience Vienna’s traditional cafe culture: Ornate interiors fitted with high ceilings and oversized windows, suit-and-tie-wearing waiters, well-dressed customers lingering for hours on end with the physical paper over a cup of coffee and an apple strudel. This isn’t a portrayal of long-ago Vienna, but a scene from the present day. Countless traditional coffeehouses still serve as important social hubs for local residents. Journalists, artists, politicians, businesspeople – everyone has their go-to cafes. These are my favorites.
3. Tour the Austrian Parliament: After a five-year renovation, the Austrian House of Parliament has recently opened to the public. The stunning Greek Revival building along the Ringstrasse, designed by Danish architect Theophil Hansen, offers free guided visits in English (with advance registration). The one-hour tour takes visitors through the Hall of Columns and both chambers of the parliament. Note that there’s a restaurant on the top floor, Kelsen, with outdoor tables during the warmer months.
4. Experience the Imperial Palace (Hofburg): The seat of the Habsburg family and Austria’s political center for centuries, the enormous Imperial Palace dominates the heart of Vienna. Today, these spacious Baroque and neo-Baroque halls are home to nearly a dozen museums, such as the Imperial Treasury, the House of Austrian History, the Austrian National Library, the Sisi Museum, and the Spanish Riding School. Since 1946, the Leopoldine Wing houses the office of the Austrian President.
5. Try a traditional Austrian restaurant: Viennese food is a collection of dishes from territories once under the Habsburg imperium: schnitzel from northern Italy, knödel from the Czech parts, goulash from Hungary, and so on. There are many restaurants – so-called gasthaus or beisl – that serve up excellent versions of these hefty plates. Delicious offal dishes, such as roasted veal liver (kalbsleber), also prominently feature on menus, and of course no meal is complete without a Kaiserschmarrn or a palatschinken dessert with a side of fruit preserves.
6. Roam Vienna’s Baroque City Center: People usually think of Rome as the capital of Baroque, but Vienna isn’t far behind. Fueled by the counter-reformation movement of the 17th century and by a general sense of euphoria after the 1683 defeat of Ottoman Turkey, stunning churches and Baroque palaces sprung up in and around Vienna’s city center (District 1). Roaming the streets will give you a sense, but specific examples include the Karlskirche, the Court Library, Eugene Savoy’s summer palace (Belvedere), Palais Kinsky, and Palais Liechtenstein.
7. Visit the Habsburg summer palace: If you haven’t tired of the Habsburgs yet, I recommend you take the half-hour journey by public transport to Schönbrunn, the ruling family’s summer residence on the outskirts of Vienna. The endless Baroque and Rococo halls are predictably grand and glamorous, and the living quarters can be notably revealing – such as the subdued study of the workaholic Emperor, Franz Joseph. The palace’s enormous garden is accessible for free and fun to explore, especially the Gloriette and the “Roman ruin,” and there’s even a zoo there.
8. Kohlmarkt – Graben – St Stephen’s Church: These three Viennese landmarks near one another appear in every guide book for good reason. The Kohlmarkt and the Graben, two upscale shopping streets today, connect the Imperial Palace (Hofburg) with the enormous medieval St. Stephen’s cathedral. The church is free to enter and the beautifully carved Gothic-style pulpit and the innumerable Baroque altarpieces, including the exuberant high altar at the end of the nave, are more than worth going inside.
9. Take in Vienna’s architecture: Vienna has a long and layered architectural past, ranging from Gothic churches to slick contemporary buildings by the likes of Zaha Hadid. I’m most taken by the Baroque palaces of the city center, by Otto Wagner’s brand of Viennese Secession (Art Nouveau), and by the funny and daring postmodern houses of the recent past. Here, you can find all of my favorites.
10. Stroll through the Ringstrasse: In the mid-19th century, Emperor Franz Joseph decided to knock down the medieval city walls and fortification bastions to make space for an elegant boulevard – Ringstrasse – between the historic city center with what used to be the suburbs then. The architectural style was a mishmash from earlier periods, as evidenced by the Renaissance Revival Court Opera, the Greek Revival Austrian Parliament, and the Gothic Revival City Hall. At a leisurely pace, it takes less than an hour to walk from one end (Shottenring), to the other (Otto Wagner’s famous Postsparkasse building).
11. Visit a few smaller museums: In addition to the greatest museums, see the first point above, it’s also worth venturing to the less popular collections. The Austrian History Museum presents the country’s post-Habsburg period, the Architecture Center sheds light on Vienna’s successful social housing system, the Beethoven Museum in Heiligenstadt brings alive the life of the great composer, while the Jewish Museum details Vienna’s long and tragic Jewish past.
12. Go to a classical music concert: You shouldn't leave the city of Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, and Schönberg without attending a classical music concert or an opera. The Musicverein, known for its famous New Year's concert of the Vienna Philharmonic, is a good place to start, but the Wiener Konzerthaus also has plenty of outstanding performances. And of course the State Opera, pricey as it is, will leave you with a memorable experience.
13. Pay tribute to Vienna’s Holocaust memorials: Before the Holocaust, Vienna had the third largest Jewish community in Europe (after Warsaw and Budapest). As elsewhere, Jews punched above their weight, giving the country countless scientists, intellectuals, artists, and businessmen, people such as Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arthur Schnitzler, and Stefan Zweig. Austria has just recently started to grapple with its complicity in the Shoah, when 65,000 mostly Viennese Jews were murdered in death camps with active support from the local population. These subtle but substantive memorials serve as reminders.
14. Experience Vienna's new-wave coffee culture: Vienna’s traditional cafe culture is alive and well, see above, but the city isn’t immune to global trends. Third-wave coffee shops are rapidly increasing in number, exhibiting the typical trappings of such establishments: light-roasted coffee beans, sleek minimalist interiors, fashionable baristas sporting tattoos and a mustache. It’s fun to compare and contrast old and new.
15. Enjoy the Viktor-Adler Market: Being in the city center, you wouldn’t think how diverse Vienna is. For a glimpse of the less well-known side of the city, head to the Viktor Adler market in District 10 where Yemeni cafes, Turkish köfte vendors, Bulgarian grocery stores, Afghani spice retailers, and low-priced sausage stands share the lively premises alongside sellers of fruits and vegetables. Grab a lahmacun – flatbread topped with minced meat, veggies, and spices – and tea at Aliman, then crown your trip with snacks and a wine spritzer at Prokes bar. If you've liked this one, note the two other markets along similar lines: Brunnenmarkt and Hannovermarkt.
16. Enjoy the farmers' market at Karmelitermarkt: Parts of Leopoldstadt (District 2), Vienna's old Jewish quarter near the city center, are today known as hubs of gentrification. The upscale farmers' market on Karmelitermarkt is symbolic of the neighborhood's transformation from its post-war working-class origins. Every Saturday morning, an army of artisan vendors camp out here, including bread, cheese, and honey producers, high-end butchers, makers of fruit juices and preserves, bio vegetable farmers, and winemakers. Compared with the Viktor Adler market, above, things are more polished and pricey here. Speaking of markets, my opinion about Naschmarkt, Vienna's most famous: overrated and overpriced.
17. Go to a sausage shop: Sausages are essential to Central European food culture as a trip to Vienna can quickly manifest. Würstelstands are food kiosks where people stand elbow-to-elbow while wolfing down a tasty roast pork sausage with a side of mustard, kaiser roll, and a can of beer. These low-priced establishments are open until the wee hours and often most frequented well past midnight. These are a few of my favorites.
18. Grab a drink at a local bar: One of the best ways to gauge a city and its people is visiting a local bar, and Vienna offers plenty of inviting drinking joints. Perhaps you too will enjoy some of my favorites. Many are located outside the historic city center (District 1) – most Viennese don’t live there – but they’re all easily accessible on foot or by public transport.
19. Take a peek at the Donau City: A flood zone for centuries, the northern bank of the Danube River was developed only in the 1970s, starting with a headquarters for the United Nations. The area has since transformed into a major corporate center, with soaring office buildings of banks, insurance companies, and consulting firms. The 60-story DC Tower, Vienna’s tallest, is also here. These steel-and-glass skyscrapers can feel a bit soulless and dystopian, but this too is contemporary Vienna. The area is easily accessible with the U1 subway line from downtown.
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