As a centre for culture, there is no doubt that Vienna’s impressive credentials deliver a rich variety of amazing things to do in Vienna. Long after the decline of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, people still flock to see Vienna’s imperial architecture, listen to classical music (think Mozart, Beethoven and Strauss) and admire Jugendstil art (Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss is a worldwide sensation).
Good coffee, music and art can be enjoyed in the historic capital of Europe’s largest empire, which in 1853 stretched as far as Lombardy and Venice in northern Italy to what was then known as Bohemia, Hungary and most of Eastern Europe.
You’ll have a ball in the home of palaces, museums, music, art and coffee. But the city’s creative minds are not content to rest on yesterday’s laurels and are putting Vienna back on the creative map with innovative music, trendy fashions and ground-breaking design. Here are some things to do and places to visit in Vienna to tick off your list.
10 classic things to do in Vienna
1- Ride the Ring
Whether it is your first time or fifth, begin your visit by riding a tram around the Ringstrasse.
When Emperor Franz Joseph I demolished the city’s walls to construct the boulevard in 1857, the aristocracy built grand palaces and mansions around the ring.
Rolling past historic landmarks such as the Hofburg Palace, the State Opera House and Parliament is a relaxing way to admire the city’s architecture.
Hop off and wander around on foot near St Stephan’s Cathedral. The Gothic cathedral towers above the skyline of Vienna’s UNESCO World Heritage city centre.
The city centre is a treasure trove of architectural gems from the Middle Ages, Baroque and late 19th century. And there are many Viennese coffee houses where you can sip melange (the Viennese version of a weak cappuccino) and watch the world go by.
A 24-hour ticket for the Vienna Ring Tram (10am to 6pm) costs €9. A cheaper option is to buy a Vienna Card (€18.50 for 72 hours) for the underground, bus and tram.
2- Explore Hofburg Palace
The legacy that the Hapsburg emperors – rulers of Europe’s most dominant 19th-century empire – left behind provides Vienna with a regal pedigree.
At the Imperial Palace or Hofburg, you can view the private rooms of Emperor Franz Joseph I (who ruled from 1848-1916), those of Empress Elisabeth and the Treasuries where the crown jewels are kept.
The Sisi Museum celebrates the life of Vienna’s Empress Elizabeth (affectionately known as Sisi 1837 – 1898). Sisi, a Bavarian Princess captured the heart of Emperor Franz Josef and became Austria’s Empress.
Her good looks helped her attain royal celebrity status equivalent to the celebrity of Princess Diana of Britain, right across Europe.
Like Diana, Sisi also shunned the public eye. Her personal belongings are displayed at the museum, where there is a walk-in reconstruction of the luxury state-railway carriage used by Sisi during her travels across the Empire.
The extravagance of the era is evident as I walked through her lavishly decorated private chambers at the Imperial Apartments in Hofburg Palace.
Sisi’s ladies-in-waiting were chosen for their ability to keep up with the Empress during her brisk daily walks.
In the main salon, the rings and wall bars she used during her punishing work-out routines, hang conspicuously amidst the plush velvet furnishings.
3- Step back into history at Schonbrunn Palace
While much of Vienna’s old-world charm emanates from its buildings and its architecture, the 1,441-room Schonbrunn Palace stands out among the stately buildings.
Completed in 1713 and inspired by Versailles in France, Schonbrunn is a beautiful but much smaller version of the French palace.
Summer home to the Hapsburg emperors, Schonbrunn played a key part in Austrian history.
Six-year-old Mozart performed a concert in the palace’s Hall of Mirrors, and Napoleon once stationed his headquarters in its elaborate rococo-style apartments. Empress Maria Theresa held ceremonial balls, lavish banquets, and extravagant receptions during her reign.
Today, the extensive gardens, which were once only enjoyed by the nobility, are open to the public.
There are elaborate fountains, imitation Roman ruins, tropical greenhouse and formal flowerbeds.
The annual summer Mozart Festival is held at the Schloss theatre (Palace Theatre), where it is said that Marie Antoinette once appeared on stage.
4- Taste strudel and torte in a Viennese cafe
Coffee first came to Vienna in the 17th century when the Turks tried, unsuccessfully, to invade the city.
In their hurry to retreat, the commanders left behind sacks of mysterious green beans, which the Viennese assumed was fodder for the Turkish camels.
These turned out to be coffee beans and today, Vienna’s coffee houses are world famous.
The Viennese are extremely fussy about the type of coffee they drink. Coffee menus are extensive, with melange – half milk (usually steamed) and half coffee, with an optional dollop of whipped cream – at the top of the list.
Many of Vienna’s coffee houses retain a 19th-century ambience complete with traditional décor and regular Strauss recitals.
Treat yourself to a Sacher torte at Café Sacher, the café in which the original Sacher torte was created. And while wandering around the Museums Quartier (see below), stop for melange and strudel at traditional Viennese coffee house Café Sperl.
5- Conduct an orchestra at Haus der Musik
Conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra or compose your own music at Haus der Musik (House of Music).
The six-story complex is a high-tech house that makes music heard, seen and felt throughout experience zones.
At the House of Music’s virtual conductor programme, you can pick up the baton and conduct the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra on a giant screen. (At first, the musicians tried to follow my lead to Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik, led by the first violinist they soon interrupted me and proceeded to boo me off the stage!)
The US$55-million six-story complex has a bewildering array of multimedia software that makes music heard, seen and felt throughout various experience zones.
The halls dedicated to Vienna’s celebrated composers accentuate the incredible phenomenon of talented musicians that originated from this part of the world:
Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Mahler and the Second Viennese School of Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg and Anton von Webern.
There are pages from Haydn’s daily journal, a handwritten letter from Mozart to his father claiming “My desire and hope is to earn honour, fame and money.”
6- Listen to Viennese music
Today, Vienna’s music scene thrives on its rich past. There are free outdoor concerts all over the city where you can sip on Viennese wine and food from the multi-cultural stalls outside the Vienna Town Hall while watching opera and orchestral performers on a giant screen.
For a bit of historic atmosphere, attend a historic costumed orchestral performance by the Vienna Mozart Orchestra at the Musikverein Golden Hall. The musicians look like they are straight out of the pages of a history book.
Nearby, the State Opera House, one of the world’s top five opera venues, hosts a different performance every night.
It’s also the venue for Vienna’s annual Opera Ball where the young debutantes, daughters of rich and titled Austrian families, make their entrance into Viennese society. It’s a tradition that Emperor Franz Josef I began in 1877.
7- Visit the Spanish Riding School
The elegant high stepping, pirouetting performances of Vienna’s Lipizzaner Horse are famous worldwide.
Dashing riders dressed in jackets with sparkling gold buttons and black hats trimmed with gold braid ride their beautiful white horses in step to the flowing tunes of Strauss.
If you don’t have the time to attend a full performance, buy a ticket to watch the horses during their morning training routine.
8- Christmas in Vienna
From mid-November onwards, Vienna is a magical wonderland of Christmas trees, Christmas lights, markets and street festivities.
The most popular Christmas market is the annual one held at City Hall located adjacent to a park filled with gaily decorated trees. It’s a good place to taste a traditional Viennese pancake filled with apricot jam, or a Kaiserschmarrn roll, rich with eggs and fruit.
The market at Spittelberg is packed with stalls selling ceramics, silver, enamel and brass ornaments.
A great place for Viennese sweets is the market in front of the Karlskirche or at the Old Vienna Christmas Market at Freyung.
9- The Third Man
Follow the flight of Harry Lime from the classic film noir The Third Man. The tour starts with a descent into a dark tunnel deep beneath the streets of the old town and stops at shadowy locations in the film.
You pop up for fresh air and a whip around cobblestone lanes and alleyways, with a pit stop for a glass of beer, zither music and a huge frankfurter in a backstreet cafe. For more information see Vienna Walks.
Places to visit in Vienna – Museums
10- Museums Quartier
An afternoon wandering through museums is something everyone should experience while visiting Vienna. The MuseumsQuartier (MQ) has several exhibition spaces and museums.
The Leopold Museum (entry €11) has an entire floor dedicated to Viennese masters from the 1900s including the world’s largest collection of Egon Schiele’s works.
11- The Secession
A few blocks from MQ is the Secession, home to Gustav Klimt’s famous Beethoven Frieze. Led by Klimt, the Secession movement sought to expand art beyond the confines of academic tradition and to create a new style which was the beginning of modert art in Austria.
12- Wien Museum
If there is time, drop in at the Wien Museum where Klimt’s Portrait of Emilie Flöge is displayed and there is an exhibition on Wagner.
The museum has a diverse collection that includes archaeological discoveries from Vindobona Roman legion camp, sculptures from St. Stephen’s Cathedral and the oldest city maps to 19th-century items.
13- Discover the MAK
Fans of contemporary art and design will love exploring Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (MAK), which has impressive displays of textile, porcelain, glass and furniture.
The MAK has several permanent collections and temporary exhibitions throughout the year. There’s an outstanding collection of Thonet bentwood furniture, Wiener Werkstatte pieces (visual arts from the 1900s) and contemporary industrial designs.
The MAK Design Shop is worth browsing if you’re after something contemporary to take home and Österreicher im MAK is the place for lunch. Celebrity Viennese chef Helmut Österreicher serves up traditional and contemporary Viennese cuisine in sleek surroundings.
14- The Albertina
If you only have time for one gallery then lose yourself in Vienna’s premier gallery, The Albertina.
Several years ago, Albertina Museum hauled out of storage dozens of Rubens rarely displayed and fragile drawings that count as some of his most beautiful and important works.
Going to Vienna and missing the Albertina, would be like going to Paris and not seeing the Louvre.
The Albertina is one of the most significant museums in the world and is home to the famous graphic collection of Duke Albert von Sachsen-Teschen.
The gallery contains around 70,000 drawings and over one million graphic prints, displaying works from the masters such as Leonardo, Michelangelo, Klimt and Warhol.
15- Lichtenstein Museum
The Lichtenstein Museum was set up by the royal family of Liechtenstein and based around the private collection of an art-loving Hapsburg prince, Albert von Sachsen (1738-1822).
Among these works are sketches for paintings and delicate etchings of Rubens’ children which show a more intimate side to the artist known mostly for his bold, sweeping canvases.
There are eight enormous paintings inspired by the Roman Emperor Decius.
Peter Paul Rubens did most of his sketches by hand and had an army of assistants that turned them into large format oil paintings.
Where to eat in Vienna
If you see a spray of pine branches hanging outside the door of a drinking establishment, there’s a good chance that you’ve come across a traditional Viennese heuriger, or tavern. There are 700 hectares of vineyards around the city that provide wine to these heurigers, and, like everywhere else in Vienna, music is all part of the experience.
Loos American Bar
Sip Schnapps at Loos American Bar (Kärntner Strasse 10) while admiring the work of architect Adolf Loos. Loos sparked a revolution in bar design when he created this broom-closet bar in 1903.
Zum Schwarzen Kameel
Nearby, drop into Zum Schwarzen Kameel (Bognergasse 5) for a spot for brötchen, delicious Viennese finger food such as jourgebäck (tiny rolls with assorted fillings) and Viennese brown bread with tasty toppings.
Do & Co Restaurant
Dining at Do & Co Restaurant in Stephansplatz (Stephansplatz 12) is a treat, not only for its divine food but also for its position in the historic area. Begin with an Aperol spritzer at the bar before moving to a balcony table in the restaurant for fresh sushi, schnitzels the size of elephant’s ears and big views of the cathedral.
Cafe Drechsler (Linke Wienzeile 22) in Naschmarkt has been a Viennese coffee house since 1919. It is open 23 hours a day from Tuesdays to Saturdays (closed between 2 and 3am), on Mondays until 2am and Sundays until midnight.
Where to stay in Vienna
A contemporary tower
Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom is a bold 18-storey glass skyscraper that towers above the historic skyline. Contemporary art is strongly featured throughout the hotel and rooms are minimalistic white, black or grey.
Funky budget city hotel
On a budget? Located opposite Vienna’s main train station, Motel One Wien-Hauptbahnhof is a funky city hotel that is well priced.
Grandeur in the heart of Vienna
Experience Viennese elegance in the heart of Vienna. Grand Ferdinand Vienna is an easy walk to Vienna’s main sights and a rooftop restaurant with fabulous views.
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For more places to visit in Europe, here are some ideas.