Good coffee, music and art can be found in the historic capital of Europe’s largest empire. In 1853, Austria was once the largest empire in Europe, stretching 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. Here are 10 things to do in Vienna Austria.
Things to do in Vienna
1- Explore history at 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.
2- Soak up the atmosphere 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 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 theater (Palace Theatre), where it is said that Marie Antoinette once appeared on stage.
3- 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.
4- 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.”
5- Listen to Viennese music
Today, Vienna’s music scene still thrives on the popularity of the 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 historic treat, 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.
6- The Albertina
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.
7- 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.
8- Go on a tavern crawl
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.
Like everywhere else in Vienna, music and singing is all part of the package.
9- 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.
10- 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.
11- Investigate Vienna’s dark side
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.
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