Located in the heart of Europe, Vienna seamlessly brings together imperial charm and contemporary elements like no other city I’ve seen before. It’s one of the main reasons why I fell in love when I first visited. That, and the fact that there are plenty of places to visit in Vienna!
The Austrian capital has always been an interface between different cultures, and marks the spot where ancient transport tours like the Amber Road and the Danube intersect. Vienna’s history as a city goes back to Ancient Roman times, and has served as the imperial capital and residence of the Habsburg dynasty for over 600 years. A city well documented throughout history only means one thing: that there’s plenty to see and do with palaces and churches taking you back to the past, or theaters and markets keeping you in the present.
The city is divided into 23 districts, with the historic old town center (a UNESCO world heritage site) also known as the Innere Stadt starting off as District 1. Up until 1850, when the city’s boundaries were expanded, the Innere Stadt was all there was to Vienna! If you look at a map of Vienna, you see that most of the sights are in District 1 or the Districts surrounding it, making it easy to walk around.
If walking isn’t your thing, then you’ll be happy to know that Vienna has a great public transportation system that is easy to figure out – I have to admit we only used it once (to head to Schonbrunn) because we walked and Uber’d everywhere else! Uber in Europe was surprisingly affordable compared to DC or NYC for that matter, and when it’s cold out the last thing you want to be doing is waiting around for your bus/train.
WHERE TO STAY
I love living like a local, or staying with locals which is why I generally stick to airbnb’s as my accommodation of choice. I wanted to find an apartment that was out of the touristy areas but still within walking distance. The 3rd district, Landstrasse, is a quiet, safe and primarily residential neighborhood, and proved perfect for us.
The airbnb of choice was charming and in a historic building from the 1800’s- old on the outside but modern and comfortable on the inside. Our host, Justina, is a lover of art, which is well reflected in the apartment’s interior. If you can score a couple of days at her apartment, I highly recommend it!
WHAT TO DO
Apart from the city’s ability to seamlessly bring together imperial charm and contemporary elements, there’s plenty of places to visit in Vienna: museums, galleries, cafes, palaces, and gardens – it’s the other reason why I love this city so much.
Vienna State Opera House
The Vienna State Opera House is one of the world’s leading opera houses, and is just breathtaking. As soon as you step inside, you’re taken back in time – I can only dream of attending dressed up in a ball gown, hair done, the works!
To truly get a sense of the Opera, skip the day tour and book tickets to see a show! But, be warned, going to the opera in Vienna is extremely popular with both locals & tourists alike, so tickets sell out months in advance. If you don’t plan that far ahead, like us, it is possible to get tickets. And no, I don’t mean waiting in line the day of for standing room tickets.
Attending a show whether it be the opera, play or ballet, I cannot imagine anyone actually enjoying the experience while having to stand for two+ hours.
We scored tickets to a sold-out Sunday night performance of La Bohème just by signing up for their Standby list. What that enables you to do is to request the number of seats you require in the price level that you’re comfortable paying. You enter your credit card details and pick up method (I chose will call), and send off the request. If they do have tickets held in the group (which it seems like they often do), then they charge your card, email you confirmation, and voila, you’re all set for your first Staatsoper performance!
Even if museums aren’t your thing, a visit to the Belvedere Palace should be on your list of places to see in Vienna. The grounds and garden themselves warrant a trip, and sunsets overlooking the Palace are a sight to behold!
The Belvedere Palaces and formal gardens make up one of Europe’s most attractive Baroque ensembles. The Upper Belvedere is home to the world’s leading collection of Austrian art, AND, most importantly (in my opinion), houses the world’s largest collection of works by Gustav Klimt – including his famous composition, The Kiss.
Seeing Klimt’s work unclose and personal in such a stunning building really made my time in Vienna. It’s best to visit the museum and hour/hour and a half before closing – that’s when the crowds thin, and it almost feels like you have the entire place all to yourself.
While Belvedere Palace showcases the old, the Hundertwasser Haus is a testament to everything modern. Located in the 3rd district (and very close to our Airbnb), the Hundertwasser Haus is an apartment complex in Vienna built by architect’s Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Joseph Krawina.
You can only view the apartment building from the outside, but the Hundertwasser Village across the way has a number of stores, souvenir shops, and even a nice little cafe where you can order a cup of strong Viennese coffee – the melange.
It’s considered to be one of Austria’s architectural highlights, but many Viennese didn’t think so when it was first completed. It’s a stark contrast to the buildings surrounding it, and most of Vienna for that matter. You know what they say, not everyone views change and something different as a good thing. Me? I like it, it’s unique and adds a bit, ok a lot, of color to this section of the city!
Sacher Hotel Café
Vienna is renowned for its confectionary traditions, which is just what a sweet-tooth like me likes to hear! The Sacher Torte is one of Vienna’s signature cakes, with the recipe first dreamt up in 1832 by Franz Sacher while he was 16 and working as a kitchen hand.
Boy, what a piece of cake it turned out to be. There’s something about desserts in Europe – they’re not as cloyingly sweet as their American counterparts. Each year, 360,000 pieces of handmade Original Sacher Torte are produced, with over a third being eaten at the Sacher Hotel Café. Lines sometimes go out the door, but I found if you head over after the Opera ends (it’s literally across the street), you’re guaranteed a table, and pretty much the entire café all to yourself!
Schonbrunn Palace is the former summer residence of the imperial family. Just like the Belvedere, it is renowned for its stunning Baroque architecture. The land on which the Palace stands has belonged to the Habsburgs since the 1500’s, and is perhaps most notably known as the palace where Emperor Franz Joseph was born, and spent the last years of his life.
I’ll be honest with you, it’s definitely not as impressive as Versailles, BUT it is much smaller and less exhausting to tour and take in. After a guided tour, take a walk up towards the Cafe Gloriette. The view from the hill is absolutely stunning – you get to see Schonbrunn in all its glory, and Vienna in the distance. Oh, to live like a Queen!
St. Stephan’s Cathedral
It is one of Austria’s most impressive Gothic structures, and well worth your time when in Vienna. I love visiting Churches throughout Europe and admiring the emphasis placed on artwork – St. Stephan’s interior is no exception.
Its exterior, in particular its colorful roof, is to be noted as well. 230,000 glazed tiles decorate the roof in ornate patterns and bold colors. You’ll even fine a mosaic of the double-headed eagle, a symbol of the Habsburgs, the empire that ruled from Vienna for over 600 years.
Take a trip up the tower, and in addition to viewing the beautiful rooftop, you’ll also get a glimpse of the city below. It’s especially breathtaking at sunset – the red Viennese rooftops were even more pronounced in the evening sky.
While originally not on our list of things to see in Vienna, we stumbled into Stadtpark as we were walking from our apartment to Stephansplatz!
Did you know that half of Vienna’s total area is accounted for by gardens, parks, woods, and agricultural land?! The city is considered one of the greenest cities in the world, and Stadtpark serves as a welcoming oasis in the heart of the city. It extends all the way from Ringstrase in the first district to Landstrasse in the third district (where our apartment was located…see I told you it was a GREAT location!)
OTHER RECOMMENDED THINGS TO DO IN VIENNA
Over the past century, Vienna has experienced massive changes, going from an opulent Habsburg-ruled empire, to a center for contemporary art. It boasts 50 theaters, including four opera houses, 150 museums, numerous galleries, and renowned festivals. If you’re still looking for more to do during your next visit to Vienna, the Vienna Tourism website has to be the most comprehensive tourist site I’ve come across so far! They honestly have everything covered – no matter when you choose to visit the Austrian capital, know that there’ll always be something for you to see!