We never play classical music, are not big fans of amusement parks and roller coasters (Roel gets nauseous riding them), don’t like to spend too much time in museums, don’t drink coffee and don’t care much for bling (new or old).
So why than – Eugénie and Roel – did you go to Vienna? Is Vienna not the European capital of classical music? Is the city not full of palaces and museums (over a hundred!) loaded with historic bling? Isn’t it downright blasphemous to not drink coffee in one of the famous coffee houses of Vienna? Isn’t Vienna home to the oldest amusement park in the world? And most importantly: Did you enjoy yourselves?
Wandering the streets
Yes. All of the above is correct. And yes, we did enjoy ourselves. We stayed four days in Vienna and this was hardly enough, even if we didn’t venture into museums much. If you do like strolling around museums and 18th and 19th century palaces, however, then reserve at least a week for exploring the city.
For us the key to savoring Vienna was to be critical in which palace museums and churches to enter and spent most of our time just wandering through the city center (Innere Stadt) and some of the surrounding neighborhoods. Vienna is one of the most affluent cities in Europe and regularly ranks number one as best European city to live in. There’s so much to see by just being outside on the street.
The city is full of imposing architecture (that often isn’t even mentioned in guidebooks), has some nice parks to relax is when the weather is fine (which wasn’t always during our stay), boasts broad avenues and is home to lots of fine dining and shopping. It’s an incredibly clean city as well. And if, despite all this, you feel the urge to get out of the city, than the mountains are never far away. We, however, restricted our exploring to the city proper.
The entire inner city of Vienna has been declared a Unesco World Heritage site, so just by wandering about you stumble upon several layers of history. It goes too far to explain about all the noteworthy structures in the Innere Stadt, but we do want to stress that there’s much more to see than the well-known sights like the Stephansdom and the Hofburg. We were surprised for example by the pink interior of the Jesuit church.
Follow the Ringstrasse
The Innere Stadt is surrounded by a broad avenue, called the Ringstrasse. Following the Ringstrasse on foot, by bicycle or using the tram you pass some of the most beautiful and historically significant buildings in Vienna. Starting at the neo-gothic Rathaus (City Hall) and the Burgtheater heading east you pass the Parliament building, the imperial Hofburg museums (see below), the Natural History Museum and Art History Museum, the Staatsoper (State Opera) and the Stadtpark (City Park) with statues of some of Vienna’s most famous musical prodigies.
The Hofburg was the residence of the Austrian emperor until the fall of the Habsburg empire in 1918. With an astounding 2.600 rooms it’s the second largest palace in the world. It’s history can be traced back to the 13th century, with new wings added in the centuries that followed, now housing several museums. The three most popular museums (Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum and the Silver Collection) show the life and tradition at the imperial court. Another well-visited museum is the Albertina that showcases one of the largest graphics collections in the world as well as works of impressionist art.
We didn’t go to any of these museums, however, but chose the much smaller baroque Prunksaal (State Hall) which is part of the National Library. Built in the early 18th century, it’s one of the most beautiful historic libraries in the world. About 200.000 books in nut-wood bookcases line the walls of the Prunksaal and frescoes cover the ceiling. We thought it was absolutely magnificent.
Climb the Stephansdom
Located in the heart of the Innere Stadt the 900 year old Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral) is the symbol of Vienna. The imposing gothic cathedral, lovingly nicknamed Steffi (little Stephan), has a striking tiled roof and is lavishly decorated on the inside. It’s possible to ascend two of the cathedral’s towers, the north and the south tower.
The view from the south tower is supposed to be best, but we also read it was more difficult to take nice pictures from there because it’s not possible to go outside. We were too lazy and didn’t feel like climbing 343 steps to check it out, so we opted for the north tower, which is lower (68 meters versus 139 meters) but has an elevator. Here we could get outside and we thought the view was pretty good (check out the pictures for yourself).
Outside the Innere Stadt
Just outside, but in walking distance, of the Innere Stadt lies the Karlskirche. The church is a nice sight in its own right, but the real reason for visiting is the opportunity to admire the frescoes in the church’s huge dome up close and personal. Normally you have to strain your neck to get a look at church frescoes like these and the beautiful tableaux only unfold high above you.
Thanks to an elevator installed in the middle of the Karlskirche – an ugly contraption by the way – you get to the same height as the frescoes, which is incredible. Using stairs leading from the viewing deck all the way up to the highest reaches of the dome it’s also possible to get a bird’s eye view of the city, but looking through the small windows this view was a bit disappointing.
View from Belvedere
From the Karlskirche, passing the Russian War Monument along the way, it’s a short walk to the Unteres Belvedere, the lower part of the Belverdere Palace. Walking up through the landscaped gardens you get to the bigger Oberes Belvedere, that offers a grand view of the city. Here you will also find Austrian art with the largest collection in the world of Gustav Klimt paintings, including The Kiss. We took a gamble and bought tickets, but once again got the confirmation that looking at paintings cannot hold our attention very long. When will we ever learn.
Though most of the architecture Vienna is known for is classicist, Romanesque and Baroque, it has some striking modern architecture as well. One of the most remarkable examples is the Hundertwasserhaus, a home designed and built by the Austrian painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser in 1986 to counter the clinical look of modern architecture. It’s a short tram ride east of the city center, but regretfully it’s not possible to enter the house.
Across the street is the Hundertwasser Village, a shop and gallery connected to the Hundertwasserhaus, but a bit of a tourist trip. Close by is the KunstHausWien, also designed by Hundertwasser, offering a permanent exhibition of his works as well as changing exhibitions of contemporary art. A third building in Vienna designed by him is the District Heating Plant in Spittelau. Another noteworthy building akin to Hundertwasser’s designs is the Arik-Brauer-Haus built in the early 1990’s on the Gumpendorfer Strasse.
Prater amusement park
A bit old-fashioned, some would say outdated, the Prater amusement park is one of the oldest parks in the world. This year it was celebrated that the park was opened to the public 250 years ago and nowadays four million visitors come each year to ride one of the traditional – and in our opinion overpriced – fairground attractions, like merry-go-rounds, a ghost house or bumper cars, ride the Lilliput narrow gauge railway or one of the roller coasters.
It was fun to walk around for a while and stuff our faces with fairground food like cotton candy and langos, a deep fried flat bread, but our main reason for venturing out to this part of Vienna was to ride the famous Giant Ferris Wheel built in 1897. This 65 meter high landmark is a bit of a must when visiting Vienna, but with a long wait (about half an hour) and a 10 minute ride we weren’t really impressed. There are some nice views, but the city center is pretty far away.
Saturday market day
The most famous market in Vienna is the Naschmarkt, which has been operating since the 16th century. Next to being a food market where people come to do their groceries it also turns into a big flea market on Saturday. We were told there would be more tourists than locals than, so it would be better to go to a local market somewhere else in the city. We went to the Brunnenmarkt for the biggest street market in Vienna, with many stallholders from Turkey and the Balkans selling food and clothing. For non-Europeans it can be interesting, for us it was like a market day back home.
When deciding which of the palace museums we absolutely wanted to see, Schloss Schönbrunn was without a doubt our number one choice. It’s such a great place that it warrants its own separate blog, which can be found here.
Vienna Street art
Adding to the older arts displayed in one of the many museums and historic buildings across the city, Vienna also has somewhat of a street art scene. We created a separate post about Viennese street art that you can find here.
We visited Vienna in May 2016
Travel tips Vienna
Sleep – We spent 4 nights at the Hotel Continental located at the Mariahilferstrasse, one of the main shopping streets in Vienna, located in the Mariahilf neighborhood. A metro stop was close by, but it was also possible to walk to the city center in 20-25 minutes. Our room had all the amenities that might be expected of a room in the 80-100 euro price range. Our decent sized room (nr 24) had a king size bed, a functional bathroom and probably the best view of the hotel. Breakfast buffet with ample choice was included. Staff were nice and helpful in giving information.
Eat/drink – The Kaffeehaus (coffee house) is somewhat of an institution in Vienna. One of the most famous is Demel, but we got out quickly again when we saw how many people were waiting to get seated. Café Landtmann and the less touristy Café Prückel are also well-known and recommended Vienna institutions. We had a Kaiserschmarrn, shredded caramelized pancake, at the Café Hofburg. It turned out to be a very filling and tasteful lunch. And of course you have to try one of the Würstel (sausages) at one of the many fast food stands.
Transport – Much of the sights in Vienna can be covered on foot, especially in the Innere Stadt. Still it can take quite some walking to get back to your hotel, let alone getting to some of the more outlying sights. As we covered a lot of ground we found it useful and economical to buy a 72-hour public transport card which can be used for tram, bus, metro and trains inside the city. To get from Vienna International Airport to the city center by train (a half hour ride) or bus, you have to buy separate tickets.
Tour – The 48- or 72-hour Vienna Card (with or without public transport) gives free access or discounts to many of the major sights in Vienna. It’s worth it if you visit many of the museums and plan to make use of several activities, but we didn’t buy it as for us it wouldn’t be very economical.