Grandiose Vienna was the showpiece of the all-conquering Habsburg Dynasty. Monumental edifices line the city center, world-class museums burst with treasures, white stallions strut their way down mirrored halls, and renowned orchestras and angelic choirboys perform in lavish concert halls.
Vienna has plenty of lower-brow pleasures too - walks in the woods, splish-splashing hijinks on the river, indulgent evenings in its renowned wine taverns, bar-hopping till dawn.
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What To Do
The famous Danube is central to Viennese outdoor life: you can swim in it, boat on it, cycle beside it or skim along its surface. Walking in the woods is another classic Viennese pastime. You can liven up your amble with a guided tour or a stop-off at the Prater's famous Ferris wheel.
What To See
The streets of Vienna are paved with culture.
Most of Vienna's main sights are crammed into the Innere Stadt. The district is adorned with the outstanding Gothic heights of Stephansdom, the massive Hofburg (Imperial Palace), the cultured history of the Judenplatz (Jewish quarter) and a scattering of historic streets and squares.
Vienna’s Gothic masterpiece Stephansdom (St Stephen’s Cathedral), or Steffl (Little Stephan) as it’s locally called, symbolizes Vienna like no other building. A church has stood on this site since the 12th century, and today reminders of this are the Romanesque Riesentor (Giant Gate) and Heidentürme. From 1359 Stephansdom began receiving its magnificent Gothic make-over, laying the foundations for today's cathedral.
The Kaiserappartements (Imperial Apartments) were once the official living quarters of Franz Josef I and Empress Elisabeth (or Sisi as she was affectionately named). One section, known as the Sisi Museum, is devoted to Austria’s most beloved empress. It has a strong focus on the clothing and jewelry of Austria’s monarch. Audio guides - available in 11 languages - are also included in the admission price. Admission on guided tours includes the Kaiserappartements plus either the Silberkammer or the Sisi Museum.
Prunksaal Austria’s flagship library, the Nationalbibliothek contains an astounding collection of literature, maps, globes of the world and other cultural relics; its highlight, though, is the Prunksaal (Grand Hall), a majestic baroque hall built between 1723 and 1726, with a fresco by Daniel Gran. Commissioned by Karl VI (whose statue is under the central dome), the library holds some 200,000 leather-bound scholarly tomes.
Schloss Schönbrunn Gardens
The beautifully tended formal gardens of the palace, arranged in the French style, are a symphony of color in summer and a combination of greys and browns in winter; all seasons are appealing in their own right. The grounds, which were opened to the public by Joseph II in 1779, hide a number of attractions in the tree-lined avenues (arranged according to a grid and star-shaped system between 1750 and 1755). From 1772 to 1780 Ferdinand Hetzendorf added some of the final touches to the park under the instructions of Joseph II: fake Roman ruins in 1778; the Neptunbrunnen (Neptune Fountain), a riotous ensemble from Greek mythology, in 1781; and the crowning glory, the Gloriette in 1775. The view from the Gloriette, looking back towards the palace with Vienna shimmering in the distance, ranks among the best in the city. It’s possible to venture onto its roof, but the view is only marginally superior.
The original Schöner Brunnen fountain, from which the palace gained its name, now pours through the stone pitcher of a nymph near the Roman ruins. The garden's 630m-long maze is a classic hedge design based on the original maze that occupied its place from 1720 to 1892; adjoining this is the labyrinth, a playground with games, climbing equipment and a giant mirror kaleidoscope.
To the east of the palace is the Kronprinzengarten, a replica of the baroque garden that occupied the space around 1750.
The MuseumsQuartier is a remarkable ensemble of museums, cafés, restaurants and bars inside former imperial stables designed by Fischer von Erlach. This breeding ground of Viennese cultural life is the perfect place to hang out and watch or meet people on warm evenings. With over 60,000 sq metres of exhibition space, the complex is one of the world’s most ambitious cultural spaces. Of the combined tickets on offer, the MQ Kombi Ticket includes entry into every museum (Zoom only has a reduction) and a 30% discount on performances in the TanzQuartier Wien; MQ Art Ticket gives admission into the Leopold Museum, MUMOK, Kunsthalle and reduced entry into Zoom, plus 30% discount on the TanzQuartier Wien; and MQ Duo Ticket covers everything the Art ticket does, minus the Kunsthalle.
Nothing symbolizes the culture and heritage of Austria more than its Hofburg (Imperial Palace). The Habsburgs were based here for over six centuries, from the first emperor (Rudolf I in 1273) to the last (Karl I in 1918). The Hofburg owes its size and architectural diversity to plain old one-upmanship; new sections were added by the new rulers, including the early baroque Leopold Wing, the 18th-century Imperial Chancery Wing, the 16th-century Amalia Wing and the Gothic Burgkapelle (Royal Chapel). The oldest section is the 13th-century Schweizerhof (Swiss Courtyard), named after the Swiss guards who used to protect its precincts. The Renaissance Swiss gate dates from 1553. The courtyard adjoins a larger courtyard, In der Burg, with a monument to Emperor Franz II adorning its center. The palace now houses the offices of the Austrian president and a raft of museums.
The dark basalt edifice and sharp corners of the Museum moderner Kunst (Museum of Modern Art) are a complete contrast to the MuseumsQuartier’s historical sleeve. Inside, MUMOK is crawling with Vienna’s finest collection of 20th-century art, centered on fluxus, nouveau realism, pop art and photo-realism.
Mozarthaus Vienna, the residence where the great composer spent two and a half happy and productive years, is now the city’s premiere Mozart attraction. Although the exhibits in themselves are not startling (they tend to be mainly copies of music scores or based around paintings), the free audio guide is indispensable and recreates well the story of Mozart and his time.
Stocking Austrian-made items by mainly small producers, at Austrian Delights you’ll find regional specialties - fine confectionery, local wine, schnapps and cognac, jams, jellies, chutneys, honey, vinegars and oils - that you can’t find anywhere else in the capital. Check out its sparkling and still Schilcher wines made from Blauer Wildbacher grapes, a fruity and off-pink-colored tipple rarely found outside Austria.
This is easily the biggest and most touristy Christmas market in Vienna, held on the square in front of the Rathaus (town hall). Most of the Christmas gifts on sale are kitschy beyond belief, but the atmosphere is lively and the gluhwein just keeps on flowing.
The Staatsoper is the premiere opera and classical music venue in Vienna. Productions are lavish affairs: the Viennese take their opera very seriously and dress up accordingly. In the interval, be sure to wander around the foyer and refreshment rooms to fully appreciate the gold and crystal interior.
Tanzquartier Wien, located in the MuseumsQuartier, is Vienna’s first dance institution. It hosts an array of local and international performances with a strong experimental nature.
Naturally enough, in Vienna the cycle of music festivals is unceasing. In January, New Year concerts consist of lavish balls. February brings Fasching (Carnival), which celebrates the return of spring with masked processions and dances. Corpus Christi (the second Thursday after Whitsun) is heralded with more carnivals, some held on lakes in the Salzkammergut. The Wiener Festwochen (Vienna Festival Weeks, from May to mid-June) has a wide-ranging program of arts and is considered the highlight of the year. At the end of October the Viennale, the country's biggest film festival, satisfies many a film buff with independent films from around the world.
National Day on 26 October involves lots of patriotic flag-waving. St Nicholas Day, on 6 December, marks the beginning of the Christmas season with parades. Public holidays also include Christmas Day and St Stephen's Day (26 December).
Food and Drink
Loos American Bar
The spot for a classic cocktail in the Innere Stadt, expertly whipped up by talented mixologists. Designed by Adolf Loos in 1908, this tiny box (seating no more than about 20) is bedecked from head to toe in onyx and polished brass; mirrored walls trick the mind into thinking it’s a far bigger space.
Wrenkh was long the cutting edge of vegetarian cuisine, but in more recent times owner Christian Wrenkh has begun offering a handful of meat and fish dishes. Choose from the vibrant front section with its glass walls and chatty customers, or the quieter back room with its intimate booths.
One of the liveliest coffee houses in town, Drechsler reopened with a smash after extensive renovations (Sir Terence Conran worked his magic with polished marble bar and table tops, Bauhaus light fixtures and whitewashed timber panels - stylish yet still distinctly Viennese). As well as the usual coffee-house suspects, its Gulasch (goulash) is legendary.
The darling of Margareten's dining scene is this theatrical lounge-style restaurant, which is all clever backlighting, high banquettes and DJ beats. Asian, Austrian and Mediterranean flavors are all in the mix, with well-executed dishes from red Thai curry to the signature fillet steak with chocolate-chili sauce. Motto is very popular, particularly with the gay crowd; reservations are recommended.
Österreicher im MAK
Located in the MAK, Österreicher im MAK is the brainchild of Helmut Österreicher, one of the country’s leading chefs and a force behind the movement towards back-to-the-roots Austrian flavors. Using strictly seasonal, high-quality ingredients, the menu see-saws between classic and contemporary, with dishes like Tafelspitz (prime boiled beef) and sea bass on rocket noodles and beetroot.
Art-slung walls and candlelight set the scene in Vincent, which has evolved from a humble student place into its higher calling as one of Vienna's top gourmet addresses. Courses vary with the seasons but the focus is on classic produce such as lamb, beef and pheasant prepared expertly, but locally produced snails also feature.
Wein & Wasser
The best place in Vienna to sample Austrian wine outside a Heuriger. Its name means ‘Wine & Water’ and the philosophy is to teach customers what it knows about wine. The staff warmly guide you through the lengthy list and more than 20 Austrian wines are served by the glass. If you prefer to stick to what you know, check out the ‘The Foreigners’ section for the usual suspects. Kick it all back in the subterranean space, with arched bricks flanked by lights oozing pale yellow and flickering candles. Nibbles and tapas round out the menu.
Bitzinger Würstelstand am Albertinaplatz
Vienna has many sausage stands but this one located behind the Staatsoper offers the contrasting spectacle of ladies and gents dressed to the nines, sipping beer, wine or champagne while enjoying sausage at outdoor tables or the heated counter after performances. You'll find Joseph Perrier champagne, and for the less well-heeled, there’s house wine.