The heart of one of the mightiest empires ever known, Vienna presents an imposing and monumental facade.
But to leave it at that would be to get an extremely one-dimensional view of a dynamic, fluid and multi-faceted metropolis. It is one of the world’s great creative cities, excelling in music, design, the arts and inventive cuisine, and every street, alley and boulevard hides countless treasures and surprises.
It is home to a quarter of the country’s population, a number which has included such celebrated names as Mozart, Freud, Klimt, Strauss and countless other creatives, innovators and great thinkers. But look beyond the larger-than-life palaces and refined facades of the old town to discover thriving urban life and versatile underground cultures, ranging from trendy to bohemian, offering endless possibilities for discovery in one of the world’s most fascinating cities.
1. Imperial grandeur
Few places impress as much for their grandiosity as Vienna. Imposing palaces encircle the Innere Stadt (old city) along the Ringstrasse, including the majestic Hofburg Palace (the home of the Habsburg rulers which now houses a number of museums and other venues), pictured above. Get a quick impression of them all by riding the convenient red and white tram along the Ringstrasse before heading into the old city and getting lost among its cobbled streets.
Then climb to the top of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, at the very heart of it all, and take in the impressive views of the city in every direction:
To gape in wonder at the most impressive palaces in Vienna, however, be sure to visit Schloss Belvedere (pictured below) and the very epitome of opulence, Schönbrunn Palace. The latter, modelled after the palace of Versailles, was used as the summer residence of the Habsburg rulers, and is perhaps the most impressive example of imperial architecture. The lovely gardens are open to the public, and on the premises you will also find the world’s oldest zoo.
2. Parks and beaches
Vienna is also a surprisingly green city, with an abundance of public parks and gardens throughout, including around many of the palaces, whose gardens are generally open to the public and where it is not uncommon to find locals strolling, jogging or enjoying a picnic.
Moreover, the city boasts kilometres of lovely beaches along the Danube, which locals are only too happy to take advantage of during the sweltering Hundstage (dog days) of summer.
Vienna’s prolific artistic output is alive in the city’s almost overwhelming number of world-class museums. The MuseumsQuartier (formerly the imperial stables) is home to many of them, including the Kunsthalle, the contemporary and avant-garde MUMOK and the Leopold Museum, which contains masterpieces from the 19th and 20th centuries. Nearby you can also find the fascinating Naturhistorisches (Natural History) and Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) museums.
Other noteworthy galleries and exhibitions can be found around the city, including regular exhibits at the Kunst Haus Wien. Museum Hundertwasser, one of the city’s most unique buildings, which showcases exciting contemporary art.
4. Alternative scene
Even a quick glance beneath the surface immediately reveals entirely different sides to the city. Vienna is dynamic and multi-faceted, as much classical as it is alternative – equal parts elegance and grit. A good place to begin exploring lesser-known parts of the city, beyond the Old Town, is the 4th district, Wieden, a vibrant and stimulating neighbourhood where Baroque buildings stand side-by-side with tranquil bars, restaurants and speciality boutiques. It is home to artsy galleries and interesting museums (including the Dritte Mann Museum, dedicated to the beloved 1949 film The Third Man, which was shot in Vienna), as well as numerous repurposed venues with personality to spare, all of which help give the area its unique character. Furthermore, the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s most popular market, lies just outside the district limits.
For a more contemporary and humorous take on things, you can join one of Vienna’s varied alternative tours, which showcase the city’s often ignored sides, such as squats and community projects, or even Vienna’s ugliest buildings – an attempt to embrace the whole of the city, and not just the picture-perfect old town. And if after a day admiring some of history’s greatest works of art at the city’s grand galleries you’re ready for something a bit different, check out the thriving public and street art scenes, particularly along the Danube Canal, at the Street Art Passage (behind MuseumsQuartier) or around Mariahilf.
5. Coffeehouse culture
Perhaps no other city, not even Paris, can boast as proud and rich a coffee culture as Vienna. The city’s countless coffee house ‘living rooms’ are the stuff of legend for their sophistication, their comfort and their irresistible offerings, which include apple strudels, Gugelhupf and the one and only Sachertorte (they can be found just about everywhere, but since you’ve come all this way, you may as well go for the original at Café Sacher).
Few coffeehouses can rival the prestige and reputation of Café Central, which goes some way to explaining why it is so heavily overrun by tourists these days. Consider trying other options, such as Café Sperl (pictured), Café Hawelka or Café Mozart if the crowds are too much to handle. For another truly Vienna experience, visit one of the numerous concert cafes, where you can simultaneously enjoy two of the things the city does best: coffee and music.
Though much of Viennese cuisine relies heavily on meat, from Wiener schnitzels, Tafelspitz and Fiaker goulash to the ubiquitous Würstelstände (sausage stands), the city’s gastronomic scene is surprisingly eclectic. Vienna’s creative chefs are on the cutting-edge of flavour combinations and cooking innovation, showing off the true range of the city’s modern culinary art, always using fresh and local produce when possible.
For a taste of just how varied Viennese eating can be, check out the Naschmarkt, a centuries-old market with all manner of specialist vendors peddling tea, cheeses, antipasti, mountain salami and just about anything else you can think of.
Vienna is rightly called the City of Music, and it is hard not to hear Mozart in your head as you walk around the old city. The city was home to some of history’s greatest classical composers, including Strauss, Beethoven, Haydn and Schubert, and there really is no better soundtrack to your visit than these great masters.
It would be foolish not to catch a performance at one of the city’s abundant world-class concert halls, such as the Musikverein, the Wiener Konzerthaus or the chapel of the Imperial Palace to see the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Our top pick, however, is the Vienna State Opera, the city’s most spectacular venue, where visitors can get standing tickets for performances for as little as 3-4 Euros (queue outside the building on Operngasse. Tickets go on sale 80 minutes before performances start).
But the city’s musical offerings go well beyond Mozart and Strauss. Vienna’s alternative music scene is kicking, with a cornucopia of live venues and underground performances, as well as raves, drag shows and burlesque extravaganzas.
Vienna has more to offer than grand cafes and palace facades, though it has these things in spades and does them better than any other city. Look beneath the surface and you’ll see that there is always more than meets the eye when it comes to Vienna, and that is yet another reason why it is one of our favourite cities.
Written in collaboration with Vienna Tourist Board.