Most people visit VIENNA (Wien) with a vivid image in their minds: a romantic place, full of imperial nostalgia, opera houses and exquisite cakes. Even so, the city can overwhelm with its eclectic feast of architectural styles, from High Baroque through the monumental imperial projects of the late nineteenth century, to the decorative Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) style of the early twentieth, used to great effect on several of the city’s splendid U-Bahn stations.
Vienna became an important centre in the tenth century, then in 1278 the city fell to Rudolf of Habsburg, but didn’t become the imperial residence until 1683. The great aristocratic families flooded in to build palaces in a frenzy of construction that gave Vienna its Baroque character. By the end of the Habsburg era the city had become a breeding ground for the ideological passions of the age, and the ghosts of Freud, Klimt and Schiele are now some of the city’s biggest tourist draws.
WHAT TO SEE AND DO
Central Vienna is surprisingly compact, with the historical centre, or Innere Stadt, just 1km wide. The most important sights are concentrated here and along the Ringstrasse – the series of traffic- and tram-clogged boulevards that form a ring road around the centre. Efficient public transport allows you to cross the city in less than thirty minutes, making even peripheral sights, such as the monumental imperial palace at Schönbrunn, easily accessible. However, for all the grand palaces and museums, a trip to Vienna would not be complete without spending a leisurely afternoon over a creamy coffee and a piece of cake in one of the grand, shabby-glamorous coffeehouses for which the city is famous.
For cheaper accommodation booking ahead is essential in summer. Several hostels are near the Westbahnhof, which is an easy few stops into the centre.
South of the Ringstrasse, the Belvedere (daily 10am–6pm; Oberes €14, combined ticket €20; tram #D from the opera house) is one of Vienna’s finest palace complexes. Two magnificent Baroque mansions face each other across a sloping formal garden. The loftier of the two, the Oberes Belvedere, has the best concentration of paintings by Klimt in the city, including The Kiss, while the Unteres Belvedere and Orangerie show temporary exhibitions.
For a bar crawl or live music the string of clubs under the railway arches around U Thaliastr, Josefstädterstr. and Alser str. are a good bet, while in summer beach bars line the Donaukanal.
The local listings magazine Falter (w www.falter.at) has comprehensive details of the week’s cultural programme. The tourist office also publishes the free monthly Programm.
A block southeast of Graben is the immense, highly ornate Hofburg palace, housing many of Vienna’s key imperial sights. Skip the rather dull Kaiserappartements in favour of the more impressive Schatzkammer (Mon & Wed–Sun 9am–5.30pm; €12), where you’ll see some of the finest medieval craftsmanship and jewellery in Europe, including relics of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburg crown jewels. The Hofburg is also home to two of Vienna’s most enduring tourist images: singing boys and prancing horses. Steps beside the Schatzkammer lead up to the Hofmusik Kapelle (Mon & Tues 10am–2pm, Fri 11am–1pm; free), where the Vienna Boys’ Choir sings Mass (mid-Sept to June Sun 9.15am; t 01 533 99 27): you can obtain free, standing tickets from 8.30am (otherwise €10–36; book in advance).
On the north side of the Hofburg, the imperial stables are home to the white horses of the Spanish Riding School, known for their extraordinary, intricate performances. There are three main ways to see them: book a performance well in advance (mid-Feb to mid-June & mid-Aug to Dec, usually Sat & Sun at 11am, occasionally Fri & eves; standing from €25, seats from €50); attend a morning exercise session (10am–noon: April–June, Sept & Oct Tues–Fri; Nov–March & Aug Tues–Sat; tickets for exercise session and tours from Michaelerplatz visitor centre Tues–Sun 9am–4pm; €15); or join a guided tour
of the school and stables (March to mid-June & Aug to mid-Dec daily, otherwise 5–6 days per week; tours 2pm, 3pm & 4pm; tour €18; combined tour and training session €31). Alternatively, if you just want to take a peek at the horses, look into the stables (Stallburg) from the glass windows on Reitschulgasse.
Finally, at the Hofburg’s southeastern tip, the Albertina (daily 10am–6pm, Wed till 9pm; €12.90) houses one of the world’s largest graphic art collections, with works by Raphael, Rembrandt, Dürer and Michelangelo.
Though one of Vienna’s prettiest little squares, Judenplatz, northwest of Stephansdom, is dominated by a deliberately bleak concrete Holocaust Memorial by British sculptor Rachel Whiteread. The square marks the site of the medieval Jewish ghetto and you can view the foundations of a fourteenth-century synagogue at the excellent Museum Judenplatz at no. 8 (Mon–Thurs & Sun 10am–6pm, Fri 10am-5pm; €10), which brings something of medieval Jewish Vienna to life. The ticket includes entrance to the intriguing Jüdisches Museum of Jewish tradition and culture, at Dorotheergasse 11 to the south of Stephansplatz (Mon–Fri & Sun 10am–6pm).
From Stephansplatz, pedestrianized Kärntnerstrasse runs south past street entertainers and shops to the illustrious Staatsoper, opened in 1869 in the first phase of the Ringstrasse’s development. A more unusual tribute to the city’s musical genius is the state-of-the-art Haus der Musik, Seilerstätte 30, (daily 10am–10pm; €13), a hugely enjoyable museum of sound.
Running west of Stephansplatz is the more upscale Graben, featuring an extremely ornate plague column (Pestsäule), built to commemorate the 1679 plague.
Of all Vienna’s museums, the Kunsthistorisches Museum on Burgring still outshines them all (June–Aug daily 10am–6pm, Thurs till 9pm; Sept–May Tues–Sun 10am–6pm, Thurs till 9pm; €15). It’s one of the world’s greatest collections of Old Masters – comparable with the Hermitage or Louvre. Highlight is an unrivalled collection of sixteenth-century paintings by Brueghel the Elder, while the Peter Paul Rubens collection is also very strong and works by Vermeer and Caravaggio are worth seeking out. A number of Greek and Roman antiquities add breadth and variety. Set aside several hours at least: there is also an excellent café.
On the Ring’s eastern section, beyond Stubenring, is the enjoyable MAK (Tues 10am–10pm, Wed–Sun 10am–6pm; €9.90, free Tues 6–10pm), an applied arts museum whose eclectic collection spans the Romanesque period to the twentieth century and includes an unrivalled Wiener Werkstätte collection.
Southwest of the Ring is Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier, a collection of museums and galleries in the old imperial stables, where the original buildings are enhanced by a couple of striking contemporary additions. Stylish outdoor seating, plenty of good cafés and an interesting calendar of events make the area a focus for Vienna’s cultural life. The best museum here is the Leopold Museum (Mon, Wed & Fri–Sun 10am–6pm, Thurs 10am–9pm; €13), with fine work by Klimt and the largest collection in the world of works by Egon Schiele.
The Ring, the large boulevard that encircles the Innere Stadt, along with its attendant monumental civic buildings, was created to replace the town’s fortifications, demolished in 1857, many of these buildings now house museums. On the western section is the showpiece Rathausplatz, a square framed by four monumental public buildings: the Rathaus (City Hall), the Burgtheater, Parliament and the Universität – all completed in the 1880s.
The biggest attraction in the city suburbs is the imperial summer palace of Schönbrunn(U4 to Schönbrunn), designed by Fischer von Erlach on the model of residences like Versailles. To visit the palace rooms or Prunkräume (daily: April–June, Sept & Oct 8.30am–5pm; July & Aug 8.30am–6pm; Nov–March 8.30am–4.30pm) there’s a choice of two tours: the “Imperial Tour” (€13.30), which takes in 22 state rooms, and the “Grand Tour” (€16.40 with audioguide, €19.40 with tour guide), which includes forty rooms. The shorter tour misses out the best rooms – such as the Millions Room, a rosewood-panelled chamber covered from floor to ceiling with wildly irregular Rococo cartouches, each holding a Persian miniature watercolour. The palace gets unbearably overcrowded at the height of summer, with lengthy queues, so buy tickets in advance online. The splendid Schlosspark (daily 6.30am–dusk; free) is dotted with attractions, including the Gloriette – a hilltop colonnaded monument, now a café and terrace with splendid views (terrace daily: mid-March to June, Sept & Oct 9am–6pm; July & Aug 9am–7pm; late Oct to early Nov 9am–4pm; €3.60), fountains, a maze and labyrinth (same hours as Gloriette; €5.20) and Vienna’s excellent Tiergarten or zoo (daily: Jan, Nov & Dec 9am–4.30pm; Feb 9am–5pm; March & Oct 9am–5.30pm; April–Sept 9am–6.30pm; €18.50).
The eccentric, eye-catching building crowned with a “golden cabbage” by Karlsplatz is the Secession building (Tues–Sun 10am–6pm; €9.50), built in 1898 as the headquarters of the Secessionist movement, whose aim was to break with the Viennese establishment and champion new ideas of art and aesthetics. Designed by Joseph Maria Olbrech, the gallery was decorated by several luminaries of the group, including their first president Gustav Klimt. It still puts on contemporary exhibits today, with Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze downstairs the only permanent artwork.
Mariahilferstr. is best for high-street clothes shops and the big chains, though Neubaugasse, nearby, is more eclectic.
The obvious place to begin exploration is Stephansplatz, the pedestrianized central square dominated by the hoary Gothic Stephansdom (Mon–Sat 6am–10pm, Sun 7am–10pm, except during services; free, but entry fees to most sections, combined ticket €17.90). It’s worth paying to explore the interior more fully, with the highlights of the main section (English tours Mon-Sat 10.30am; €5.50) the Wiener Neustädter Altar, a late Gothic masterpiece, and the tomb of the Holy Roman Emperor Friedrich III. The catacombs (tours every 15–30min, Mon–Sat 10–11.30am & 1.30–4.30pm, Sun 1.30–4.30pm; €5.50) contain the entrails of illustrious Habsburgs housed in bronze caskets. Stellar views reward those climbing the 137m-high (343 steps) south spire; (daily 9am–5.30pm; €4.50). Lower, but with a lift, is the north tower (same hours; €5.50). The warren of alleyways north and east of Stephansdom preserves something of the medieval character of the city, although the architecture reflects centuries of continuous rebuilding.
To sample Austrian wines on a scenic excursion, visit one of the wine-producing villages on Vienna’s outskirts. To the north of the Danube, Stammersdorf (tram #31 from Schottenring; 36min) is surrounded by vineyards and filled with traditional, family-run Heurigen (wine taverns).
Wienhof Wieninger 21 Stammersdorferstr A great place to start, with a pleasant garden, good-value meals (from around €8) and an excellent selection of whites available by the glass (from €1.55). Mid-March to April Fri 3pm–midnight, Sat & Sun noon–midnight, May to mid-Dec Thurs & Fri 3pm–midnight, Sat & Sun noon–midnight.