Vienna’s been on my wish list since I was a teenager. Yet somehow in spite of umpteen trips to Europe, it had evaded me until now…
Did it live it up to everything I had visualised and anticipated? Oh definitely – and more in fact…
Arriving in Vienna after a missed flight connection, an unnecessary extra leg added to the journey ; and a 14 hour delay…the 1st thing that hit me was how calm and quiet the city was…
No buses or cars honking, no one speaking loudly on the streets, no music wafting out of shops or bars…the people aren’t frenetic – or rushing about….
In fact there’s very few people out on the streets, once you’re outside of the inner touristic core.
But it isn’t the boring kind of ‘calm and quiet’…it just felt really really tranquil – and orderly…
Are the people ‘grumpy’ like they’ve been described? Hmmm…Well they won’t go out of their way to strike up a conversation; but they aren’t ‘snooty’ either… And they’re extremely polite and helpful. I think its probably just a ‘cultural thing’ that people pretty much tend to go about their business and keep to themselves…
Vienna’s quite a large city (the 12th largest in the EU, in fact); and reading up before heading there intimidated me a little, honestly… wondering how to manage to see ‘everything’ in just 3 days – whilst still making it a relaxed, ‘quality time’ break for M and me…2 ½ – 3 days turned out to be just right, actually…and I’ve penned down everything we did, right at the end of this post.
So here goes…How Vienna completely ‘wowed’ me..
1)It’s one of the most photogenic cities I have ever visited…Pretty and how! Honestly… every square, avenue; even the small lanes…
With sculptures dotting most buildings, you want to stop every few minutes to pause and appreciate; and take lots and lots of photographs. (And its exactly how the pics show it – no filters needed ? .
There’s so more to it than just being a beautiful city though…its almost like there’s character flowing through every 2nd building…
2)No other European city has been an imperial residence for so many centuries; and has so much historical heritage…
The House of Habsburg reigned over most of Central Europe; and held royal control for 7 centuries.
Even today Hofburg Palace remains one of the largest palace complexes in the world; spanning architectural additions and styles right through the 13th to the 20th century.
The other royal residence, Schonbrunn Palace – or the summer palace, is considered as Europe’s most impressive Baroque palace; and can also probably be considered as Austria’s most historically important building.
1441 extravagant rooms (you only get to see 45 of them though ?.
If you’re travelling with younger children, keep aside time for the Zoo on the palace grounds. The Schonbrunn Tiergarten (as its known), is considered to be the world’s oldest continuously operating zoo (since 1752). Its also one of the very few zoos in the world to have giant pandas.
3)Vienna was the cataclysmic milestone for both of the 19th century’s most epic and world-altering events…
World War I was triggered in June 1914, by the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand – the heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire.
Ironically, Vienna also marked the very first trigger for World War II.
In March 1938, Hitler and his armies marched into Vienna and announced the annexure of Austria into the German empire. (Yes Austria was taken over by the Reich even before Poland).
Hitler gave his epic speech announcing this, from the main balcony at Hofburg Palace.
4)Vienna is like a wonder-land for dessert and coffee lovers…If you have a sweet tooth, then there’s no better city for you…And if you’re not, then Vienna will probably convert you.
There’s a cafe / patisserie / boulangerie almost at every 50 metres. And most of them are fabbbulllous – it really doesn’t matter if its a high-end, fancy and iconic place; or a homely neighbourhood eatery.
Vienna is of course also home to the legendary Sacher Torte and the Viennese Apple Strudel (the former I personally did not like and the latter I can make a whole meal out of). But apart from these, there’s also a heavenly spread of other cakes that you see lined up in most eateries.
I’d definitely recommend a stop in these ? –
Sacher Hotel (for the Sacher Torte) –but naturally, as this is where it supposedly originates from. This is also where its the driest (and you definitely need the custard cream with it). The lines go to the end of the block (Yup – I personally saw this), so avoid going between 10-11 in the morning and at tea-time.
Cafe Central (not far from Hofburg Palace). Big lines here too at lunch-time.
Cafe Europa (near St Stephen’s) – perfect for a mid shopping break ?
Gerstner (its not far from the Opera or from Naschmarkt)
There is also of course, a huge coffee house culture in Vienna; that kind of goes hand in hand with the ‘cake culture’. Coffee is more than just a beverage for the Austrians…Its part of their heritage. In fact in 2011, Viennese Coffee Houses were put on UNESCO ‘s ‘ Intangible Cultural Heritage’ list, as they are a place “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”
Fun Fact...Austria was introduced to coffee by the Ottomans, who left behind sackfuls when they retreated in the 16th century…But the Austrians didn’t at first know what the coffee beans were or what to do with them ?!
Oh while writing about the coffee house culture in Vienna, I have to add in this bit… Don’t be taken aback if you come across rude and ‘uppity’ waiters. That’s just how they are – no one really knows why…But that ‘smarmy’ attitude is so prevalent that it’s almost become an anecdote amongst locals and tourist guides…
5)Where else in the world can you watch a top-notch opera performance for 3 Euros…The fairly ‘new’ Vienna State Opera (1869 compared to most of the city’s 15th and 16th century buildings ?), is one of the world’s busiest opera houses, even today.
A heads up – the ‘cheap’ tickets are ‘standing room’ only and need a fair bit of patience…Its basically lining up at the box-office and going with whichever next show is available. The view of the stage though is genuinely good; and during intermission you can wander around the grand complex – separate ticket not needed. (Thanks TripZilla for this tip ?)
6)No other city in Europe can boast of practically an entire district (or 60,000 sq mtrs) dedicated to Art & Culture…Even if you aren’t a museum buff at heart, the Viennese museums will still floor you. If not the treasures within, the buildings definitely will – they are all art pieces in themselves. You only need to stroll down Marie-Theresein Platz to soak it all in – even if just from the outside.
The Museum Quartier is almost all of one entire neighbourhood dedicated to museums (housing both classical and contemporary art), art galleries; and exhibitions and installations in public spaces.
7)Naschmarkt…I totally loved this part of Vienna and am glad I’d planned an evening around it.
As a market its said to date back to the 16th century…Today however its 6 blocks of over a 100 bars and eateries; apart from the shops and stalls for both fresh produce as well as gourmet treats.
Multi-cultural and how…You’ll span all 5 continents while walking through the ‘market’.
The stalls and shops generally close down between 6 to 7 in the evenings (a little later in the summer), but the bars and eateries stay open much later – some as late as midnight.
There’s a flea market on every Saturday; and the market is closed on Sundays…as are most of the eateries here.
The road parallel to the market also has some really good restaurants. The ‘Market Restaurant’ is one I’d gladly recommend if you like ‘contemporary’ Asian cuisine; and are in the mood for a nice ‘dress up’ evening.
LL Tip – Walk all the way to the end of the market and keep going south…
The 20 minute stroll will take you past the State Opera building, Hofburg Palace and on to St Charles’s. Vienna’s buildings look simply stunning at night.
LL Tip – Stop at Gerstner’s en route, for dessert.
8)Vienna has one of Europe’s top 10 Christmas markets…If you can plan to be in Vienna around the festive season, just head directly to the ‘Chriskindlmarkt’ at Rathausplatz. Its huge…and in a gorrrggeous setting. There’s even an ice-skating rink; and a zone with a carousel and other rides for kids.
You’ll come across several Christmas markets whilst just walking around the city, but my suggestion would be to just head to this one ☝️.
I’d read a lot about the one at the Schonbrunn Palace; and although the palace does look magical all lit up in the evenings, the market itself was quite small and disappointing. So…head all the way out there for the palace for sure, but not for just the Christmas market as such…
So…what are the main sights (IMO) and how to cover them in 2 days (3 days if museums are high up in your ‘must do’ list)…
Day 01…Start the day with a free walking tour. There’s no better way to get oriented with the heart of the city.
We booked with Good Tours (the guide did a pretty good job, the pace was comfortable and they stop for a loo break mid-way through the tour).
Most guided tours cover the important sights in and around ‘Innere Stadt’ – the Opera House, Hofburg Palace, St Michael’s Square, St Stephen’s Cathedral, the Jewish Quarter, St Rupert’s Church and the Bermuda Triangle.
Yup – the ‘Bermuda Triangle’…Its a small cluster of bars and eateries in Innere Stadt.
The zone’s been monikered so as those that enjoy their drinks tend to ‘disappear’ into the by lanes sometimes, only to reappear the next morning ! Well – so we heard; and maybe it does happen in the summer…but when we were there just before Christmas, we saw none of that ‘party’ vibe.
Anyways…after the tour, the 1 meal in Vienna that’s highly recommended for a red meat lover – the Schnitzel at FiglMuller, the original one – in Innnere Stadt. You HAVE to reserve in advance, else don’t bother going. Its a very old place (since 1905), completely hyped up, present on all tourist recommendations – and still genuinely very good!! Theirs is the Pork Schitzel (not the traditional veal one).
And in case you dont’ manage a reservation…their ‘sister’ restaurant – Lugeck, is the next best ☝️
In case you’re vegetarian (like me ?), Caffe Restaurant Vienne is superb (right across from the Greek Orthodox Church). The Spinach Strudel is divine (p.s… M loved their Schitzel too). Oh – and they serve half portions of the mains, which was just perfect for us).
In the 2nd half of the day – you can walk over to Museumquartier and pick a museum of your choice (or simply stroll around, soaking in the district’s ‘artsy’ feel).
If its December, simply set aside the latter half of the day for the Rathausplatz Christmas market; (its in front of the City Hall and about a 20 minute walk from ‘ Innere Stadt’ )
Day 2…If Modern Impressionist art is your thing (and for Klimt’s iconic ‘The Kiss’ ) head over to the Belvedere Palace. ..if not give yourself a leisurely morning strolling around Marie Theresein Platz or the shops around Stephensplatz.
I suggest saving Schonbrunn Palace for post lunch, so that you can also see the palace in all of its lit up glory, after it gets dark. Its definitely better to book the tour online, in advance – and you may want to see if the Vienna Pass is worth it, for you.
If you’re in Vienna with younger kids, make sure to keep aside an hour or 2, for the zoo at Schonbrunn Palace (its one of the very few zoos in the world to have giant pandas, amongst so many other glorious species of birds and animals).
The Christmas Market at Schonbrunn is tiny compared to the one at Rathausplatz…but if you’re at the palace anyways, you can stroll through after the tour.
I’d definitely recommend one of the evenings in Vienna being kept aside for Naschmarkt –the city’s oldest market and 6 entire blocks of over 100 bars, eateries and cafes; (apart from the fresh produce stalls and shops with some seriously good gourmet treats). There’s a flea market on every Saturday – and on Sundays the market is closed.
We didn’t cover Prater Park (the amusement park) or the Spanish Riding School – in the Hofburg Palace complex, as the kids were’nt with us on this trip (and it was just tooooo cold for Prater). But if you’re travelling with the lil ones, add on a 3rd day in Vienna (and make the reservations online in advance for the riding school).
M and I used our 3rd day for some ‘couple quality time’, simply strolling around in that gorgeous backdrop that Vienna offers, a looong lunch – comprising only of desserts ?, and ‘some’ shopping (which Vienna offers loads of great options for).
Hop On Hop Off in Vienna, or not…Well if walking around is not an issue, I’d say omit the bus tour expenditure (unless of course you’ve purchased the Vienna Pass – and have the bus tour as part of it anyways).
All of Innere Stadt and Hofburg and its surroundings you’ll cover by foot anyways; and Museumquartier isn’t far from there. The only 2 ‘main’ sights that are a fair distance away as such, are the Belvedere palace and Schonbrunn (and Prater park if that’s on your agenda)…They are really quite easy to get to and only about 15-20 minutes away from the city centre (by bus / metro); and I must add here that Vienna’s public transport system is just superb!
Where to stay…If not in Innere Stadt itself, then anything that’s about a 15 minute walk away is ideal. Getting around is really easy using their public transport system and the walking around in itself is a visual treat.
I’d definitely suggest trying and not staying outside of this radius though( for example the area around the Belvedere or Schonbrunn)…There’s pretty much nothing going on in those neighbourhoods, apart from the palaces.
Vienna’s an expensive city though, so try to get a heads-up on the accommodation as early as you can.
We lucked out with an Airbnb near Marie Theresein Platz; and though it was’nt luxurious – it was well equipped, comfortable and convenient.Http://abnb.me/tJ6Hf6Kxl3