“Vienna.” Just the name is evocative, giving rise to thoughts of cozy coffee houses and grand, elegant palaces. In its heyday, Vienna was one of the cultural capitals of Europe, home to vibrant artistic and intellectual communities. Two world wars took their toll, however, and the city lost many of its best and brightest. Today’s Wien (“Vienna” in German) is a pleasing mix of old grandeur and modern efficiency, with a diverse population from all over the world.
In no particular order, here are my top ten picks for what to see and do in Vienna:
1. The Leopold Museum. The Leopold is part of the giant Museums Quartier complex. If you only have a few days in Vienna, it’s the one you want to see. The museum houses 19th and 20th century art, including important works by Art Nouveau (Jugendstil in German) painters such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
2. Once you’re done at the Leopold, cross the street and walk through the Maria Theresa Platz to the Ringstrasse. This wide road runs around the old city center and is lined with landmark buildings, including the Parlament, the Rathaus (where the city council meets), the Hofburg and the Staatsoper.
3. If you’re in Vienna during the holidays, take an evening stroll down the Ringstrasse to the Christkindlmarkt in the Rathausplatz. The market is filled with stalls selling all kinds of Christmas goodies, and the trees are decorated with festive lights. The Rathaus has a children’s workshop on its ground floor dedicated to crafts and baking.
4. Just across the Ringstrasse from the Maria Theresa Platz lies the Hofburg, one of the former imperial residences. Today’s Hofburg complex houses several historic buildings, including the Spanish Riding School (open to tourists), home of the famous Lippizzaner Stallions. For the price of €9.50, visitors can tour the Imperial Apartments and State Rooms, the Hapsburg family silver collection, and the Sisi Museum, dedicated to Empress Elisabeth. For €22.50, you get all three, plus the beautiful Imperial Summer Palace of Schönbrunn and the Imperial Furniture Collection.
5. Keep walking through the Hofburg courtyard and you’ll find yourself in the Innere Stadt, or old city center. This elegant, refined area is dazzling during the holiday season, with beautiful Christmas lights illuminating the main streets. Some of Vienna’s most important sites are here, including the Stephansdom and the Staatsoper.
6. The Stephansdom is Vienna’s most important cathedral. Currently undergoing restoration, its unique tiled roof gives it a special place among religious landmarks. And unlike many cathedrals in Europe, it is still an active place of worship. The faithful regularly crowd two altars on either side of the entrance, and Saturday night mass is well-attended. Whether you are religious or not, go just to appreciate the high, vaulted ceilings, the dimly-lit interior and the hundreds of flickering candles.
7. Not far from the Stephansdom is the Staatsoper, home of Vienna’s state opera. If you’re on a budget (or even if you’re not), tickets in the standing-room only section at the back are a great way to see a production. Arrive at the box office an hour and a half or two hours before the show, and you can get a ticket for just €4. This ticket will allow you to reserve a place in the back where you can lean against a metal bar with translation screens attached. Bring a scarf to tie around the bar, then go for food or wander around the opera house.
8. Schönbrunn is an absolute must for any visitor to Vienna. The Hapsburg’s summer palace is gorgeously decorated, and the grounds offer a plethora of attractions that can be seen using a number of different ticket options. Even if you don’t purchase a combined ticket, make sure to take the Grand Tour instead of the Imperial tour—you see 18 additional rooms for just a few more euros.
9. The Belvedere is another important museum in Vienna. Fans of Gustav Klimt should clear their schedules for a visit in order to see his most famous work, “The Kiss,” as well as several of his other well-known paintings (including two that were unfinished at the time of his death). The museum houses a diverse collection ranging from the medieval period to the 21st century, and is divided into two parts—the Oberes (Upper) Belvedere, and the Unteres (Lower) Belvedere. The Oberes Belvedere contains paintings and sculpture from all of the above periods (including Klimt’s work), while the Unteres Belvedere is home to Prince Eugene’s state rooms, a contemporary art collection and an orangery. Klimt devotees can also visit the Secession, headquarters of the Jugendstil movement and the home of his famous “Beethoven Frieze.”
10. Vienna’s public transportation system is excellent. The city has so much to see and the U-Bahn (subway) and trams make it easy. If you’re staying for a few days, check into getting a Wien karte (Vienna Card) that gives you three days of free travel on public transport and four days of reduced rates at museums, theaters and cafes.
Hungry for good food? Try Café Westend, just across from the Westbahnhof on Mariahilfer Strasse. For a funkier (and smokier) vibe, check out Café Alt Wien at Bäckerstraße 9 in the Innere Stadt. And be sure to grab a steaming mug of apfelpunsch at any Christkindlmarkt. For food on the go, head to the kebap stand just down from the Westbahnhof on Mariahilfer Strasse.
If you’re on a budget, you’ll probably stay outside of the city center. Hostel Ruthensteiner is an excellent choice. It’s just a 5 minute walk from the Westbahnhof station, where you can catch trains, buses, trams and the U-Bahn.