Vienna today is robed in 18th-century charm and 19th-century grandeur. Its old-world ambience comes not only from its rich cultural traditions, but also from the history of its architecture. The Viennese invented the cafe society, and they continue to perfect the art of sophisticated relaxation.
Spend some time visiting a Vienna coffeehouse, or go to a concert of waltzes by Johann Strauss. Vienna is also where you'll find the fabled Spanish Riding School with its magnificent white Lipizzaner stallions.
Vienna is a safe, clean city, and it has an excellent public transportation system. Use it to visit the many museums, galleries, parks and restaurants that make Vienna such a pleasant place.
Vienna lies in the northeastern corner of Austria, at the crossroads of eastern and western Europe. Nestled in the foothills of the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), Vienna's city center is generally flat, although the terrain slopes higher as you get closer to the woods. The Danube (Donau) River of waltz fame flows through the city to the east, and the Danube Canal (Donaukanal), a tributary often mistaken for the Danube proper, runs closer to the city center.
The heart of the city is the ancient streets and hidden courtyards around the Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral). Karntner Strasse, a lively street lined with shops and reserved for pedestrian traffic, leads away from the cathedral and out toward the Ring, or Ringstrasse, a broad and grand curving boulevard. The 1-sq-mi/2.6-sq-km area within the Ring is the Innere Stadt (inner city). Within the Innere Stadt and along the Ring are most of Vienna's imposing and historic structures.
Vienna is divided into 23 districts (Bezirke). The Innere Stadt is the First district (known also as the Alt Stadt, or "Old City"), which all other districts encircle in a clockwise sequence. Districts 2-9, immediately outside the Ring, are the inner suburbs, and districts 10-23, beyond the Gurtel ring-road and the Danube Canal, are the outer suburbs. Address listings, in a phone book for instance, will begin with the district number, followed by the street name and number. When you see 19 Probusgasse 6, it means house number 6 on Probusgasse in the 19th district. In this report, the district number is listed in parentheses after the street address.
Vienna officially became a city in 1137, but its true historical significance dates from 1278, when the Bohemian King Ottakar was defeated by Rudolf von Habsburg, who made Vienna his capital. The resulting Habsburg dynasty endured until just after World War I.
Those intervening years were far from stable, however. Plague decimated Vienna's population in the mid-1300s, and various military sieges against the city were to come: the Turks in the 16th and 17th centuries, and Napoleon twice in the early 19th century. During the reign of Emperor Franz Josef I, Europe's longest-serving monarch (1848-1916), Vienna saw many changes. Walls surrounding the city center were removed and replaced by the Ringstrasse, fortifications along the outskirts were torn down to allow for the growth of suburbs, and the government changed to a dual monarchy with Hungary.
Austria became a republic on 12 November 1918, at the conclusion of World War I, and its former empire was dismantled. World War II was also turbulent for the city, marked by occupation, anti-Semitism and heavy fighting. But since then, Vienna has rebuilt itself and grown into a major cosmopolitan capital, as well as an increasingly popular tourist destination. In 1995, Austria united with other European countries and became part of the European Union, further securing Vienna's future as a flourishing European capital.
Most of the sights you'll want to take in are located in the city center, encircled by the Ring. For a panoramic view, climb the 448-ft/137-m south tower of the Stephansdom. A few blocks away is the Albertina museum, which houses works by Albrecht Durer and Claude Monet, among others. At another corner of the Old City is the Hofburg Palace, a massive complex that contains the Burgkapelle (the chapel where the Vienna Boys Choir sings), the Stallburg (where the famous Lipizzaner horses are stabled), the Imperial Treasuries (containing the Hapsburg crown jewels), the elaborate Austrian National Library and the Sisi Museum, devoted to the tragic life of the penultimate emperor's famous wife.
The pulse of the city is the Ring itself. Fuel up with a cup of coffee or tea and head to one of the world-class museums along the Ring. The Kunsthistorisches Museum has works of art by Brueghel, Rembrandt, Caravaggio and Titian, as well as Roman and Egyptian antiquities. Just across the plaza is the Naturhistorisches Museum, which has the Venus of Willendorf, one of the oldest works of art in existence. It also boasts some stunning geological specimens. Right next door is the enormously popular MuseumsQuartier, a cultural complex that houses galleries and museums as well as stylish cafes, restaurants and bookshops.
A 10-minute walk from the Ring is another enjoyable museum, namely the quirky KunstHausWien, designed by the artist Hundertwasser. The museum is a fantasy of colorful tiles, deliberately uneven floors and peculiar architecture (trees grow out of the third-floor window). Slightly southeast of the Ring is the beautiful Upper Belvedere Palace, which houses a stunning collection of art from the art-nouveau era, showcasing works by Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka. Another palace visitors shouldn't miss is the elaborate 17th-century Schonbrunn, which was the Hapsburg summer home. However, be prepared for a crowd of sightseers and rows of tourist buses, as this is Vienna's most popular attraction.
Prater Park, across the Danube Canal from the Old City, is a fun amusement park that dates from the 18th century. The park's main attractions are the Riesenrad (a giant Ferris wheel, made famous in the film The Third Man), restaurants and cafes, and its sports grounds (located in the park's southern section), which feature tennis courts, cycling tracks, and jogging and walking paths.
While in Vienna, you can also visit the homes and burial sites of many famous Viennese residents, including Freud and Mozart. There are also numerous museums honoring the likes of Beethoven, Haydn, Schubert, Johann Strauss and Schoenberg.
The Vienna Card provides reduced rates for selected museums, galleries and guided tours; unlimited travel around the city for a 48- or 72-hour period; and discounts at some stores and cafes. Furthermore, for each purchase of a Vienna card, one child younger than 16 can travel with an adult for free. A 48-hour card costs 18.90 euros, and a 72-hour card costs 21.90 euros. Both can be purchased at the Vienna airport, train stations, the Vienna Tourist Board at Albertinaplatz 1 (open daily 9 am-7 pm), and at most Vienna hotels and tourist agencies. It can also be ordered online. For additional information, see http://www.wien.info/en/travel-info/vienna-card.
The Bermuda Triangle in the 1st district is the main area for nightlife in Vienna. It is located near Hoher Markt, in the general area between Marc-Aurel Strasse and Rotenturm Strasse. Music and drinking establishments proliferate there. Other popular areas for nighttime revelry are around Naschmarkt, the Freihaus district and the Spittelberg area. Clubs close anytime between midnight and 5 am. For party events, visit http://www.oe4.com.
Vienna's heurigen (wine taverns) are wonderful places to spend an evening. In addition to enjoying wine and a buffet, you can often hear traditional schrammelmusik (sentimental ballads).
On various evenings April-September, you can catch Summer Stage events—a series of free concerts, theatrical performances and art exhibits scenically staged on the Danube promenade along the Donaukanal. http://www.summerstage.at.
Because Vienna was the imperial capital of the Hapsburg Empire—whose reach spread across central, eastern and southern Europe—you can expect "Austrian cuisine" to encompass a broad spectrum of dishes. In addition to Wiener schnitzel, roasted meats, dumplings, and superb pastries and cakes, you'll find Hungarian goulash, Turkish kebabs, Italian ice cream and much more. Additionally, Vienna offers many other international dining options, including Asian, French and Italian.
Vienna is also famous for its coffeehouses. Besides wonderful coffee and pastries, coffeehouses often serve snacks and light meals. Many students and artists in the city practically take up residence in their favorites. Wine taverns, called heurigen, are also nice places to dine, but the first-year wines and the atmosphere are the main draw there.
If you just want a quick snack, head to the nearest wurstlstand for a sausage or to a fleischwaren or wurstwaren store for butcher-shop sandwiches. In winter, small booths appear on the streets, selling maroni (hot chestnuts), bratkartoffeln (roast potatoes) and gluhwein (mulled spicy wine).
Beer drinkers should try the local Ottakringer. The same brewer also makes a nonalcoholic variation called Null Komma Josef. You might also want to try the soda Alm Dudler, which is made from herbs and tastes similar to ginger ale.
Although major credit cards are frequently accepted in larger establishments, it's a good idea to check first if you plan to pay with your card. This is a city where advance reservations are also a good idea, especially at better restaurants. Viennese tend to eat out for lunch noon-2 pm. In heurigen, dinner is usually eaten 6-8 pm, but in restaurants it's later, usually 7-9 pm.
Diners are advised to keep an eye on drink prices in restaurants. Though food is subject to a 10% tax, a hefty 20% tax is added to drinks. A reasonably priced, well-cooked meal can suddenly become a memorably expensive one.
Expect to pay within the following guidelines, based on the cost of a single dinner, not including tip or drinks: $ = less than 15 euros; $$ = 15 euros-25 euros; $$$ = 26 euros-50 euros; and $$$$ = more than 50 euros.
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