Oh, Vienna! Built high and mighty on the riches of the 600-year Hapsburg Empire, the Austrian capital bombards you with its near-overwhelming ensemble of palaces, Klimt-filled galleries, stately baroque streets and hallowed concert halls where orchestra batons swing. Top this with one-of-a-kind coffeehouse culture, expansive parks sprawling along the banks of the Danube, and a first-class public transport system, and you can see why the city consistently wings its way into the number one spot in quality of living surveys. In 2022, its star is still rising.
For all its grandeur, Vienna works its real magic on a more human scale. Go beyond the trophy sights of the Innere Stadt to see its edgier side in neighbourhood markets, retro cafés and new-wave design studios. Vienna is a city on the move when it comes to social tourism, too, with a growing crop of enterprises making travel here more meaningful than ever.
Explore our interactive map below for all the local highlights, and scroll down for our suggested day-by-day summary of the best things to see and do…
Kick off bright and early with a nose around the baroque streets of the Innere Stadt, Vienna’s historic heart, as the city wakes up. Grab a freshly roasted espresso or cold drip at hole-in-the-wall Fenster Café. Now you’re fixed to puff up the 343 steps mounting the south tower of gargantuan Gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral. Up here there are close-ups of the cathedral’s zigzagging mosaic-tiled roof and dress-circle views of Vienna’s skyline to the wooded hills that ripple beyond.
Stroll briefly past the swanky boutiques lining the Graben to reach the Hofburg, an imperial palace to outpomp them all. Pre-book online to dodge the crowds. After a romp of the state apartments where the Hapsburgs once swanned around, nip across to Bitzinger Würstelstand Albertina for a classic wurst in a bun, which you can munch in the adjacent Burggarten, where an art-nouveau butterfly house stands.
This afternoon you have choices. The first is the Albertina for graphic art in a grand Hapsburg palace. Don’t miss the peerless collection of Dürer works. Or make for the neoclassical Kunsthistorisches Museum nearby, with a fine arts collection whisking you from Rome to the Renaissance. The picture gallery is an Old Master feast, with crowd-pullers by Rubens, Raphael, Caravaggio and co.
By now you’re surely ready to have your cake (or strudel) and eat it – in the opulent coffeehouse setting of Demel, say.
Take a saunter in the back alleys and courtyards of the Innere Stadt as the city begins to light up. This hones an appetite for an old-school Viennese supper at tiny, vaulted Gasthaus Pöschl, brimming with good cheer and huge schnitzels. Providing you’ve bought tickets ahead, glam up for a performance at the Staatsoper, one of the world’s most revered opera houses, which counts Mahler and Strauss among its famous past directors.
You’ve already dosed up on Viennese classics, so now it’s time to see a slightly edgier side to the city. Begin with breakfast at gloriously retro Vollpension, where a team of Omas (grandmas) bake some of the city’s scrummiest cakes. Just south of here is the Freihausviertel, an artsy neighbourhood crammed with indie galleries, boutiques and speciality shops. It’s just a short walk from the Naschmarkt (Linke Wienzeile), where food stalls overflow with fresh produce, spices and picnic fixings.
Across the way is the Secession, topped by a flamboyant, laurel leaf-entwined copper dome that has earned it the nickname the ‘golden cabbage’. Here the biggest stunner is Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze down in the basement.
A vision of stylishly faded grandeur, Café Sperl is one of Vienna’s most enticing coffeehouses. Nab a booth for lunch, or coffee and a slice of milk-chocolate Sperl Torte. Nearby, the MuseumsQuartier delivers high-calibre culture in the former baroque imperial stables. Hit the Leopold Museum for the world’s largest collection of Schiele works, or the MUMOK for 20th and 21st art designed to scandalise and shock.
Time permitting (or as an alternative itinerary to the above), hop in the U-Bahn for a quick ride to one of Vienna’s sumptuous baroque palaces. If you’re into Klimt and want to see that Kiss, make it Schloss Belvedere. Or if you’re curious to see how the Hapsburgs once lived, go rococo in the lavish state apartments at Schloss Schönbrunn. Child prodigy Mozart gave his first public performance in the gilded Mirror Room at the tender age of six. Both palaces are flanked by manicured gardens dotted with mythological beasties.
Squeeze in another memorable 360-degree city view by sipping a pre-dinner cocktail (try the signature ‘Loft Royal’ with champagne, truffle and strawberry) at Das Loft on the 18th floor of the Sofitel. A quick ride on the U2 line from here brings you to Veranda, where you can wind out the day with experimental, season-driven Austrian cuisine in contemporary surrounds.
Did you know?
Social tourism is on the up in Vienna. For a more meaningful insight into the city beyond Strauss and strudel, check out the likes of Shades, with offbeat city tours guided by the homeless, Magdas, a retro-style budget boutique hotel near the Prater staffed by refugees, and deliciously old-school Vollpension, where a team of Omas (grandmas) whip up fabulous cakes in order to boost their meagre pensions.
Viennese coffee houses serve this popular drink in many different ways, so to avoid being pooh-poohed by just asking for a coffee, ask for a particular cup: Melange (milky coffee), Mocca (black), espresso or study the menu before ordering; the more traditional institutions will list the various kinds.
Just a few minutes’ stroll from the Naschmarkt food market, the Freihausviertel is a bubble of bohemian warmth, with narrow lanes lined with designer shops, galleries and artists’ workshops to explore, and creative restaurants, cafés and indie bars to hang out in. Try Alt Wien for organic, fair-trade coffee, Flo for designer vintage, Swing Kitchen for delicious vegan burgers, and Gabarage for upcycled design.
You can skip straight to the front of the queue at the busy, big-hitter sights, such as Schloss Belvedere, Schloss Schönbrunn and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, by ordering tickets online in advance. They are at their quietest first thing in the morning and an hour or two before closing time. Try to avoid weekends if you can possibly help it.
Great for a breather and broad city views, the landscaped gardens at baroque palaces Schloss Belvedere and Schloss Schönbrunn are free to visit. If you’re planning on doing lots of exploring, invest in the 1-, 3- or 6-day Vienna Pass, covering entry to all the big sights.
If you’re into wine in a big way, new-wave Hotel Rathaus Wein & Design fits the bill perfectly. The contemporary boutique hotel is an ode to Austrian wine, with framed prints of regional vintners, a bar zooming in on a different winery each month, rooms featuring grape-infused toiletries, and minibars stocked with wines from your host.
More places to stay . . .
In Vienna’s heart on Am Hof square, Park Hyatt occupies the former HQ of the Bank of Austria. The opulent marble and chandelier-lit interiors manage the delicate act of fusing historic character with contemporary design. With a gold-kissed spa, season-driven cuisine and flawless service, it’s five-star all the way.
In the beating heart of Vienna’s first district lies Hotel Topazz. This architecturally innovative boutique hotel hides a subtly glamorous interior replete with Wiener Werkstätte-inspired designs. It’s a swish, urban escape for sightseeing as well as sunset cocktail sipping on the roof terrace that peeks cheekily across to Stephansdom.
The circus-themed 25hours Hotel Vienna at MuseumsQuartier is a splash of cheerful colour on Vienna’s hospitality scene. This bustling design hotel is housed in a 1970s tower block with an expensive, glassy facelift. It’s determinedly down-to-earth in style yet offers dizzyingly sublime views from its sky-high balcony bar.
What to bring home . . .
For perfection in sugar confection, swing over to former imperial favourite Demel for beautifully packaged pralines, truffles, bonbons and candied violets (the house speciality) to take home.
For Austrian design, check out Österreichische Werkstätten on Vienna’s most famous shopping mile, Kärntner Strasse. Pick up gifts including Viennese-inspired art nouveau and art deco jewellery, crafts, glass and porcelain.
When to go . . .
Spring is a terrific season to dodge the crowds at major sights and see the city’s parks and gardens in full bloom. Summer brings a flurry of music festivals, parties and days spent chilling out along the Danube River and canal, with swimming, skating, surfing and pop-up bars and beaches. Autumn is more peaceful – a fine time for strolls in the vineyards on the city fringes and new wine. The three-day Donauinselfest, Europe’s biggest free open-air music festival, rocks the little island on the Danube in September. Vienna can be glorious in winter, too, especially if you time your visit to catch the festive sparkle of Christmas markets during advent or the ball season in full swing (it reaches its peak in January and February).
Know before you go . . .
British Embassy Vienna: (00 43 1 716130; gov.uk), Jaurèsgasse12, 1030 Vienna
Emergency services: Dial 112
Tourist office: See wien.info, the website of the Vienna Tourist Board, for what’s on in the city and tips on where to go. Pick up maps, leaflets and other information from the Tourist Info Vienna (00 43 1 24555) at the corner of Albertinaplatz and Maysedergasse, 1010 Vienna. Open daily: 9am-7pm
Telephone code: Dial 00 43, followed by 1 for Vienna numbers from abroad
Time difference: +1 hour
Flight time: London to Vienna is approximately two hours
Local laws & etiquette
• Formal greetings are the norm when meeting someone, and you’ll hear ‘Grüss Gott’ (greeting the almighty), or the more worldly ‘Guten Morgen/Tag/Abend’, just about everywhere you go, and it’s customary to return the salutation. Locals love their titles, so if you are meeting someone who has a university degree, not only are you expected to know this fact, but you’re expected to use the title whilst shaking hands e.g ‘Grüß Gott Herr Doktor’ in cafés and restaurants the waiter will expect to hear a ‘Herr Ober’ (Mr. waiter) from guests seeking attention.
• Tips are not included, nor is it usual to leave them on the table. After the waiter has given you the bill add roughly 10 per cent and ask for it to be added to the total.
• A simple thank you is ‘Danke‘; ‘Bitte’ means both ‘please’ and ‘you’re welcome’.
Kerry Walker is one of Telegraph Travel’s Vienna experts, and has been writing guidebooks to the Austrian capital for more than a decade. She’s a huge fan of the city’s art scene, coffeehouse culture and edgy enterprises.
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