The city of Mozart, the Habsburgs, Klimt and many more world-renowned figures lies on the banks of the Danube and oozes a unique grandeur and a rich cultural heritage. Vienna (map), the capital of Austria, is a fascinating city that offers the visitor a multitude of things to see and do. Explore the imposing historical centre with its impressive museums, palaces, churches, shops and its many parks; take a cruise along the Danube; go wine-tasting in the city’s vineyards; attend a world-famous opera or concert; experience the varied colour locale at the Naschmarkt; or sit back and relax at one of the many outdoor cafés with a Wiener Melange and a Sacher Torte. For the first-time visitor, here are my favourite things to do in Vienna:
Things to do in Vienna for the first-time visitor
Vienna’s historic city centre
The historic city centre is compact and perfect for a slow stroll to admire the majestic palaces and churches, world-renowned museums and shops.
Stephansplatz, with the characteristic St. Stephens Cathedral is most visitors’ first stop. From here, pedestrian boulevards resonate in various directions such as the Graben (the city’s high street with many designer shops). Just off the Graben is the St. Peter’s church. The church, with its rich Baroque interior, is well worth a visit for its beautiful interior or to attend a concert. Or you can choose to attend a Mozart concert at the stunning Golden Hall.
The Hofburg (Imperial Palace), Museum Quarter and Opera are within a 10 – 20 minute walk away from Stephansplatz. One way of experiencing the grandeur of Vienna is to take a stroll along the Ring. Alternatively, take the Ring tram (lines 1 or 2) which takes you past famous landmarks such as the Hofburg, the Opera, the Burgtheater, City Hall, the Parliament, the Museums of Fine Arts and Natural History, and the City Park.
Coffee, food and wines
Vienna is perhaps most famous for its Sacher Torte (Viennese chocolate cake) which you can still taste at the Hotel Sacher.
Vienna is also famous for its centuries-old coffee scene. Vienna’s love affair with coffee and cafés dates back to the 17th century when the Ottomans were driven back from the gates of Vienna. This failed attempt by the Ottomans to occupy Vienna was a turning point in European history. As the Ottomans retreated, they left behind their bags of coffee beans, marking the start of the Viennese coffee culture. It’s absolutely a must to visit one of the beautiful cafés such as Café Landtmann or Café Central.
For a different, more local experience, visit the Naschmarkt which is located just outside the Ring, near the Museum Quarter. This market is popular with the locals and in addition to the vegetables, fruits, meat, fish and fresh herbs and spices, you can taste some of the locally-produced wines and sausages, a whole range of organic food as well as some fantastic kebab! You can also get a bottle of Kürbiskernöl (or pumpkin seed oil), a black-coloured oil Austrians use as a dressing in their salads. It’s delicious! Check out this gourmet food tour of the Naschmarkt. I can also recommend going on a coffee and food tour with a local, who will show you off-the-beaten-path cafés and eateries.
Vienna is also well-known for its wines. In fact, Vienna is only one of two European capitals that has vineyards within its city limits! You can choose to visit some of these vineyards or you could go for a wine-tasting in a Roman cellar in the city.
The city’s most famous museums are concentrated in the Hofburg (the Imperial Palace) and the adjacent Museum Quarter. The Hofburg was the seat of the Habsburg empire for many centuries and today houses numerous museums and art collections, including a museum dedicated to the most famous Habsburg Empress Elisabeth (Sissi), and the Albertina that is famous for its massive collection of drawings and prints. Also located within the Hofburg are the Spanish Riding School and the Imperial Chapel where the Vienna Boys’ Choir perform during Mass on Sunday.
The Museum Quarter is a short walk away from the Hofburg and features the Museums of Fine Arts, Natural History and Ethnology. Of the three, the Museum of Fine Arts, which was built in the late 19th century to house the extensive art collections of the Imperial family, is a must-see. The museum boasts a vast collection of pieces by Bruegel and other famous masterpieces by Raphael, Rembrandt, Vermeer and Rubens.
The Belvedere Palace, located at the edge of the city centre, is another attraction that should not be missed. In addition to being a baroque architectural masterpiece, the palace is home to the world’s largest collection of works by Gustav Klimt, including the stunning ‘The Kiss’ and ‘Judith’. The beautiful palace gardens are also great for a lazy afternoon stroll.
Other museums worth a visit are the Liechtenstein Palace, which houses a great collection of paintings as well as bronzes and porcelain, and the KunstHaus Wien which is a fitting hommage to one of the city’s most colourful figures in modern times: Friedensreich Hundertwasser – if you find his style totally irresistable, then a visit to the Hundertwasser Haus and the city’s heating plant in Spittelau (along the Danube) are a must!
Arguably Vienna’s most treasured landmark, the Schönbrunn Palace, is located outside the city centre. This magnificent baroque style palace was Empress Elisabeth’s summer residence. The interior is lavish and the furnishings are exquisite. Take a guided/audio tour to really get a good sense of the history of this palace. Leave sufficient time to explore the palace gardens which, with their ornate fountains and statues, are nothing short of stunning. A UNESCO World Cultural Heritage Site, the palace is a highlight of a visit to Vienna.
One last tip: Upon arrival in Vienna, purchase a Vienna card – this allows you unlimited travel in the city’s very efficient public transportation system as well as discounts for entry into museums, palaces and other venues, as well as purchases in a large selection of shops and restaurants.
Check out my Vienna walking guide.
Tours and accommodation