Vienna is one of Europe's most alluring capitals. It's a mid-sized city that punches well above its weight, boasting superb architecture, fine local cuisine and wine, arts and nightlife scenes that are both enviable—not to mention a remarkable quality of life. Smaller and more manageable than many European capitals, Vienna can be fully enjoyed in as little as 48 hours.
Keep reading for our suggested two-day itinerary, and experience the best of the Austrian capital with stops at Hofburg Palace, Naschmarkt, and Secession Haus. Note that this is a flexible, self-guided itinerary that can easily be adapted to suit your budget, personal tastes, and local weather conditions.
Day 1: Morning
10 a.m.: After arriving at Vienna International Airport or a local train station, head to your hotel and settle in. We recommend a hotel that's within or close to the city center so you spend less time getting from one major attraction to the next. Even if your hotel doesn't allow for early check-in, most will happily let you drop your bags off at reception and head out to enjoy your morning. Leave them behind if possible—and begin your adventure in the Austrian capital right away.
Your first stop is the Hofburg Palace, a vast, sumptuous reminder of the powerful Imperial family that once ruled a large part of the world from Vienna. Today, it's a seat of democratic government in Austria.
You could easily spend a whole day exploring the Hofburg's 2,600 rooms,19 lavish courtyards, and three major collections; but you'll only have a few hours today, so you'll need to work your way through the palaces in a more selective fashion.
We recommend purchasing the "Sisi ticket"—which give you full access to the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum (focused on the legendary Empress Elisabeth), and the Silver Collection—and focus your visit around key highlights. You can also download free audio guides for use on your phone in advance of your visit.
Day 1: Afternoon
1 p.m.: It's time for lunch, and we recommend you reserve your appetite for a proper Viennese-style feast that includes coffee and dessert at the end. There are many great restaurants in the city center, but we especially recommend booking a table (several days in advance if possible) at one of two places for your first day.
Café Central, a mythical Vienna coffeehouse and restaurant frequented by famous denizens from Sigmund Freud to Leon Trotsky, is a must-see if you want to get a taste of the city's old-world cafe culture. Settle in for a plate of wiener schnitzel, Austrian-style goulash, or a hearty salad, then try a wiener melange (a foamy, creamy coffee similar to a cappuccino) paired with a slice of apfelstrudel (apple strudel) or cake for dessert.
If you prefer something a bit more contemporary—and full of sun on a nice day—head over to the Palmenhaus Brasserie. This picturesque restaurant is housed in the city's historic botanical hothouse, nestled at the edge of the Burggarten gardens. High ceilings, large tables, abundant light, leafy plants, and a menu that blends Austrian and Mediterranean style cuisine make for a memorable lunch.
2:30 p.m.: After lunch, walk or take the tram to Stephansplatz and marvel at the Gothic-style St. Stephens Cathedral. The cathedral began construction in the 12th century and boasts the tallest tower in the capital. Admire its delicately colored, chevroned rooftop tiles, which can be seen from afar on a clear day. If you have the energy and ability, climb 324 stairs to the top and enjoy fantastic panoramic views over the city.
4:30 p.m.: From here, head over to the Secession Haus to admire a multi-paneled, enigmatic mural from Austrian painter Gustav Klimt entitled "Beethoven Frieze". Before you enter the curiously beautiful building, take note of its distinctive architecture, whose facade is decorated with gold lettering, foliate patterns, and a golden dome that many liken to an ornate egg.
It was here that the work of Klimt and other members of the so-called "Secession" movement in fine art was first displayed. The building itself, which also hosts interesting temporary exhibits, is emblematic of one of Austria's golden ages in art and design.
(Note: The Secession Haus closes at 6 p.m. and is open Tuesday to Sunday. If arriving on a Monday, you can always move this activity to the following day.)
Day 1: Evening
7 p.m.: Have dinner at a typical Austrian table or a more contemporary restaurant. In the mid-range, we recommend Lugeck, a stylish yet relaxed bistro owned by the Figlmuller restaurant group. The menu offers a wide choice of Austrian-style and fusion dishes, as well as a long, painstakingly chosen wine and beer list. Try a glass of Austrian white wine, asking the friendly staff for suggestions if you'd like a bit of guidance.
Alternatively, to go all out and taste Austrian cuisine at its most creative and delicious, head over to the Stadtpark district and book a table at Steirereck. This is a Michelin-star restaurant that's widely credited with boldly reinventing typical Austrian cuisine. Try to get a table overlooking the park and the water for some spectacular vantages.
9 p.m.: After dinner, we recommend a leisurely stroll through the old city center (Innerestadt). Make sure to dress warmly to protect against the cold if you're visiting in the late fall or winter. Particularly arresting at night, the historic center features a number of architectural styles, from Baroque to neoclassical and Art-Nouveau. Some beautiful buildings and places to visit on a self-guided walking tour of Old Vienna, including the State Opera (Staatsoper), City Hall (Rathaus), the MuseumsQuartier (Museums District) with its enormous outdoor terrace, and the Anchor Clock (Ankeruhr), a colorful mechanical clock that was created in 1913.
Afterward, if you're interested in a nightcap and have the required energy, grab a glass of wine or cocktail at one of the city's best bars and nightspots. We especially recommend leaving the tourist-heavy historic center and checking out bars in the adjoining 7th district. The neighborhood known locally as "Neubau" is full of arty, intimate places for a drink or live music.
Day 2: Morning
8:30 a.m.: Your day starts off on an early but delicious note with breakfast at the Naschmarkt, a permanent market filled with bustling, colorful stalls. While some say it's gotten a tad too touristy in recent years, you'll still find plenty of locals noshing on large breakfasts (accompanied by Viennese coffee, of course) and stocking up on fresh produce, spices, and other goods. For good breakfast choices, try Market or Neni am Naschmarkt. For more options, see Nasckmarkt's full list of vendors.
10 a.m.: Take subway line U4 (U-Bahn) from the Karlsplatz station to Schonbrunn, then walk 15 minutes to the palace (following the signs). You can also take a tram from the U-Bahn station to the palace (line 60 or 10) if you don't wish to walk.
Schönbrunn Palace is another of Vienna's remarkable Imperial-era residences, and once served as the summer home of the powerful Hapsburg family. It was initially built as a hunting lodge, at the end of the 17th century. In the 18th century, Empress Maria Theresa expanded it to make it the family's permanent summer residence.
If you want to see the palace's 40 most impressive rooms—including the Imperial Apartments, Staterooms, and banquet halls—we recommend taking the Grand Tour of the palace. It only takes about an hour but offers an excellent overview of Austrian imperial history, not to mention intriguing details on daily life during the Empire's powerful rule.
Just make sure to also reserve adequate time for the lush green spaces surrounding the palace. A stroll through its immense gardens, recently named as a Unesco World Heritage Site, offers just as much joy and adventure as touring the historic palace. Reserve plenty of time to explore the elegant parterres, groves, statuary, maze, orangery, and onsite vineyard—a historic winemaking plot that still produces small amounts of white wine and sells the bottles in an annual charity auction.
Day 2: Afternoon
1 p.m.: We suggest a light lunch or snack at one of the many cafes and eateries at the Schonbrunn Palace. Wherever you eat, make sure to leave room for scrumptious afternoon tea, coffee and typical Viennese chocolate cake!
3 p.m.: Catch the tram and subway back to the city center, getting off at Karlsplatz once again. Walk five minutes to the Hotel and Café Sacher, where you can enjoy a slice of the aforementioned, legendary Viennese cake, coupled with a hot drink (reservations are strongly recommended during peak season).
The Sachertorte is an emblematic local dessert with a surprisingly controversial history. The dessert is a rich chocolate sponge cake thinly layered with apricot jam, and topped with a firm, cold chocolate icing. Sacher claims to have created the original cake in 1832, contending that competitor Demel's similar dessert is a mere copy. The Demel version features only one layer of apricot jam, rather than two—something it claims is an improvement on the Sachertorte.
Locals often enjoy arguing over which version is better. If time (and appetites) allow, we encourage you to visit both Sacher and Demel, claiming your own stake in this longstanding, wholly amusing "cake war."
5 p.m.: If you've tried both cakes in one afternoon, you'll need a digestive walk about now. We recommend a stroll through the Mariahilf district, with the shop-lined Mariahilfestrasse its central artery. Make sure to explore the winding cobblestoned streets off the major thoroughfare. Here, you'll stumble upon well-preserved neo-Renaissance churches, street art and murals, and residential buildings featuring ornate Art Nouveau-style design elements, as well as independent galleries, cafes, bookshops, and bars.
Day 2: Evening
7 p.m.: You'll probably want a lighter dinner tonight, having indulged in afternoon tea and cake. Make your way over to The View Restaurant and Bar. It's perched right on the Danube and offers spectacular views over the water and city beyond. The menu offers a large variety of salads, soups, seafood, and other light fare, and is also noted for its excellent list of Austrian and international wines. Reservations are recommended in high tourist season.
Alternatively, if you wish to skip sit-down dinner and instead board an evening cruise on the Danube, you can board a three-hour sightseeing tour of the city's waterways and locks. This cruise departs at 7 p.m. from the Wien boat station at the Schwedenplatz subway and tram stop and travels through the city center and past the impressive Reichsbrücke bridge. You can book in advance online or purchase a ticket before boarding. The boat has an onboard restaurant where you can purchase drinks, snacks or full meals.
9 p.m.: If you haven't opted to take the night cruise (and especially if you're visiting late spring to late summer), consider a walk on the Danube near Schwedenplatz, where you'll find numerous waterside bars, cafés, and pop-up beaches.
Try after-dinner drinks at Motto am Fluss, an enormous, boat-like restaurant with picture windows moored at Schwedenplatz, and popular for its 1950s Venetian-style decor. The sprawling terrace is idyllic, and packed with people, on a warm summer's day. In the summer, make sure to explore the Danube's pop-up beaches. The Strandbar Hermann is especially popular, with its sandy canal-side seating, late-night food menu, and cool cocktails.