Alongside Paris, London and Rome, Vienna is one of Europe's great artistic and cultural capitals. Home to some of the most important artists of the 20th century, including Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka, its numerous, rich art collections reflect these masters' enduring influence. The city also boasts a number of cultural treasures, displayed in natural history collections, royal palaces turned into vast public exhibitions and museums dedicated to specific Viennese communities. Especially on a first trip to the city, it can be difficult to decide which of these remarkable collections to focus your time on. Luckily, we've taken out the guesswork for you. Read on for the top 10 museums in Vienna — and prepare to be dazzled by their riches.
Home to the globe's most extensive and important collection of Austrian art, the Leopold Museum is brimming with masterpieces — from the likes of Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Koloman Moser, Oskar Kokoschka and many others. Part of the extensive Museumsquartier, a vast complex of museums, exhibition spaces, restaurants, cafes and theaters, the Leopold collections merit a morning or afternoon — especially if you want to understand the history of Austrian art and its radical evolution.
Remarkable works to beeline to within the collections here include Klimt's moving (and chilling) "Death and Life"; stirring self-portraits by Schiele and Kokoschka, breathtaking landscapes from all three; and an underrated collection of furniture and other objects from the "Wiener Werkstatte", or Vienna workshop.
Can't get enough of the turn-of-the-century period and its bold new aesthetic vision? If so, we also recommend taking a trip over to the nearby Secession. This iconic white-and-gold building represents the artistic movement of the same name, spearheaded by Klimt and several fellow artists during the end of the 19th century. It's home to Klimt's breathtaking Beethoven Frieze, an epic and yet oddly minimalist mural created in 1902 as a visual "manifesto" of the Secession art movement.
One of the most lovely spots in Vienna for architecture, art and a good dose of fresh air, the Belvedere is a beloved institution in the Austrian capital. It's well worth getting away from the city center to come explore this vast cultural complex — listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The palace, constructed in the early 18th century by the Prince Eugene of Savoy, is a work of art in its own right, worth exploring through a guided tour if time allows. The gardens — free to visit — are equally lovely.
Meanwhile, the permanent art collection is as sweeping and impressive as they come, spanning everything from medieval painting to Baroque sculptures, masterpieces from 19th and 20th century Europe artists and even contemporary photography. Klimt's world-famous painting, "The Kiss", is one of many highlights within the collection.
Temporary exhibits are held in the lower part of the Belvedere, including the Orangery. You can also enjoy a pleasant meal or afternoon tea at one of the onsite cafes and tearooms.
Vienna's fascinating Natural History Museum was opened in its current form during the 1870s, a period that saw great public enthusiasm for the sciences and the creation of numerous natural history collections around the world. But its earliest origins date even further back, to the mid-eighteenth century, when the "Enlightenment" swept across Europe. Today, it still retains some of its quirky and occasionally creepy old-world charms, but it's also firmly moved into the 21st century.
From hulking dinosaur skeletons to the world's largest and oldest collection of meteorites, displays on the origins and evolution of humans and a remarkable prehistoric exhibition featuring objects dating to some 30,000 years ago, the permanent collections are captivating for all ages.
There's also a recently opened Planetarium to assuage the curiosity of space enthusiasts: here, enjoy virtual journeys to the very edge of the Milky Way.
Another museum nestled within the Museumsquartier complex, the Kunsthalle Wien is an essential stop for anyone interested in getting a sense of Vienna's vibrant contemporary art scene. The enormous building hosts a constant stream of temporary exhibits that showcase local and global artists, as well as artistic movements that span different media. From photography and sculpture to painting, video installations and performance art, there's something on the program for everyone, no matter your preferred medium.
Opened in 1992, the Kunstalle also includes a onsite library dedicated to contemporary art, cafes frequented by arty locals and curious tourists, and a gift shop stocked with art books, prints and other items.
One of Vienna's oldest museums, this remarkable collection is housed in an opulent 19th-century building designed to showcase the riches of the Imperial collections.
The permanent exhibit is one of Europe's most extensive and sweeping collections of fine art, nearly matching the breadth of those at the Louvre in Paris and the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. It's probably best to focus on two or three wings at most in a single visit.
Start by exploring the Egyptian and Near East Collection, with its sarcophagi and coffins, mummies, ancient sculptures and scrolls. Next, take a stroll through the Greek and Roman antiquities section, whose riches include Bronze-age ceramics from third-century Cyprus, an Amazonian sarcophagus and delicate antique cameos.
The Picture Gallery, meanwhile, houses one of the Austrian capital's most breathtaking collections of paintings from the 16th and 17th centuries. Dutch, German and Venetian masters from Titian to Rubens and Van Eyck grace the halls of this stunning wing.
The museum is also home to eclectic and niche collections, including antique musical instruments, coins and a royal armory.
Boasting masterpieces from most of the greatest painters and artistic movements of the past 600 years, the Albertina is beloved by locals and tourists alike. The permanent collection includes paintings, drawings and sculptures, photography and even a section dedicated to architecture.
Masters from Michelangelo to Rembrandt, Picasso, Monet, Chagall, Schiele and Klimt, and many others make up the stunning permanent collection. Millions of items of fine art are regularly circulated and exhibited in thematic exhibits throughout the year.
In addition, the Albertina also hosts some of the city's most-anticipated temporary shows, partnering with prestigious museums from other cities to curate exhibits on topics including Impressionism, Expressionism, contemporary film, architectural drawings and countless others.
The sprawling complex of palaces, old-world stables and government buildings are a living museum documenting Vienna's powerful Imperial legacy. The powerful Hapsburg family ruled Austria — and dominated Europe — for some 700 years, until they were toppled in the early 20th century.
Visit the Imperial Palace and treasuries (see more below), including the emblematic Silver collection. See the apartments of Emperors and Empresses past, including the private quarters of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife, the Empress Elizabeth, who was tragically assassinated at the end of the 19th century. There's a small onsite museum dedicated to "Sisi's" memory.
Meanwhile, the Chapel of the Imperial Palace and the charmingly old-fashioned Spanish Riding School are also essential, plunging you into a European heritage that pre-dates modern life.
The site is also home to the Austrian National Library and the Presidential Palace. It's more than easy to spend a full morning or afternoon touring and marveling at the Hofburg's many riches.
Part of the Hofburg Palace's extensive collections and located next to the "new wing" of the Art History Museum, the Imperial Treasury houses precious objects — both religious and non-religious — that represent 1,000 years of European history.
Roam its 21 opulent rooms to take in the treasures that once belonged to the powerful House of Habsburg: Imperial regalia, crowns, swords and scepters; large, valuable gems such as emeralds and an agate bowl rumored to be the holy grail; the Austrian crown jewels, and even oddities such as the bones and horns of strange animals. There's even an enormous narwhal horn thought to be a unicorn's.
In addition to this remarkable collection of secular objects, there's also a large section dedicated to ecclesiastical regalia, altars and devotional images. Most of these objects date to the Baroque period. Arguably the most stunning piece of the entire collection is the Holy Roman Empire Crown: created during the 10th century, it was used to crown successive Emperors, and is lavishly decorated with biblical images and symbols.
Vienna has historically been home to one of Europe's largest and most vibrant Jewish communities, which over the centuries has made enormous contributions to Austrian culture, art, science and music. From the psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud to the philosopher Ludwig von Wittgenstein, Viennese Jews have left indelible marks on Viennese culture.
But the city is also the site of a dark and torturous history: millions of Jewish citizens were deported and exterminated in Nazi death camps during World War II, after Austria fell to German occupation (and to Adolf Hitler, a native Austrian). Earlier, during the Middle Ages, a thriving Jewish community was targeted in numerous pogroms, expelled from the city and murdered.
To memorialize this complex, beautiful and tragic history, Vienna has two Jewish Museums. Visitors can gain access to both with a single ticket. The first, located at Judenplatz (Jewish Square) opened in 2000, at the one-time site of a synagogue that was destroyed during the Middle Ages. This site comprises a stirring Holocaust Memorial constructed from concrete and designed by Rachel Whiteread. It resembles a library of books, turned upside down. The Judenplatz site also features a fascinating and moving virtual tour of Jewish Viennese life during the 14th century.
The second site, located at Dorotheergasse, features several permanent collections tracing the history and cultural contributions of Jewish communities in Vienna during the modern era.
In addition to the permanent exhibitions at the two sites, temporary events and shows bring to light new perspectives on the history of Jewish life and culture in the Austrian capital.
Last but certainly not least, the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace is another essential site for anyone seeking to understand the powerful Habsburg Empire and its enduring legacy in Vienna.
Rivalling Versailles in Paris, the enormous palace and sprawling, beautiful gardens around it attract visitors from near and far to explore its dozens of rooms and elegant green space.
The Palace was first built at the end of the 17th century, commissioned by Emperor Leopold I as a hunting lodge. Over the next century and a half, it would grow into the enormous Imperial Palace we see now. It would become the permanent summer residence of the Empress Maria Theresa, one of Europe's most powerful rulers and the mother of French-Austrian Queen Marie Antoinette.
A tour of the Palace and its grounds is a fascinating way to spend a morning or afternoon. Roam through rooms such as the quarters of the Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife Elisabeth; the apartments of Maria Theresa and Franz I, and the Franz Karl Apartment: these quarters were once inhabited by Franz Joseph’s parents. The "Grand Tour" gives visitors access to a total of 40 rooms, most still appointed with opulent furniture and decor spanning three centuries.
Meanwhile, the lush gardens offer strolls in peace and quiet that can be extended over a couple of hours. In addition to the formal topiary, fountains and sculptures, there's even an onsite vineyard.