One of Europe’s most beautifully preserved historic capitals, Vienna is a destination every traveler should aim to see at least once. Situated at the edge of Western Europe, only miles from Slovakia and the Czech Republic, the opulent, old-world metropolis manages to feel at once timeless and boldly contemporary.
It’s the sort of city where, in a single stroll, you might pass by horse-drawn carriages and stumble on the coolest contemporary art museum you’ve ever visited. And while the pace in Vienna is certainly more relaxed than more frantic Berlin, Paris or London, there’s a ton to see and do. Admire opera houses and imperial palaces; party in nightclubs, or hunker down for an afternoon in an ornate museum or gourmet coffee house. Here are the top 10 things to do in Vienna, especially if it's your first time visiting.
Situated in the historic center of Vienna, the Hofburg Palace is a stunning testament to the former Imperial power that once led much of Europe from the Austrian capital.
The vast complex—extending over 2.5 million square feet to comprise 18 wings, 19 courtyards, and 2,600 rooms—offers a glimpse into both the history and present day of Vienna. It has evolved from a medieval fortified castle into an imperial palace and is now one of the seats of democratic government, making it one of Europe's oldest and most enduring places of power.
Until 1918 and the end of World War I, the Palace was the headquarters and main winter residence of the Imperial Monarchy; the powerful Habsburgs reigned here for some six centuries starting in the 13th century. Today, the Hofburg remains central to the Austrian government, housing the offices of the President as well as state ministers and secretaries of state.
Most of the complex is worth exploring on a first visit, but there are three main highlights to focus your attention on:
Imperial Apartments: If you've visited Versailles in Paris, you can already imagine the sort of opulence that awaits in the historic Imperial apartments of the Austrian emperors and empresses of old. The current furnishings, which mostly date to the mid-19th century and 18th century, are spread across several incredibly lavish rooms. Visitors can get a good sense of how Imperial rulers spent their days, exploring rooms such as the study, lavatory and bathroom, dining room, salons, audience chambers and bedrooms.
Sisi Museum: Named after the beloved Austrian Empress Elisabeth whose nickname was "Sisi," this collection of some 300 artifacts pays tribute to a powerful ruler whose legend has only grown over the decades. It traces the life of the empress from her childhood in the Imperial court to her death at the hand of an assassin in Switzerland in 1898. Elegant dresses and jewels, parasols, fans and gloves, and even her personal medical trunk and death certificate make up the intriguing permanent collection.
Silver Collection: Some 7,000 items of fine silver and historic tableware is displayed in this collection- inviting visitors to close their eyes and imagine the lavish, elaborate banquets that took place for many centuries on the same premises.
If you're also planning on visiting Schönbrunn Palace, the opulent historic abode of the imperial Hapsburg clan, you may want to consider purchasing a "Sisi Ticket". The ticket gives you combined entry to the Hofburg Palace and Schönbrunn Palace which houses the Imperial Furniture Collection. Overall, this reduces entry prices by about 25 percent, so it's well worth it.
Getting There: The Hofburg can be accessed from the U3 (Orange) underground line; get off at Herrengasse and follow the signs to the entrance. You can also take Tram line 1, 2, D and 71 (get off at Burgring).
Although Vienna is deeply associated with classical traditions in art, music and architecture, it's also a hotbed of current artistic creation, home to an unusual number of modern art museums, theaters, and art schools. The Museumsquartier is definitely the place to be if you want to experience the city's vibrant contemporary art scene, as well as take in modern masterpieces from Austrian artists such as Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele.
Around 70 different museums, galleries, theaters, dance halls, cultural associations, cafes, and restaurants make up this vast complex in the city center, warranting a full morning or afternoon of exploration. Don't let the Baroque-era facade fool you: inside, the style is far more eclectic and contemporary, with airy, bright gallery spaces, colorful modern sculptures, and spaces to sit, lounge and soak up some artistic inspiration. Frequented by students and young people, the Museumsquartier is usually packed, especially in the summer months when the long days draw locals to come to hang out for hours in the outside areas.
Must-see museums in the complex include the Leopold Museum, which boasts a collection of Austrian Symbolist and Expressionist art and works from the famed Secession movement, led by Gustav Klimt. The museum also holds the world's largest and most precious collection of works by Egon Schiele, one of Austria's most beloved modern painters.
To plunge into Vienna's vibrant current-day artistic scene, meanwhile, the Kunsthalle Wien holds regular exhibits highlighting some of the most innovative and talented contemporary artists, both from Austria and from around the globe.
Coffee and traditional coffeehouses are very serious business in Vienna. In 2011, UNESCO even named the city's centuries-old cafe culture a World Heritage Site.
There's something charmingly old-world about enjoying a strong coffee, whether black or a melange (a local drink resembling a cappuccino), while reading a newspaper and taking in the low din of chatter and clanking dishes that fill Vienna's classic old cafes. Enjoying a slice of cake is also a strong tradition at these institutions (when in Vienna, counting calories is not a good idea if you're after an authentic experience).
Traditional marble tables or cozy booths, heavy curtains to keep out the cold, oh-so-civilized coatracks, warm woodwork, old photos on the walls, and vintage lamps are typical fixtures in most traditional Viennese cafes. Some of the more popular, and iconic, coffeehouses to beeline for include Cafe Pruckel, Cafe Central (whose famous patrons have included Sigmund Freud) and Cafe Ritter; see this list for more ideas on where to head for superb coffee, a slice of cake and some inimitable Viennese ambiance.
Taste Two Rivalling Viennese Cakes
Remember what we said about eating cake being an essential part of any first trip to Vienna? One essential (and delicious) task is to compare rival chocolate cakes at Hotel /Cafe Sacher and Cafe Demel. This is a decades-long rivalry that the Viennese love to cultivate since it fuels tourism—not to mention obliging us to compare ultra-rich tortes.
Here's the story in a nutshell: the Hotel Sacher claims to have invented the signature "Sachertorte" that bears its name, a dense chocolate sponge cake with thin layers of apricot jam, topped with a cold, firm chocolate icing. This seems legitimate; Chef Sacher is believed to have concocted the cake for the first time in 1832.
Later, the Cafe Demel, known for its own luxurious baked goods and excellent tearoom, created its version of the quintessential Viennese cake, dubbing it Demels Sachertorte. Legal disputes followed, but after a while, Demel had gained a dedicated following convinced that this version of the cake, featuring one rather than two layers of apricot jam, was superior to Sacher's original. Long before reality television, this was perhaps the very first "cake war" and it continues to this day.
This breathtaking Gothic cathedral is one of Europe's loveliest. It boasts an eclectic mish-mash of architectural and decorative styles that reflect many renovations over hundreds of years. Most recently, the interiors were modified during the Baroque period.
Construction began in the 12th century, and the flamboyant high-gothic style is readily apparent in the Cathedral's four towers, one of which houses an impressive 13 bells. The enormous Pummerin bell is the second-largest chimed church bell in Europe and is situated in the North Tower. Remarkable views over the entire city can be appreciated from the towers, especially the South.
The Cathedral's distinctive colored tiles that decorate its roof form the pattern of the Vienna coat of arms and the Imperial double-headed Eagle.
In addition to visiting the Cathedral and its lovely towers, the onsite crypt and catacombs are fascinating for their notable tombs. Emperor Friedrich III and other Imperial leaders are buried here, alongside numerous cardinals and bishops.
Getting There: From the city center, Take the U-Bahn Line U3 to Stephansplatz.
For anyone with a passion for opera, Vienna is an essential destination. A reigning symbol of the Austrian capital's distinguished musical heritage and elegance, the State Opera stands proudly on one of the city's busiest and most central streets. As home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, some of the world's finest classical music, opera and ballet performances are staged here.
Whether you choose to simply admire the neoclassical facade (built in 1869 under the reign of Emperor Francis Joseph I) or enjoy one of the 350 performances that animate the stage each year, the Opera remains an essential sight in a city passionate about classical music.
Getting There: The Opera is served by tram lines 1,2, 62, 71 and D; the stop is Kartner Ring-Oper. You can also take the U-Bahn Line U2 to Karlsplatz, then walk about five minutes.
This permanent open-air market is one of the coolest (and tastiest) places to hang out in the city, beloved by all age groups and frequented morning, noon and night. If it's fresh produce, cheese, meat, bread, or high-quality spices you're after, the market stalls here offer some of Vienna's very best. Dozens of vendors peddling everything from fresh fruit to olives, kraut and sausages, and other local specialties have been joined in more recent years by stalls selling international delicacies (Japanese, Turkish, Moroccan, Eastern European, and many others).
This is also a favorite local spot for coffee or a casual evening meal; several laid-back restaurants and cafes operate on the premises, many with outdoor seating in the warmer seasons. In the spring or summer, enjoying a beer or casual dinner at the Naschmarkt is one of the most authentic things you can do. Just try to arrive on the early side to secure a table; it's not unusual to see crowded tables even on weekdays.
The market is open Monday to Saturday, with most stalls opening at 7 a.m. and closing at 7 p.m. (5 p.m. on Saturday). Onsite cafes and restaurants have separate opening times, but many are closed on Sunday as well.
Getting There: Take the U-Bahn (Underground) Line U4 to Karlsplatz and follow the signs to the market.
Often compared to Versailles, Schönbrunn Palace served as the summer residence of the powerful Habsburgs and exemplifies the wealth and power enjoyed by the Royal Imperial family.
First established as an Imperial hunting lodge in the late 17th century, it was significantly expanded upon during the 18th to become a permanent summer residence under the powerful Empress Maria Theresa, mother of Marie Antoinette.
The Grand Tour of the palace takes you through some 40 opulent rooms and offers an in-depth look at the life and reign of the Hapsburgs, from their most private daily affairs to the political intrigues that filled the palace walls. The Imperial Apartments are especially striking.
The lovely, expansive formal gardens at the palace are also essential, particularly in the spring, when thousands of flowers and trees blossom and bring to life the eye-catching landscapes. The gardens were named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1996. There's even an onsite vineyard, reflecting Vienna's history as a maker of distinctive local white wines.
Tickets & Getting There: Visit the official website for practical information on the Palace and to purchase tickets online.
This vast, leafy park is the biggest within Vienna's city limits and is a favorite place for locals to head in the summer for picnics, Ferris wheel rides, and other amusement park attractions. The enormous complex also boasts an onsite cinema, Madame Tussauds wax museum, cafes and restaurants, a nightclub, and a bowling alley.
Dominating the park and the skyline of the adjoining Leopoldstadt neighborhood, the enormous Ferris wheel dates to 1897, and is one of Europe's largest. Entry to the Prater is free; individual rides and attractions will set you back a few Euros but are reasonably priced.
Head here in the warmer spring and summer months to get some outdoor activities in and enjoy a lazy picnic on the grass, or rent bikes for a morning or afternoon, taking advantage of the bike paths that wend through the park. The park is open year-round, and in the autumn and winter months can still offer a pleasant walk or a day of fun and distraction for the whole family.
Getting There: The main entrance to the Prater is located on an enormous traffic circle known as the Praterstern; get off at this station from Metro lines U1 or U2. You may also take tram line O and 5 to the end of the line to reach the park.
Cruise the Danube River
AddressDanube River, 2401 Fischamend, Austria
Last but certainly not least, a boat cruise of the Danube river allows you to see the city from a different vantage, appreciating its lovely architecture and intriguing blend of Western and Eastern European cultural influences. You can either take a short sightseeing cruise that keeps you more or less within the Viennese city limits or opt for a full day on the water. Many tourists opt to stop in the lush Wachau Valley 30 minutes outside the city, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. From there, wine tasting and bike tours, a visit to a medieval Abbey, or tours on foot of the breathtaking valley make for an ideal day trip.
You might also take the opportunity to see the nearby Slovakian capital of Bratislava, traveling from Vienna to its sister capital only 34 miles away by boat. Particularly if you don't have time for another day trip, this can be an excellent way to make a short foray into Eastern Europe.
Several companies offer boat cruises and high-speed catamaran trips from and around Vienna, but DDSG Blue Danube is the most popular and trusted.