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Imperial Vienna regularly tops rankings of the world’s most liveable cities for its lush green spaces (about 50% of the city’s total land), world-class public transport, and diverse outdoor recreational activity options along the Danube River. A stroll through one of Vienna’s 280 former Imperial parks and gardens will reveal why Vienna consistently beats out other international competitors.
Yet, the old Imperial capital remains underrated on European travel wish lists. Although I studied abroad in Europe on several occasions, I didn’t make it to Vienna until years later – and only because it was one of the designated stops on a summer long Contiki trip I took with my sister. Since then I have returned several times and highly recommend Vienna for its cultural and culinary treasures! It also makes a great hub for visiting other Eastern European cities.
EXPERIENCE IMPERIAL SPLENDOR IN VIENNA
Vienna grew from a Roman settlement to an important trading hub during the Middle Ages. Later it became a continental cultural powerhouse as the seat of power of the Hapsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empire – with an overwhelming selection of UNESCO-listed baroque architecture to explore.
- Schönbrunn Palace – Schönbrunn, which appropriately translates to “a beautiful spring,” served as the summer palace of the Hapsburg dynasty and is Vienna’s top tourist destination. The UNESCO listed World Heritage Site is a masterpiece of Baroque architecture. Unsurprisingly, Napoleon chose to make it his headquarters when he took control of the city from 1805-1809.
- Entrance to the park is free, but attractions, such as the Privy garden, the Orangery garden, or the maze requires tickets. I recommend purchasing the Class Pass (€24), which includes an audio guide tour of the Palace and the major attractions. Purchase tickets online in advance to avoid long lines and start with the paid attractions to make the most of your time.
- Hofburg Palace – Located a bit more centrally, the Hofburg served as the main Imperial Palace and the residence of Austrian monarchs for 600 years. Although the interior of the residences are restrained in comparison to Schönbrunn, the Imperial Treasury includes the jewels and artifacts of the Holy Roman Empire and the Habsburgs.
- Spanish Riding School – Included in UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity, Vienna’s Spanish Riding School has been operational for 450 years! Watch a performance in the baroque Winter Riding School for an off-beat experience.
- Belvedere Garden – The French baroque style garden and palaces, built as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663–1736), hold an impressive collection of sculptures and art dating from the Middle Ages. The pride of the modern collection is Gustav Klimt’s famous golden “Kiss”.
INDULGE IN VIENNESE CAFE CULTURE AND CULINARY DELIGHTS
In addition to accolades for its Imperial architecture, Vienna’s traditional coffee house culture also made UNESCO’s list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. Although, the first coffee house was established in Venice in 1647, the phenomenon soon swept throughout the continent and took hold in Vienna by 1683. My fondness for the city stems mostly from the fact that viennoiserie (pastries such as croissants and pain au chocolat) and apple strudel originated in Vienna.
Café Central – Located near the museum district in Herrengasse, Café Central is a quintessential coffee and cake lover’s paradise. In its heyday, it attracted legends such as Trotsky and Freud. Entering the café is like taking a step back in time, with piano music planning in the background and newspapers/games available to patrons to pass the time. During my last visit, I decided to stay for dinner and tried some traditional Austrian cuisine, which is heavily influenced by the countless cities under the Habsburg rule over the centuries. We had schnitzel (Italian in origin) and beef goulash (Hungarian in origin).
Demel – Opened in 1786, Demel was the cake supplier for the imperial family. Located near the Hofburg Palace, the café and its candied violets were beloved by Empress Sisi, whose image is still associated with the city’s pastries. Demel is open from 9 am to 7 pm, but during peak tourist season you may have to queue up for a seat where you can watch the baker’s at work. Baked goods are also available in decadent packaging for gifts.
Original Sacher Torte – A slice of warm sacher torte with whipped cream is heaven on a cold winter night. The original torte, a chocolate cake thinly coated with apricot jam and iced with thick chocolate, is still served in the cafe at the Sacher Hotel.
Naschmarkt – For a local foodie experience, head to the city’s largest market running since the 16th century. Naschmarkt (or Nosh Market) has more than 100 stands and restaurants selling Viennese and international produce, spices, and food specialties.
DISCOVER GREAT ART IN VIENNA
In addition to the artwork housed in the former Imperial residences, the museum quarter in Vienna (Museums Quartier Wien) is one of the largest in the world. The complex includes Kunsthistorisches (Art History Museum), which is a treasure trove of ancient Egyptian art and sculptures. While the Leopold Museum boasts one of the largest collections of Austrian modern art, including Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele originals.
WALTZ THROUGH BALL SEASON
Vienna served as the political and social capital of Europe from 1814-15 when leaders met to establish a new balance of power following the Napoleonic Wars. A commentator famously observed that the Congress of Vienna “does not press forward; instead it dances” to signify the role high society balls and parties played in political decision-making processes at the time.
Viennese waltz and ballroom dancing still take center stage in the city’s cultural offerings with more than 450 balls taking place annually. Ball season kicks off with the Vienna Red Cross Ball at City Hall in November and continues through February with Carnival festivities. On New Year’s Eve, guests dance in a magnificent setting at the Hofburg Palace Ball. For information on private lessons or to purchase ball tickets check with tour operators such as Viator.
NIGHT OUT IN THE “CITY OF MUSIC”
Even if you are not ready to pack you dancing shoes, you can still enjoy and evening of classical music in the city composers such as Strauss, Mozart, and Beethoven once called home. The Golden Hall of the Musikverein hosts the Vienna Philharmonics and the Vienna Mozart Orchestra. If you are on a budget, the Musikverein (Thursdays) and State Opera House sell standing room only tickets. These tickets are sold in person on a first come, first serve basis. Remember to wear comfortable shoes if you go with this option. In the summer and during holiday periods special concerts take place at the Schonbrunn and other palaces.
HOW TO GET AROUND
- Public Transport Vienna’s extensive public transport system allows you to get around efficiently. The system includes five underground lines (U-Bahn), 29 trams, and 127 buses (including 24 night buses). The “ring” tram line is a great way to get an overview of the city’s layout and landmarks. For airport transfers, the City Airport Train gets you into central Vienna in 16 minutes.
- Single tickets (which allow transfers within the system) cost €2.20. Depending on the length of your stay, a multi-use pass may be more cost effective. Starting at €13.90, the Vienna card offers options for 24, 48, or 72 hours of unlimited travel on the public transportation lines and includes a 24 hour hop on, hop off bus tour.
- You can purchase the card/tickets online in advance or through the Smartphone app. Just remember to validate your ticket or pass before you begin your journey!
WHEN TO VISIT
The Vienna Tourism Board calendar is a great resource to consult to identify specific dates for major festivals and events such as the Opera Ball in February, classical music festivals in March, and the OsterKlang Festival around Easter.
Summer is the most popular tourist season and much cooler than cities in Southern Europe. July is typically the warmest month with average highs of 60 degrees Fahrenheit (19 Celsius). A sweater or throw is recommended for evening outings.
Vienna’s Christmas markets run from mid-November to Christmas Day and landmarks are decked out in holiday lights. The markets are world-renowned and filled with stalls selling everything from mulled wine/hot chocolate, wooden toys, ornaments, and street food.
I hope that this article has inspired you to visit the beautiful and richly cultured city of Vienna, Austria. There are so many things to do in the city that one visit may not even be enough!
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