Vienna, the city of music, is the capital of Austria. Its beauty cannot simply be explained; it has to be seen, felt, and heard. Vienna has something for everyone with a rich history, art galleries, an entire museum quarter, music by classical composers, coffee culture, and magnificent gardens. Located on the majestic Danube river, it’s an enchanting city, where Baroque and Gothic buildings stand in contrast to modern creations, and even the garbage incinerator is a fascinating sight. Keep reading our Vienna, Austria City Guide for the best things to do while you are here.
We visited Vienna in October and were joined by John’s sister, Bev, and our brother-in-law, Bill. The weather was cool, but we enjoyed the bonus of fall colors and fewer tourists around the popular sights. If you want to avoid the crowds, we recommend visiting in the shoulder season in spring and fall. If you don’t mind the weather, then wintertime is the most magical time to visit Vienna for the Christmas markets. There is an abundance of things to do in Vienna and beyond its city limits. Explore Vienna, Austria at a slow pace, taking in the ornate detail and multitudes of museums with the help of our guide to the best things to do in Vienna.
Wander Around Hofburg Palace Grounds
Ringstrasse is the grand boulevard that encircles the historic Innere Stadt, an inner city district. It is home to stately palaces, including the Hofburg palace complex, where Imperial Architecture takes the spotlight. The Hofburg Palace housed the Habsburgs, the Royal family that ruled Austria for 300 years. Today, the complex is one of the main attractions in Vienna and where the Austrian president resides.
Spend your time strolling around the manicured courtyards and gardens adorned with statues. Marvel at jeweled crowns at the Schatzkammer Museum (Imperial Treasury Museum). Peek into the Austrian National Library, which looks utterly impressive with floor-to-ceiling wooden bookcases and leather-bound books, as if straight out of a fiction novel. Or catch a balletic performance by white Lipizzaner horses in the Spanish Riding School.
Climb the Tower of St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephandsom), an awe-inspiring Gothic cathedral with a colorfully tiled roof, lies in the heart of the inner city. Climb to the top of the South tower, which offers the best views over Vienna and lets you see the gorgeous zigzag-patterned tiling on the roof up close. And there is something to be seen beneath the floors. The underground catacombs, open only to guided tours, house skeletal remains of over 11,000 people. We were disappointed we couldn’t take pictures.
Be Amazed by the Belvedere Palace
The Belvedere complex houses two palaces and three museums – the Upper and Lower Belvedere, Belvedere 21. The Upper Belvedere museum hosts famous art collections, including the work of Gustav Klimt, which is a must-visit. And the other two museums host pop-up exhibitions. The extensive palace grounds are connected with the University of Vienna Botanical Gardens, home to a diverse collection of plant species. The botanical gardens are a hidden gem offering a slither of tranquility and solitude without leaving the bustling city.
Admire the Vienna State Opera
Vienna, Austria is home to some of the most spectacular opera performances, which you can watch at one of the best concert halls in the world – the Vienna State Opera. However, if the opera is not your cup of tea, you can skip the performance and tour the ornate opera house built in the 19th century.
Search for Hidden Treasures at Naschmarkt
Go treasure hunting at Naschmarkt, a food and flea market consisting of about 120 stalls. Vienna is a melting pot of culinary influences, most evident in this open-air local market. Sample food along the way and be taken on a sensory journey through European and Middle Eastern flavors, or grab a Viennese hot dog with sweet or spicy mustard.
If there is one thing you should walk away with, it’s a traditional snow globe! They are decorated with famous landmarks, animals, and sweets, and if you can manage to bring them home all in one piece, they will remind you of your Viennese adventures for a lifetime.
Immerse Yourself into Vienna’s Coffee Culture
Coffee culture in Vienna is about much more than just a drink – it is the essence of Vienna. Cafes are places to pour hours over intellectual discussions, sketching art, or contemplation. Engulfed in luxurious interior and unique Viennese service, and allow inspiration to flow. Enjoy a cup of decadent elixir accompanied by a typical Viennese breakfast – eggs in a glass and pastry. Walk up to the enticing pastry display and take a pick, or ask for the sacher torte, a traditional Viennese chocolate cake with a layer of apricot jam glazed in chocolate.
Café Central is the most iconic café in all of Vienna. Some of the greatest poets, philosophers, architects, and scientists spent time in this very café. So naturally, it’s a popular place among tourists, so if you want to join for coffee and pastry from the award-winning patisserie or try a traditional schnitzel, reserve ahead or test your luck in the off-season.
Café Frauenhuber, open since 1824, is the oldest coffee house in Vienna, where Mozart and Beethoven personally performed. While surrounded by gracious hospitality, indulge in “smart discourse” and try traditional Viennese apple strudel.
Go Wine Tasting at Local Vineyards
The proximity to nature that you get living in Vienna is unbelievable. But nowhere else in the world will you find a capital with wineries within the city limits. And you could even hike there if you wanted, cutting through vineyards on your way.
Visit a heuriger, a small and rustic wine tavern serving the freshest wine direct from the vineyards, and take in the beautiful outdoors. It’s a popular weekend activity, so on Saturdays, there is a cute red Vienna Heurigen Express shuttle that starts at the bottom of the Kahlenberg hill in the 19th district and takes passengers through the heurigers located along the hillside. The atmosphere at heurigers is casual, and the setting is simple with a communal feel, so it’s a great place to observe the local spirit. We recommend Sirbu, which also offers stunning views over Vienna and the Danube river.
Getting to Heuriger Sirbu am Nussberg: From the city, we took the U4 metro, transferred to bus 38A at the Heiligenstadt metro stop, and traveled to Kahlenberg bus stop (sitting on a hill). From there we walked down the hill to the winery (paths and country roads). When we were finished with dinner, we walked completely down the hill (2.2 miles) back to the metro. The yellow vineyards were lit by the setting sun and the walk through neighborhoods and parks was a special treat. Be aware that the vineyards close during the winter months so check before you go.
Taste Traditional Flavors
Plachutta has been visited by world-famous stars who have all tasted the signature dish – Tafelspitz. The ingredients arrive at the table in many small platters, with special instructions on putting the dish together and eating it. There are several locations and we at at the, oh-so-chic, Gasthaus Zur Oper.
Try the Pork Fillet wrapped in bacon with pan-roasted potato with pumpkin and mushrooms at Griechenbeisl, which has been serving the same menu for 550 years. Dine in the same room where famous guests like Mark Twain, Beethoven, and Johnny Cash enjoyed the same food.
Discover Urban Vienna
Just beyond Vienna’s historical core lays the up-and-coming seventh district, Neubau. A burgeoning vibrant neighborhood where local life can be observed and new minimalist and hip eateries are waiting to be discovered.
Adlerhof is a magical place that kept its renovations true to the historic interiors of the building, like the original 1960s wallpaper and light fixtures. It takes a modern approach to the menu, offering coffee house staples and international dishes like ceviche.
Jonas Reindl Coffee Roasters is a minimalist take on Viennese coffee houses. The interior may look different, but the attention to detail and focus on coffee heritage is ever so present.
Although a capital city, Vienna, Austria is not a city in a rush. The fascinating Viennese culture encourages you to take in your surroundings, appreciate the moment, think, and be inspired. You can wander with no particular route in mind or be guided by our suggestions curated from our favorite experiences. If you still have questions we didn’t answer or want to share your favorite things about Vienna, drop us a comment.
Be sure to check out our visit to Bratislava, Slovakia, which is only about an hour train ride from Vienna.