It took me a very long time to get to Vienna and now I wonder why. Its a beautiful city and one could easily spend a week on main attractions alone. Our few days there did not allow us do justice to the place and New Year’s celebrations ate further into our time. But we got a nice overview of the city … and we will definitely be back!
1. Out and About
Most of the main sights and attractions are within walking distance of each other and its a great city in which to just wander about. Its worth considering an organised walking tour if you have time. There are several free options and we went with Good Vienna Tours. I’d read that groups on these tours can be huge but at 10.00am on New Years Day there was never going to be a mob – there were about 22 in our group which was fine. Tours last about 3 hours but don’t involve a lot of walking. They cover the area around the Imperial Palace and the old city, with a short coffee break along the way. They offer a great introduction to the city and of course you always pick up bits and pieces of info that are never in guidebooks as well as tips on restaurants, bars, etc.
Thanks to its multicoloured roof, St. Stephens Cathedral is probably Vienna’s most recognised landmark and a great navigational marker when you’re new to the city. When construction began, the building was orientated towards the rising sun on December 26th of that year – that being St. Stephen’s feast day.
230,000 glazed tiles cover the roof. The double-headed eagle was a symbol of the Austrian Empire under the Habsburgs.
Blackened over the centuries due to pollution, the exterior is undergoing extensive cleaning. (one doesn’t often see commercial advertising on a religious building – I hope its to offset the cost of restoration!!)
The original plan allowed for 2 spires. Legend has it that the 2nd was never completed because the builder broke a pact with the devil who then caused him to fall to his death. In reality, finances were redirected towards whatever war was being waged at the time and the spire was left unfinished until it was topped in renaissance style at a later date. This is a common theme in Vienna – buildings not completed due to war and then later finished in a different style.
Inside, there are 18 altars in the main section alone as well as 6 chapels, catacombs and crypts. The free area gives views down the length of the cathedral and access to some of the small altars. There are various ticket options for the towers, treasury and catacombs.
The master craftsman Anton Pilgram was responsible for the intricate pulpit and left a portrait of himself with his tools.
Six centuries of Habsburgs ruled over the once great Austro-Hungarian Empire from Vienna. During that time, the Hofburg palace grew into a vast complex. The nobility added palaces of their own to be close to court. Some of these buildings are now museums, embassies and galleries. A walking tour will take you through the streets, parks and squares. Its worth going back to visit the imperial apartments and some of the museums if you have time.
The stables of the Spanish riding School… the chimneys are false to fit in with the surrounding buildings…
If you like markets then you should head to Naschmarkt for a drink, snack or meal. There are plenty of shops and restaurants selling local and ethnic foods and there is a flea market on Saturdays.
If you’re swotting up on art history before your visit then you’ll learn about the Vienna Secession – an art movement in the late 1800’s with Gustav Klimt as its first president. No one style united the members – they were linked in their objection to the confines of academic tradition. Their exhibition house was designed for displaying avent-garde art and became known as ‘the Secession’. It is the image used on the Austrian 50 cent coin.
The motto of the secessionist movement ‘To every age its art, to every art its freedom‘ is displayed above the door. The 3 gorgons representing painting, sculpture and architecture. Inside there is a Beethovan frieze by Klimt.
Vienna’s State Opera House has stood on this site since 1869. Built in Neo-Renaissance style, there’s plenty to look at on the exterior alone. (Actually the prefix ‘neo‘ comes up a lot in Vienna – many building aren’t as old as they first appear). The 2 riders on horseback represent Harmony and the Muse of Poetry. 5 bronze statues above the veranda represent Heroism, Tragedy, Fantasy, Humour and Love.
Inside, a guided tour takes you behind the scenes of this beautiful building. You can prebook tickets for one of the 350 performances or queue for standing room tickets which are sold 80 minutes before a performance.
Wandering the Streets – looking up, looking down and peeping inside!
A statue of Johannes Gutenberg who introduced the printing press to Europe and thus the printing revolution:
The Anker Clock links two office blocks at Hoher Markt – the oldest square in Vienna. Historical figures rotate around the clock – this is Austrian composer Joseph Haydn – but the best time to see it is 12.00 noon when all 12 figures parade, accompanied by music of the era. The clock was commissioned by the insurance company that owned the buildings so figures representing life and death flank the sundial as a reminder of the importance of life assurance!!
St. Rupert’s is considered the oldest church in the city. He was the patron saint of Vienna’s salt merchants. There is a statue of the saint holding a tub of salt at the base of the tower.
The 14th century Deutschordenskirche belongs to the order of Teutonic Knights. The walls are lined with coats of arms. The altarpiece dates back to 1520.
You can peep inside the Burgtheater close to the Rathaus and have a look at the fabulous staircase.
The spectacular Karlskirche was built due to a vow taken by the Emperor during the plague epidemic of 1713.
2. Galleries and Museums
As I said at the start, you’d need a week to do justice to the place. With over 100 museums and galleries in the city, its a matter of personal interest and time as to which you visit.
Belvedere / Gustav Klimt
Even if you’ve no interest in art, all the Klimt souvenirs in the tourist shops will probably prompt you to check out his works at the Belvedere. The Upper and Lower Belvedere Palaces and their extensive gardens were built as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy and are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
As well as housing international works by Monet, Munch, Van Gogh, etc, the Upper Belvedere is home to the world’s largest Klimt collection. Be prepared for queues – this is one of Vienna’s main attractions.
(Judith and the Head of Holofernes /The Sunflower)
Originally one of the Hofburg palaces, the Albertina houses over one million prints, watercolours and drawings as well as temporary exhibitions.
More queues – make sure to plan ahead!
(Chagall, Miro and Picasso)
(Warhol, Lichtenstein and Rodin)
3. Out of Town….
Schonbrunn Palace and Gardens
Well its not really out of town – 15 minutes by car or a few U-Bahn stops gets you to the imperial summer residence. You can wander freely through the grounds or take an audio tour of the house. If you haven’t prebooked your tickets, you may have to wait a few hours for your time slot so make sure to go to the house first and organise your tour. (In our case we had to wait 1.5 hours but we walked around the gardens and had goulash in the cafe while we waited). Photography is not allowed on the tour.
Christmas Market stalls were still open in early January..
The gardens must be fabulous later in the year…
The Gloriette stands on the hill behind the palace.
4. Coffee House Culture
You can’t visit Vienna without experiencing at least one of the city’s great coffee houses. Once the meeting place for writers, musicians and artists, its very likely that you will have to queue for the privilege of sitting at one of the marble topped tables. Tradition is very important – your coffee will be served with a glass of water, newspapers will be available for reading and there may be live piano music in the evenings.
We could never face the queues for Cafe Sacher – we had to leave its famous chocolate torte for another time!
Better luck in the Central… a perfectly located table for people watching after a 30 minute wait..
You have to try the strudel while in town…
This is Kaiserschmarrn – cut up and sugared pancakes – we shared it in Cafe Museum one night (bad idea at 10.45pm!)
The most popular way of getting from the airport to the city centre is by rail. There are ticket desks and machines in the arrivals’ hall. CAT (City Airport Train) runs every 30 minutes and costs €12 single (€21 return). The other option is the Urban Rail network. We bought 72 hour tickets at the airport (€17.10) and added a supplementary outer ring ticket (€1.50). The S7 line brought us into the city and connected with the U-Bahn network.
Apart from our trip to Schonbrunn Palace and the U-Bahn to the main railway station when we were leaving, we didn’t actually need the ticket…. we were within walking distance of all the major landmarks. We caught one or two trams but only to get a bit of value from the tickets.
Currency: The Euro
Language: German but English is widely spoken.
Where we Stayed:
Hotel Beethoven Wein is just a few minutes walk from Karlsplatz U-Bahn station. That puts it beside Naschmarkt, the Secession Building, several restaurants and just about a 500m walk from the Opera House.
Each floor is given over to a different aspect of Viennese life. We were on the 4th floor which is dedicated to the Theatre and we shared our room with Placido Domingo!
Our room was ready when we arrived at 1.00pm. Coffee and tea is available all day and pastries are served in the afternoon. Free chamber music concerts are organised at the weekends. We were presented with a complementary drink voucher upon arrival because we’d booked directly with the hotel. The hotel is within comfortable walking distance of most major attractions and there are plenty of public transport options nearby. We’d happily stay here again.