Vienna has been my home for approximately 10 years. There is a reason why the city has been voted most livable city for seven consecutive years (by Mercer). It may not be as international and vibrant as London or New York or romantic as Paris or Rome. But it has lower rents, cheaper food, better public transport, and is supersafe. And all that comes with beautiful architecture, plenty of cool cafes, bars and restaurants, an abundance of cultural activities, a well developed riverside and lots of parks. So, what more can you ask?
Travel the routes of Sisi
While Austria today is a small country, the capital’s architecture still reminds of when the Austrian house of Habsburg ruled over large parts of Europe (from 1526 until the end of the first world war in 1918) as the Austrian empire and later the Austro-Hungarian Empire or “Danubian Monarchy”. It may stem from this long-time siginificant role in European history that Austrians react very sensitively towards being equated to Germans, whose unified strength is of a far more recent nature.
Vienna is therefore a great place to visit for history geeks but even if you are not (like me), there are a few places you should not miss and many of the historic buildings are conveniently located in the city center so you can tick them off while doing a city walk (for example St. Stephen’s Cathedral, Hofburg and Heldenplatz, Parliament Building). If you want to learn everything about Sisi, you may want to visit the Sisi Museum in the Hofburg. If you are into horses, you may want to attend a performance of the Lippizan horses trained by the Spanish Riding School. If you are still a student you may want to walk through the corridors of the University of Vienna, one of the oldest in the German-speaking world (founded in 1365) and largest in Europe today, associated with 15 Nobel prize winners (e.g. Hayek or Canetti).
A must for every visitor is definitely a drive out to Schönbrunn Palace, a World Cultural Heritage site and Austria’s most visited sight. In easy reach via the metro, you can spend an entire day out there. You can start with a tour of the castle’s imperial appartements which are stunningly beautiful and thus definitely worth seeing. After that you may want to talk a walk through the palace gardens and take a coffee and a cake up on the hill in the Gloriette Cafe, from where you can enjoy a lovely view on the palace and over Vienna. In the summer it is also quite nice to visit the adjacent Schönbrunn Zoo, which was built in 1752 by the Habsburgians and is the oldest still running zoo in the world. The zoo has been enlarged and renewed several times and has recently gained renewed popularity with its successes of breeding the first Great Panda babies conceived naturally in Europe (in the meantime it is three, Fu Long, Fu Hu and Fu Bao).
From top left to bottom right: (1) View from Volksgarten towards the Mayor’s House; (2) Heldenplatz; (3) Belvedere Palace; (4) statues in front of the Parliament buidling.
Summer in the city or the young and hip side of Vienna
The best time to visit Vienna is between May and October. Summers can get quite hot sometimes but even in late spring and in September there is a good chance for some decently warm temperatures and there are plenty of cool places to hang out outdoors. As early as in March people start spending Friday afternoons sipping Austria’s favourite drink “Spritzer” (I will get to explain that later) in the top end of the restaurant area of Naschmarkt (local favourites are deli or neni). In early May, Museumsquartier (MQ) starts it summer program including amongst other its outdoor weekend sounds. The so-called “Enzis”, large Lego-like looking benches first appeared in 2002 and have since become part of the MQ summer experience. Every year they come back in a different colour and a slightly varied or improved design. In fact, since 2007 visitors can choose between a list of colours for the next year by vote.
Once the nights become warmer, people will then move on to the many bars alongside the Donaukanal. One of the oldest but still superpopular ones is Hermann Strandbar behind Urania, which scores with its large sandy area, nice view and large public screens during soccer championships. Walking alongside Donaukanal you will pass by many places – Badeschiff with an outdoor open pool and a nice restaurant, Tel Aviv Strandbar on the other side, or Summer Stage further up on the city side. From July to early September you may also want to head to Rathausplatz to watch a free filming of a opera or a concert and grab food from one of the many foodstalls offering both traditional Austrian specialities and international cuisine. If you are more into movies, there are also plenty of outdoor movie theaters over the summer (e.g. on Karlsplatz, in the Augarten or on top of the main city library). My personal favourite is the one in Augartenspitz (it is called “Kino wie noch nie”). The programme may not be everyone’s taste but what is absolutely lovely is the cute little garden restaurant Grünstern next to the cinema, selling seasonal and organic food from the region.
From top left to bottom right: (1) Museum of Modern Art in Museumsquartier (MQ) (2) Badeschiff on the Donaukanal (3) Summer stage along the Donaukanal (4) Hermann Strandbar; (5) Naschmarkt; (6) Grünstern restaurant in Augartenspitz.
Last but not least let’s not forget about one other quintessentially Austrian place to hang out in the sommer: with different names in different regions, in Vienna we refer to our traditional wine taverns as “Heurige“. These are sometimes quite rustic venues offering quite hefty Austrian food (not really advisable for vegetarians or light eaters) and, more importantly, local wine. You will not find them in the city center as they are located in the outside districts of Döbling or Neustift am Walde (e.g. Fuhrgassl-Huber, in Neustift am Walde 68). If you have time, it might be worth making the trip (its reachable via bus or tram) as it will also allow you to see a very different, almost country-side like part of the city. If you happen to be in town in late August, you might be here just in time to attend “Neustifter Kirtag”: Kirtag is an originally traditional festivity where people would wear the traditional costume of Dirndl and Lederhose (you may know it, it is what you wear also at the German Oktoberfest). Such festivities have been gaining in popularity in recent years as young people have rediscovered fun in wearing our traditional costume. If you want to get one yourself, why not try one – good deals can be found at Trachtenoutlet in Weihburggasse 8 which is just off Stephansplatz in the city center.
The beautiful arts are everywhere
Now back to some other forms of cultural life. Vienna is full of museums. My top picks are Albertina, Museum Leopold, Mumok and Kunsthistorisches Museum (KHM). Leopold and KHM have really great cafés, so do it like the Viennese and take a (seated) coffee break there. I recommend Leopold Museum also for its large collection of Klimt and Schiele masterpieces, and Mumok to learn about the crazy works of the “Wiener Aktionismus” (not for the light fainted). Of course you may not want to leave Vienna without having seen Klimt’s famous “Kiss” painting which is displayed in the Belvedere.
There are also plenty of theatres (from the world-famous Burgtheater to smaller venues like the English Theater), concert venues (Musikverein or Konzerthaus if you are thinking of hearing the Austrian Philharmonics or smaller venues like Porgy & Bess if you are more into a jazz gig) and also a number of musicals venues (e.g. Raimund Theater, Theater an der Wien). And there is of course the Vienna Opera. If you don’t want to spend a fortune on tickets but still want to take a glimpse at a performance and the interior, you can consider lining up for supercheap standing tickets which they give away 80 minutes before the start of the performance in Operngasse (backside of the Opera House).
We just love having breakfast, coffee and Spritzers
As always, food and drinks are part of the experience of visting a new place. Here are some of the peculiarities of Austrian food culture. First, we just love having a nice large breakfast. So in almost all cafes or restaurants you will find a large breakfast menu with all sorts of different offers. Depending on the place you will find anything from the classic “Wiener Frühstück” to oriental breakfast, vegan breakfast, British breakfast or organic breakfast. To browse your options, there is a specific blog (in German only) dedicated to great places for having breakfast (http://www.diefruehstueckerinnen.at/). I particulary like Figar, Ulrich, Salzberg or Joseph Bistro. But we do not only cherish our morning coffee, we take another one in the afternoon, just like the English have their tea. To go cups are not the real deal for us, we prefer to sit down with a friend and have chat. And there will be no difficulty finding a coffeehouse anywhere. The second drink we are really into are Spritzers, i.e. an alcoholic drink based on white wine, sparkling wine and/or others, that is mixed with sparkling water so it is both invigorating and refreshing. There are the simple versions (just white wine and sparkling water), then there is the popular “Hugo” with prosecco and mint leaves, and then of course also Aperol Spritz. We also have a high affinity to local wine which is of excellent quality, and beer as well.
But so much for drinks. Being close to Italy we perhaps took over their passion for ice-cream, nowhere else have I encountered as many ice-cream places so far. We also share the Americans’ love for hot dogs, so you will find wurst stands (Würstelstande) all over the city. Finally, you cannot leave without having had a Wiener Schnitzel. You will get it almost everywhere but I suggest going to Figlmüller where Schnitzels come in the size of a pizza (even Kim Kardashian went there on her visit).
From top left to bottom right: (1) apple strudel with vanilla sauce (heavenly); (2) ice-cream; (3) the latest Spritzer variation; (4) piece of original Sacher cake at Cafe Sacher.
Finally, a special times to visit Vienna is during the advent season. Starting in late November, Christmas markets and mulled wine bars will start popping up all over the city. Austrians do not necessarily visit Christmas markets so much for their artisan craft products but mainly to consume the popular season drinks, hot punch and mulled wine (Glühwein). It is almost incredible what varieties of hot punch you will find at some of the stalls, and if you are not used to drinking, beware that only one cup of berry punch might get you really tipsy.
For me it is part of the Christmas season to enjoy a warming hot drink at one of the markets when it starts getting cold outside, so I always miss this when I am abroad. The sheer variety of Christmas markets is what I feel makes Vienna stand out from some other popular Christmas market destinations: there are those located outside beautiful historic palaces like Schönbrunn or Belvedere with stalls selling high quality artisan goods, then there is the more laid-back one on Spittelberg which is a locals-favourite, or if you are only interested in drinks then you may want to go to the hipper version in the Museumsquartier (MQ), only to mention a few. On top of that, there are simple stalls selling mulled wine and snacks practically all over the city center, so you can essentially just hop from one place to the other before you collapse drunk and tired in one of the cafes to warm up again.
From top left to bottom right: (1) Belvedere Christmas market; (3) Winter food stall; (4) MQ Xmas bar; (6) Schönbrunn palace Christmas market.
This was a glimpse of what you can do in a weekend in Vienna – I hope you will enjoy your stay!
Enjoy ❤ Kate