It has been quite a while since my last visit to Vienna, so when recently returning there, I was excited to finally get the opportunity to revisit many of the city’s splendid historic monuments and no doubt make room for a couple of coffee house visits. With a scorching heat of around 35 to 37°C during my whole stay, I must confess I have done a bit less of the former and quite a bit of the latter. Considering UNESCO in 2011 has declared Vienna’s Coffee Houses an ‘intangible Cultural Heritage’, I guess I could still claim this falls into exploring local culture.
The Austrian capital is a city that easily offers something for everyone. A rich culture and art scene, lots of historic buildings including a good number of imperial palaces, beautiful parks and not to forget the local food and coffee house scene.
As the icing on the cake, just a few days before my recent visit to Vienna, the city was crowned the most liveable city in the world in this year’s Global Liveability Index by The Economist.
There is so much to do and see in this amazing city, you can easily fill a week or more. However, with some planning it is possible to see quite a bit even if you only have a weekend or short stopover.
Visit Vienna’s main monuments
The city’s most famous cathedral, spectacular gothic Stephansdom is located right at the heart of the city centre. Truth be told, this 136 metres tall structure boasts a huge mix of different styles due to many renovations and remodelling over the centuries. Its historic structure dates back to the 12th century but most of what you see today is from the 16th century. The cathedral’s huge Pummerin bell is the second-largest ringing bell in Europe. Perhaps the most stunning part, however is the beautiful coloured tilted roof. You can visit the inside for free, including climbing the towers but expect to have lots of company.
Just a short walk from Stephansdom alongside one of the most famous streets in Vienna, the Graben, lined by beautiful historic mansions, sits the equally stunning St. Peter’s Church. It was built in 1703 by Johann Lukas von Hildebrand who clearly took inspiration from St. Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican in Rome.
Located also right in the city centre, the impressive and absolutely breathtaking Hofburg Palace boasts more than 260,000 sq m between eighteen different wings, nineteen courtyards and around 2,600 rooms. Originally built as a medieval fortified castle it was later remodelled to become an imperial Palace and for more than six centuries used to be the winter residence of the Austrian Emperor. Inside, there is a museum dedicated to jewellery and clothes of Empress Elisabeth (better known as Sisi). Today it is also home to the Austrian government.
One of the most famous opera houses in the world, the Vienna State Opera is a landmark concert hall built back in 1869. It hosts over 350 performances each season and is also open to visit for guided tours during the day.
St. Charles’s Church (Karlskirche) is a stunning baroque church built in 1739. Inside, it spots a large number of frescos which you can actually view at close range taking a special elevator that takes you up to the ceiling.
The Belvedere, another beautiful baroque palace is also located not too far from the city centre. It was built in the 18th century and actually consists of two separate buildings, the lower and upper palace. The two palaces are separated (or linked just like you want to see it) by a beautiful little park. The park is free to visit whilst there is an entrance fee for the two palaces. Inside, you will find artworks from Gustav Klimt and a number of other artists and the interiors are truly stunning.
Castle Schönnbrunn – a UNESCO World Heritage site – is no doubt one of Vienna’s most famous attractions; and once you have set your eyes on this splendid palace you will fully understand why it is frequently compared to Versailles. The palace is a true masterpiece of baroque architecture. It emerged on the grounds of hunting lodge that was built for the imperial family in the late 17th century.
During the 18th century, the lodge underwent significant expansion and remodelling and then was transformed into the summer residence of the Habsburg family. It covers a total of 26,000 sq m and spots 1441 rooms. You can take a tour of the palace to learn about its history and that of the Habsburg family – book tickets in advance to avoid the crowds at the ticket office. Also take into account that the palace and park are closed to visitors during the winter months.
There is a huge garden complex that’s also worth to be explored. Enjoy the view from the Glorietta, visit the zoo, the palm house (the biggest in continental Europe), and walk in the maze – including a green labyrinth – or the princes gardens which used to be the imperial family’s private garden.
Head to the Prater
Vienna’s largest and most renown public park is home to one of the city’s most famous landmarks – the Wiener Riesenrad (the Ferries Wheel), built in 1897. It is located in a corner of the park called Würstelprater, which is the oldest amusement park in the world. The wheel, rising 65 metres high, is open daily from 10 am to 1 am and offers stunning views over the city. It takes about twenty minutes to complete a cycle with numerous stops along the way to allow passengers to get on an off.
Have coffee and a Sachertore at one of the city’s famous coffee houses
Vienna is renowned for its centuries-long coffee house culture. Although it is not fully documented when the first of these institutions opened their doors (somewhere around the late 18th century), what is known is that they quickly draw in huge crowds, including a large number of famous artists that quickly made them their second home.
Order the city’s most famous chocolate cake – the Sachertorte – which features a layer of apricot jam, a dark chocolate icing and is served with unsweetened whipped cream. It was invented at the very Café Sacher in 1832. Today you will be offered this decadent cake at any exisitng coffee house. However, this being the city of coffee house tradition, make sure to go to one of the famous historic locations including Café Sacher, Café Imperial or Café Demel.
Fun fact: Austria has its own national day for Sachertorte, held annually on December 5th.
Two additional attractions that were on my list to re-visit were Naschmarkt, the city’s biggest historic food market and the stunning Hundertwasserhaus with its quirky colourful facade. Unfortunately, with the temperatures as high as they were, both became victim of a significantly slowed down timetable. However, if you are interested to visit, Naschmarkt opens Monday to Saturday, with most stalls open from 7 am to 7 pm (5 pm on Saturday).
Have you been to Vienna yet? I’d be curious to lern about your experiences.