The Best Things to Do in Vienna
Austria’s capital was the seat of the Hapsburg dynasty, and its many historic sites and cultural institutions embody an imperial grandeur. The city is not, however, only a showpiece preserved in aspic, and alongside 19th-century wonders there are also contemporary museums and lively neighborhoods. Here are some of Vienna’s highlights, from Roman ruins to present-day treasures.
Hoher Markt 3, 1010 Wien, Austria
The Celts were in Austria long before the Romans were, but it was the latter who left a more lasting imprint. With a population of 30,000 at its peak, the Roman legion camp of Vindobona was considered the edge of the world. As old as the Roman presence in Vienna is, the Römermuseum only dates back to 2008. On the Hoher Markt, one of the oldest squares in the city (and one with a fabulous gilded baroque fountain), the museum lies right over the Roman officers’ compound. Displays on everything from cooking utensils to toys are enhanced with a 3-D film on life at the time. Across the square, the Ankeruhr, an intricate and gorgeous art nouveau mechanical clock, was erected in 1914 on a bridge joining two sections of the Anker insurance building.
2 Opernring, 1010 Wien, Austria
Following its reconstruction in the postwar years, the facade of the venerable Vienna State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) had taken on a black patina, as had all the monumental Hapsburg buildings along the Ringstrasse. In the 1980s, however, the slow removal of grime revealed a stunning honey-colored exterior to this magnificent concert hall built by August Sicard von Sicardsburg and Eduard van der Nüll—and made famous by Gustav Mahler and, later, the conductor Herbert von Karajan. Even if you don’t attend a performance at the Wiener Staatsoper, you can discover its rich history on a guided tour, giving you a chance to learn about such highlights as the first performance in 1869 (Don Giovanni) and the one at its re-inauguration in 1955 (Fidelio), when Austria regained its status as a sovereign state.
2 Universitätsring, 1010 Wien, Austria
In the whole of the German-speaking world, no theater outshines the Burgtheater, the Austrian National Theater. One of the Ringstrasse’s fabulous late-19th-century confections, the theater was built across from City Hall, principally by celebrated architect Gottfried Semper. The roots of the Burg go back to 1741 during Empress Maria Theresa’s reign. High society vied to be in the presence of royalty and Mozart premiered his works there. Busts on Semper’s Burg facade represent Goethe, Schiller, and Shakespeare, while magnificent Klimt frescoes adorn the staircases. These days the Burg is renowned for performances by international stars like Klaus Maria Brandauer, Bruno Ganz, and Christoph Waltz.
Judenpl., 1010 Wien, Austria
Based on an idea by Simon Wiesenthal and erected in 2000, British artist Rachel Whiteread’s Nameless Library in the Judenplatz sits in one of the most tranquil squares in Vienna’s Inner City. The simple, stark, 12-foot-high concrete block is dedicated as a Holocaust memorial. Since the Middle Ages, Viennese Jewish life centered around the Judenplatz, and excavations during the memorial construction revealed a synagogue that had been destroyed in the pogroms of 1421. The square’s Misrachi-Haus, with its baroque facade dating from 1694, is now a branch of the Jewish Museum Vienna (its main location is in the Palais Eskeles). Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach’s stately Bohemian Court Chancellery building and a monument to the Enlightenment author Gotthold Ephraim Lessing also face the square.
The name Fleischmarkt goes back to the medieval butchers who worked along this Inner City street. The surrounding blocks are still home to long-standing merchants like Mühlbauer Hut, a century-old hatmaker. Strolling the area also takes you to Vienna’s oldest church, the tiny Romanesque Ruprechtskirche. Located in a Biedermeier-era house, the nearby Stadttempel synagogue survived Kristallnacht. The Orendi-Hof at Fleischmarkt 1 is a stunning art nouveau building, followed a few doors down by Max Kropf’s richly detailed 1899 neoclassical building and then by a Byzantine-style Greek Orthodox church, all in one short block. In recent decades, the Fleischmarkt bar area gained the nickname Bermudadreieck—the Bermuda Triangle—in reference to tipsy revelers getting lost in its twisting alleys.
30 Seilerstätte, 1010 Wien, Austria
You might think that in a land of musical geniuses, from Joseph Haydn to Gustav Mahler, that the Haus der Musik (the House of Music) museum, would have been around forever. In fact, it opened only in 2000, under the chairmanship of Zubin Mehta. But it’s made a splash since then, spread over four floors of an archduke’s palace that was once home to the leader of the original Vienna Philharmonic. You’ll learn there how the waltz rose from folk to elite status. The Haus also calls itself a “museum of sound” with its interactive exhibits, where even the staircase doubles as a piano. If you’ve ever wished to conduct an orchestra, just grab a baton and do so with a video of The Blue Danube being performed by the Philharmonic, whose current home is nearby.
1 Museumsplatz, 1070 Wien, Austria
It’s pretty amazing what you can do with some old stables. Vienna’s vast former quarters for the imperial horses, designed by the great baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, were turned in recent years into the MuseumsQuartier. It could take days to see all the works in this 15-acre, multi-museum complex that lies just off the Ringstrasse and is devoted to collections of modern and contemporary art. The limestone Leopold Museum for Austrian art is named after an early collector of the bold painter Egon Schiele. Its Café Leopold includes courtyard seating under umbrellas. For your Picassos and Giacomettis, the nearby MUMOK specializes in the giants of modern art. The MuseumsQuartier’s huge courtyard is a popular Vienna hangout where many festivals take place and DJs spin on weekends.
In other cities, Schloss Belvedere would be the grand attraction: The baroque palace turned museum is a UNESCO World Heritage site, and its French-style gardens, enormous pools, and upper and lower pavilions are stunning. But in Vienna, a city that’s chockablock with majestic palaces and marvelous art institutions, the Belvedere winds up being underappreciated by visitors. Formerly the summer palace of the French-born military commander Prince Eugene of Savoy, the early-18th-century palace was designed by Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, one of the most celebrated architects of his day. Works in the building’s collection range from baroque masterpieces to 20th-century treasures such as Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss as well as pieces by Oskar Kokoschka and Egon Schiele.
As you take in its dome made of gold-filigree laurel leaves, the utter modernity of the Secession Building stuns you. Joseph Maria Olbrich’s glorious exhibition hall just off the Ringstrasse is more than a century old, and is one of the most beautiful legacies of the great intellectual and artistic period known as fin de siècle Vienna—when the city’s coffeehouses were frequented by the likes of Freud and Klimt and the architect of the day, Otto Wagner. Not many cities can claim their own art movements, but the Vienna Secession was a reaction to the staid art of the late Hapsburg empire. “To every age its art, to every art its freedom” proclaims the inscription (in German) on the facade of the building which also has a 112-foot-wide, 1902 Beethoven Frieze by Gustav Klimt.
1 Parkring, 1010 Wien, Austria
Just off the Ringstrasse, the Stadtpark gives visitors to Vienna a chance to marvel at the genius of Otto Wagner: The architect’s art nouveau U-Bahn metro station is a landmark there. With the little Wienfluss (Vienna River) running through it, the 28-acre, English-style, manicured Stadtpark was laid out in the middle 19th century and is perhaps the finest city park in this greenest of cities. For maintaining the historic fountains, ornamental plants, and decorative trees along its winding paths, the botanical specialists and gardening team deserve a tip of the hat. Fine statues of composers Franz Schubert and Anton Bruckner, as well as a gilded-bronze likeness of a violin-playing Johann Strauss II—who performed here—are famous. The café in the Italianate Kursalon Hübner concert hall is a good place for a break from sightseeing.
With a sprawling scale that is appropriate given the vast extent of the Hapsburg empire at its peak, the magnificent Hofburg Palace is a city unto itself, with more wings than you could ever explore. With its classic Viennese Fiaker horse carriages in front, the St. Michael’s Wing was built in the late 19th century to baroque designs by Fischer von Erlach the Younger. Passing under its dome leads to sumptuous rooms filled with 18th- and 19th-century furnishings. The former apartments of Archduke Stephan are now a museum devoted to the beloved Empress Sisi, the Princess Di of her day. The Imperial Treasury displays the crown jewels, while the Neue Burg (New Castle) wing holds the armory. The main Hofburg entrance is on the vast Heldenplatz (Hero Square), flanked by the lovely Volksgarten and Burggarten parks, the former famous for its roses.
Michaelerplatz 1, 1010 Wien, Austria
Are there any nobler or more beautiful horses in the world than the gray-white Lipizzans who wow audiences with their high stepping at the Spanish Riding School? In the 16th century, the Hapsburg empire used Andalusian horses to create the breed in Lipizza (located in Slovenia). As they have for centuries, the Lipizzans perform their acrobatic haute école dressage in the Hofburg Palace’s Winter Riding School arena, an all-white baroque hall designed by Fischer von Erlach. Riders still wear the traditional uniform of bicorne hats and tailcoats, part of the reason UNESCO granted the Riding School its Intangible Cultural Heritage status. In addition to watching the performances, visitors can also tour the stables and sit in on morning training sessions set to classical music.
Karlsplatz 10, 1040 Wien, Austria
Out of the tragedy of the plague arose the Karlskirche, perhaps the most magnificent of Vienna’s baroque churches. One of the final designs by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, the genius behind the Schönbrunn Palace, Karlskirche commemorates the outbreak of 1713. The Karl who gave the church its name was the Counter-Reformation’s Saint Charles Borromeo, who cared for plague victims in 16th-century Milan. The church dome, rising above two columns inspired by Trajan’s Column, is illuminated at night and is a prominent Vienna landmark which be seen from many points in the city. A vibrant fresco in the cupola by Johann Michael Rottmayr glorifies Saint Charles. On Karlsplatz, in front of the church, two of the legendary architect Otto Wagner’s finest art nouveau metro stations remain; one of them now houses a café.
47 Schönbrunner Schloßstraße, 1130 Wien, Austria
When Mozart was a child, he performed here for Empress Maria Theresa; Franz Joseph I was born and died here, and his unhappy wife, Sisi, presumably sulked inside. Schönbrunn Palace, in the western Hietzing district, naturally invites comparisons to Versailles, as the Hapsburgs built it to rival the French palace. Today, the 1,441-room baroque masterpiece designed by Fischer von Erlach is a World Heritage site, with its Great Gallery and carriage museum among the draws. Its gardens are so vast that a small train takes you around to the palm house, an orangery, and a zoo. The recently renovated, columned Gloriette structure and its café look over the palace and, beyond, Vienna. Schönbrunn’s grandeur never ceases to impress—not bad considering that the palace was only a summer retreat for the Hapsburg rulers.
1130 Lainzer Tiergarten, Wien, Austria
Vienna’s architecturally rich Inner City can lead to a visual overdose on baroque wonders. Those who venture to districts beyond its historic heart will find a great little discovery in the Hermesvilla in the Lainzer Tiergarten, a nine-square-mile wooded landscape and former imperial hunting grounds with resident boar and deer. The smaller of Franz Joseph’s retreats, the Hermesvilla was a gift to his beloved, quirky wife Sisi, who called it her “palace of dreams.” It is said that Franz Joseph built it to keep her from running all around Europe as she was wont to do. The interior still holds many original furnishings, and the small statue of Hermes in front of the villa inspired its name. (Note that the villa is closed in the winter, roughly from early November to late March/early April.)
Baumgartner Höhe 1, 1140 Wien, Austria
Living in an era of artistic and intellectual giants competing for attention, Otto Wagner was a celebrated architect, but his fame beyond Austria is not what it should be. But Wagner’s legacy of breathtaking designs lives on in buildings throughout Vienna, with his 1907 Kirche am Steinhof as perfect a little chapel as could be. Inaugurated by Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the art nouveau structure with the gold cupola literally shines from the western hills that lead into the Vienna Woods. With the chapel’s mosaics, visitors have a chance to discover the genius of Koloman Moser, a cofounder of the Wiener Werkstätte arts movement. His glass windows, along with gorgeous sculptural angels by Othmar Schimkowitz, have appeared on a commemorative 100-euro coin.
Kegelgasse 36-38, 1030 Wien, Austria
Those who just stumble upon the Hundertwasserhaus apartments in the Third District will likely be wowed by the buildings. Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s funky, mid-1980s organic housing complex is weird and gorgeous with a wavy, eclectically painted facade that looks like something out of a cartoon. With trees growing on its terraces and roof, it’s the antithesis of staid imperial Vienna. A freethinker if there ever was one, the artist, architect, and environmentalist Hundertwasser could be called Austria’s Gaudí. Visitors can learn more about him in the ground-floor café. Nearby, Hundertwasser designed the Kunst Haus Wien art museum out of an old Thonet furniture factory, while up the Danube Canal an incineration plant’s chimney got the Hundertwasser treatment with trippy colors and a funky golden ball on top.
Berggasse 19, 1090 Wien, Austria
Berggasse 19 is the address of a modest house on a modest street, but it was there that much of the modern world and culture were changed forever. For nearly 50 years, the Freud house—now, officially, the Sigmund Freud Museum—was the home and office of the legendary psychoanalyst, until 1938 when he finally departed for London as Nazi forces were descending on Vienna. The rooms are filled with old books, antiques, personal artifacts, and correspondence, though not the famous couch (which is now at the Freud museum in London). In 2019, the house will undergo a yearlong €4 million renovation to its facade and exhibition spaces. If you walk the Ringstrasse over to the Burgtheater area, you can see the University of Vienna that was once the General Hospital where Herr Professor worked for many years.
Simmeringer Hauptstraße 234, 1110 Wien, Austria
You might think of Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof (Central Cemetery) as a Mittteleuropa Walk of Fame. Some of the city’s most important figures are buried in this graveyard that opened in 1874, from Beethoven (his remains were moved here in 1888) to 1980s pop star Falco, with Brahms, Schubert, and Schoenberg in between. The cemetery, which measures almost one and a half square miles, has a section for Austria‘s presidents, and another for Sephardic Jews who came from the Ottoman Empire—the elaborate Alhambra-style Elias family mausoleum is especially impressive. Thanks to shady groves of maple and ash and a beautiful church constructed in the early-20th-century Jugendstil style, it is worth the effort to travel to Simmering, a neighborhood southeast of the city center—even if only for the bucolic setting.
Prater, Wiener Prater 59, 1010 Wien, Austria
Classic-film buffs well know the pivotal scene on the Riesenrad, the giant Ferris wheel in Vienna’s Prater park which lies between the Danube and one of its side canals. In the film version of Graham Greene’s noir tale The Third Man, Orson Welles, as Harry Lime, relates his famous Swiss cuckoo clock analogy to Joseph Cotten while on the ride. Built in 1897 for Emperor Franz Joseph I’s golden jubilee, the Ferris wheel was for a long time the world’s tallest. After a period of scruffiness late last century, the Prater and its old-fashioned amusement park are again popular. The greenery alone makes for wonderful strolling or biking, with the Schweizerhaus restaurant’s beer garden the perfect place for schnitzel or succulent Schweinsstelze (pig’s feet).
Maria-Theresien-Platz, 1010 Wien, Austria
Gottfried Semper and Karl von Hasenauer may not be household names abroad, but in the Vienna of Franz Joseph’s time they were towering architects. The duo was responsible for the soaring cupolas and sweeping staircases of two stunning mirror-image cultural institutions on the Ringstrasse. In the Kunsthistorisches (Art History) Museum, famous stairwell-roof frescoes are by Gustav Klimt, and the rich assemblage of works includes Pieter Brueghel’s Tower of Babel, Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath, and works by Dürer, Raphael, and Velázquez. The sister Naturhistorisches (Natural History) Museum is home to one of Europe’s oldest pieces of art: the famous Paleolithic goddess figure known as Venus of Willendorf. There are also displays that range from insects to dinosaurs and flora and fauna collected worldwide.