Vienna – What to Know & What to See

Classical musicians, Habsburg monarchs, the first psychoanalyst, and Lipizanner horses have all called Vienna home throughout its long history. Today, residents of the city take pride in it being consistently ranked as one of the world’s most livable cities and visitors are rewarded with beautiful architecture, a plethora of museums and galleries, and a better understanding of its history. It’s is a popular tourist destination all year round so minding some helpful tips (a couple of which I learned the hard way) will manage your expectations and help you appreciate this cultured city during any season.

Prepare:

  • Vienna’s has a deep connection to the arts and sciences. It has a legacy of musical innovation and famous architectural works, intertwined with that of both Eastern and Western Europe, and notably, the Habsburg monarchs who were the last rulers of the Holy Roman Empire. For historical and cultural references to the city, here are a couple of suggested movies and books.
    • For insight into the Habsburg monarchy, watch the 1955 movie Sissi which is part one of a trilogy that portrays the life of the intriguing Empress. The film is in German with English subtitles and apparently is a classic viewed by Austrians during the holidays.
    • For a 1995 movie that showcases Vienna’s stunning architecture while a couple explores the city together over the course of one evening, watch the romantic drama Before Sunrise with Ethan Hawke and Julie Delpy.
    • For historical fiction written about the Austrian-born American actress of Jewish heritage, Hedy Lamarr (born Hedwig Eva Maria Miesler), read The Only Woman in the Room. The book includes details about life in Vienna before the annexation by the Nazis and her contributions to emerging US naval technology that were recognized posthumously.
  • If you’re wondering when to visit Vienna, know that tourism spikes in summer and during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays. According to a local, many Viennese leave the city for the New Year, while tourists flock to the city for the celebrations. Booking accommodations well in advance is a must and keep in mind that many hotels require a two night minimum stay.
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A stall at one of the popular Viennese Christmas markets
  • Making arrangements in advance for tours, museum visits, and performances, while not absolutely necessary, can help you maximize your time and make sure you see what you’re most interested in.
    • A walking tour of Vienna is highly recommended as guides in Austria are required to undergo thorough training before employment, and therefore they are well informed about the city and country. An informative free walking tour can be booked in advance with Good Vienna Tours. Their tour of the historic center of Vienna is conducted twice daily (10:00 and 14:00) and meets at Albertinaplatz by the Vienna State Opera House. While it is a “free tour”, tipping your guide at the end of the tour is strongly encouraged.
    • If you are looking to visit some of the more popular Habsburg Imperial Monarchy attractions in the city, the Sisi Ticket is a combo ticket that includes the Schönbrunn Palace, Imperial Furniture Collection, and Vienna Hofburg Palace with the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum, and Imperial Silver Collection. If you intend to visit all of these, the Sisi Ticket results in a 25% savings in cost, but the most useful feature is the ticket to the Schönbrunn Palace that allows you entrance at any time. Normally, you must select an entrance time at the moment that you purchase your Schönbrunn Palace ticket, but during the busiest of times, tickets sell out quickly so this allows you some flexibility.

Buy the Sisi Ticket online to avoid the queues to purchase in person at the museums and palace.

    • The Vienna State Opera House (Staatsoper) is well-known for its opulent architecture and world-class performances. If you are planning to attend an opera or ballet show, you can purchase tickets online ahead of time or take advantage of the cheaper option for standing room tickets. The tickets go on sale 80 minutes before show time, but the queue for standing room only tickets forms outside the Opera House anywhere from two to three hours before show time. The line for standing room tickets starts at the “Stehplatz Kasse | Standing Area” sign along the Operngasse street. It seems that there is a maximum distribution of 500 standing room tickets between the Parterre, Balcony and Gallery sections, which are sold for less than ten Euros with price depending demand.

If the performance is not completely sold out, you may also have the option to purchase tickets for actual seats from a theater representative who will walk alongside the standing room ticket line. They will have a map showing the location of the available seats, but it’s important to understand if you will have an obstructed view. If the seats are in a box near to the stage and you are seated in the 2nd or 3rd row in the box, it is unlikely that you will have a view of the stage. You will hear just fine and there are personal TV displays that translate the libretto (words) to your preferred language so you can still follow along, but you won’t see the performance when you are seated. These tickets are sold for around 50-70 Euros depending on demand and if you want two seats together.

Know:

  • Walking and biking are great ways to explore the beautiful streets of Vienna, but commuting on public transportation in Vienna is made easy by the U-Bahn and S-Bahn metro, tram, and bus systems. Local transit operates on the honor system so don’t expect to find ticket turnstiles at stations, but know that there’s a fine should you be caught without a ticket. Scamming the system is definitely frowned upon. Also strongly discouraged – not obeying cross-walk signals as a pedestrian!

A fast train known as the City Airport Train (CAT) operates between the airport and Wien Mitte station in city center for 11 Euros or 19 Euros roundtrip. With a commute time of 16 minutes, this is the most efficient option, however there are cheaper options using the other public transit systems.

If travelling in a pair or as a group on longer distance trains, it’s not a bad idea to pay the couple extra Euros to reserve your seats at the time that you purchase your train ticket. If you have not reserved a seat, ensure that you are not occupying one that is – usually indicated as such with a note or electronic sign next to the seat number. Before getting on the train, read the board on the platform to make sure you are seated in the correct section (front or back) of the train as sometimes the trains are split mid-way through the trip while stopped and depart for different destinations.

  • Another important consideration for the Vienna Opera is attire. While the dress code is not explicitly stated (aside from at premiers, gala performances, and the Opera Ball), theater reps do have the right to subjectively determine if guests’ attire is appropriate for the performance. I wore jeans with a hole in each knee and was told to leave and change before the performance, but apparently black leisurewear leggings were acceptable. Again, it seems to be subjective, but better to wear long pants (no shorts) or denim that is not distressed.
  • Holiday traditions are beloved by the Viennese and can be appreciated by visitors to the capital city during the New Year, referred to as Silvester in the German language. Along with fireworks, your ears will pick up on the ringing of the Pummerin bell of St. Stephen’s Church in the historical city center at midnight. The New Year is also honored with the dancing of the famed Viennese waltz – beginners to experts welcome. The celebration culminations in the Vienna New Year’s Concert of classical music performed by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra at 11:15 AM on New Year’s Day at the Musikverein concert hall.
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Pigs are considered lucky and it’s traditional for Austrians to cook pork ribs, chops or a roast on New Year’s Eve. We settled for a pig pastry from the Naschmarkt.
  • While English is widely spoken in the city, Austrian German is the official language, so learning a few simple German phrases will be helpful to you and facilitate polite exchanges with your hosts and other locals.
    • To say hello, use Hallo or Guten tag
    • If you want to greet someone in the morning try Guten Morgen, or in the evening use Guten nacht
    • To toast with your drink, use Prost!
    • If you’re looking for the toilet, Wo ist die toilette? will get you pointed in the right direction
    • Thanks can be expressed with Danke schön
    • If you want to ask someone if they speak English, say Sprechen sie Englisch?
  • Tipping in Austrian restaurants and cafés is normally in the range of 5-15% of the bill. This means it’s appropriate to round up your bill from say 23.40 Euros to 25 Euros.

See:

  • The Vienna State Opera House schedule features 350 performances during its season, but even if you aren’t attending a show, you can still see the ornate architecture in the interior via a guided tour for around ten Euros. If you are attending a performance, come early to walk around and enjoy a drink before the lights dim and the curtain rises.
  • A visit to The Hofburg, the former imperial palace of the Habsburg monarchy and current workplace of the President of Austria, can include stops at:
    • Heldenplatz is a large, public square in front of the palace. Standing in the square, you can view the balcony of the Hofburg Palace from which Hitler announced the Austrian Anschluss (annexation) to Germany in March of 1938.
    • The Austrian National Library State Hall is a beautiful and well-preserved court library room dating from the early 18th century complete with frescos, leather-bound books, and giant globes.
    • The Imperial Silver Collection and Sisi Museum are accessed from the same entrance on the same ticket so it makes sense that you would see both. The visit begins with the Imperial Silver Collection which shed light on the dining culture of the former imperial court, including a look at the ornate Imperial Napkin Fold for which only two people in the world know the correct technique. From silverware you’ll move on to the Sisi Mueum located in the Stephan apartments. The exhibits take you through the life of the Empress married to the Emperor Franz Joseph I while you view her personal objects, famous portraits of her, and stories from her birth, coronation, and assassination.
  • Stephen’s Cathedral is the symbol of Vienna; it’s hard to miss this landmark sitting in the center of the city. If you desire a view, you can climb 343 steps to reach the top of the south tower or take a lift up the north tower to see the famed Pummerin bell. Alternatively, join a guided tour of the catacombs underneath the church.
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The interior of St. Stephen’s Cathedral
  • A walk through the Naschmarkt is a must to experience the endless stalls of fresh and prepared food for sale. You will find everything from local and exotic produce, to high quality seafood and meats, and artisan bakery and cheeses. The market is open daily and hosts a flea market on Saturdays as well.
  • You have plenty of exhibits to choose from in The Museums Quarter of the city. The former court stables stood where the Leopold Museum and Museum of Contemporary Art now welcome visitors. Neighboring the Museums Quarter are the Museum of Natural History and the Kunsthistorisches Art Muesum whose collections were amassed by Austrian Habsburg monarchs like Maria Theresa.
  • The Belvedere Museum, in addition to being a Baroque palace, houses the most visited art museum in Austria. Among the art exhibitions in the Upper Belvedere you’ll find what is considered the most famous Austrian painting, The Kiss by Gustav Klimt.
  • The Schönbrunn Palace, with its 1,441 rooms was the main summer residence of the Habsburgs. Its decadent rooms showcase the immense wealth amassed by this ruling family. If touring the interior, you have two choices when you purchase the single palace ticket (aside from the Sisi Ticket mentioned above) – Imperial Tour for 16 EUR (adults) with access to 22 rooms and the Grand Tour for 20 EUR (adults) with access to 40 rooms. Take an early train to Schönbrunn Palace so you arrive about the time that it opens in order to beat the crowds. Backpacks are not allowed but there is a free coat and bag check offered.
  • Stroll through the palace gardens for free to enjoy a manicured greenspace or, for a fee, visit the zoo or labyrinth within the gardens. Just a little further outside the city is the Lainzer Tiergarten wildlife park which is a former hunting ground but nowadays makes for an excellent place for enjoying trails.
  • For seasonal activities, check out Vienna’s Christmas Markets during the winter and try out swimming or water sports in the Danube River during the summer.

Eat:

Popular Viennese cuisine includes breaded and pan-fried veal called Wiener schnitzel, a foot-long Kässekrainer sausage served in a whole baguette, pastries such as the famous (and dense) Sachertorte and beloved Apfelstrudel, and Viennese coffee that should be drank while relaxing in a coffeehouse. A couple of recommendations to get you started:

  • The Schachtelwirt restaurant is a small and inexpensive establishment with a menu that changes regularly (maybe even weekly). The staff are friendly and the food is fantastic – you can’t go wrong with the roasted pork.
  • Liebsteinsky is a restaurant near the Opera House that serves delicious Wiener schnitzel and other local cuisine at a fair price for the area.
  • Stop by the Naschmarkt for traditional fare like schnitzel and sausage sandwiches, to shop for fresh bakery along with the locals, or to sample the multicultural cuisine while browsing the fresh produce.
  • Coffeehouse – Pick one that looks cozy to you and order a coffee and pastry to enjoy slowly while you ponder the sacred tradition of the coffeehouse. Coffee came to Vienna by way of Turkish troops who left their beans behind when they retreated from the city in the 17th The Wiener Melange is similar to a cappuccino with a foamy top and is sure to become a fast favorite.

Stay:

  • If you’re looking for convenience while touring city center, the Innere Stadt, Vienna’s 1st District, is as good of a location as any. Hotel Motel One is located across the street from the Opera House and is a two minute walk from the nearest U-Bahn station.
  • If you want to stay away from the main tourist spots and get to know the charming and more local haunts, the Spittelberg District may be best area for your visit. Find an apartment rental in this neighborhood located just behind the Museums Quarter and then explore the authentic establishments.

Vienna truly feels like a place that can and should be visited at any time during the year. Its culture is best absorbed in cozy coffeehouses and cafés, or through the performing arts, but simply walking around the city will enlighten you to its rich history and modern outlook on life.

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Enjoy a Melange coffee in Vienna

If you’re interested in the whole story behind my tourist gaffes (distressed denim and obstructed views at the Opera), check out my longer recap of our visit to Vienna in December 2019.

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