Vienna is my favorite city in the whole world. If this post sounds biased, that is why. I first traveled to Vienna when I was a freshman in college, and I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the city. As the years went on, I started thinking that Vienna couldn’t possibly be as gorgeous as I remembered. I was incredibly wrong. It was better. Vienna is a city of opulence and beauty, and dare I say frivolity. It is a city of art and pastries and the best coffee in the world (sorry, Italy). Vienna is grand for the sake of being grand, and I again loved every minute in this beautiful city.
About the City:
Vienna is organized into 23 districts. Many of the tourist attractions are found in the first district, or the Innere Stadt. We stayed mostly in or close to the Innere Stadt, with the exception of the walk to Hundertwasserhaus and heading out to Schönbrunn. Vienna is clean and beautiful, and it is the imperial city of the Austrian empire. Vienna is grand and magnificent, with the most beautiful architecture and an air of royal splendor that lingers even today. Even amidst the backdrop of world wars and other significant conflicts, Vienna has managed to maintain its dignified beauty, and it embraces modernism while maintaining traditional roots.
Where to Stay:
- Ambassador Hotel Vienna: This is where we stayed, and it was amazing. Full disclosure, we got an amazing price on Hotwire, so that’s how we afforded such an incredible hotel. The location absolutely can’t be beat. The hotel itself is gorgeous, and it is in the heart of Vienna. I would fully recommend it to anyone. Also, their Instagram game is strong.
- If you are new to Vienna, I suggest trying to stay in or along the ring road. There is no shortage of hotels, and Hotwire can be really helpful in finding a good deal. The city is very walkable, so if you stay reasonably close you can walk anywhere (except Schönbrunn).
When to Go:
I have now been to Vienna in both early March and late May. I can say with confidence that May was the better choice. The early summer provides gorgeous, warm weather, and incredible gardens are in bloom. The city was still gorgeous in March, but it was freezing cold and the gardens certainly didn’t have the same splendor. When we were there in May, the city didn’t feel overcrowded yet by summer travelers, though I am sure it can get extremely busy. I’m guessing the weather is nice from late spring through early fall, but if you are a garden person, make sure to go when the flowers will be in bloom.
What to Do:
- Ring Road Tram: If you are looking for a way to orient yourself, or just get around, your transportation pass will let you ride on the ring road tram around the city. This tram does just what it sounds like—circles the city center and lets you get a good look at all of the places you will want to hit later.
- Hofburg Palace: I’m going to be honest with you. We didn’t go in any palaces. Not one. First of all, we didn’t want to spend 30 Euros each to go inside a building. We both have traveled a lot and have seen palaces before, so we didn’t feel the need to go inside. But, we certainly walked around the outside of all of the palaces we went to, which was enough for me to see the beauty and not spend money. You really can’t miss the Hofburg Palace since it is the center of Vienna, and it sets the tone for the grandeur of the city.
- Schönbrunn Palace: The royal summer home is a little ways outside the center of Vienna, so you will need to take public transportation. Jump on the U4, get off at Schönbrunn, and just follow the swarm of tourists. You can’t miss it. See below for tips about the metro. Once again, we did not go in the palace. But we still spent 4 hours at the palace wandering the extensive, gorgeous gardens and climbing to the top of the gloriette. It’s a bit of a hike on a warm day, so come prepared. The views are so worth it. Pro tip: enjoy some ice cream at the top. (Please note you cannot actually enter the gloriette structure if you did not purchase a ticket to enter the palace.)
- St. Stephen’s Cathedral: In the heart of the city, this grand cathedral is truly breathtaking. Look up to see the incredible tile work on the roof, and admire the gothic architecture! You can climb the tallest tower, or you can take an elevator to the top of a smaller one for an almost as impressive view with less work.
- Karlskirche: Though not as grand as St. Stephen’s, I loved Karlskirche. The architecture is more baroque, and it’s really breathtaking. We didn’t realize until we were there that people gather after sunset to see the church reflected in the pool in front. It makes for an amazing picture.
- Vienna Opera: I desperately wanted to go to the opera or ballet while we were in Vienna. But, by the time I got on to buy tickets, all of the cheapest seats (around 35 Euros) were sold out. I did a lot of research, and the best thing to do is get in line for standing tickets (3 Euros each). I have heard that you are likely to get tickets for almost any performance, and that they rarely sell out. The line forms on the side of the Opera House toward the Albertina museum, and the box office will open 80-90 minutes before the performance. You can choose if you want to be on the first, second, or third floor for standing room. I suggest second or third so you can see everything. On the first floor, there aren’t risers, so if you have a tall person in front of you, your vision will be limited. Even the standing areas they have little screens that will translate what is being sung into whichever language you choose. I loved this feature. We saw La Traviata, which is based on a book I have read so that helped me understand the plot. I highly suggest reading some kind of synopsis before you go. It was an overall wonderful experience, but my feet and back were aching after we left. One last very important note: Men, they will not let you in if you are wearing shorts! We saw a number of men turned away after waiting in line for over an hour because they were wearing shorts.
- Spanish Riding School: For whatever reason, I was dying to see the dancing horses. They did not disappoint. I also recommend standing room tickets for this, which are easy to purchase the day of right in the riding school. They are 25 Euros each. Actual seats cost a ton, and there are very few so they sell out quickly. This is such a traditional Viennese activity, and I highly suggest it. Beware—you are not allowed to take pictures at all and the employees actually walk around yelling at people who try.
- Stadtpark: I was honestly reminded of Central Park in NYC when we walked through Stadtpark. It is a beautiful green space, and people were all over the grass picnicking and enjoying the pretty weather. There were fountains and benches, and it was really a lovely place to spend a few hours relaxing.
- Volksgarten: I was so in love with the Volksgarten. While we were there in late May, the roses were in full bloom and it was breathtaking. It was an entire fairy tale garden filled with roses. Of course, it’s completely free, and you can spend as much time there as you want. This was great for me, since I walked around smelling every last rose.
- Burggarten: This gorgeous garden tucked behind the palace is where you will find the Palmenhaus restaurant (see below), and people relaxing under the incredible trees. This is also where the famous Mozart statue lives, and there are frequently concerts and live music taking place.
- Museumsquartier: This area is on the other side from the Burggarten, and it houses two incredible museums, whose architecture is as impressive as the collections inside. If museums are something you enjoy, I have heard both the Natural History Museum and the Museum of Fine Arts are amazing. We would have done these if we had more time. It is worth a visit just to see the gorgeous park space, the incredible statues, and beautiful architecture, even if you don’t have time to go inside.
- Hundertwasserhaus: It’s a little bit of a walk, but if you’re into architecture or just want to see something cool, take a stroll. This apartment building was converted into its current, modern art glory by Friedensreich Hundertwasser and architect Joseph Krawina. It is fun to see something so unique in the midst of all of the other “normal” buildings in Vienna (which all look like mini castles, by the way).
Food and Beverages:
If you aren’t familiar with Austrian cuisine, the menus may be a little daunting. I am also an admittedly extremely picky eater, so I was nervous about the food on our trip. I have together a list of some typical Austrian food that I found to be delicious! Hopefully I can help another picky sister out!
- Wiener Schnitzel: If you have heard of any Austrian food, this is probably it! It is traditionally a thin veal cutlet, breaded and fried. It is typically served with potatoes of some kind. Beware, if you see this on the menu for much cheaper than other places, it is pork, not veal. It is probably still delicious, but just know what you are ordering!
- Tafelspitz: This dish was an unexpected surprise for me. It is boiled beef with vegetables, served in a Dutch oven. It was like a fancy pot roast, and I loved it. It is served with potatoes and a few sauces, including a horseradish applesauce and a sour cream type sauce. This was easily one of my favorite meals.
- Goulash: Austria has borrowed a few dishes from further east in Europe, including goulash. This hearty beef and vegetable stew is a popular and common dish.
- Pierogies: Another borrowed dish is pierogies. These were some of my favorite things to eat while we were in Austria, because who doesn’t love pasta filled with potatoes and cheese?
- Cordon Bleu: Austria also borrowed a dish from the French, but honestly it was the best chicken cordon bleu I have ever eaten. They use the same breading as the schnitzel, and I much preferred this dish since I don’t eat veal. My husband had a pork cordon bleu in a different restaurant and loved it as well.
- Sausage: If you are a sausage fan, Austria and Germany are the places for you. At almost any restaurant, you can find sausage served with bread and spicy mustard.
- Spritzers: While everyone knows Austria is big on beer, what I didn’t know about are the spritzers. It is a favorite pastime of the Austrians to enjoy this aperitif (borrowed from the Italians). The two favorites are the Aperol Spritz (prosecco, Aperol, and an orange) and the Hugo (prosecco, elderflower, mint, and lime), but you can find a variety of flavors.
- Melange: You don’t go to Austria and drink black coffee. It’s basically a sin. Instead, you order a melange, which is their version of a latte. They are somehow better. I love that every café has its own version of the melange. If you want to get crazy, order the Franziskaner, which is a melange topped with whipped cream. See the café section below for more coffee tips!
- Eiskaffe: This sounds like “iced coffee,” but don’t be deceived, It is actually cold coffee with ice cream and whipped cream. It’s delightful.
- Torte: Torte is basically the national dessert of Austria. It’s like a dense cake, and it comes in a variety of flavors. Sacher Torte is what most people first think of, which is like a chocolate cake with apricot preserves. My favorite is Anna Torte which is chocolate with a hazelnut nougat filling. Honestly though, just walk into a café and point to the cake that looks good. You won’t be sorry.
- Strudel: The other common dessert is strudel. This will come in either apple or cheese (like cream cheese), and both are delicious. They are not as sweet as what we think of as strudel in the US, but they go great with a melange as an afternoon snack!
- Kaiserschmarn: In typical Viennese decadence, one of their favorite snacks is small pieces of deep fried pancakes, served with jams and whipped cream. It is amazing.
Vienna has an amazing café culture, and you can’t miss experiencing at least a few of the traditional coffee houses. These have been meeting places of literary greats and revolutionaries for centuries, and Vienna has the tradition of coffee houses being the “living rooms” of the city. It is not uncommon for locals and tourists alike to visit a café at any time of day for a melange and a sweet treat of their choice. Another reason this is my favorite city is that it is perfectly acceptable to eat cake and coffee for every single meal.
- Cafe Demel: If you make it to no other cafes while in Vienna, go to Demel. You can’t miss it—it’s right by the palace and I swear it has the best coffee and torte in town. They created the anna torte, which is my personal favorite. Order a piece and eat the whole thing; I promise you won’t regret it. Don’t be overwhelmed when you first walk in. It seems tiny and crowded, but go to the back, admire the chocolate making through the window, and go upstairs for more spacious seating options. Snag a table by the window, if you can, and relax with your massive piece of chocolate cake and a Franziskaner.
- Cafe Sperl: Another of the historic cafes, Café Sperl has beautiful traditional wood paneling and furniture. It has the impressive chandeliers and is complete with someone hired to play the piano all day.
- Cafe Sacher: You should also not miss Café Sacher, since it is the home of the Sacher Torte. It is always very crowded, but we went after the opera late one night and we had no problem getting right in.
- Cafe Landtmann: Café Landtmann is beautiful and has gorgeous outdoor seating. We actually went here for breakfast, since they have the traditional Viennese breads and jams in the morning. Highly recommend.
- Cafe Mozart: The location is perfect and the outdoor seating is expansive, but the desserts and service were my least favorite of the cafes we visited. It’s nice to stop in if you want to take a break while sightseeing, but if you are short on time I would pick the other cafes first.
- Cafe Pruckel: Café Pruckel is a little outside of town, but we stopped on our way back from Hudertwasserhaus and enjoyed an eiskaffe. It is a popular, laid back spot to take in the city.
Where to Eat & Drink:
- Naschmarkt: This outdoor market is a fun place to go for lunch or a snack. It is a combination of food stalls and actual outdoor restaurants, and it is definitely a popular place to find something to eat. The expansive market spans a few blocks, and is worth the trek to find unique food and do some great people watching. A crowd favorite seemed to be what looked like a hot dog wrapped in a pretzel.
- Burg.ring 1: We loved this place. It’s right by the Museumsquartier, so it’s on the Ring Road and you can’t miss it. The breakfast was amazing. I don’t know why the Austrians do scrambled eggs better than anyone, but they do. We also stopped in for a spritz and snack one afternoon. I don’t think you could order anything bad from the menu, and the outdoor seating is perfect if the weather is good.
- Lugeck: We ate at Lugeck our first night in Vienna, which I would highly recommend. It is a little touristy, but the waiters are kind and helpful, and the food is excellent. I had the Tafelspitz here and the presentation was as good as the food tasted.
- Reinsthaller Beisl: Reinsthaller Beisl is tucked away on a little pedestrian street, so the outdoor seating is amazing. We really enjoyed the food here, and I had the most amazing chicken cordon bleu. Highly recommend for a casual meal.
- Palmenhaus: Palmenhaus is a greenhouse turned restaurant in the Burggarten. The atmosphere was so fun, and I really enjoyed the food. We got there when they opened, and it turns out that the Viennese don’t get up and brunch early because we were the only people there. It’s a can’t miss experience for any meal.
- Glacis Beisl: By far my favorite dinner in Vienna. Make a reservation if possible, but if not, just go early. This entire place is like a fairy tale garden, complete with twinkle lights. This was also the best food I had in Vienna. The spinach and potato pierogies were one of my favorite things I have ever eaten. I honestly can’t recommend this place enough. It was one of those meals I will dream of for years.
- Onyx Bar (Do&Co Hotel): Near St. Stephens is the Do&Co hotel, with a penthouse bar. It has floor to ceiling windows, and very pricy cocktails. We went after the opera and treated ourselves to ridiculously expensive prosecco, but the view was worth it. I highly recommend stopping in for a drink to check out the city from another angle.
- Getting there: We took the train to Vienna from Prague. Upon arrival, since we had been traveling for over 2 days, we took a taxi from the train station to our hotel. This turned out to be a mistake, since the taxi was incredibly expensive. We figured out later that there was a metro stop right outside our hotel, and the metro went directly to the train station. If you are staying inside of the Ring Road, you can likely get to your hotel by metro, which will save a lot of money.
- Getting around: To ride the metro, you buy your ticket at a little kiosk before getting on the train, and then you validate it by putting it in a little machine so it stamps the date and time. It is probably rare that someone asks for or checks your ticket while you are on the train, but in the event that they do and if your ticket isn’t validated, you will face a huge fine. It’s probably worth the few euros to be safe. If you are going to be taking the metro a lot, they have different passes such as a day pass or week pass. The metro is clean and easy to use, and a fantastic transportation option.
- Ask for tap water! We learned way too late into the trip that though bottled water is typically what is served at restaurants, you can ask for tap water. In fact, all the locals were doing it. And the tap water in Austria tastes better than any bottled water I have ever had, so there is no harm in drinking it. We found that if we ordered our food and other beverages first, and then asked for tap water, the servers were more amenable to the request.
- We had no issues using a credit card to pay while in Vienna. This isn’t the case everywhere in Europe, but we were happy that we didn’t need to rely on cash while in Vienna.
- Bring a refillable water bottle: Vienna is beautiful and so clean. They also have water fountains everywhere, so bring a bottle to save money. We were there in the early summer and it was warm, so we were thankful that we had our S’well bottles to fill up and keep the water cold.
- Language barriers: we found that everyone we interacted with spoke English, and the Austrians couldn’t have been more friendly. They are a lovely, hospitable people, and I was quite surprised at how helpful and kind all of our interactions were.
This is only the tip of the iceberg! If you are planning a trip to Vienna and you have any questions, please let me know! Have you been to Vienna? Leave your favorite places and recommendations below!