After living off and on in Vienna, Austria for the last few years, I thought it was about time I put together a really helpful guide for anyone planning a visit to this fine city. (And for those of you not as versed in the German language, the name for Vienna in German is Wien, pronounced “VEEN”)
Consider this post a good central resource for suggested tourist sites, transportation tips, restaurant recommendations, and other miscellaneous assistance – a great basic resource to help you plan your trip.
The first thing I have to say about Vienna is that it is truly one of the most beautiful cities I have ever been to. The architecture of this small Central European hub is a site to see unto itself. So much of the buildings reflect the style of the city’s former position as the center of the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Hapsburgs were good to the people of Vienna and created wonderful places for the city’s citizens to meet, relax, and live. Vienna is full of parks and palaces, museums and concert halls. Culture and music are revered throughout the citizenry, and one really needs several days in Vienna to truly experience all it has to offer.
Vienna is the capital of Austria. The official language is German. Because of its central location on the continent, it serves as a gateway between western and eastern Europe. There are truly cultures from all over the world represented here.
The city is set up in a ‘wagon wheel’ formation. The old city, known as the 1st district, is located in the middle, with the other districts encircling the old city in an almost circular pattern. The 1st district is set apart from the other districts by the Ringstrasse (“Ring Street”) that runs all around the old city. Something not always known to first-time visitors is that the old city section of Vienna is not right adjacent to the famous Danube River. One must take transportation to the river (or a nice long walk) from the center of the city.
Here’s a map showing a more up-close look at Vienna’s first district. The featured/pin-pointed locations are not mine, they are courtesy Google Maps. But this visual lets you see the Ring Street that encircles the city, separating the first district from its neighboring districts. (The top edge of the first district is bordered by the canal.)
HOW TO GET THERE – PLANES AND TRAINS
The Vienna airport (airport code: VIE) is about 20 minutes outside of the city. I personally really like the airport, as it is easy to navigate and has free wifi for everyone! One of the awesome options you have when getting to and from the airport, is to take the City Airport Train (aka CAT). This train is located at the edge of the 1st and 3rd districts at the Landstraβe/Wien Mitte stop. (There’s a good sized mall there too, in case you need to do any shopping on your travels.) As of right now, the price for the CAT is just 14€, and it’s a god-send, especially when you are traveling TO the airport. You can check your bags and get your boarding pass printed right there at the train station. After that, you just board the high speed direct train to the airport. When you arrive there, you just proceed through security to your gate. One of my top tips is to use the CAT – you won’t be disappointed!
Vienna is also incredibly easy to access via train. The city just recently did a massive renovation of the Hauptbahnhof. (Main train station – formerly the south train station.) It is becoming the city’s primary train hub, but there are also other stations around the city as well. For shorter trips, like Bratislava, Budapest, or Salzburg, the train is a great option. If you’re going farther distances, it’s best to weigh your cost options of train vs. plane. (Although as a side note, I would recommend the train trip from Salzburg to Zurich to EVERYONE, as the route takes you directly through the Alps – not to be missed! Truly breathtaking! CLICK HERE to see my blog on that experience from a few years back.) Note that there are multiple train ticket options as well – Americans are eligible to purchase a RailPass that allows them more travel options via Europe’s vast train infrastructure. I’ve used RailPasses for the past four years in a row and as a travel agent, I can help you purchase one as well. I’ve learned a lot of the ins and outs of RailPasses and am happy to help my clients navigate this option with ease.
HOW TO GET AROUND VIENNA
Vienna has one of the most efficient public transportation systems I’ve ever witnessed. There is the UBahn (subway), the Strassenbahn (tram), and the Bus. (“Bus” is the same in German and English!) The UBahn tends to be the easiest and quickest option for anyone who is new to the city. You can buy tickets at the little touch screen kiosks in every subway station. And the big primary UBahn stations have offices where you can purchase tickets from a real person. (Although I suggest using the automated touch screens, as you can choose your language and not worry about someone misunderstanding you if you don’t speak German.) When entering a station, the first thing you need to do is buy your ticket. Then before you enter the area of the UBahn stop where the train comes through, you will stamp your ticket in the little blue box. By doing so, you activate your ticket and it is officially in use. (You can buy a few tickets in advance if you like, and keep them in your wallet for when you need them. They are not active until stamped. In addition to a one way fare, you can also choose options like the 48 hour ticket, a weekly ticket, an eight-day ticket, etc. )
If you are taking the tram, you can purchase your ticket inside the car, but it’s always 10 cents more expensive there for some reason. A “one way” fare covers your entire route, even if you use more than one form of transportation. (For example, perhaps the first part of your route is on the UBahn, and then you transfer to a tram for the second half. That’s all covered as part of your one-way fare ticket. You do not need to buy separate tickets for the UBahn and tram portions of your ride.)
Public transportation in Vienna is on the “honor system.” There are no turnstiles to walk through, or barricades to pass through. They expect you to buy your ticket and pay your share. When it comes to enforcement, they will often have random checks to make sure people have valid tickets. If you are caught riding transportation without a valid ticket, there is a HUGE fine. Don’t risk it. Buy your ticket. Checks on trams are usually done by officers in plain clothes, and done quickly between stops. The same method is sometimes used on the subway, but more often, subway checks are done via large crews of workers that check every single person going through a specific station. One time I was switching trains at Schwedenplatz and there were easily 30 officers checking tickets of every single rider passing through.
Follow THIS LINK to the website of the Wiener Linien.
***Special Tip: When you are using the escalators in the UBahn, please stand to the right and pass to the left. Do NOT just stand on the left side of the escalator stairs! You will have very angry commuters trying to pass you.
Here’s a map of the UBahn. It’s super easy to navigate. I suggest downloading the photo to your smart phone so you always have access to it – even when you don’t have internet.
SUGGESTED SITES TO SEE
There are SO many things to see in Vienna, and the average tourist just doesn’t have enough time to see everything. My suggestion is to figure out what your top priorities are, and be sure to check them off your list.
~One Day Trip – top sites to see~
If you only have a day in Vienna, my suggestion would be to stick to the old city (1st district) and see the sites there. Right in the middle of town is Stephansdom (St. Stephan’s Cathedral.) Don’t miss it! You are allowed to go inside and look around. Sometimes you might get lucky and see a concert or rehearsal during your visit. I once attended Sunday Mass there with a friend, as the choir was performing Palestrina’s Mass during the service. CLICK HERE to read about it!
The big open area around Stephansdom is called Stephansplatz. From here, you can walk down the city’s two biggest pedestrian walkways: the Kärntnerstraβe and the Graben. If you walk down the Kärntnerstraβe, you’ll see shops and restaurants galore, while being serenaded by street musicians. Do some window shopping, have a snack or drink, buy some souvenirs for your friends back home. Once you reach the end, you’ll find the famous Sacher Hotel (home of the legendary Sachertorte) and the Staatsoper (State Opera House). Many people like to have a slice of Sachertorte at the Sacher Hotel sheerly for bragging rights. Although many natives insist that the torte at Demel is just as good or better. I’ll let you decide! (Demel isn’t far – it’s near the Hofburg Palace.)
Once you’ve walked to the corner at Sacher Hotel and opera house, I suggest turning right, walking past the opera house, and continuing on in the direction of the Hofburg Palace. The palace is also home to the Lippizzaner horses and the famous Spanish Riding School. If you want a ticket to a show or rehearsal, I recommend booking it ahead of time on their website.
If you have the time, take a short little side detour – from the palace, you can walk through the royal building, and go to the gorgeous Volksgarten (“People’s Garden”) and see all the amazing roses. I often walked through this area to see the flowers. It’s a great place to take a nice little rest, and the entire rose garden is lined with chairs for that very reason.
From the palace, you can also turn right again and walk up towards the Graben. (The other pedestrian street I mentioned above. It will lead you right back to Stephansplatz.) This particular area is filled with high end retail stores. Think 5th Ave in NYC.
That whole little loop is great for a half day leisurely walking tour!
Want some other suggestions of sites to visit if you have more time on your hands? In addition to the highlights I’ve listed above (make sure to hit those!), here’s a selection of some more of my personal favorites!
Museum of Ancient Instruments – I truly LOVE this museum. It’s located adjacent to the Hofburg Palace – the primary sign outside the entrance is for the Library, but the museum is inside there as well. The entrance faces the big open garden area with the statue in the middle of it. (And the parking lot is right there adjacent to the entrance as well.) Here you can see musical instruments from the last several centuries. The audio guide lets you learn all about them AND hear what they sound like! As someone who has done a great deal of performing in the genre of early music, I especially enjoyed the instruments from the Renaissance period. Plus, the grandeur of the hall when you head up the stairs to this particular museum is amazing!
Schönbrunn – This particular palace is located outside of the city center. It was the summer palace of the Hapsburg family. You can easily get here via the U4 UBahn train to the Schönbrunn stop. When you get out of the station, just walk the five minutes it takes to get to the entrance of the grounds. (Follow the signs and the other people!) There’s A LOT to see here. I do recommend taking the tour of the inside of the palace – it’s worth the money to do so. Once you are done with the inside tour, go explore the grounds outside. There are gorgeous pathways, fountains, and views. There’s even a zoo!
Volksgarten – I won’t lie – I’m REALLY partial to the Volksgarten! I think it’s the prettiest park in the city! My favorite part is the rose garden area. There are SO many roses! It’s just heavenly! And it’s so centrally located between the Hofburg, Rathaus, and the primary museums.
The Crown Jewels Museum – The entrance to this museum is located in one of the courtyards of the Hofburg Palace – it’s a little hard to find, as you can’t see it from the street. Inside are jewels and precious objects from centuries of royalty. Sparkling crowns, gold-threaded robes, jewel-encrusted crosses – it’s got it all!
Rathaus – (City Hall) – is located along the Ring Street across from the Volksgarten. There is almost always some kind of special event going on in the gardens in front of the Rathaus. In winter, the open area and its pathways become an amazing complex of skating rinks and frozen skating paths called “Wiener Eistraum.” (CLICK HERE to read about my experience skating at the Wiener Eistraum.) Anyone can rent skates here (or bring your own) and glide along the ice. After skating, I suggest a warm tasty Glühwein! (Glühwein is hot spiced wine.) In the summer, the city sets up a big film festival in this area, where it shows concerts, operas, ballets, and movies. There are a myriad of high quality food, snack, and drink stands to choose from so that you can enjoy a wonderful evening out under the stars!
Stadtpark – Literally translating to “City Park,” the Stadtpark is along the Ring Street, separating the 1st and 3rd districts. Walk along paths, feed the ducks in the pond, or lounge in the grass. Make sure you visit the golden Strauss Monument!
The Danube River – You can’t go to Vienna and not see the famous “Blue Danube” of song and legend! The Danube is NOT adjacent to the old city. It is on the other side of the 2nd district. Your best bet from the city center is to take the U1 UBahn train to Vorgartenstraβe and walk a block over to the river. (This is the area where ALL the river cruise ships dock.) The side walk eventually becomes the bridge. You can descend from the bridge and walk along the river here, or continue over the bridge and explore the Donau Insel (the island in the middle of the river.) Do not do this at night – stick to day-time hours.
Mozart’s House – Mozart lived in an apartment in the first district of Vienna during a successful and lucrative part of his career. You can take a tour of the residence and learn more about the life of the world’s most famous composer.
Of course, I also recommend just walking around the old city and exploring the little side streets and hidden treasures. New treats await you around every corner!
Staatsoper – See an opera at Vienna’s famous opera house. Some of the best singers in the world grace this stage, and you can see them in your favorite opera or operetta. I recommend ordering your tickets online in advance before your trip. (And to the opera newbies out there – please research your operas before blindly buying a ticket – styles and composers vary immensely, and you want to see something that will suit your own musical palette and tastes. There’s something for everyone!)
I don’t often eat out in Vienna on a daily basis, but will do so when people are visiting or I’m having a night out with my man or friends. I’m going to make some suggestions for ALL types of food, and types of restaurants.
First up, some authentic Viennese cuisine, because one simply must try Wiener Schnitzel while in Wien! (And after that, some other options to tempt your palette!)
Griechenbeisl – located in the first district, this is one of Vienna’s oldest restaurants. This is the place to go for the most authentic Wiener Schnitzel in the city. High quality food and great service. Sometimes offering live music. During heavy tourist times, I suggest making a reservation.
Zwölf Apostelkeller – this restaurant is also located in the 1st district and serves authentic Austrian cuisine. The inside of the restaurant looks just like an ancient wine cellar. Don’t be thrown off when looking for the restaurant – you need to walk through a generic looking entryway and then down a set of stairs to get there. On some nights, they even have live traditional music.
Pürstner – one more to add to the list of authentic regional cuisine. This restaurant is visited by lots of locals and is also in the 1st district. It seems small from the outside, but once you enter, it goes on and on. Give it a try – the food is delicious!
Vapiano – If you’re looking for something a little less Viennese and a little more Italian, there’s a great chain of restaurants called Vapiano. You can get pastas, pizzas, salads, and risottos – made fresh right in front of you – for an insanely good price. And they’re all really darn good! They’ve also got a great decor and look inside. There are a few locations all over the city, but Miloš and I tend to frequent the one near the opera house.
Akakiko – Another quality chain restaurant located all throughout the city. Sometimes you can only handle so much heavy Austrian fare, and you just want some Asian cuisine! This company’s motto is “Easy Japanese Dining with high quality healthy food.” I really like them. And they often have super cheap lunch specials. There’s lots of yummy options at Akakiko – and they’re every where! Perfect!
Go Gourmet – This Thai restaurant is located just up the block from the opera house. I’ve been here a couple times for their lunch menu – you get several courses (appetizer, soup, entree) all for one low price. Highly recommended!
L. Heiner – If you’re looking to have tea or dessert at a fantastic Viennese cafe and bakery, visit L. Heiner on the Kärnterstraβe. The ground floor is a traditional bakery, and upstairs is the cafe.
Zanoni & Zanoni – Feel like some ice cream or other sweet treats? Make a visit to this great establishment in the 1st district. It’s just a couple blocks up from Stephansdom. (Actually quite close to the 1st district Akakiko location.) They have great gelato in more flavors than you can imagine! And it’s super cheap too!
Steak Point – If red meat is your fancy, make a visit to Steak Point, just up and around the corner from the Vapiano’s near the opera house. This place is one of Miloš’ favorites! The have a great traditional dumpling soup and fantastic surf and turf! Plus, the service has been consistently excellent every time we’ve gone.
EASY DAY TRIPS FROM VIENNA
If you’re in the Vienna area for a long enough time to want to branch outside from the city itself, there are lots of options for easy day-trips and overnights.
Bratislava – Less than an hour away by train, Bratislava and Vienna are the closest capital cities in Europe. Truly, one of the easiest day trips to make outside Vienna is Bratislava. You can actually buy a ticket at one of the OEBB train stations called a “Bratislava Ticket.” It’s only about 15 euros and counts as your round trip train ticket to and from Bratislava AND it’s also good on all public transportation for the whole day once you’re in Bratislava. If you’re not a wiz yet at Vienna’s train stations, just head over to the Hauptbahnhof (the primary train station), buy your ticket there, and you’ll be able to jump on a train. Direct trains usually leave about once per hour. (Make sure to get a train going to Bratislava’s main station, and not Petrzalka.) Once in Bratislava you can explore the old town, walk along the Danube, or climb up to the castle. I’ve been to Bratislava lots of time, but CLICK HERE to read about my first visit back in 2012.
Hiking in the Alps – Because the edge of the Alps are not too far from Vienna, you can be in a glorious mountain town within an hour’s drive of Vienna. Plus, some of the commuter type trains head out to these Alpen towns, if you don’t have access to a car. (Just check in at the ticket desk at the Hauptbahnhof – they can help you with anything!) There are hiking trails galore, and amazing sites to be seen if you head to the Alps. I obviously would only recommend this when the weather is nice and not too cold. Trails can be treacherous if it rains and too cold in the winter due to mountain snows. Wear comfortable shoes and dress in layers. Allow plenty of time to descend the mountains when you are calculating the amount of light remaining each day. CLICK HERE to read about my adventures from last year hiking in the Alps. (I talk about where we went, how to get there, and posted lots of pics of what we saw!)
The Vienna Woods – Right outside Vienna are lots of forests and parks. Because of their proximity to the city, these nature filled areas tend to get a little more crowded than if you head out further from the city. But it’s still a great chance to get yourself out and in nature!
Budapest – If you’re up for a more ambitious day trip OR a perfect overnight adventure, take the train over to Budapest. It’s about a three hour ride to an amazing city in a whole other country. Budapest is beautiful! (One side is Buda, the other is Pest, with the Danube in the middle.) You’ll be treated to amazing architecture, fantastic culture, and great eats. (A quick heads up though: be ready to walk, because the taxi cabs will totally rip you off!) Hungary isn’t on the euro, so you’ll have to exchange some money or take some extra cash out of the ATM.
Salzburg – Another great overnight trip from Vienna is Salzburg. Again, plan to spend about three hours in the train, but be delighted by one of the most beautiful cities you’ve ever seen! Nestled along the Salzach River, Salzburg has a beautiful old town area, a majestic fortress overlooking the entire town, and is the birthplace of Mozart!
A few other random tips….
~Don’t walk in bike lanes! Make sure you’re walking in a pedestrian walkway, or you might be putting yourself in danger!
~If you need to access your wifi, just head over to Starbucks. (Remember to turn off your data roaming when you leave for Europe, or you’ll come home to a phone bill in the thousands!) So if you need to check your email while you’re out in Vienna, there’s a Starbucks right across from the opera house, there’s also one right off the Graben near the Plague monument. You can also find one just a little bit up from Zanoni & Zanoni – up from the cathedral. (You can even find one down in the Karlsplatz UBahn station!) There are a few other’s spattered around, but those are the ones in the primary tourist areas. Even though I live most of the year abroad, my smart phone is still hooked up to an American number, so I always have to look for Starbucks when I need wifi! (And your American Starbucks card points account will NOT work overseas, fyi.)
~Public toilets are all PAY toilets in Europe. So be sure to have some change on hand if you need to use the facilities while you’re out and about.
~Coca-Cola is expensive overseas, and there are NO free refills. I hate that part!
~If you’re out at a bar, try a Hugo! It’s a really popular drink in Vienna – white wine, sparkling water, lime juice, mint, and elder flower syrup. It’s delicious!
Overall, the best part about a trip to Vienna is seeing the architecture and losing yourself in the history of its streets. Have a great time and enjoy!