Dubbed “The City of Dreams” and the subject of one of Billy Joel’s iconic songs, Vienna Austria has to be one of my favorite cities. Almost a year ago to this day, I boarded the plane to head off to this beautiful city for my summer study abroad program. After living in Vienna for over a month, I can safely say this city will always have a special place in my heart. It really does encompass a mix of class, culture, history, and modern living. No wonder it’s consistently ranked the best city in the world to live. Hopefully I can make it back someday, but in the meantime, in a bout of nostalgia, I’ve crafted a complete Vienna Austria guide, based on my own experiences, on how to best enjoy the city! Keep reading for recommendations of what to see, do, eat, and where to stay!
Vienna Austria Guide:
- Country: Austria
- Currency: Euro
- Language: German
- Population: 1.8 million
- Weather: Continental- mild fall and spring seasons, warm summers, cooler winters. (I visited July/August and didn’t find the heat uncomfortable. I’d love to come back during the Christmas season to experience the holiday markets. Thus, year-round I think it’s a great city to visit.)
- Transportation: Vienna International Airport (VIE) is the main hub for international air travel and about an hour outside the city. Locally, Vienna has one of the best public transportation systems in the world. There’s the U-Bahn (subway) and S-Bahn (local train). Day or week passes can be purchased at the station or online. Besides walking, the U-bahn is fast, efficient, and always on time, making it the most affordable and easy way to get around.
- Other Important Information to Know: Since Sunday is largely considered a family day, most grocery stores and retail/restaurant places are closed. Plan accordingly, although some of the more touristy ones might remain open. Additionally, the tap water here is completely safe to drink and runs from the Austrian Alps.
What to Visit:
One must see activity? Exploring the summer imperial palace home to generations of Habsburg monarchs. Marie Antoinette herself, while known for her downfall in France, actually came from Austria and ran about the 1400+ rooms at some point during her childhood. Enjoy the magnificence of the gardens and building, then go inside for a tour. While it costs money, I found the guided tour, lead by a local guide complemented with an audio headset, definitely worth it to learn about the history. I’d recommend booking ahead of time during peak tourist seasons.
Vienna Zoo (Tiergarten Schonbrunn):
If you are an animal-lover or big on seeing “firsts”, don’t miss visiting the world’s oldest zoo, built in 1752. This can easily be combined with the Schonbrunn Palace since the zoo is tucked away on palace grounds.
Messe Prater Theme Park:
Unleash your inner child and spend time at the Messe Prater Theme Park. There are tons of rides and games for many ages! It’s a fun place to walk around and people-watch with a gelato in hand. For the more daring, take a ride up on the Messe Prater swings. I rode it at night and it was so stunning to get an aerial view of the city all lit up. I actually didn’t know this at the time (maybe for the best!) but it’s actually the world’s tallest swing carousel. Well I can check that one off the bucketlist.
The MuseumsQuartier area perfectly captures the essence of Vienna. It’s a mix of modern and urban design, yet rich with history and the relaxed ambiance of the cafe courtyard culture. Walk through and marvel at the architecture. Then, stop by two famous museums – the Leopold and the Museum of Contemporary Art. Cross the street to the large public square known as Maria-Theresien-Platz. The square pays homage to the Habsburg’s only female leader and is a great place to soak up some sun.
State Hall in the National Library:
The National Library is perhaps…no…it is…the most beautiful library I’ve ever seen. The Austrian National Library is one of the most classical and historic libraries in the world. Besides marveling at the books, check out the four baroque globes in the center hall and marble statues.
Have you really visited a city without going to at least one marketplace? At the famous Naschmarkt you’ll find almost a mile of stalls offering an array of spices, fresh juices, central & Eastern European food, jewelry, tourist gifts, and more!
Vienna State Opera House:
For musicians and music enthusiasts alike, don’t skip over the Vienna State Opera House. I played flute and violin for over 10 years, so I couldn’t skip this. Dating back to the 19th century, the State Opera House has been home to performers such as Mozart and Richard Strauss. While special box seating can cost upwards of hundreds to thousands of Euros, they also offer standing seats for between just 5 to 20 euros.
St. Stephens Cathedral:
St. Stephens Cathedral is the most popular church in the city and one of Vienna’s most recognizable landmarks. Take time to marvel at its grandeur and unique exterior design. To get one of the best views of Vienna (see above!) climb the winding 343-step staircase! Then, treat yourself to some well-earned dessert as St. Stephen’s is located in the popular Graben and Karntner Strasse areas.
What to Do:
Embrace the Cafe Culture
There is no city in the world with a coffee house tradition and culture like that of Vienna. Besides the brew, there’s an integral social aspect. Any afternoon you’ll find people sitting outside chatting over coffee and pastries. In fact, I remember learning in class how Starbucks failed to integrate into the distinct cafe culture, and essentially left the market. Take a moment, in Austrian fashion, to relax and embrace both the drink and experience. Check out this article on the history of the coffee house.
Visit a Wine Garden
Although everyone associates Germanic countries with beer this isn’t entirely the case. In fact, Vienna is the only capital that produces large amounts of wine within the city limits! As a wine enthusiast, this was definitely a pleasant surprise. Austrian wine is typically white, on the drier side, but there’s a range of sweeter options as well. Try the ever so refreshing white wine spritzers- a mix of chilled white wine + sparkling mineral water. (Sidenote: When will rooftop bars in America get on board and add these to their menu). To get the full experience, visit an Austrian wine garden!
Do some regional travel
Another major perk of Vienna’s central location is the ability to travel and explore new places. Some recommendations include:
- Salzburg: Bet you’re thinking of The Sound of Music right? I highly recommend visiting Salzburg if you have the chance! Besides walking in the steps of Fraulein Maria, there’s a stunning castle to explore, charming old town, and Mozart’s House. (Read more: Salzburg Trip!). I visited for one day, which is doable, but I could’ve spent a weekend.
- Bratislava: For only 14 euros and an hour train ride, you can be in a new capital city. Fun fact: Vienna and Bratislava are the two closest capitals in Europe. You probably don’t need more than a day to explore, but it’s fun and less-touristy than other capitals in the area. (Read More: A Day in Bratislava)
- Prague: This is one city I can’t recommend enough. While so charming and historic, it’s also great for nightlife and incredibly affordable. It’s about a 5 hour bus ride from Vienna. Remember to keep your passport with you, because out of all the travel I did, the Czech border was the only place we were actually stopped and they “Czeched” it. This pun had to be done, I’m sorry. 🙂 (Read more: Prague Photo Diary)
- Budapest: Am I the only one who feels like Budapest’s tourism skyrocketed these past few years? I visited for a weekend and thoroughly enjoyed myself. There’s a distinctly Eastern European vibe to the city, which I loved. Its got stunning architecture and tons of sights and things to do, while only a 2-3 hour train ride from Vienna.
What to Eat:
It would be remiss to write a Vienna Austria guide and not include this national cuisine. Schnitzel is thin, breaded meat, often made with veal, chicken, or turkey. Truthfully, I lost track how many times I ate it last summer! Don’t forget oftentimes more local or hole-in-the wall places can have the best native dishes.
Sachertorte is without a doubt one of the most famous Viennese desserts. In fact, there is a national day dedicated to it (December 5th!). Made of chocolate cake, this treat is traditionally topped with a chocolate icing and dollop of whip cream. Despite a seemingly chocolate overload, it’s not cloyingly sweet, but rather just the right amount of rich flavor. Hotel Sacher claims to be the birthplace and true originator of Sachertorte. Of course it’s a bit more expensive, but weigh the experience -where better to try it than where it was invented?
Besides Sachertorte, Apfelstrudel is another dessert you must try. A flaky pastry filled with sweet apple filling, it’s the perfect mid afternoon snack with a cup of tea or coffee.
Admittedly, before living here, I didn’t like sausage. I was just never a fan of the taste or idea of it. However, after trying the traditional Viennese frankfurter, I surprisingly enjoyed the smoked yet meaty taste. Taste buds change after all..so if you’re on the fence I recommend trying it.
Where to Stay:
Since I studied abroad, I lived in a dorm near campus most of the time. However, at the end of my program my mom flew over and we spent additional time in the city and stayed at the most charming boutique hotel. Located in a wonderful neighborhood, the Hotel Altstadt is central to the U-Bahn, restaurants, and more. From start to finish we had a great stay- between artistic yet modern rooms and an expansive array of complimentary breakfast and afternoon tea options, I can’t recommend the Hotel Altstadt enough. Furthermore, the staff goes above and beyond. When we were unsure about the pick-up for a day tour, the front desk went out of their way to call the company and manage the arrangements.
Thank you for reading my Vienna Austria guide! If you’re headed that way, I hope my suggestions have helped you out. Feel free to leave me a comment below if I can answer anything else. I love talking travel with my readers. Have you visited Austria before? Is it on your list?
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