Indeed, as the Ultravox song goes – Oh Vienna! We spent the best part of 4 days here in March and we absolutely loved our time here. Vienna has grand buildings, world-class music and art, and some of the greatest cakes we’ve ever eaten!
Our home for 4 nights was an Etagerie apartment, close to the Schloss Belvedere. It was stylish, had everything we needed (including a wealth of cooking equipment in a compact kitchen which is good if you were self catering), and was in a quiet residential area away from the tourist hotspots.
Our walk into the centre of the city (about 20 minutes) passed the enormous Karlskirche. Via a lift, you can be transported to the top of the copper dome to have a close up view of the ornate frescoes.
The surrounding Karlsplatz is a nice place to enjoy a takeaway coffee and to watch the dog walkers, skateboarders and commuters go about their daily business!
On our first full day, our first stop was a walking tour. This helps us get our bearings, and gives us an overview of the history and culture which then informs what we might choose to do over the course of the remaining time we have.
We chose Welcome Tour Vienna, and our guide was excellent. She gave us a informative but not overwhelming history of the city, interspersed with stories, customs and advice on the best cafes, bars and things to see over the 2 hours or so we had with her. We also had a small group – there was just 5 of us! One great tip that she passed on was not to visit Vienna in the height of the summer season, as a couple of the popular attractions (Vienna Boys Choir, Spanish Riding School) close. Avoid disappointment and choose spring/early summer for your trip!
Within Vienna’s Innere Stadt (inner city), there are so many historic buildings to look at. Built in the 1860s, the Staatsoper (above) was the first modern building and was not popular with the reigning Habsburg royality or the rest of Vienna, due to the difference in architectural style compared to the stunning palaces. Today it houses Opera performances (not in the summer) and the Opernball – the most prestigious Opera Ball where tickets can go up to 21 thousand euros! However if that’s not in your price range, guided tours take place regularly and are much more affordable!
The Hofburg Palace area is definitely worth a visit. The palace was home to the Habsburg empire from the 13th century until 1918, and is seriously impressive.
The collection of buildings contain the offices of the Austrian president, the Spanish Riding School (if you are into all things equestrian, head there), the official living quarters of Empress Sisi who was Austria’s beloved ruler at the end of the 19th century, and the crown jewels, along with other museums, squares and performance venues (the Burgakapelle is where the Vienna Boys Choir perform).
Much like everything in Vienna, museum/gallery tickets are expensive especially if you head to more than a couple of places (look out for the Vienna Card or combined ticket options if you’re likely to spend more time inside than outside). We were happy to just wander around and you can do this freely.
Heading back to the neighbouring historic centre of town, you can’t miss taking a look at Stephansdom – the towering Gothic cathedral with an amazing tiled roof. Again, like many of the churches and cathedrals, you can pay an entrance fee to get a different perspective of the tombs and towers. In the summer visitors can also do a rooftop walk of the cathedral – much like the one we did in Seville.
Our second day saw us from move to explore the Museums District; packed with some of the most incredible buildings we have ever seen.
One of the most popular museums is the Kunsthistoriches Museum. I would have been happy to pay the full entrance fee even if there wasn’t any art on there, it’s an absolutely amazing palace – again built during the reign of the Habsburg Empire.
As well as the permanent exhibitions, we also visited the Mark Rothko exhibition, plus a collection of exhibits curated by Wes Anderson, who is one of my favourite film directors.
When you’ve enjoyed your fill of art, make sure you take a trip to the cafe for a bit of quick refreshment, as it’s probably the most fancy place you’ll ever drink your tea/coffee!
I can’t mention cafes without mentioning the Viennese “kaffeehaus”. Vienna is jampacked with these, there are over a thousand in the Austrian capital.
One of our guidebooks said that coffeehouses are great places for people who need company to be alone, but they are also very sociable places. Your entrance fee is a cup of coffee and unlike coffee shops in the UK, no-one would bat an eyelid if you stayed there all day without reordering. In fact Vienna’s coffee houses were added to the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage!
Coffee is very important to Austrians, and there are over 35 different ways to drink it; the classic is the Viennese melange – half coffee, half milk and topped with whipped cream.
Of course both in Austrian and German culture, there is the afternoon custom of having “Kaffee und Kuchen” – of course it’s rude not to partake in such customs. Our favourite cafe, which we returned to after our Budapest leg, was Cafe Demel which has been open since 1786 and provided pastries, cakes and chocolates to the Habsburg family.
It’s not been without its fair share of controversy, as its Viennese “Sachertorte” recipe underwent a long legal battle with the Sacher Hotel to have it declared as the ‘original’ Sachertorte. Unfortunately Demel lost, but their cakes are still delicious. The Sachertorte is a chocolate sponge, with a layer of apricot jam, covered in chocolate ganache and of course with a generous portion of whipped cream!
I however preferred the Annatorte which had thinner layers of chocolate sponge sandwiching layers of hazelnut and orange mousse. I was in absolute cake heaven!
Our third day saw us take a trip on the metro out to Schloss Schonbrunn – another palace built during the Habsburg Empire.
While we didn’t pay to go inside, you can wander the gardens for free, which while pretty in March, must be stunning in the summer time.
Wherever I am in the world, I can’t resist a trip to a Palm House, and Vienna has this replica of the Kew Gardens Palm House in the palace grounds. We paid for a ticket which gave us entry to the Palm House and the Wustenhaus.
Again, like most places in Vienna during March, it was deserted and we had both houses to ourselves.
Our final evening saw us head to Schoss Belvedere and the Oberes Belvedere gallery to see the world’s largest collection of works by Gustav Klimt.
By know, you should have worked out that a Viennese palace comes with majestic grounds and Schloss Belvedere was no exception!
The interior wasn’t quite as magnificent as the Kunsthistoriches Museum, but the art work was still excellent to see.
A photo of art doesn’t ever quite do it justice, but if you ever are in Vienna then the Belvedere is worth visiting. Some Friday evenings the museum opens for free, so save yourself some euros and time your visit well!
I haven’t shared about the music (Vienna is home to some world-class performance venues and composers), the Prater amusement park (we took a trip on the Riesenrad – big wheel) or the amazing Naschmarket which is the Viennese equivalent of London’s Borough Market.
Instead of making this post even longer, I’ll be sharing more about the food and drink of Austria and Hungary in a combined post soon. We left Vienna on a train, heading east for Budapest, which is what I’ll be sharing with you next week!