Project Description

In the Austrian capital, a cafe is more than just a place to go: it is an institution! It appears that spending time at the table reading the newspaper and enjoying a pastry accompanied by a full-bodied espresso is officially a Viennese cultural pastime. And to burn the calories you’ve just gained by having eaten a slice of Sachertorte, there is nothing like walking the city on foot! Discover its stunning traditional, modern and secessionist architecture, let yourself intoxicated by the scent of flowers in the beautiful parks or visit the many monuments, churches and museums spread all over Vienna. A long weekend is ideal to have a look at the main attractions, but spending 4 or 5 days is even better to fully appreciate this imperial city!

During the last few years, I’ve had the opportunity to visit Vienna several times, both on my own, and with friends, and during several days each time. Therefore, I had the opportunity to see a bit of everything, from flowering gardens to museums and churches, through charming terraces and awesome viewpoints. I even went back to some spots several times and that’s why it’s hard to write, as I usually do, an article roughly summarizing one or more days of sightseeing: I may repeat myself or worse, getting confused! Also for this time, I will proceed differently and thus write an article which will summarise all the different places I visited. This list is obviously not exhaustive, but I intend to return to Vienna to get deeper into the city’s culture and also because I would like to see an opera with one of my best friends, as such activity is meaningless to do alone…

During my last trip, I purchased the famous Vienna Card, a pass that, in addition to give you free public transport (metro, bus and tramway) for 48/72h, also offers quantity of discounts and various offers for many museums, galleries, restaurants and other cultural venues such as Hofburg and Schönbrunn (210 reductions in total!). Expect to pay respectively €21 for the 48h card and €23.- for the 72h one. As in many European capitals, I greatly appreciate these cards. All of them are not necessarily worth buying, but in general, they are clearly something to have while visiting around, allowing you to save both time and money.

As for my accommodation, I had the opportunity to stay with friends and for my last trip, I booked a small room 5 minutes away from the Westbahnhof (Western train station), Vienna City Room. This trip has been scheduled at the last minute, so I must say that I did not have much choice regarding the accommodation and despite the low availability of hotel rooms, I was lucky enough to find one at a very good price. Apart from its location slightly off the city center, there is nothing too far to reach when using the metro, which is rather convenient.

  • Well located, 5 minutes away from the Westbahnhof.
  • Clean, modern and comfortable, with two beds for the price of one!
  • Good value, especially at the last minute!
  • Excellent wifi.
  • Convenient fridge to keep all my water bottles cool!
  • Away from the historic center, but nothing that can’t be raeched by subway.
  • Very narrow bathroom, especially the shower and the sliding door that closes… or not!
  • Surrounding area a little bit creepy at night, especially around the Westbahnhof.

Vienna the Imperial, former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire

As the saying goes, “The world belongs to those who get up early.” Let us put this into practice with a very early start and a ride with one of the first metro to Schönbrunn Palace and its park. The latter opens around 6am as the rising sun accentuate many colors and offers beautiful panoramas of the area, as well as being completely deserted by tourists. If you can, get your ticket for the castle in advance and combine it with a walk in the park, right before or after.

Let us take the example of a morning visit, as I did. The park is very quiet and it is therefore quite pleasant to walk along the many tree-lined walkways decorated with statues, fountains and benches. Just expect to see a few walkers and their dogs, and some motivated joggers, but nothing as annoying as a compact crowd of tourists. Some monuments are very nice to see in the park, including the Palm House and its garden, as well as some ruins and fountains.

Eventually returning along the main aisle, you past the fountain dedicated to Poseidon before starting the ascent of the nearby hill through one of two parallel paths to the Gazebo, a beautiful lodge. The word “gazebo” is normally used when talking about a small “villa” or wing of a temple, but the one of Schönbrunn is quite exuberant and includes a café-restaurant in its center and a viewpoint at its top. The latter is interesting, but the panorama of the city which can be seen from the base of the monument is equally great and free. As for the restaurant, nothing spectacular,but the prices. A morning visit will also allow you to enjoy beautiful reflections in the waters of the nearby pool, a well-deserved reward after having climbed all the way to the top. By seing it, I’m sure you’ll not regret to have gotten up early!

If you have your tickets to visit the castle, go, again, at the time it opens. Once inside, no need to use the services of a private guide, expect if you reach the place accompanied by one of them. The audio guides, available free of charge at the entrance, will do the job perfectly. Bags and other bulky items have to be stored the locker room and, of course, pictures and videos are prohibited. Finally, note that there are several types of tickets giving access to all or part of the 40 rooms open to visitors, as well as combinations with some parts of the gardens and even the zoo. I trully enjoyed my visit here, and loved every piece of architecture, may it be complexe furniture or simple decoration! Talking about the cultural aspect of the castle, the audio guide was very helpful in providing a relatively short, but interesting content nonetheless. Schönbrunn is a place you just have to see, but I’m quite sure you’ll agree to that!

Now, let’s go back towards the city center to discover its various monuments. Well, at least some of them, as they are legion and scattered throughout the historic center. It’s impossible to see everything at once, so try to combine different visits within the same area/district on two or tree. An example of a sightseeing route which you can follow is the Ringstrasse, one of the most beautiful boulevards of Vienna surrounded by many important monuments and circling all around the first district of the city. Let’s get off the metro at “Schottentor” and walk on foot to the Votive Church (Votivkirche), still under renovation between two trips yet spaced by several years.

Consacrated on April 24, 1879, day of the silver wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, the plans for its construction already began in 1854, just months after a failed attempt to kill the Emperor. His brother, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, launched an appeal for donations “in gratitude for the salvation of His Majesty.” The architect Heinrich von Ferstel was then in charge of the construction of the Gothic basilica with three naves following the pattern of a French cathedral. The church, specifically the old “Hoforatorium”, also houses a museum which major exhibition room is “The Altar of Antwerp”, considered the best preserved work of such art. The inside architectural appearance in the purest Gothic style, as well as many beautiful stained glass windows, were among the things I liked the most.

Along the Ringstrasse toward the south, we pass next to the imposing University of Vienna before arriving in front of City Hall (Rathaus). The tower of the building, which can be seen from afar, is 97,9m tall and has become a landmark of the city. This place is the official residence of the mayor and the meeting place of the city senate/regional government and city council/assembly of the Land. It was built from 1872 to 1883 and has mastered the use of the superlative: it is indeed made by no less than 30 million bricks and 40,000 cubic meters of natural stone. With its 2’804 sqm, the City Hall courtyard is one of the largest indoor courts of Europe.

One notable rooms of the building is the Celebration room, 71 meters long, 20 meters wide and 18.5 meters high. If this was allowed, no less than 1500 couples could dance the waltz there at the same time! Many events are held regularly both inside and outside the building, which makes it difficult to shoot entirely from outside. Opposite the City Hall square is the Burgtheater, a theater opened in 1888 and among the largest in Europe. After the French Comedy, it is the oldest, still existing theater in which all parts are played in German. You can visit the building, but attending one of the performances is much more interesting!

Just next door, still on the Ringstrasse, is the Parliament of Vienna, a beautiful building with Greek temple-like aspect with multiple columns, statues and frescoes which Viennese architects particulary like (same here by the way!) The building now houses the National and Federal Council which is possible to visit under certain conditions.

Just in front of Parliament, on the other side of the road, we enter the Garden of the People (Volksgarten), a beautiful public park, very peaceful and quiet, covered with flowers and the perfect place to rest between two visits. Located on the fortifications that Napoleon had blown up during the French occupation of 1809, the park is equipped with many benches, a few fountains and other attractions such as the Theseiontempel, replica of the Theseion of Athens and a monument to the memory of Sissi, in the northeastern part.

From the Volksgarten, it is easy to get to the nearby Maria Theresa square, in the heart of the “museum district”. This lovely garden is done in a quite original manner, to say the least, and is located right between the Natural History Museum and the Museum of the History of Art, two huge buildings with identical appearance. Standing in the middle of the square, just in front of the statue dedicated to Maria Theresa, is impressive and you feel almost like you’re in the middle of a mirror!

In the Natural History Museum, it is more than 20 million objects that are presented and will help you discover the history of the earth and the breathtaking diversity of nature. The many stuffed specimens of endangered animals, even some which are definitely gone, are as sad as amazing to see. As for the Museum of the History of Art, it now houses vast collections belonging to the Habsburgs. With its countless masterpieces and its collection of Bruegel (the first in the world), it is today one of the largest museums worldwide and, like its neighbor across the garden, is clearly worth the visit!

Now let’s go to the Heldenplatz, a splendid square once designed as a vast imperial forum, and offering today a fascinating panorama of roof covering the buildings of the Ringstrasse. It was Napoleon who demolished the old bastions here. Later, the outer door called Burgtor was built and the square and its adjoining park, the Volksgarten, were transformed into a relaxing area. Facing the gigantic door with multiple entries is already impressive in itself, but once crossed, the show before our eyes is a real treat! We enter the heart of a vast imperial palace and museum complex, and if you are an art and/or history lover, this is certainly the place where you’re gonna spend most of your time during your visit to Vienna. Ready for a historical journey into the past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Let’s go!

Be careful though to keep an eye on your watch, otherwise you will lose track of time and spend your entire day in the area. Well, in the end, it’s not so bad, is it? Moreover, the complexe is THE place to be during rainy days, as there is plenty of things to do and to see to occupy the tourists! Impossible to summarize the amount of wonders I had the chance to see, but I can still recommend you to visit the following places: the Imperial Apartments and Palace, the National Library, the Conference Center, the Sisi Museum, the Spanish riding school, the chapel and the treasury, just to name a few. To this I can also add some famous collections such as the imperial silverware, weapons and armor, and the ancient music instruments. Again, forget the idea to see everything in one day, it’s possible indeed, but running all day long is not what I call vacation. Therefore make a selection among the places that most appeal to you and don’t hesitate to insert a break between two visits.

And to stretch your legs a bit, no need to go too far: the area around the Hofburg are full of pretty buildings and charming churches like the ones showed below. Remember also to take a closer look at the various statues scattered everywhere: some of them make really funny faces!

On the south side and slightly away from the Hofburg is another museum that is worth a look, the Ephesus Museum. Forty of the seventy meters of the frieze of the Parthian Monument are exposed here: a panorama of scenes like fighting, hunting, equestrian arts and victory are brilliantly represented. Besides this important relief, true vestige of Roman rule in Asia Minor in the 2nd century AD, we can admire other major pieces that reflect a now extinct culture. Just next to the museum is the Burggarten park, a garden with its monument to Mozart, and the famous Butterfly House (Schmetterlinghaus), considered as one of the most beautiful Art Nouveau greenhouses in the world. Since 1998, this vast building of 280 sqm overlooking the garden of the Imperial Palace is home to hundreds of exotic butterflies fluttering freely. In this miniature version of a tropical forest constantly maintained at 26°C with a humidity of 80%, butterflies almost found their natural conditions of life and offers visitors a wonderful show!

So, you thought I was done with Vienna? Nay! I just scratched the surface of the iceberb, mentioning here only a tenth of what there is to see and do in the Austrian capital city. You will find below the equivalent of a second day of visit with other famous places that can’t be missed! Oh, I almost forgot. Normally my visit of a city or region is always combined with one or more typical meal and the visit to Vienna was kind of an exception. Let me explain: in very hot weather, I tend to lose all appetite, even after a full day walking the streets. It’s definitely great when you’re trying to lose weight, but not when you want to try the culinary specialties of a foreign country.

Hoping that you don’t suffer from the same problem as me, I can only advise you of sitting down around a nice table and taste the various Austrian specialties, whether it is pastries like Sachertorte or dishes more consistent such as dumplings (big round balls made from potatoes or bread), Schweinsbraten (roast pork), Tafelspitz (pot-au-feu of beef served with broth) or Wiener Schnitzel. At the time of this writing (after returning from this trip), I can tell you all of this makes my mouth water, yum!

The Imperial Vienna, part two

New day, new things to see! Today, just like we did for the castle and park of Schönbrunn, let’s take the earliest morning subway to “Schloss Belvedere”, an architectural ensemble of great quality. It is the Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), a brilliant general and a great art lover, who commissioned Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt this palace-garden as his summer residence on the outskirts of the city. This total work of art from the Baroque period actually consists of two castles (Upper Belvedere and Lower Belvedere) and is today home to numerous testimonies of Austrian art, from the Middle Ages to the present time. A walk in the gardens is required before entering the Upper Belvedere to admire, among others, the exquisite collection of Gustav Klimt (the largest in the world), not to mention the apartments and rooms of pageantry of Prince Eugene, a true beauty with an incredible architectural style!

Scheduling of the gardens is interesting, because it develops very esoteric allusions. Thus, the lowest garden evokes the four elements, the middle make us think about Parnassus (the mountain of the Muses) and the highest reminds us of the residence of the gods, Olympus. At the top of the gardens, the Upper Belvedere has an extremely elaborate facade, full of oriental influences. Built as a framework to dazzling festivals organized by the owner, it had to show to all the greatness of Prince Eugene of Savoy, even more than the Lower Belvedere where the Monarch actually lived.

Another place more and more present in tourist guides is located northeast of the Belvedere and is called the Hundertwasser house (or museum). This is the most amazing public housing in the capital: panel colors, irregular shapes, vegetation growing everywhere… The painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser has given new impetus to the Viennese architecture and buildings of Kunst Haus Wien, though slightly off-center, are worth a look, thanks to their style and original concept!

Let’s now hit the road to the northwest, leaving from the Belvedere. After a short walk, we arrive on Schwarzenberg square, dominated by the imposing monument erected in 1945 to commemorate the 17’000 Russian soldiers who died during a violent battle against the Nazis, which lasted almost two weeks in early April 1945 and ended years of Nazi occupation.

Not far away is St. Charles Church (Karlskirche), imposing building of religious art and the last great work of the famous Baroque architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. It was built according to the wishes of the Emperor Charles VI during a plague epidemic and was dedicated to the patron saint of the emperor, Saint Charles Borromeo. I didn’t necessarily specified it, but some churches are charging entry and/or the tour, so check it beforehand. Rest assured though that I don’t see how someone would regret to pay in order to have a closer look at the plethora of cultural treasures that Vienna has to offer!

Back on the road, still walking towards the north. You will certainly not miss the next building as it is as imposing as famous: the State Opera of Vienna, one of the greatest opera houses in the world. Within its walls, you can literally enjoy diversity at the highest level of quality with an exceptional amount of productions and a program changing every day: more than 50 operas and ballets 300 days per year! Put on your best outfit, sit back, relax and you’ll be certain to spend a memorable time in this historic place! As mentioned earlier in this article, I expect to see a performance with a friend, and to do things the right way, I intend to wear a three-piece suit! In your opinion, is it cheap to rent?

Right behind the opera is the famous Hotel Sacher, a huge Viennese palace founded in 1876 by Eduard Sacher as a furnished house. His widow, Anna Sacher, was the one who transformed it into one of the finest hotels in the world and the appointment of the aristocracy and diplomats. The specialty of the hotel’s kitchens is obviously the Sachertorte, invented by Eduard’s father, Franz Sacher, when he was the confectioner of Prince Metternich. Try it out, along with a hot chocolate in winter and an iced coffee in summer!

Still not far away from the opera is the Albertina, which besides the fact of hosting one of the largest and most valuable world collections of drawings with works such as the “Hare” of Dürer and female sketches of Klimt, also shown many masterpieces of modern art, covering the spectrum from Baselitz to Monet, as well as Picasso. It is also the largest mansions of the Habsburg and it occupies a majestic location in one of the last fortifications of Vienna, at the southern tip of the Imperial Palace.

Going now up Carinthia street (Kärntner Straße), one of the most touristy streets of Vienna, you will undoubtedly pass next to the Capuchin church, under which is the Imperial Crypt. Used by the former ruling family in Austria, the Habsburgs, its members are buried here since 1633. You’ll find here no less than 149 Habsburg, including 12 emperors and 19 empresses and queens. The dual tomb of Mary Theresa and her husband Emperor Franz I of the Holy Empire is the work of Balthasar Ferdinand Mol and probably one of the most imposing of the crypt. The last emperor buried here is the Emperor Franz Joseph I (1916). The tombs of Crown Prince Rudolf and Empress Elisabeth is also there, the latter being easily recognizable because being covered by flowers. Even today, burials take place in the imperial crypt, the latest being the former crown prince and European politician Otto Habsburg on July 16, 2011.

At the end of this busy street, we finally reach Stephansplatz or St Stephen’s Square, the central square of Vienna. The most imposing monument area is undoubtedly St. Stephen’s Cathedral, the landmark of the city. Its construction began in the 12th century and the Gothic building is nowadays the most important of Austria. The cathedral is 107, 2 meters long, 34.2 meters wide and has four towers, the highest being the South Tower (136.44 meters).

343 steps lead up to the Türmerstube which offers stunning views over Vienna and where you can see the two-headed eagle k.u.k. and the coat of arms of the city of Vienna and Austria were reproduced in colored tiles on the roof of the cathedral. Inside the building itself has constantly  changed over the centuries to the Baroque period. Admission is free and obviously a must do activity!

Also in the vicinity of the cathedral is a place named Graben, one of the most famous squares in the Austrian capital. I have to admit that it has plenty of things to do and see to enthusiasm walkers, without mentionning its size and its flamboyant architecture! It’s a pleasure to walk around and discover its architectural features, its chic restaurants and terraces. But that’s not the only reason why the Viennese love to walk there: in fact, the place holds a lot of unusual sights such as the Plague Column conducted by Leopold I to celebrate the end of the plague that struck the city in 1679 with more than 100’000 victims! Finally, do not hesitate to sit down to one of dozens of terraces and enjoy a delicious Viennese pastry!

A tour to Heindl confectionery, chocolate paradise of Austria, is also a must if you are nearby. Beware, however, because once assailed by the delicious chocolate smell, it is impossible to resist to some compulsive shopping. Delicious, but not as good as our Swiss chocolate (as usual, I proudly defend my origins!).

Still from the Graben, we can see St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche) on the Petersplatz (St. Peter square). Known as one of the most diverse concert venues of Vienna, the musical program includes free daily organ concerts with performances of international choirs. “Opera in the Crypt” takes place regularly in the ancient vaults in the central nave, and during the weekend, the piano sonatas of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart resonate in the building. The Vienna Classic Ensemble is invited several times a week with a program ranging from Bach and Vivaldi to Mozart and Beethoven. This is the perfect place to go before dinner or even to start a great night out!

Finally, I could not conclude this article without mentioning (again) food. So for my last day in Vienna, I managed to get hungry enough and booked a table at Filgmuller, a great and busy place to enjoy some traditional Austrian food. Indeed, many tourists like myself come to sample the house specialty, the traditional  XXL Wienerschnitzel! A little more expensive than average for this kind of dish, but it remains reasonable and the “more than generous” portion is served quickly with its small potato salad. Yummy! Of course, the menu offers many other typical and local dishes, but the only thing to remember is to book your table in advance, as this place is always crowded, no matter the day or the hour!

I’m pretty sure that you got it by now, but to make sure it’s clear: I really loved eachof my stays in the Austrian capital, and I am looking forward to go back there! The visit of the city or some small parts at least, was quite perfect to do during a long weekend, but beware: other people will certainly have the same idea as you! It is therefore necessary to book well in advance to enjoy a affordable flight and convenient accommodation. Haven’t been to Vienna yet? Well, it’s now or never!