There is no doubt that a day without a Viennese coffee and pastry would be like a day without sunshine. I highly recommend visiting one of the many cafes offering this mouthwatering combination, but there is still plenty of time to enjoy the wonderful other attractions of the city on the Danube, during an Austria vacation.
My first memory of anything to do with Vienna was when, as a child, my parents took me to see the highly entertaining and unforgettable movie, The Third Man, starring Orson Wells. Then, of course, you cannot escape hearing the song, The Blue Danube. Having seen this river which flows through Vienna in person, I found it to definitely not be blue in colour – but you knew that, of course! Vienna, as a destination, needs a chunk of your time in order to do justice to all it offers the visitor.
Outstanding Sights and Sites in Vienna
Let’s start with the Ringstrasse, Vienna’s best-known boulevard built in 1857 by order of Emperor Franz Joseph, and which still retains its original character. Along its 5.3 kilometre/3.3 mile length, there are many iconic buildings. These include the Imperial Palace, the Vienna State Opera House, the Museum of Fine Arts, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum), Museum of Natural History, the City Hall, and the Austrian Parliament Building. There are also many magnificent former private homes. So, as you can see, this could be a good place to start on your Austria vacation.
Next up is the imposing St. Stephen’s Cathedral, a very symbolic edifice which dates back to the 12th century and is one of Austria’s most important Gothic structures. In addition to valuable altars and side chapels, its interior contains relics decorated with gold and precious stones, liturgical texts and books, as well as vestments. It also contains tombs of many important people including emperors, princes, dukes and archbishops. There are four towers and I recommend, if you have the energy, you climb the 343 steps to get to the top of the south tower. You will be rewarded with an amazing panoramic view of the city. St. Stephen’s has the second-largest free-swinging chimed church bell in Europe.
Let’s head back to the Ringstrasse to the Imperial Palace, also known as the Hofburg, which is one of the largest palace complexes in the world, parts of which date back to the 13th century. This was the residence and seat of government of the famous Hapsburg Emperors until 1918. Today, it is home to numerous museums and other attractions. It is possible to visit some of the rooms, which include the Franz Joseph Apartments still in their original state (the Dining, the Circle, the Guard and the Audience Chamber Rooms) and also the Empress Elisabeth’s Apartments.
While on the subject of palaces, Vienna’s answers to Versailles and Fontainebleau in Paris are Schonbrunn and Belvedere. The former is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been called a “total work of art” and a “well-preserved example of the Baroque princely residential ensemble.” It is the former summer palace of much of past Austrian royalty since the 18th century. It has 1441 rooms, many of which can be visited, including the Great Gallery used for court functions such as balls and receptions, the Mirrors Room where a young Mozart gave his very first concert at the age of six to Empress Maria Theresa, and the Hall of Ceremonies, a ceremonial hall for family celebrations such as christenings, birthdays, and weddings of members of the court household. After viewing the palace, head to the vast gardens which surround it and which contain a sculpture garden with 32 sculptures. The gardens have thousands of orchids and a zoo, considered to be the oldest in the world with more than 700 different species of animals.
Belvedere Palace is actually two Baroque palaces in one, Upper and Lower Belvedere, connected by a stunning baroque garden, and is Vienna’s equivalent to Versailles. The main attraction here is its important art collection started by Prince Eugene (1663-1736) in 1700, ranging from the Middle Ages to the present day. You can visit the apartments and staterooms in Lower Belvedere, the Palace Stables, which are now home to some 150 objects of sacred medieval art, and the Palace Gardens with their beautiful sculptures and fountains.
For relaxation and a change of pace on your Austria vacation, you can head to The Prater. This is a park and amusement centre combined. It contains the Giant Ferris Wheel, erected in 1827 and featured in The Third Man, as well as carousels, halls of mirrors, ghost trains, and roller coasters. However, if pleasure parks are not your thing, there is, adjacent to the Prater, the Stadtpark (City Park) which is very attractive, an oasis in the middle of Vienna and the former hunting ground of the Hapsburgs. The Hauptallee is filled with walkers and cyclists as well as joggers and riders. At the far end of the park is the Vienna River which runs into the Danube, a short distance away.
When in Vienna, a major attraction is the Spanish Riding School, the only place in the world where classic equestrian skills are preserved and still practiced. It was originally built to provide aristocratic youth with the opportunity to take riding instruction. The practices today are performed on the world-famous Lipizzaner horses (white stallions) who, with their riders, give public presentations usually only at 11 am in the morning. A tour includes visits to the stables.
The magnificent and spectacular Vienna State Opera House is one of the most famous opera houses in the world. Built in 1869, it offers around 300 performances each year. You can take a tour, including a peek behind the scenes while learning about the history, architecture, and daily operations of the opera house. You see the Grand Staircase and the ceremonial rooms and the auditorium with a view of the stage. If attending a performance, believe it or not, subtitles are provided in 6 different languages as well as details about the cast and a synopsis of the performance (German and English only). You may well know about the Vienna Opera Ball, which takes place at the end of the Carnival period prior to Lent. This is quite the affair when participants party away and dance into the wee small hours of the morning and include international celebrities from the world of culture, business, politics, academia, and sports. I quote the opera house’s website, “Music and dance all over the opera building, sumptuous floral decorations, ladies in elaborate gowns, gentlemen in elegant tailcoats, celebrating with friends, and unexpected encounters make the Vienna Opera Ball an unforgettable event each year!” While on the subject, you can watch live opera during certain months of the year in the summer as they are shown on a large screen at the Herbert-von-Karajan-Platz in front of the opera house – and it’s free!
The Danube Tower is the place to go for excellent views of not only the city but beyond, as far as the Vienna Woods. Built in 1964, it is one of Vienna’s landmarks at a height of 255 metres/826 feet. There is a revolving restaurant at the top.
The Karmelitermarkt District will be of interest to food lovers. This is an up-and-coming neighbourhood in an historic part of Vienna. There is a marketplace offering many different types of food with an ethnic diversity plus there are new dining establishments which are added consistently. There is also a selection of cafes and bars to spend time in.
A trip outside the city to Grinzing, in the Vienna Woods, is a consideration on an Austria vacation if you want to have a meal in a quaint village which is renowned for its rustic restaurants called Heurigen (traditional cafes serving young wine). It can be very commercial and you may have to listen to popular saccharine-like music being played by local musicians while you eat or drink in some establishments. The village itself has many very attractive houses.
Vienna has Over 100 Museums
I will review a few museums which I feel are either important or possibly unusual. However, whatever your interests, there has to be a museum to suit you in Vienna on your Austrian vacation. The Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) is one of most famous art galleries in the world. It displays art treasures collected by the Hapsburgs which include the largest Breughel collection anywhere. Artists featured include Raphael, Vermeer, Velazquez, Rubens, Rembrandt Tintoretto, and on and on. There is actually an area in Vienna which is called the Museum Quarter and which contains several museums including the Kunsthalle, an exhibition venue for international contemporary art. Also in the Quarter are the Museum of Natural History and the Kunstkammer (Chamber of Art and Wonders). The latter houses rarities from the former treasure chambers and cabinets of the Habsburgs. There are displays of precious artworks from the Middle Ages, the Renaissance, and the Baroque era.
Elsewhere in the city, there is the Theatre Museum, which has over 1,000 models, 6000 costumes and props, 10,000 drawings and prints, plus 700,000 photographs. The Imperial Carriage Museum in Schonbrunn Palace has a collection of historical carriages used for coronations, weddings, etc. including the golden children’s carriage of Napoleon’s son and Emperor Franz I’s sleeping coach for long journeys. The Sigmund Freud Museum explores the founder of psychoanalysis’s life and works through a series of exhibitions and displays in his old living quarters, including a private collection of antiquities and signed copies of his books. If classical music is one of your interests, you can gorge on the dwelling abodes that famous composers either were born in or lived in for a period of time. Included are those of Beethoven, Johann Strauss, Schubert, and Haydn. There is even a Condom Museum in Vienna which offers information and items portraying the history of the condom. Go figure!
One of my favourite museums is the Kunst Haus Wien, dedicated to the works of the very unusual architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser. If you are a fan of the Spanish architect, Antoni Gaudi, with his whimsical creative style, then you will enjoy this museum which was designed by the architect. The whole design is unique with wavy, undulating floors and a notable lack of straight lines. Bright, glaring colours have been used throughout with lots of foliage. There are paintings, lithographs, silk screens, etchings, and woodcuts. It is hard to describe in words but let’s say you will not find anything quite like this museum elsewhere. Right opposite the Hundertwasserhaus is the Hundertwasser Village which was created out of a tire workshop. Hundertwasser created his own shopping centre here with a “village square,” a bar and numerous stores all in the typical Hundertwasser style.
Back to Harry Lime. There is actually a Third Man Museum (why not!). In addition to the extensive collection of exhibits about the movie, The Third Man, which was made in Vienna in 1948, there is documentation which deals with the historical background of the movie, including the occupation of Vienna (1945-1955). 400 playable cover versions of the “Harry Lime theme” show how successful the music from the movie was.
How to See Vienna
In order to get around this action-packed city, on your Austria vacation, you could join a Hop On Hop Off bus for which you can buy a pass. The double-decker buses cover 5 different routes with 45 different stops. Or, you can join a city cruise ship, the MS Blue Danube, which sails along the Danube Canal and which covers many historical sites as well as gives a glimpse of modern Vienna.
And, oh yes, the Coffee and Apple Strudel
The Viennese coffee house is known for its informality and pleasant ambience. These traditional cafes are sure to entice you with a wide variety of coffee drinks, pastries, and also offer you copies of international newspapers. Do try the Sachertorte. Sometimes, you will be entertained, mostly on the piano, at a selection of concert cafes. Put on weight? It’s worth it!