Austria has a rich history, and there is plenty to see. We spent some time in the Alps, Innsbruck, Salzburg, and Vienna. To me, the most interesting city is Vienna, and it’s the way to go if you are under a time crunch.
Vienna is the capital of Austria and contains about 1.7 million inhabitants (nearly 25% of the country’s population). The city has always been of major importance and a center for politics, culture, and the arts. Its history begins with the Celts in about 500 BC. Of course, the Romans took their turn around 15 BC. In the Middle Ages, it was the home of the Habsburg Dynasty and the capital of the Holy Roman Empire.
In 1804, Vienna became the capital of the Austrian Empire. Vienna was the center for classical music and the home of Strauss, Bruckner, Mahler, and Brahms and visited regularly by other greats like Mozart and Beethoven. The city was occupied in WWII (the German’s turn) and was the stage for the two-week Soviet “Vienna Offensive.” Austria gained its independence after the war.
Music, Art, and History
If you enjoy theater, opera, and classical music, this is the city for you! You will also spend a pretty Euro penny on these events. We did not attend any high-brow entertainment, but if the quality of the street musicians is representative, you won’t be disappointed.
There are no fewer than eight tour options at Schönbrunn ranging in prices from 9.50€ to 39.00€ (for the 1-year pass). You could spend anywhere from an hour to four– it depends on your endurance, really. The estate (free admission) has a lot to offer including the gardens, mazes, world’s oldest zoo, and a great view from the Gloriette. However, you will have to pay for the mazes, zoo, etc. It is well worth the money to visit the Place at least. We opted for the mid-range priced, Grand Tour. We saw 40 of the 1,500 total rooms in the Palace. You are free to roam about the main garden on your own for free as well as climb up to the Gloriette.
Hofburg tours range from 9.90€-22.50€ depending on how much you want to see and if you want an audio guide or a live person. You have the options of viewing the Sisi Museum, Imperial Apartments, and Imperial Silver Collection. I recommend the “highlights” tour that only costs 9.90€. You get a sampling of all of the sights.
Other noteworthy museums:
- Kunsthistorisches Museum – Art History – 12€
- Naturhistorisches Museum Wien – Natural History – 10€
- The Haus Der Musik – House of Music – 10€
- The Judisches Museum – Jewish Museum – 3-15€ depending on how much you want to see
- The Museum Quarter also offers many other institutions not listed here.
The architecture in Vienna is a sight to see in and of itself. Spending time looking at buildings and stopping for a drink in a traditional Viennese café should be a daily activity.
Spending a day in Stephansplatz is a must. This square is the center of Vienna and home to the main attraction, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, or Stephensdom. It is one of the tallest churches in the world and boasts a colorful tiled roof. The 230,000 glazed tiles make a zig-zag pattern as well as a mosaic of the Habsburg Dynasty and the Viennese coat of arms.
The Gothic and Romanesque church is lovingly called “Steffl” by the locals meaning, “Little Stephen.” It is said that Beethoven realized his total deafness when he saw birds flying from the bell tower and realized he could not hear the tolling. Entry into the main hall is free, however if you’d like to see more you can pay a few Euros. You can also ride the elevator up to the bell tower.
TIP: We’ve been told jaywalking carries a hefty fine, so cross with care.
This old fashioned amusement park in the Leopoldstadt district of Vienna makes for a fun evening. The rides are a little pricey (about 3€ each), but it is a great destination for people watching. A local family owns each attraction or business, and there is no entrance fee.
It is also home to the Wiener Riesenrad, translated “Viennese Giant Wheel” as seen in The Third Man and The Living Daylights. It is one of the oldest Ferris wheels in the world built in 1897 and is 212 feet tall. That’s only four years younger than the world’s first Ferris Wheel at Chicago’s Columbian Exposition. Of course, it burned to the ground as most things do in Chicago. Originally, the wheel had 30 carriages, but only 15 were replaced after the post-war restoration.
We spend most of our time searching for quality gelato, and Vienna has some of the best. The gelato shops here rival any that we frequented in Italy, and I would dare say Vienna has some of the best ice cream I’ve ever tasted. The easiest way to judge eissalons (German for gelaterias) is by the crowd. If a shop has a long line and dozens of people are strewn about on benches enjoying their cones, you’ve found a good one.
We consider ourselves authorities, so be sure to visit our favorites:
- Paolo Bortolotti – Clark said this vanilla ice cream was the best he has ever had. Be sure to pay a visit. It’s right outside the Neubaugasse metro stop at Mariahilfer Straße 66.
- Eissalon Garda – Very similar quality to Paolo but significantly cheaper. Plus, it’s just down the road. Try them both and compare! It’s about 300 meters from the Westbahnhof metro stop at Mariahilfer Straße 140.
TIP: Buy a metro ticket! We got burned trying to scam the system.
Perhaps what I liked those most about Vienna is that it felt inhabited by real people. Salzburg is more contrived and touristy (the city shut down at 19:00, and it was wall-to-wall tourists).
In Vienna, we stayed in the west side of town, and it was constantly bustling– loads of people shopping, dining, and doing business. Sure, there were plenty of tourists in all of the usual places, but I believe you will enjoy the vibrance of Vienna over Salzburg.
Day 1: City Center and Culture
- Head out for a small breakfast and coffee (or tea) at a traditional Viennese Café (You’ll get a little glass of cold water for after you finish your coffee, don’t drink it first!).
- Wander the streets of the Innere Stadt, or historical center, and end up in Stephanzplatz
- Tour St. Stephens Cathedral.
- Grab lunch and an ice cream a little outside the historical center to avoid the crowds and tourist prices.
- Walk over to the Museum Quarter and spend a few hours at the museums of your choice.
- At sunset, take the Metro line U1 to Wurstelprate and enjoy the carnival atmosphere under the lights (entry is free, each ride costs about 3€).
Day 2: The Habsburg Dynasty
- Sleep in!
- Board the Metro line U4 or trams 10 or 58 to Schloss Schönbrunn.
- If you went for one of the shorter tours at Schönbrunn, head back to the historical center and tour the Hofburg Palace.
- Have a tea or coffee and ice cream near Marianplatz, the main shopping district.
- If you are so inclined, take in a concert or opera in the evening.
- If you are not an opera-goer, head to a bar and relax and chat with people.
Day 3: Museums and Architecture
- Visit the Mozarthaus Vienna. It focuses on his time living and composing in Vienna.
- Walk or take the tram around the Ringstrasse. This tree-lined street used to be the site of the city wall and is a great place to view the architecture.
- Take in a couple more museums of your choice near the Museum Quarter.