Vienna Travel: A Beginner’s Guide

Rathaus (Town Hall) - Vienna, Austria
Vienna’s Rathaus (Town Hall) all decked out.

This is the beginning of a multi-part series we’re calling “lost destinations” in which we highlight activities and destinations that we’ve experienced previously but haven’t written about extensively or enough apparently, for they surface often in conversation and in questions emailed to us by readers.

Our first taste of Vienna came in late December 1998. We’d driven across Austria after celebrating Christmas in Salzburg and we arrived in town under the most inauspicious of winter circumstances – Central European midday darkness, frigid temperatures, a biting wind from the Danube, non-existent parking, and fully-booked hotels.

Adding insult to injury, the only people willing to help: overeager men dressed in period costumes skulking around and selling tickets to “best of” classical music performances. We eventually found a place to stay in the far suburbs of town, in the home of an Austrian man holed up with the world’s largest St. Bernard. But that story is for another time.

In any event, this was Western Europe, but with an eastern look. Our relationship with Vienna: off to a rocky start.

Then in 2002, on a springtime weekend trip from Prague, we returned to Vienna to visit Audrey’s mom. We dove into the markets, poked into the museums. We drank coffee, we drank wine, and we developed an appreciation of what it means for a city to have good water.

Church Facade - Vienna, Austria
Piaristenkirche Church Maria Treu in Josefstadt, Vienna.

We’ve visited Vienna over 10 times, on each visit exploring a different dimension to get under the skin of the city’s polished exterior. After answering scads of questions about what to do in Vienna, we figured it was time to share our favorite activities and our perspective.

This purpose of this little guide: to use Vienna’s almost daunting Austro-Hungarian empire architecture as a backdrop to go a little deeper, and to help quickly grasp a city that can feel a bit stiff, even hard to get to know. If you know where to look, you can experience something off-guidebook and inimitably Viennese.

You can find out why a Viennese friend captured it thus: “The Austrians are like Germans…but with a bit of anarchy.

Let’s get moving.

Vienna’s Fresh Markets

Vienna’s ancient history with the Turks is long and tumultuous, but the Viennese turned back the final siege in 1689. However, as recent history and immigration would have it, the Turks who now call Vienna home have placed an indelible culinary imprint on the place. A quick walk down any of the city’s markets will include displays that run forth with Turkish-inspired goodies – stuffed peppers, olives, creamy spreads, flat breads and baklava.

Vegetable Stand at Naschmarkt in Vienna, Austria
A requisite stop at Vienna’s Naschmarkt.

Our favorite of Vienna’s markets is the Naschmarkt, which has been around for almost 500 years. We usually gather a smorgasbord for a picnic in one of the nearby parks (Karlplatz and Resselpark are quite nice). Ask for samples to better know what you’re buying. Some vendors are a little heavy-handed, too, so be sure to ask the final cost before they hand over the goods.

On Saturday mornings, the area right next to the Naschmarkt food market is filled with a sprawling flea market (flohmarkt). You can find anything from antiques to vintage electronics to grandma’s finest china. It’s great place for people watching, too.

Colorful Array of Shot Classes - Vienna, Austria
Glass. A selection of the many pretty bits at the Saturday Naschmarkt flea market.

A Naschmarkt alternative: Check out Brunnenmarkt and Yppenplatz, a low-tourist volume alternative to Naschmarkt, still with plenty of stalls (170+) and all sorts of finished goods worth gifting, including Staud’s custom-made jams and jam jars whose lids features photos of famous Viennese artists and sights.

Viennese Café Culture

The traditional Viennese café was once described to us as “a living room outside the house.” Viennese cafes may appear formal on the surface – staff are usually formally dressed and there’s a traditional feel to furniture – the atmosphere inside is often exceptionally relaxed.

As one Viennese host explained, “A traditional café is open to everyone. Almost anyone can afford a cup of coffee. This ‘entrance fee’ allows you to enjoy reading the café’s selection of newspapers and magazines and stay all day.” Cafés often feature a vast array of reading materials in all major languages.

Pick Your Newspaper - Cafe Sperl in Vienna, Austria
No shortage of reading materials at a traditional Viennese café.

We also love how civilized Viennese coffee service is. Coffee in Vienna, almost without exception, will be served paired with a small glass of sparkling water for hydration. Nice. After experiencing this once, you’ll wonder why this practice isn’t standard around the world.

A Proper Viennese Coffee at Cafe Sperl - Vienna, Austria
Viennese Coffee at Cafe Sperl

Oh, and did we mention the cake? That’s another reason to visit many, many Viennese cafés on your visit. Apple strudel and Sachertorte, among others, are worth checking out.

Our recommendation: Café Sperl at Gumpendorfer Straße 11

Vienna Museums

We confess, we’re known to avoid museums in many cities we visit. But Vienna is one city where we do the exact opposite: we scour the exhibits list and we’ll make return visits to museums. Yes, Vienna’s permanent and temporary exhibitions are that good.

You could spend days just exploring the museums around the MuseumsQuartier, a museum and art installation area which Baroque Austro-Hungarian palaces, renovated and repurposed spaces and modern architecture into a single self-contained platform for beginning to explore Vienna’s history and its many faces.

Not only do the quality of the collections beg a visit, but the care paid to the display and design do too. Some of our favorites museums include:

Looking Out from Leopold Museum - Vienna, Austria
View of the MuseumsQuartier from the Leopold Museum

Albertina: The special exhibitions at this museum are just excellent; we love their design eye and the care with which they hang and display pieces. We’ve been almost a half dozen times and never tire of this museum. Address: Albertinaplatz 1, Admission: €9.50

Kunst Historisches Museum: The MacDaddy (or perhaps more respectfully, the grandaddy) of Vienna’s art museum scene. Not only does this museum possess an impressive permanent collection rich in Renaissance and Baroque art, but the actual museum building itself is astonishing. Another required stop: eating a piece of cake at the Kunst Historiches Museum café. Don’t forget to look up! Address: Burgring 5, Admission: €12

Leopold Museum: We preferred the permanent collection of Austrian art (Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele) to the temporary exhibit here. So it’s worth a visit even if you’re not thrilled with the visiting exhibits. Not only does the permanent exhibit take you through the Leopolds’ personal collection, but the contents also tell the story of the cultural and societal changes happening in Vienna in the early part of the 20th century. Address: Museumsquartier, Admission: €11

Kunst Haus Wien: On that fateful visit to Vienna in 1998, this was the one site we actively sought out. We’re glad we did, if only because it gave us an inkling that there was more to the city than what appears on its surface. Hundertwasser was an Austrian artist who applied his artistic and environmental ideals to architecture. The result is unique, irreverent, colorful, and fun — and the whole package challenges societal, design, and architectural assumptions and norms. Hundertwasser also designed the funky trash incinerator on the outskirts of town. The Hundertwasser Museum café and museum shop are also worth a visit, again if only for the design alone. Address: Untere Weißgerberstraße 13, Admission: €9

Heurigers: A Viennese Wine Experience

Heurigers are family wine tavern restaurants. Although they are located at the edge of town near the vineyards, they are a Viennese institution. “Heurigers are where life happens — where people come together, where they split, where families grow up,” a Viennese winemaker once explained to us.

Traditional Viennese Heuriger - Vienna, Austria
Traditional Viennese Heuriger

Not only are heurigers great for eating lots of hearty Austrian fare (think schnitzel, big chunks of meat, piles of asparagus), but they are great for people watching, particularly on weekend afternoons when local families and friends.

And yes, Viennese wines can be quite good. When the weather is hot, Austrians drink g’spritzters (a spritzer to you and me), which usually consists of a young white wine (like a Gruner Veltliner) mixed with sparkling water. This might sound suspect to wine purists, but it’s über refreshing on a hot day.

Our heuriger recommendation: If you’re looking for something a little less trafficked by tour groups and tourists, take a trip to the Stammersdorf area of Vienna to Christ Winery and Heuriger and Wienenger Winery and Heuriger. Both are family-run and feature very nice wines.

Pouring Wine at the Heuriger - Vienna, Austria
Pouring Wine at Christ Heuriger and Winery.

Yes, Viennese wines. Yes, vineyards in the city limits. You’ll think differently about Viennese wines after this. And we’ll write more about Viennese wines in a separate piece.

If you don’t have much time or you’d like to visit a heuriger closer to town, hop on the tram and head to Grinzing. The area is fun, but expect bigger crowds and possible tour buses.

Vienna Classical Music and Opera

We learned a lesson when we first visited Vienna in 1998: if you’d like a quality classical music experience stay away from people in period costumes selling what best be described as “high-speed, best of” concerts.

Austrian Ticket Vendor Dressed in Period Costume - Vienna, Austria
Austrian Ticket Vendor Dressed in Period Costume

If on the other hand you are a classical music or opera buff, plan ahead and buy tickets online in advance from state-supported institutions like the Vienna State Opera or the Vienna Philharmonic.

If you decide at the last minute that you’d like to see a concert in Vienna, don’t despair. You can buy discounted last minute tickets at the Vienna Tourism Office on Albertinaplatz between 2:00-5:00PM on the day of the concert.

Our recommendation: If you enjoy opera, but find that the Vienna State Opera tickets will bust you budget, try attending the Sunday morning performances at Augustiner Church at 11:00AM instead. Every Sunday, professional opera singers perform a mass with a full orchestra. You can check the Augistiner Church schedule to see which mass is being performed during your visit. It’s well worth a visit even if you don’t usually attend church. Address: Augustinerstraße 3

Vienna Christmas Markets

We became smitten with Austrian Christmas markets on our first visit in 1998 and have visited Vienna several times since around Christmastime. Vienna certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to its holiday markets – there are events and markets throughout the city for the entire month of advent. It sounds completely cliché, but the smell of gluhwein (spiced wine), roasted chestnuts, and roasted sausage really does fill the air. We love it.

Rathaus (Municipal House) Christmas Market - Vienna, Austria
Rathaus Christmas Market – Vienna

Our recommendation: Although it’s the biggest and most touristic, the main Christmas market (Wiener Christkindlmarkt) at the Rathausplatz is still the place to start. Smaller and more specialized markets, including children’s and handmade crafts markets, are also scattered throughout the city. The MuseumQuartier (MQ) usually transforms its courtyard into an ice skating rink and holds a full schedule of holiday activities for kids and adults alike.

Vienna Hotel Recommendation

Hotel Das Tyrol: During most of our visits to Vienna, we stayed with friends or family. However, during our last visit, the Vienna tourism board kindly hosted us here and we were impressed. While the rooms are not huge, the location is excellent and rooms are rich in decor and feature a host of nice touches like plush bathrobes. The building runs a fun and quirky artistic theme through its rooms and common areas, as in you’ll never know what sort of sculpture and painting you might find. The breakfast buffet, however, is what truly blows the mind. A nice brightly lit room with a vast and stunning spread that could leave you lingering for hours. Address: Located near the MuseumsQuartier at Mariahilfer Strasse 15

Disclosure: A special thanks goes to Vienna Tourism Office for sponsoring our last visit to Vienna and helping to fill out the café and wine culture dimensions of a city we thought we’d already known.

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Comments

  1. says

    Vienna? I love the Sisi Museum which allow us to view the imperial apartment as well as the silver cabinet. In general, Vienna is a good place suiting all interests of travelers.

  2. says

    I am bit different. I like going to museums. In every travel, I assure that I don’t live a place not having visited a museum. The reason on this is I like seeing arts and crafts. If photography is allowed inside, I’d surely bring my camera and take some pictures for myself.

  3. Nicole says

    *SIGH*

    Now I have Wienweh (a term used by the group of us who studied in Vienna in college, meaning “homesickness for Vienna”). I love Vienna, and I love your suggestions. Classics.

    Now I just need to hop the nearest plane.

  4. says

    I really want to visit Vienna very much! As a classical musician it’s be on my list ever since I was a little girl. Out of everything you listed above (and the details were delicious, thank you) I really want to know more about the ridiculously big St. Bernard you stayed with…:) Good tips about visiting the church for concerts, and the Turkish history. Grazie.

  5. says

    Many delicious food and best culinary can be found at Vienna Fresh Market. Food like Turkish-inspired goodies and others remarkable Vienna’s are good to try out! Best and delightful.

  6. says

    @Michael: You made it into newspaper in Vienna – now that sounds like a good story!

    @Mary: We haven’t seen the Sisi Museum yet – thanks for the recommendation!

    @Agness: Hope you have a great visit soon to Vienna!

    @Sofwan: We’ve been to Vienna almost a dozen times and we’re always discovering new things each time we visit.

    @Nicole: Thanks for introducing me to the phrase “Wienweh.” You and Chip are to thank for some of these suggestions. I remember going to the big Julius Meinl and stocking up on all the thing we couldn’t find in Prague at the time. Good times.

    @Charu: If you’re a classical musician buff, then you’ll love Vienna. And I think you’ll enjoy the church for the mass sung by opera singers. Wish we could remember where that St. Bernard was to visit again.

    @Mike: Vienna’s markets are great spots for picking up picnic items.

    @Helen: Yes, there is a lot of Art Nouveau buildings in Vienna as well. Riga has some really beautiful architectural stock.

  7. says

    One of my goals in Vienna was to idly eat and enjoy Sachertorte. So good! I made a magnet out of the photo I took, which is on my fridge. Too bad it’s so pricey to have it shipped to the US.

  8. says

    I’ve been to Vienna once and definitely want to go back again but I think I want to go during Christmas cause I’ve heard it is a truly amazing experience.

  9. says

    @Debra: Ooh, Sachertorte! We didn’t mention it here but it’s really delicious. And it seems impossible to find it done well outside of Vienna. But, at least you have your magnet to remind you :)

    @Gabriel: We’ve been to Vienna a couple of times during the Christmas season and it is a lot of fun. Enjoy!

  10. says

    My family and I really need to get out more. Vienna sounds wonderful. I love museums and markets but not so much opera. My wife has tried to get me to go several times but I have said no. Now the wine I could really get into.

  11. says

    You have brought back some great memories with this post, thanks! To me, Vienna is an unsung hero of Europe – such romance and fascinating architecture. And don’t get me started on the infectious cafe culture.

  12. Jean says

    Hi,
    Your article triggered my “Wienweh” as well… originally from this wonderful city and living in Sweden now, I am impressed by your very accurate description and you really gave great tipps! Regarding Christmas markets, I can recommend my favorite: at Spittelberg, less touristic, much arts & crafts and great Glühwein.
    Servus :-)

  13. says

    Repost:
    One of my goals in Vienna was to idly eat and enjoy Sachertorte. So good! I made a magnet out of the photo I took, which is on my fridge. Too bad it’s so pricey to have it shipped to the US.
    (Apologies, the URL linked to my name has changed)

  14. says

    @Gerard: Think I already responded to the Christmas Market question on Twitter, but just in case. The big markets open up mid-November with some of the smaller ones opening up at the end. Glad it will work out for your visit!

    @Sutapa: So many stories…so little time :) That was a great Christmas road trip from Munich through Austria. Didn’t make any plans, so we just knocked on the doors of pensions along the way.

    @Margaret: Spending time in Vienna in junior high must have been a lot of fun, and endless learning opportunities. I can imagine how you must get nostalgic each time you visit.

    @Jean: So glad to hear from a Viennese that we captured some of the essence of your great city! And thanks for the recommendations for Christmas markets a little less known and touristy.

  15. says

    Fantastic post – I think you really showcased the true Vienna. We recently had a couple talk to us who were based in Salzburg for 6 months. They really showed us that Vienna was more than The Sound of Music and Vienna! And your post did so to so thankyou.

  16. says

    @DanA: Although, I do have to admit that I’ve been curious about that Sound of Music Tour :) We know there is much more to Vienna that we’ve discovered, but at least we hope this helps others get started to go past the polish. It’s a fun city.

    @Stephen: It’s funny you mentioned mouth-watering raviolis – we bought a bunch of that on our visit a couple of years ago and made them in my mother’s little work apartment. You’re right – so fresh & delicious! Didn’t really need sauce even.

  17. says

    @Dan The raviolis are so good. I bought them fresh everyday and ate them for lunch and dinner. Never got old because there are so many different types. ( I just made myself extremely hungry writing this)

  18. says

    @Perry: Vienna! What’s not to love?

    @Stephen: Raviolis, a little bit of Italy amidst Turkish vendors Austria’s capital city. There’s a history lesson in there somewhere.

  19. says

    Definitely with you on the Viennese cafes and their unique but oh so logical way of serving coffee with sparkling water. Why this isn’t traditional across Europe I don’t know but it makes so much sense. As does the cake they serve with it…yum!

  20. says

    I’ve totally bookmarked this for future use. Unsure if I’ll wind up in Vienna when I’m in Europe next summer, but if not then, then I’ll certainly end up there in winter when I’m visiting the Christmas markets around the region (and luckily I have a very high endurance to the cold – thank you body hair and genetics). The markets sound wonderful, as do the museums – and I’m not the biggest museum buff out there. The cafes sound divine, as well – although I think I’d sweet-talk them into giving me some still water instead of the sparkling kind.

    Thanks for sharing this – useful, useful, useful! :)

  21. says

    @sasha: Slowly but surely, the Viennese water/sparkling water with coffee pair is making its way around Europe. And yes, a good cake, sachertorte or biscuit — especially in the afternoon — is just about perfect.

    @Tom: Markets, cafes and museums, the Viennese big three. I’m sure you can sweet-talk your way into some still water…you might even get a whole bottle. Enjoy your journey to Vienna when you make it and let us know if you have any questions!

  22. says

    Excellent overview and very timely for us – we only have a tiny amount of time, but you’ve covered quite a few things that I would love. A friend told me about Sacher Torte today – I’ll be in trouble if I don’t eat a piece. I’ve got a feeling she might have had some sent to Australia – can’t believe they do mail order!

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