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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Our favorite traditional Viennese café from our visit was Café Sperl that dates from the 1880s. Meet its charismatic 80-year-old owner, Mr. Staub, and hear the story of how the walls became yellow and why he now chooses to hire women rather than men (and no, it's not about looks).
From his expression, we suspect this is just the beginning of the stories he could tell from over 40 years of experience managing his café.
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
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:
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.
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.
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.
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. Here are more options for quality music events in Vienna.
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.
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
If Hotel Das Tyrol is taken, find another hotel in Vienna.