Vienna is one of Europe’s most amazing cities, full of history, culture and music. And if you’re wondering what to see in Vienna, the good news is that a lot of its most spectacular sights are in the historic centre. Even better, the old city isn’t that big, so it’s possible to see a lot of its attractions in a couple of days — by taking the tram.
Old Vienna was once surrounded by a defensive wall, which was long ago replaced by a ring road, called the Ringstrasse. It runs right around the original town, or Innere Stadt, passing most of the greatest buildings and attractions, and within a five-minute walk of many other highlights.
The ring road is served by the city’s brilliant tram system, so the best way to do a tour of old Vienna in a limited amount of time is to hop the tram for a ride around the Ringstrasse. To make it easy, buy a transit pass so you can jump on and off whenever something catches your eye. If you’re energetic, you can even do the route by foot.
On the Ringstrasse
I started my Ringstrasse tour at the Schottentor station, near the university, and headed west, where most of the significant buildings are located. It wasn’t long before I jumped off to see one of the city’s more iconic buildings, the city hall.
Vienna’s neo-Gothic city hall was completed in 1883, and it’s almost an emblem of old Europe, with its 102-metre spire topped by a knight carrying a pennant. Tours lead you through its huge arcaded courtyard, the council and senate chambers, and the grand Festival Hall with its barrel-vaulted ceiling. Inside and out, the building is studded with busts and statues: it’s easy to feel as if you’re in a sword-and-sorcery movie.
The Parliament buildings
Next door to the Rathaus is Austria’s impressive parliament building, built in Greek revival-style and fronted by a monumental statue of Athena atop a fountain, with figures representing the houses of parliament and the four major rivers of the Austro-Hungarian empire (see a photo here).
The building has 100 rooms, including the chambers of Austria’s National Council and Federal Council. There are tours when parliament is not sitting, but it’s a great sight even if you don’t go in.
The grandest building in old Vienna is the Hofburg Palace (at top and below). Once the seat of the great Austro-Hungarian Empire, it’s both grand and big, looming over the centre of the old town. There are no more emperors, but the president’s office is here, as well as the country’s national library and public offices.
There are special tours that take you through parts of the palace, including the imperial apartments, which are smaller than you’d imagine, though richly decorated. The huge complex also includes the Treasury, the Spanish Riding School and the Imperial Chapel where the Vienna Boys’ Choir performs.
The museum district
Just across from the Hofburg Palace, where the royal stables once stood, Vienna has established a remarkable collection of museums. The centrepieces are the Natural History Museum and the Art History Museum (seen here), facing each other across a square called Maria-Theresien-Platz. But the district also hosts Mumok, with its noted collection of modern art, the Leopold Museum of Austrian art, and a children’s museum called ZOOM.
The list doesn’t stop there: spread across the city are more than 100 museums, including an architecture museum, a chocolatier museum, a globe museum, three Beethoven museums, a snow globe museum, and even a Third Man museum, focused on the 1948 Orson Welles movie set in postwar Vienna.
The opera house
Vienna’s ornate, neo-Renaissance-style opera house was one of the earliest of the “new” buildings on the Ringstrasse, opening in 1869 with a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. However, the building you see now was rebuilt after being bombed in WWII. It’s home to the state opera and the Vienna Philharmonic, and presents 300 performances a year, including 50 to 60 operas. So if you’re keen, there’s a good chance you might get a ticket.
Inside the Ringstrasse
St. Stephan’s Cathedral
This church is the heart of Old Vienna, located in the centre of the medieval city and serving as a landmark, with its towering steeple. It’s also one of the most fascinating places in Vienna. Once you get past its grand architecture and beautiful interior (below), you have a choice: you can climb to the top of the steeple for dizzying views of the city, or descend into the catacombs to see chambers full of bones from ancient plagues. There’s also a room filled with jars in which the Austrians have stored the internal organs of generations of their kings and queens. If that’s too creepy, come back in the evening for choir concerts featuring people in medieval garb.
On a winding street in the shadow of the cathedral — you may have to ask some locals to find it — stands the house where Mozart lived while he wrote some of his greatest works. The house is still largely original, and while the furniture is gone, the rooms are filled with pictures and artifacts dealing with his life and the scene he inhabited in the Vienna of the 1700s.
It’s a memorable glimpse of the city in a period when it was one of Europe’s cultural and musical capitals. The self-guided narration also gives some fascinating insights into Mozart’s life: turns out he was as much of a party animal as the movies portray, splashing out on cases of champagne and borrowing to pay huge gambling debts.
Outside the Ringstrasse
A short walk from the old quarter, in the Alsergrund district, is the building where Sigmund Freud and his family lived while he developed his groundbreaking practice of psychoanalysis. It’s open to visitors, and you can walk through the rooms where the family lived and Freud practised. There are pictures of the famous couch in the room where it sat, but sadly, the couch itself left the scene along with Freud when the family moved to Britain to escape the Nazis.
The museum contains some of Freud’s personal possessions, like his suitcase and hat, and some of the antiquities he collected in his study of the human mind. Somehow you can still feel his presence.
Built by Emperor Leopold I in 1696, this lavish rococo complex was the royal family’s summer palace, so it’s a half-hour or so out of the old city on the transit. Once you get there, it’s well worth the trip. You can tour 40 of the palace’s 1,441 ornate rooms, and walk through its beautiful gardens. You might even see the place where a six-year-old Mozart played for Maria Theresa, and met a seven-year-old girl we all know as Marie Antoinette.
About a 15-minute tram ride from the ring road is this impressive suburban palace (below), which ranks among the treasures of Vienna’s art scene. The palace itself, once the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, has beautiful gardens, and its halls are lined with fine examples of Austrian art. There’s even a room filled with fascinating old stuffed animals.
But the spotlight goes to its brilliant collection of works by Vienna’s Gustav Klimt, including his famous painting, The Kiss. You won’t see the painting once called Lady in Gold, which once hung here: it was reclaimed by the family who lost it to the Nazis in World War II.
What else to do
Go to a coffee house
Whether you’re in the mood for a cup of coffee, a full meal, or just a place to rest your feet, Vienna’s coffee houses are not to be missed. These aren’t coffee shops like Starbucks: they’re an institution much like Parisian cafés, places where artists, writers, poets and political thinkers have met over the years to read, write, discuss and trade thoughts. And despite their sometimes grand decor, they’re open to everyone with the money for a coffee. My favourite is Café Central, in the middle of the old city (you can read more about it here). Freud preferred Café Landtmann, on the Ringstrasse.
Have a Vienna meal
Of course, old Vienna is chock-a-block with restaurants, and you can’t leave town without sampling a Wienerschnitzel, the city’s namesake. The city has other specialties too, including Vienna sausages (below) and Hungarian goulash. But its real claim to fame is its pastries, which beckon from luscious-looking displays in the windows of restaurants and coffee shops everywhere. You have to have at least one.
Do some shopping
The old town is well served with interesting shops, selling everything from high fashion to jewellery and souvenirs. Kärntner Strasse is the shopping mecca, but some of the museums also have fascinating shops; they’re a good place to pick up something unique to take home. Prices aren’t cheap, but they’re not sky-high either. And if you like chocolate, you’re in luck: it’s a Viennese specialty, and some of the shop displays could send you into sugar shock.
That’s a quick look at what to see in Vienna, but there’s a lot more. We haven’t even touched on the modern city, or taken a boat ride on the Danube. But that’s for another trip — the culture and beauty of old Vienna is more than enough to fill one short trip. And if you indulge in the pastries and chocolate, they could be more than enough.