“It stands at the far end of the Alps like a grandiloquent watchman of history.” —Jan Morris
The legacies of Beethoven, Freud, Klimt, and Mahler lure visitors to this gracious old-world city, the least frenetic yet one of the most compelling capitals of Europe. Famous for its gemutlichkeit, its trams, its cafes, and its pastry stores, it is a delightfully civilized and comfortable city and a timeless destination for art, music, and culture.
The Top Ten Sights
A number of Vienna’s top sights are at the Hofburg (Imperial Hapsburg Palace), the residence of the Hapsburg emperors until 1918.
The Imperial Apartments
(KAISERAPPARTMENTS)—Emperor Franz- Josef I lived here in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Visitors can see his opulent private rooms, the great audience hall, the court silverware and tableware room, and the dining rooms, richly decorated in rococo stucco work, tapestries, and Bohemian crystal chandeliers—Vienna at its most Viennese.
Lipizzaner Horses of the Spanish Riding School—Founded in 1572, the Spanische Reitschule preserves classic dressage in its purest form, with presentations open to the public. Its horses were bred over the centuries from Spanish, Italian, and Arabian stock.
The Treasury (Schatzkammer) — this superb collection includes the imperial crowns of the Holy Roman and Austrian empires and numerous treasures from the house of Burgundy and the Order of the Golden Fleece.
Vienna Boys’ Choir at the Hofburgkapelle—Linked with Vienna’s musical life since 1498 and associated over the years with composers such as Mozart, Schubert, and Bruckner, the choir has performed internationally since 1926.
ELSEWHERE IN VIENNA
Albertina Museum—Combining a 17th- century palace and a new fourteen-story building, the Albertina contains one of the world’s largest collections of graphic art (from the Gothic to the contemporary), plus some 25,000 architectural drawings and a major new photography collection.
Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere)— Actually two 18th-century palaces separated by landscaped gardens; the upper palace exhibits 19th- and 20th-century Viennese art (featuring works by Klimt), while the lower palace showcases the Gothic and Baroque.
Kunsthistorisches Museum—One of the richest fine-arts museums on the planet, with works from the ancient world and all over Europe, housed in palatial galleries. The Italian and Flemish collections are especially fine, as is the world’s largest collection of paintings by Pieter Brueghel the Elder.
St. Charles Church (Karlskirche)—One of Vienna’s great buildings, the Karlskirche was built in the early 18th century. Its entrance is framed by huge freestanding columns, mates to Rome’s Trajan’s Column. There’s a magnificent view from the roof.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom)— Retaining its medieval atmosphere despite centuries of renovation and rebuilding, the Stephansdom dominates the city skyline with its towering Gothic spires. Inside, it’s filled with monuments, sculptures, and paintings. Catacomb tours run regularly Mon-Sat.
Schloss Schonbrunn—Built by the Hapsburgs between 1696 and 1712, this 1,441-room palace (of which about 40 can be visited) is full of delicate rococo touches that set it in contrast to the starker Hofburg. Mozart performed here at age six for the Empress Maria Theresa, and Emperor Franz- Joseph was born here. The palace’s park was opened to the public around 1779 and quickly became a popular recreational area, with a hedge maze, reproduction Roman ruins, botanical garden, and zoo.
Other Must Do’s
Christmas in Vienna—Vienna is Christmas: white with snow, adorned with traditional decorations, and beautifully noncommercial. There’s midnight Mass at St. Stephen’s, and at City Hall’s huge Christkindlmarkt, hundreds of festive outdoor stands sell everything that smells and tastes of the holidays. “Silent Night” and other Viennese carols are sung by the Vienna Boys’ Choir. Top it off with the extravagant New Year’s Eve Kaiserball at the Hofburg.
The Musikverein—One of the greatest music halls in the world, built in the Baroque style in 1867, with nearly flawless acoustics. It’s home to the Vienna Philharmonic, whose New Year’s Eve Johann Strauss concert is broadcast around the world. The celebrated Vienna Mozart Concerts take place here and elsewehere in town, May-Oct.
The Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera)— Built in 1887 as the imperial court opera, the green-domed opera house is one of the world’s best, offering an incredibly long season (Sept-Jun) of mostly staples: Verdi, Mozart, and Strauss.
Where to Stay
The Palais Schwarzenberg—Built in the early 18th century by an aristocratic family whose descendants still occupy about half of it and set on 18 bucolic acres in the heart of Vienna, it’s more like a stately country home than an urban hotel. Despite ancestral portraits and other artworks (including Renoirs and Gobelins), public areas and rooms are inviting and unstuffy. The hotel’s renowned restaurant has one of the most impressive settings (and chefs) in the city.
The ICONIC von Ungarn—Vienna’s oldest hotel, tucked away in the shadow of St. Stephen’s cathedral and in operation since 1815. Simple and polished, with a lovely enclosed courtyard, it’s a welcome respite from the city’s opulence.
Demel and Sacher’s—Open since 1887, Demel is one of the reasons Vienna is known as Europe’s pastry capital, setting up an Olympic-sized array of more than sixty pastries in its music-box-perfect front rooms. The five-layer chocolate Anna torte and the profoundly rich chocolate Sacher torte are house specialties. Sample the goods here and then trot over to the Hotel Sacher’s cafe to compare—both insist they have the original secret recipe, though Demel’s usually wins out. Sacher’s strudel, however (“mit Schlagobers”—with whipped cream), knows no rival.
Hawelka Cafe—Whole books have been written at and about this classic, unapologetically smoky cafe, the enduring prototype in the city that invented European cafe culture. Its superb coffee is dense, bitter, and fresh.
The Heuriger Experience—At these alfresco wine taverns, sprinkled along the edge of the nearby Vienna Woods, large quantities of seemingly innocent wine are partially responsible for the atmosphere: alive with bonhomie, singing, and shameless Viennese accordion schmaltz. Beethoven lived at Mayer am Pfarrplatz in 1817; today it’s a favorite Heuriger.
Steirereck—Austria’s finest restaurant and the birthplace of New Viennese Cuisine, served amid baronial trappings with elegance and flair. Find a table in the more intimate and romantic winter garden, a greenery-filled conservatory built against an outside wall.
Zu Den Drei Husaren—Old Vienna’s enduring monument to its school of haute cuisine. Tourists love it, but so do the locals, who know they can reliably find Viennese standards at candlelit tables in a plush romantic ambience of stag horns and tapestries. Sample Austria’s finest labels from its enormous wine list.