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An imperial history, traditional taverns and classical music combine with a buzzing creative scene in Vienna to create an enchanting mix of old and new that repeatedly draws visitors from around the world. But to make the most of your time in the Austrian capital, follow Culture Trip’s 48-hour itinerary to experience the best the city has to offer.
In 2019, Vienna was named the world’s most liveable city by The Economist Intelligence Unit for the second year running. But what exactly is it that makes the metropolis so appealing? “Vienna is somehow stuck in the past but at the same time vibrant and always moving forward,” says local travel expert Claudia Hilmbauer. Journalist Wolfgang Ruiner praises its manageable size and numerous activities: “It only takes 10 minutes by metro from the centre to the bathing lake. On top, there are tons of great bars, restaurants and markets.” Meanwhile, the owner of restaurant Zur Herknerin, Stefanie Herkner, stresses that what makes the city so attractive is “the Viennese charm and cosiness”. Follow Culture Trip’s guide for the perfect Vienna city break.
Morning: Climb St Stephen’s tower and explore Vienna’s prestigious old town
Start your first day in Vienna with breakfast at Haas & Haas, a traditional teahouse located just behind St Stephen’s Cathedral. “They have more than 30 options, from the classic Austrian breakfast to Japanese miso soup,” says Sabine Maier, founder of popular Vienna blog Die Stadtspionin. There’s also a pretty, greenery-filled courtyard patio for the warmer months.
After your meal, check out St Stephen’s Cathedral (access to the front of the nave and part of the northern side is free), originally built in the 12th century. Climb the south tower’s 343 steps for €5 (£4.30), or take the lift up the north one for €6 (£5.15) for great views over Vienna. Then, explore the landmark’s surroundings, which include the prestigious shopping boulevards Kärntner Straße and Graben, the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) and the Imperial Palace, all of which are within a 10-minute walk.
Have lunch at Habibi & Hawara, Austria’s first refugee-run restaurant, on nearby Wipplingerstraße. Frequented by the likes of President Alexander Van der Bellen and former UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon, the restaurant offers a bottomless buffet for €15.90 (£13.60). It features Middle Eastern food with an Austrian twist (think various types of hummus, Lebanese cream cheese, falafel, Austrian roast chicken and baklava), with many of the options being plant-based. “Two-thirds of our staff have a migrant background, with the majority coming from Syria and a few from Afghanistan,” explains Martin Rohla, the mastermind behind the foodie hotspot.
Pro tip: What Mozartkugeln (marzipan balls covered in praline and chocolate) are to Salzburg, Manner wafers are to Vienna. For the perfect sweet Viennese treat during your day out, try a Manner wafer, which is filled with hazelnut cocoa cream and cut into bite-size blocks. Manner wafers were invented in the 19th century and are still available where they originated, in the brand’s shop on Stephansplatz next to St Stephen’s Cathedral. And despite the prime location, you won’t pay more than buying them at the supermarket.
Afternoon: Check out Belvedere and sample food at Naschmarkt
Take the short stroll from Stephensplatz to Schottentor to see the imposing 19th-century architecture of the University of Vienna. Founded in the 14th century, it’s the oldest university in the German-speaking world. Afterwards, jump on tram D to visit the UNESCO-listed Belvedere Palace.
On the 15-minute journey, you will pass the Vienna City Hall, the Parliament and Staatsoper. “Belvedere’s park has one of the best views in town,” says Vienna-based journalist Manuela Tiefnig who loves the city’s “mix of hip elements and traditional charm”. Marvel at the flower beds, sculptures and fountains before heading to the 18th-century palace buildings. The Upper Belvedere is Austria’s most-visited art museum and houses the largest collection of works by Viennese symbolist painter Gustav Klimt. “Seeing The Kiss in Vienna is a must,” says Tiefnig.
From Belvedere, it’s only a 20-minute walk to Vienna’s largest and most popular open-air market. Naschmarkt dates back to the 18th century and features more than 120 food stalls, bars and restaurants. Take in the busy atmosphere and make sure to snack on some free samples.
Pro tip: Should you arrive on a Sunday, swap the days of this itinerary round as Naschmarkt and its restaurants will be closed.
Evening: Dine at Naschmarkt or try traditional Austrian cuisine
As for dinner in Vienna, the easiest – and most diverse – option is to stay at the Naschmarkt. But try to avoid tourist traps and don’t settle for the first restaurant you see, says travel expert Hilmbauer. “The farther away from Karlsplatz they are, the more locals you will find gathering around the tables. Neni or Deli rank among the favourites.” As an alternative, popular restaurant Zur Herknerin, which is particularly beloved for its authentic Austrian dishes and dumplings, is only a few minutes away. “I try to preserve the tastes of my childhood and pass them on to my guests,” explains Vienna-born owner Stefanie Herkner, who also runs dumpling-preparing workshops.
Pro tip: Mixing white wine with sparkling mineral water might sound a bit peculiar to some, but the so-called ‘Spritzer’ is integral to Viennese culture. Order a glass with your dinner and try it for yourself.
Night: Sip a cocktail in a chic bar
Want to end the day with a cocktail in style? Head to Blue Mustard near St Stephen’s Cathedral for a drink under the bar’s Gothic arches, which are filled with vintage light bulbs. Alternatively, try Krypt at Schottentor for a drinking experience in a 200-year-old vault, or go to hipster hang-out Miranda near Pilgramgasse. All three bars are quickly accessible by metro from Karlsplatz or Kettenbrückengasse.
Morning: Eat breakfast at Grandma’s and explore Schönbrunn
Vollpension might remind you of your grandma’s house, with its vintage furniture and decor, floral crockery and retired Viennese ladies behind the counter selling their home-made cakes. “We want to bring the young and elderly together over food,” says co-founder Hannah Lux. Breakfast options come with funny names such as ‘Spicy Grandpa’, which food writer Barbara Haider, owner of Austrian breakfast blog Die Frühstückerinnen, especially recommends: “The pepper-tomato butter gives it a truly piquant note.”
Afterwards, hop on the metro U4 and head to Schönbrunn Palace. While it would take at least a day to explore everything at this UNESCO-listed site, you can still see a lot in half the time. Take the ‘Grand Tour’ (self-guided or with a guide) of the palace where Sisi, the Empress of Austria, lived with her husband Franz Joseph I. On the tour, you can marvel at 40 selected rooms for €20 (£17.15). Alternatively, you can simply admire the Rococo exterior and take some snaps from the outside.
Once you’ve finished exploring the palace, consider visiting the pandas and elephants at the Schönbrunn Zoo, the oldest zoo in the world. Admission is €20 (£17.15). Make sure to leave some time to explore the palace’s park, too. “Even though Schönbrunn is one of the most touristy places in town, you can still find some quiet spots in its gardens,” says Claudia Hilmbauer.
If you work up an appetite while exploring Schönbrunn, head to the Café Gloriette or the zoo’s Tyrolean Tavern, which is an authentic farmer’s house dating back to 1722, where visitors can enjoy hearty sandwiches, cheese and juices.
Pro tip: Buy tickets online for Schönbrunn to jump the queue. If you plan to visit more than one attraction, consider going for the ‘Classic Pass’ (which includes the palace, Privy Garden, Maze, Orangery Garden and Gloriette) for €26.50 (£22.70) or ‘Classic Pass Plus’ (everything included in the ‘Classic Pass’ plus the zoo) for €40 (£34.30).
Afternoon: Explore Vienna’s hip neighbourhood, Neubau
After getting a taste of Vienna’s history, experience its present by visiting trendy Neubau. A 20-minute metro ride (take U4, change to U3 and get off at Neubaugasse) will bring you right into Vienna’s hipster hub. “Head to Neubau for vintage and vinyl shops, shabby-chic cafés and bars, vegan food and street art,” says PR manager Nicole Schipani, who lived in Neubau and especially recommends Bootik 54 (for vintage), Decoo (for unusual gifts and souvenirs) and Schokov (for chocolate lovers). If you stroll along Neubaugasse, Kirchengasse and Zollergasse, you will eventually pass them all (and many more great places to shop, eat and drink).
Pro tip: For the best year-round vegan ice cream in town (with seasonal flavours such as watermelon, pumpkin and Christmas cookies), head to Veganista on Neustiftgasse. It’s a popular dairy-free parlour founded by vegan sisters Cecilia Havmöller and Susanna Paller.
Evening: Indulge in an authentic dinner at trendy MuseumsQuartier
Head south from Neubaugasse, towards the city centre (passing Veganista on the way), and you will eventually end up at Vienna’s MuseumsQuartier, the ideal place to stop for dinner. But before settling down for a meal, be sure to take your time to check out the 60,000-square-metre (699,654-square-foot) complex, which houses 60 museums and cultural institutions as well as atmospheric bars and restaurants.
Originally built as court stables in the 18th century, the MuseumsQuartier today is one of the most popular places to hang out in Vienna. It’s especially busy in summer when the colourful, award-winning outdoor furniture called ‘Enzis’ become filled with people stretching their legs out in the warm sun. For a typical Austrian dinner feast made with locally sourced ingredients, head to Glacis Beisl at the backside of the complex – think schnitzel, goulash and dumplings. The restaurant creates a sense of Viennese cosiness in a modern setting and has one of the most beautiful courtyard patios in the city, which is surrounded by old walnut trees.
Pro tip: Looking for a souvenir to take home? While MQ Point is officially MuseumsQuartier’s ticket office, it doubles as a cool gift shop, offering trendy T-shirts, mugs, dishes and other kitsch-free Viennese souvenirs.
Night: Enjoy a drink at a rooftop bar
Just around the corner from Glacis Beisl is the hip 25hours Hotel, which boasts a bright and colourful rooftop bar called Dachboden, featuring comfy sofas and vintage furniture. It’s the perfect place to end your Vienna city trip in style. If you visit in summer, head straight to the accompanying terrace overlooking the city. “Even though Dachboden is technically part of the 25hours Hotel, a lot of locals come here for after-work drinks, to celebrate birthdays or just for the view,” says Sandra Maier, a Vienna-based student. Check its website for events and DJ nights on Wednesdays and Fridays.
Pro tip: If you like drinking spirits, Thursday is your lucky day! Every week, the 25hours Hotel rooftop bar hosts a special event called ‘Thirsty Thursday’ in collaboration with changing spirit brands. Expect goodies such as free shots at the elevator, drink specials at the bar or even the opportunity to personalise your own gin or whiskey bottle. Check its Facebook page for the weekly update.