With its impressive artistic and musical heritage, historic architecture, cosy coffee houses and more, there are plenty of activities to keep visitors to Vienna occupied. Culture Trip speaks to a few Viennese residents for their insider tips on the best things to do in the Austrian capital.
One of the major draws of Vienna is that it combines the feel of a big city with the accessibility of a small one. “You feel welcome, but you can also be on your own and wander around,” says Lisa Oberndorfer, a Vienna-based social media editor currently working on 1,000 Things To Do in Vienna. “There’s a variety of things you can do here,” says Oberndorfer’s colleague, Viktoria Klimpfinger, a Vienna-based journalist, who adds that the city has plenty of green space to explore: “There is nature all over the place.”
Vienna is also a meeting point for Eastern and Western Europe, something that Attilia Fattori Franchini, an independent curator who moved to the city in 2018, finds thrilling. “For a curator, it’s fantastically located,” Franchini says, explaining that Vienna is a great place to discover art and artists who have been underrepresented in Western Europe in the past.
The city is also easy to get around, and simply walking its wide avenues is a great way to see some of its top sights. Public transport is so convenient and efficient that “Austrian people get frustrated when they have to wait three minutes for a train,” says Vienna-based writer Mira Nograsek, who runs the sustainability blog Roedluvan.
Culture Trip speaks with Nograsek, Oberndorfer, Klimpfinger and Franchini, who highlight some of their favourite things to do in Vienna in order to experience the best of the city.
The museums in Vienna provide endless artistic delights, from the permanent collection at the Kunsthistorisches Museum, which includes works by Titian, Peter Paul Rubens and Albrecht Dürer, to The Kiss by Gustav Klimt, one of the world’s most famous paintings, which you will find at the Belvedere. “From an artistic perspective, there is so much to visit,” Franchini says of the city’s vibrant art scene.
For something less well known, Franchini suggests visiting Haus Wittgenstein, a Bulgarian cultural centre that hosts exhibitions featuring artists from both Bulgaria and other Eastern European countries. For more contemporary art in Vienna, Franchini recommends young, experimental galleries such as Felix Gaudlitz, Croy Nielsen, Emanuel Layr and Gianni Manhattan. For even more galleries in the city, she suggests searching the Independent Space Index website. “It’s a fantastic resource for places you would otherwise only know about through word of mouth,” she says.
The extensive green space on the outskirts of Vienna is both beautiful and easily accessible. Hop on the overground train from the city centre, and you will reach Vienna’s surrounding hills in less than an hour. Alternatively, start your outdoor adventure in the city by renting a bike and embark on a cycling trip to reach the hills. “It’s easy to escape the big city,” Nograsek says, who recommends following one of the hikes that the city has mapped out.
Nograsek’s favourite is a 10-kilometre (6.2-mile) route that starts in Sievering and goes on a circular walk that takes in the highest point in Vienna – Hermannskogel hill – and scenic viewpoints, with recommended places to eat along the way. “It starts in a very old, rural area of Vienna,” Nograsek explains. “You have awesome views of the city, and you pass by a lot of traditional restaurants where you can drink a beer or eat a schnitzel”.
As the legend goes, the first coffee beans brewed in Vienna were those left behind after a failed Turkish invasion in the late-17th century. While the story may or may not be true, the first coffee house was opened in the capital in 1685 by an Armenian spy. At the time, women weren’t allowed into the city’s coffee houses – except to work the cash registers – a ruling that lasted until 1856.
“Nowadays you can hang out in Vienna’s coffee houses for a long time. Read a book or a newspaper; talk with friends; drink a coffee; and have an apple strudel,” Nograsek explains. Two particularly popular drinks at Vienna’s cafés are the verlängerter (espresso with hot water) and melange, which is like a Viennese-style cappuccino. Referring to the latter, Nograesk jokes: “Everybody says there is a difference, but nobody knows what it is.” Nograsek’s favourite coffee shop is Café Sperl. “You get the feeling of the 19th century when all the artists and poets would meet,” she says, describing the unique atmosphere and old-school decor inside.
Vienna is home to historic architectural styles that range from Gothic and Baroque to Art Nouveau, and there are also creative, modern additions by famed architects such as Friedensreich Hundertwasser and Hans Hollein. To see the work of one of the city’s most renowned architects, Otto Wagner, head to the 14th district, where you’ll find the Wagner-designed church and hospital, the Kirche am Steinhof and the Otto-Wagner-Spital, which were both built in the early 20th century. The buildings in this complex offer striking examples of the Viennese Art Nouveau style of architecture.
“It’s a fantastic example of Otto Wagner’s architectural vision,” Franchini enthuses. “And it’s quite a unique place that’s a bit out of the ordinary.” The striking palace-like hospital also features dozens of Art Nouveau pavilions within its grounds. When it opened in 1907, the hospital was self-sufficient, with a theatre, farm, nursery, library, shuttle train and post office. To see inside the hospital, you must join a guided tour. Be aware that the church has very limited opening hours.
The Donauinsel, or Danube Island, stretches for 42km (26mi) and is easily reachable from Vienna’s city centre by bike or public transport. It’s particularly popular in the summer and spring months, when residents swim in the river, sunbathe on platforms that float on the water (some of which are nudist) and picnic on the grass. Cars are banned on the Donauinsel, so visitors can also bike or rollerblade safely on trails that run the whole length of the island. “There’s an ice-cream truck that passes every half hour, so you can get ice cream or buy a cold beer,” says Nograsek. “In June, it has a big open-air music festival. It’s one of the biggest free festivals in Europe”.
“One of the most surprising places in Vienna is the Palmenhaus,” Franchini says. A café and bar near the Albertina museum, Palmenhaus (which translates to Palm House) is spectacularly located inside an airy former greenhouse. Head here in the morning to have breakfast while overlooking the Burggarten, or go for cocktails in the evening. Because of its large glass walls and outdoor area, Palmenhaus is the perfect setting if the sun is out.
But for something cosier in the dark winter months, Franchini suggests visiting the Film Museum. “They have a really wonderful classical selection of films,” she says. “They’re screened throughout the day and into the evening.” She adds that it’s the ideal place to experience Vienna’s film scene for yourself. “It’s one of the highlights of Vienna – one of the best and most researched cinemas in Europe.”
Austria has a well-established wine scene, with local grape varieties such as grüner veltliner, riesling and blaufränkisch dominating bar menus. Beer is also hugely popular in Vienna, and the cocktail scene is growing. Meanwhile, the city’s drinking haunts still maintain reasonable prices.
Oberndorfer and Klimpfinger recommend The Chapel Bar, one of the few speakeasies in the city. “It has a secret entrance,” Oberndorfer says, explaining that to get in, you have to go through Mozart’s Restaurant and find the secret door inside. “Look out for the nun,” Klimpfinger says. “The nun will lead the way.”
If you’re looking to see and be seen instead, Oberndorfer and Klimpfinger recommend going for a drink in the MuseumsQuartier, or MQ as residents call it. “You can meet up with friends there any time of the year,” Oberndorfer says. “In the summer, you can sit outside and drink beer and wine, and in the winter, you have the Christmas market.”
Viennese cuisine may not be world-renowned, but it’s both hearty and satisfying. “The food is delicious,” says Franchini, who has Italian heritage. For a twist on a classic Austrian meal, Oberndorfer and Klimpfinger recommend Knödel Manufaktur, a restaurant that serves Austrian knödel, or dumplings, with unusual fillings such as chocolate and black cherry, or jalapeño and cheese. “They’re really delicious but also really heavy, which is how Austrian cuisine tends to be overall,” Oberndorfer says, so get ready for some tasty but filling food in Vienna’s best Austrian restaurants.