Travel Guide to Vienna and its Cultural Attractions

 

Classical Music

There are few cities in the world more renowned for classical arts and culture than Vienna. Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn and Johann Strauss all worked in the Austrian capital, and Schubert was born here. Vienna is a world of 17th and 18th century music, and continues to this day to host some of the premier classical music and artwork in the world.

One of the best times of year for music lovers to visit Vienna is during the ball season in January and February each year. During this time, many glamorous, baroque balls are held at some of the city’s most magnificent venues, from the Hofburg to the Rathaus and the State Opera, and you can waltz the night away in the city where the dance was invented.

Golden statue of Johann Strauss, the inventor of the Waltz.

Golden statue of Johann Strauss, the inventor of the Waltz.

Music lovers won’t have any trouble finding a classical concert to attend at any time of year. The center of Vienna’s musical culture is the Musikverein, a 19th century concert hall that has some of the finest acoustics in the world. The Musikverein hosts numerous concerts throughout the year, including regular performances by the Vienna Symphony, the Vienna Philharmonic and the Mozart Orchestra. Completed in 1913, the Vienna Konzerthaus is the city’s second foremost musical venue, with its incredible art nouveau architectural flourishes.

Opera is another long standing Viennese tradition, and the Vienna State Opera and the Theatre an der Wein are two places to see world-class opera here. The Volksoper is much smaller and hosts a variety of stage performances and operettas, while the Vienna Chamber Opera is the place to go if you want to see a rare opera or a local production.

The State Opera House in Vienna. One of the world's top opera companies.

The State Opera House in Vienna. One of the world's top opera companies.

Must-See Museums and Palaces

Art lovers are also spoiled for choice in Vienna, a city with more than 100 museums, many of them situated in the renowned MuseumsQuartier. This artistic complex is home to such institutions as the Leopold Museum – home to a wonderful collection of Austrian modern art, the Kunsthalle – a center of contemporary art, and the Museum of Modern Art. If you prefer more classic works of art, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (also known as the Museum of Fine Arts) houses numerous incredible paintings by European artists like Raphael, Rubens, Rembrandt and Dürer and is located inside the Hofburg.

A staircase in the Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) Museum.

A staircase in the Kunsthistorisches (Fine Arts) Museum.

Your first stop in Vienna should undoubtedly be the Hofburg, Vienna’s sprawling imperial palace that has been the seat of government since the 1200s. The Hofburg was home to rulers of both the Habsburg and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and is now the President of Austria’s official residence. The Hofburg consists of numerous buildings, wings and gardens, and in addition to several museums, also houses the infamous Spanish Riding School, where you can take in a dazzling performance by the elegant riders aboard their pure white Lipizzaner stallions.

The Hofburg Palace has museums and the Spanish Riding School.

The Hofburg Palace has museums and the Spanish Riding School.

At the Belvedere you can visit both a stunning baroque palace and a fantastic art museum, which houses works dating from the Middle Ages to modern day. Included among them are several important works by Gustav Klimt, including one of his most famous paintings, “The Kiss”. Meanwhile, if prints, photography or architecture interest you, the Albertina Museum houses a key collection of each, as well as several collections of impressionist paintings.

The Belvedere Palace art museum houses paintings by Gustav Klimt.

The Belvedere Palace art museum houses paintings by Gustav Klimt.

For something a little different, make for the Fantasy Art Museum. One of Vienna’s lesser-known contributions to the world of art, the Fantasy Art Realism genre of the 20th century portrays fantastical, dreamlike and surreal images through paintings and sculpture. Both are on display at this museum, which houses works by the most important artists of the genre, including Ernst Fuchs, Arnulf Rainer, Rudolf Hausner, Arik Brauer and Curt Stenvert.

Wining and Dining

Vienna is not a difficult city in which to find fantastic eats and drinks. In fact, it is positively brimming over with good food and fine wines, many of which are produced within the city itself. In fact, Vienna is one of the few metropolises in the world to actually produce a notable amount of wine within its own city limits, which has led to the rise of the heurige, or wine taverns. These cozy Viennese cellar-cafes reflect the old world charm of Vienna in their worn wooden tables and dusty windows that often overlook the actual vines on which the wines you drink are grown. The villages of Oberlaa and Hernals in the south part of the city, or Vienna Woods to the northwest are easy-to-reach and famous for their collection of cozy wine taverns.

A glass of white wine next to some grape vines at a vineyard near Vienna.

A glass of white wine next to some grape vines at a vineyard near Vienna.

Vienna is also known the world over for its culture of grand cafes. In these capacious, old world coffeehouses, you can sip a strong Viennese coffee (double espresso and whipped cream) or indulge in a rich cake, such as the Sachertorte, a dense chocolate cake made famous by the chefs at the Hotel Sacher.

On the food front, Vienna is packed with restaurants that serve a range of specialties, from down-home Viennese fare to upscale international cuisine and gourmet delights. Many of these are situated in the Innerstadt (city center), and there are also plenty of up market bars and music venues to provide evening entertainments here.

To get away from the many tourists and sometimes-generic food of the Innerstadt, make for the trendy neighborhood of Neubau, also known as the 7th district, located west of the city center. Here, many old Spittelberg houses have been renovated into classy boutiques, wine bars and restaurants, and its leafy avenues make it a great place to simply stroll until you find someplace that suits you.

Just south from Neubau, the 6th district – Mariahilf – is another place to escape the tourist crowds at the Naschmarkt, the area’s well known fruit and vegetable market, where you can find incredible fresh cheeses, produce, breads and more. There is also a nearby flea market, the Flohmarkt, which is a good place to procure antiques and funky finds. The streets in and around this district are also crammed with small, quirky eateries and pubs for those with a bent for adventure.

Vegetables for sale at the Naschmarkt fruit and vegetable market.

Vegetables for sale at the Naschmarkt fruit and vegetable market.

Where To Stay

Vienna is not a small city, by any stretch of the imagination, and the question of where to stay is compounded by the fact that many of the city’s main attractions are spread all over the place, rather than confined to one particular area. That said, almost every district of Vienna has its charms as well as a wonderful selection of hotels for every taste and whim.

It is also worth noting that Vienna is divided into 23 districts, each of which has a proper name in addition to its number. It is also pertinent to note that the city is often referred to in terms of the Ringstrasse, a historic circular road built at the command of Emperor Franz Joseph I on the lines of the medieval city walls, which surrounds much of the old city. As well, no matter where you choose to stay in Vienna, the city has an excellent public transit system that consists of street trams and an underground metro, which together connect the entirety of Vienna and make it easy to get from point A to point B.

Street trams form an integral part of Vienna's excellent transit system.

Street trams form an integral part of Vienna's excellent transit system.

Innerstadt – 1st District:

The advantages to staying in the Innerstadt are that you are close to many of the main tourists sites, including the Hofburg palace, the Spanish Riding School, Stephansdom and the Museum of Fine Arts (which is located in the Hofburg). Staying within this, the oldest and most central area of Vienna, also offers the charms of the city’s oldest district, as well as some of the downfalls, such as heavy foot traffic, congestion and, perhaps, less quality food options and more tourist traps. However, the convenience of staying in the Innerstadt, combined with the truly magnificent hotels located here, make it a great option.

Leopoldstadt – 2nd District:

To the east, Leopoldstadt is a leafy district separated from the Innerstadt by the Danube Canal. This district is marked by the massive Prater Park and was once a major center of Jewish life in Vienna, housing the likes of Strauss family, Sigmund Freud, Gustav Mahler, Arthur Schnitzler and Theodor Herzl at various points in history. This district is ideal for those looking for a quieter stay that is still convenient to the main city center.

Weiden – 4th District:

Situated in the south part of the city, this splendid district houses numerous baroque buildings and is ideal for those desiring to visit the collections at the sprawling Belvedere Palace, which is the district’s crowning attraction. There are a number of up market hotel options here and transport connections to the Innerstadt are quite plentiful.

Mariahilf and Neubau – 6th and 7th Districts:

These two neighboring districts form the area of Vienna immediately to the west of the Innerstadt and are the perfect choice for those that would like to stay close to the Museumsquartier and music venues. The Museumsquartier stands on the east end of Neubau (the northern of the two districts), while the Vienna State Opera forms the boundary between Mariahilf and the Innerstadt. In addition to many mid-range and up market hotels, these two districts positively abound with shopping, eating and drinking options at the many chic cafes, galleries and stores along their trendy streets.

 

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Travel writer and wanderluster, Megan Eaves is the author of two travel guidebooks and runs an Irish travel website. She is an expert on Ireland, China and the American Southwest.