6 ways to be enchanted by Vienna

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Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker

Vienna can seem overwhelming to the first-timer, with one lavish palace, baroque church and coffeehouse after the next.

But you'll find it also moves to a more edgy and alternative beat when you dive into its less-explored corners (the artsy 7th district, Neubau, for instance), under-the-radar galleries, backstreet coffeehouses, street food markets and parks ribboning the banks of the Danube.

Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna © Transurfer343 - Dreamstime.com
Schönbrunn Palace, Vienna © Transurfer343 - Dreamstime.com

Get a grip on the city in the 1st district, Innere Stadt, then go one step beyond. What you'll find is a city pulsing with newfound cool, where green living and social tourism are seriously on the up.

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Take a ride around the Ring

Begin with a spin of Vienna's grand and glorious Ring. The Austrian capital's showpiece boulevard was built in the 19th century for Emperor Franz Joseph, who made a statement with this three-mile circular parade of statue-strewn parks, palaces, opulent hotels and coffeehouses.

The Ring makes a huge loop around Vienna's beating heart, the Innere Stadt, and is a fantastic way to get your bearings.

You can walk or whizz along it by bicycle or e-scooter. But as the light softens in the blue dusk and makes the Ring's monuments glow, the most atmospheric way to explore is by hopping aboard tram 1 at Schwedenplatz.

Look out for fetching landmarks like the Flemish-Gothic Rathaus, the neoclassical Austrian Parliament, and the sublimely neo-Renaissance State Opera, where waltz king Johann Strauss once waved a conductor's baton.

Soak up the coffeehouse culture

Swing open the doors of a Kaffeehaus and you rewind time by a century or more. Vienna's coffeehouses are your ticket to the city's soul. This is where the Viennese have gone to think, read, write, dream, philosophise and flirt over caffeine and impressive cream tortes for many centuries.

Their zenith was in the 19th century when they were frequented by the likes of Klimt, Freud and Trotsky - the latter playing chess and plotting political moves.

Traditional Viennese coffeehouse, Café Sperl © Kotomi - Flickr Creative Commons
Traditional Viennese coffeehouse, Café Sperl © Kotomi - Flickr Creative Commons

Today, there's a coffeehouse for every mood and moment; from grungy to bohemian, literary to sumptuous. Café Sacher (of chocolate cake fame) and marble-columned Café Central are unmissable for a slice of grandeur, but you'll soon find your own favourite: from the faded splendour of Café Sperl to 1950s-style Café Prückel.

Visit the many palaces & parks

Vienna is vast and if you only have a few days to explore, you might prefer to stay in the walkable, largely pedestrianised Innere Stadt (1st district).

If you devote time to this sight-packed neighbourhood, don't just focus on the big-hitters like Gothic giant St Stephen's Cathedral; dally also a while in the cobbled backstreets and courtyards that fan out from central Stephansplatz for a truer impression of the city.

HQ of the Hapsburgs for more than 600 years and with plenty of riches to show for it, the Hofburg (Imperial Palace) in Vienna in a regal nutshell.

Here you can romp around the chandelier-lit state apartments, glimpse crown jewels, see snow-white Lipizzaner stallions dance at the Spanish Riding School, and hear the angelic Vienna Boys' Choir sing Sunday mass at the Burgkapelle.

But Vienna is not a one-palace wonder. Swing slightly south and you'll reach the Belvedere Palace, where Klimt's golden Kiss hangs out in the upper gallery and three-tiered, muse-filled gardens, inspired by Versailles, stagger down to the riotously baroque apartments built for Prince Eugene of Savoy.

The Upper Belvedere Palace, Vienna © Ben Burger - Adobe Stock Image
The Upper Belvedere Palace, Vienna © Ben Burger - Adobe Stock Image

A short U-Bahn ride west of central Vienna brings you to UNESCO World Heritage Schönbrunn Palace, where you can easily spend an entire morning or afternoon touring the baroque state apartments (40 out of 1441 rooms are open to visit), where a six-year-old Mozart gave his first public violin performance.

The French-style gardens are vast, too, with their tree-lined avenues, follies, fountains and Gloriette, with far-reaching views across Vienna's skyline.

Discover art through the ages

The Hapsburgs collected art the way others collect stamps and as a result, the city can rival the world's very best when it comes to museums and galleries.

The trick is not to even try and see the lot. However many times you return, there will always be another masterpiece to unravel.

For contemporary art, the boundary-pushing MuseumsQuartier cultural hub has given a new lease of life to the former imperial stables.

Among the squares, café courtyards and the colour-changing Enzo lounge chairs, you'll find a cluster of outstanding galleries, among them the hulking basalt MUMOK, a vast repository of 20th-century art from Picasso to Paul Klee, and the stark white limestone Leopold Museum, harbouring the world's biggest Schiele collection.

If Old Masters rock your artistic boat instead, get lost in the colossal, neoclassical Kunsthistorisches Museum, graced with masterpieces of the Titian, Raphael and Pieter Bruegel the Elder.

Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum © Travelwitness - Adobe Stock Image
Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum © Travelwitness - Adobe Stock Image

Big isn't always best, however. Vienna has plenty of small but special galleries up its sleeve, such as the intricate gold-domed Secession, which hides Klimt's allegorical Beethoven Frieze (1902).

Or check out the wacky, colour-charged creations of Austrian wild child artist Hundertwasser at KunstHausWien and, nearby, the best art fakes you'll ever see at the Fälschermuseum.

Explore social & green Vienna

Almost half of Vienna is given over to green spaces, making a seamless leap between the urban and the outdoors. So when you're done with the trophy sights, there are plenty of parks where you can take a breather.

Top billing goes to the Prater, where the Riesenrad Ferris wheel of Third Man fame has turned since 1897, and chestnut-tree lined avenues run as far as the eye can see.

More central to the Innere Stadt is the pond-dotted Stadtpark, where a golden statue of Johann Strauss is lifted high on a pedestal. When the sun's out, the Viennese hit the 13-mile-long Danube Island to swim, surf, boat, picnic, party at pop-up bars, cycle, inline skate and sunbathe nude.

Statue of Johann Strauss in Stadtpark, Vienna © Elena Shchipkova - Adobe Stock Image
Statue of Johann Strauss in Stadtpark, Vienna © Elena Shchipkova - Adobe Stock Image

In recent years, Vienna has blazed ahead on the social tourism front; whether it's to be an insightful tour of the city with homeless guides Shades, a night at magdas, a hip boutique hotel run entirely by refugees, or morning coffee at retro-cool Vollpension, where a team of retired Omas (grannies), looking to boost their meagre pensions, bake some of Vienna's best cakes.

Whoosh Vienna is at the forefront of the alternative tourism movement, running everything from Coffeehouse Conversations (where you open your heart to a total stranger) to Ugly Vienna and Smells Like Wien Spirit (exploring the city through scent) walking tours.

Taste-test the food scene

Schnitzel and apple strudel never go out of fashion, but there's much more to Vienna's food scene than you might suppose.

Explore offbeat districts (the 2nd, the 3rd and the 7th, for starters) and you'll find delis, brunch bars, sushi, vegan ice cream, restaurants playing up locally fished, foraged and fermented ingredients, among other flavours from every corner of the globe.

The Naschmarkt food market is a terrific mix of fresh produce, street food and people-watching cafés.

Vienna's famous Naschmarkt food market © Hans Porochelt - Flickr Creative Commons
Vienna's famous Naschmarkt food market © Hans Porochelt - Flickr Creative Commons

More Viennese, you say? Grab a mustard-slathered wurst from one of the city's sausage kiosks, the most popular of which is Bitzinger, right behind the State Opera on Albertinaplatz.

You'll find Beisln (simple, wood-panelled taverns) all over town, dishing up inexpensive lunch specials. They're a good bet for classics like tafelspitz (braised beef with root vegetables and horseradish).

In summer, many Viennese decamp to the Heurige (wine taverns), up in the hills above the city for dinner with a vineyard-at-sunset view.

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Kerry Walker

Kerry Walker
Posted on Tuesday 22nd February 2022 in: City Culture Europe

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