Vienna has been described as Europe’s cultural capital: a metropolis with a unique charm. It boasts outstanding infrastructure, it is clean and safe, and has everything that you could possibly wish for, when starting a journey to discover this wonderful part of Europe. With a population of over 2 million and a lot to offer tourists, Vienna is the most popular urban tourist destination in Austria. It is a romantically imperial city, a dream city for anyone with a romantic streak or an interest in history. Sightseeing opportunities are in abundance. Simply wander along the narrow, medieval alleyways or across imperial squares. Take in Schönbrunn Palace or the Imperial Palace (Hofburg), follow in the footsteps of Sissi and Emperor Franz Josef, and marvel at the majestic architecture along the Ring Boulevard. This is a city steeped in history yet it still manages to boast the comforts and infrastructure of a modern city.
For the seventh year on the bounce, Vienna has been rated the world’s most liveable city by consultants Mercer. They compare political, social, economic climate, medical care, education, and infrastructural conditions such as public transportation, power and water supply, and recreational offers. It has to be the recreational pastimes that puts Vienna head and shoulders above its competition, yet for all that, it still remains a hugely under-rated tourist destination.
Getting around Vienna
Vienna’s public transport system, which serves the suburbs, is fine to get in and out of the city on, but the red-and-white trams, which circumnavigate the Ringstrasse, are what you want to catch to make the most of seeing this fabulous city. You can walk across the old town in half an hour. But to appreciate the monumental grandeur of one of Europe’s most remarkable avenues, you need to take the tram. Sit back and enjoy the view as you trundle past the coffee shops, and parks, the Steinway showroom, the grand hotels, the Hofburg palace and, most impressively of all, a succession of some of the most imposing architecture of the 19th century.
Things to do in Vienna
Ringstrasse – Stroll along the Ringstrasse Boulevard from the Vienna State Opera to City Hall in order to truly understand what Vienna’s status was like before the fall of the empire in 1918. It reflects Vienna’s position, back then, as one of the biggest and most important capitals in the world.
Kunsthistorisches – The main museum, the grand neo-Renaissance palace of art and culture is just off the Ringstrasse. You will never have to queue, despite it housing one of the greatest collections of old masters in Europe: easily rivalling the Prado, the National Gallery, the Hermitage and the Louvre. Highlights from what was once the Habsburgs’ royal collection include three of the Seasons paintings by Bruegel, and seminal work by Rubens, Titian, Velasquez, Vermeer, Durer, Raphael – it’s a long list and a great one. Yet it gets just 850,000 visitors a year.
Vienna is a city of music, Vienna has been synonymous with music for centuries, and was home to Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert and Johann Strauss. This outstanding musical heritage has been preserved right to the present day. The Wiener Philharmoniker is one of the world’s top orchestras, the Vienna Boys’ Choir is triumphantly successful wherever it tours, and the Vienna Conservatorium has produced innumerable international award-winners in all musical disciplines. Yet Vienna also boasts a lively scene for young people – if you love music, you are sure to profit from visiting Vienna.
Hofburg – The former imperial and royal Habsburg residence, today houses a mixture of museums, ministries and courtyards. From its early medieval beginnings as a proper fortress with a draw-bridge and moat, there is a lot to discover and if you want to know how the family once lived, then just visit the Imperial Apartments.
Vienna Zoo – With its giant pandas, the Vienna Zoo not only claims to be the world’s oldest and most beautiful zoo, but was recently declared Europe’s best by Anthony Sheridan, zoo expert.
Spanish Riding School – One of the world’s most famous riding schools. See a gala performance of the Lipizzaner stallions in the baroque Winter Riding School, arguably one of the world’s most beautiful. This has to be the perfect setting for an excellent display of equestrian elegance. Tickets to gala performances, usually Saturdays and Sundays at 11am, can be booked online in advance.
Eating out in Vienna
To truly immerse yourself in another culture you have to experience their food. And the Viennese take pride in their cuisine, it is the only one in the world named after a city. While much of it is also quintessentially Austrian, some dishes remain distinctly Viennese. Like the city itself, the food is at the crossroads of central and eastern Europe. Once the seat of an entire empire, many of Vienna’s classic dishes originate from neighbouring lands.
Traditional Viennese cuisine is generally quite heavy with an emphasis on meat. The most common dish is of course the Wiener Schnitzel, a breaded and deep fried veal steak (also available as pork, chicken or turkey). Served with a wedge of lemon and a side of parsley potatoes (not ketchup and fries), this is the national dish of Austria. Other traditional meat-based dishes include:
- Gulash – a thick stew of meat and vegetables, seasoned with paprika.
- Schweinsbraten – roasted pork.
- Tafelspitz – boiled beef served in broth. A big chunk of beef boiled in a vegetable broth until it is tender and soft. The root vegetables that are boiled and served with it, give it an additional traditional and earthy taste. It is accompanied by bread dumplings, not potato.
- Knödel – large, round, potato or bread-based dumplings. There are all kinds of traditional Austrian dumplings, both savoury and sweet. On the savoury dumpling menu the two most popular ones are the aforementioned potato dumpling (often served with a pork roast) and the even more famous bread dumpling (‘Semmelknödel’ or ‘Serviettenknödel’ if it’s not ball-shaped) which is traditionally served with soft boiled beef or ragout.
- Spätzle and Nockerl – small, doughy egg noodles, similar to pasta, but can sometimes be made to resemble gnocchi. Spätzle will most likely be fried with bacon, onion and lots of cheese. This dish is often served in a small cast-iron dish. Nockerl are little dough balls, fried with eggs and rounded off with fresh chives.
- Schinkenfleckerl – a ham and cheese pasta bake.
- Krautfleckerl – a cabbage and cheese pasta bake
- Cordon Bleu Schnitzel – two filets filled with ham and cheese and then fried in bread crumb batter.
- Apple Strudel – if there is one dessert Austria is famous for, then it is has to be the Apfelstrudel, a sweet delight of paper thin pastry sheets, layered with apple and optional raisins. Apple strudel is often served with hot vanilla sauce, or sweetened cream, or simply enjoyed by itself.