Capital of the Republic of Austria and one of Europe’s most visited cities, Vienna (Wien) owes much of its charm and rich history to its splendid location on the banks of the beautiful Danube River. For centuries the gateway between West and East Europe, it was the natural nucleus of the once sprawling Habsburg Empire, and to this day remains Austria’s most important commercial and cultural hub.
Vienna continues to attract visitors with its many great historic sights, as well as for its busy program of events and entertainment. With an unmistakably cosmopolitan atmosphere, it retains a distinctive charm and flair, an effect accentuated by its fine old architecture, its famous horse-cabs (Fiaker), as well as its splendid street-side cafés with their Viennese coffees and treats.
For more than six centuries the seat of the Habsburgs – and the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275 – the Hofburg is perhaps the most historically significant of Vienna’s palaces. The official seat of the Austrian President, this sprawling complex consists of numerous buildings reflecting various periods, including architectural flourishes from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo movements.
The complex covers 59 acres with 18 groups of buildings, including 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms. Its main attractions are the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Silver Collection, while other notable sites within the complex include the Imperial Chapel (Burgkapelle), the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), the Austrian National Library, and the Hofburg Treasury with its large collection of Imperial regalia and relics of the Holy Roman Empire.
The Spanish Riding School
Dating back to the time of Emperor Maximilian II, the superb Spanish Riding School was established after the ruler had the famous Lipizzaner horses introduced to his courtesans in 1562.
Today, it’s one of Vienna’s leading attractions, thrilling audiences with fabulous displays of equestrian skills in the Baroque Winter Riding School in the grounds of the Hofburg Palace, where it has been located since 1735. Tickets to performances sell quickly, so be sure to book as far in advance as possible.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
Vienna’s most important Gothic edifice and the cathedral church of the archbishopric since 1722, St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) is a must-see. The original 12th-century Romanesque church was replaced by a Late Romanesque one in the 13th century, the remains of which are the massive gate and the Heathen Towers (Heidentürme).
Next came reconstruction in the Gothic style in the 14th century, along with the addition of the Choir and the Chapels of St. Eligius, St Tirna, and St. Catherine, while the famous 137-meter high South Tower (Steffl) belongs to the 15th-century. Improvements and further construction followed from the 17th to 19th centuries, and the whole structure was rebuilt after WWII.
Highlights include climbing the 343 steps to the Steffl’s Watch Room for the spectacular views, and the North Tower, home to the massive Pummerin Bell (a fast lift takes visitors to a viewing platform). Other features of note are the 14th-century catacombs and the Cathedral Treasure, containing many of the cathedral’s most important artifacts.
Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens
The spectacular 18th-century Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn) is worth visiting not only for its magnificent architecture, but also for its beautiful park-like setting. One of Vienna’s top attractions, this Baroque palace contains more than 1,441 rooms and apartments, including those once used by Empress Maria Theresa.
Tour highlights include a chance to see the Imperial Apartments, including Emperor Franz Joseph’s Walnut Room and his Bedroom, which still has the small soldier’s bed in which he died. Of Empress Maria Theresa’s rooms, highlights include her richly furnished and decorated garden apartments, along with her Breakfast Room with its floral artwork created by her daughters. Schönbrunn Park and Gardens is another must see here.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its sumptuous Baroque gardens and numerous attractive outbuildings are well worth exploring, in particular the Palm House from 1883. If traveling with kids, visit the Children’s Museum for a chance to see them dressed up as a prince or princess.
The Belvedere Palace
Among Vienna’s most popular attractions, Belvedere Palace is really two splendid Baroque buildings: the Lower (Unteres) Belvedere and the Upper (Oberes) Belvedere. Highlights of the Upper Palace include the Ground Floor Hall with its statues and the Ceremonial Staircase with its rich stucco relief and frescoes.
Also worth seeing is the Marble Hall, a stunning two-story hall with numerous period sculptures, paintings, and ceiling frescoes. The Lower Palace also boasts a Marble Hall, this one noted for its oval plaster medallions and rich ceiling fresco, as well as a Marble Gallery built to house a collection of historic statues.
Other notable buildings include the Winter Palace, a Baroque building that once housed the Court Treasury, the Orangery, the Palace Stables (home to the Medieval Treasury) and the Belvedere Gardens and Fountains linking the two palaces. Also worth seeing are its extensive art collections, including a rich array of sculptures and panel paintings from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
The Vienna State Opera House
One of the world’s largest and most splendid theaters, the Vienna State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) has hosted many of the world’s most prominent composers, conductors, soloists, and dancers. Operatic and ballet performances are staged at least 300 times a year, fuelled by an obsession with music that goes as far back as 1625 when the first Viennese Court Opera was performed.
The current massive Opera House was built in 1869 and is notable for its French Early Renaissance style, while interior highlights include a grand staircase leading to the first floor, the Schwind Foyer (named after its paintings of famous opera scenes), and the exquisite Tea Room with its valuable tapestries. Capable of accommodating an audience of 2,211 along with 110 musicians, the Opera House is also home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. (English language guided tours are available.)
Address: Opernring 2, 1010 Vienna
The Austrian Parliament Building
Home of Austria’s National and Federal Parliament since 1918, the Parliament Building impresses with its vast dimensions. Completed in 1883 for use by the Imperial and Provincial delegations, it boasts many Greek influences, from its Corinthian columns to its rich decoration (of particular note are the exterior carvings depicting the granting of the Constitution by Franz Joseph I to the 17 peoples of Austria, along with numerous marble statues and reliefs).
Another highlight is the splendid Pallas Athene Fountain with its four-meter-high statue adorned with a gilded helmet and lance, along with figures symbolizing the Rivers Danube, Inn, Elbe, and Moldau. English language guided tours are available from the Visitor Center where you can also enjoy displays and multimedia presentations about the history of the building and Parliament itself.
Address: Dr.-Karl-Renner-Ring 3, 1017 Wien
Dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, a saint invoked during times of plague, Karlskirche was built in 1737 and remains Vienna’s most important Baroque religious building. This vast building is crowned by a magnificent 72-meter dome and is famous for its twin 33-meter Triumphal Pillars, based on Trajan’s Column in Rome, with their spiraling bands depicting scenes from the life of St. Charles.
Interior highlights include the fabulous frescoes of St. Cecilia. Also worth visiting is the Gardekirche, built in 1763 in the city’s southern outer district as the church of the Imperial Hospital and later serving Polish congregations (of particular interest is the painting above the High Altar).
Address: 1 Karlsplatz, 1040
The National Theater
Vienna’s superb National Theater (Burgtheater) has long been famous for its productions of German-language plays and performances. Many famous names have acted on its four stages since its founding by Emperor Joseph II in 1776 as the Court Theater.
After a devastating fire in 1945, the theater eventually reopened in 1955 and has since grown in stature as the country’s most important theater. In addition to its size and the caliber of its performances, the building’s exterior is impressive on account of its numerous decorative figures, scenes, and busts.
Equally as impressive is its interior consisting of rich decoration in the French Baroque style, and a staircase with frescoes by Gustav and Ernst Klimt. (Behind the scenes guided tours are available in English.)
Address: Dr Karl-Lueger-Ring 2, 1010 Vienna
Vienna City Hall
Vienna’s City Hall (Rathaus) is an impressive Neo-Gothic building that serves as the city’s administrative center. Remarkable for its size – it occupies nearly 14,000 square meters of the former Parade Ground – this attractive building was completed in 1883 and is notable for the famous Rathausmann on top of its 98-meter high tower, a banner-carrying iron figure presented to the city as a gift from its master locksmith.
The arcaded courtyard in the center of the building is the largest of seven courtyards and is used for popular summer concerts. Highlights of a tour of the building include the Schmidt Halle, the large entrance into which carriages would once drive to deposit their passengers, and the two Grand Staircases leading to the Assembly Hall.
Other sights included in the tour are the Heraldic Rooms, the City Senate Chamber (notable for its coffered ceiling decorated with gold-leaf and its huge Art Nouveau candelabra), and the Mayor’s reception room.
Address: Friedrich-Schmidt-Platz 1, 1010 Wien
Maria-Theresien-Platz and Memorial
The monument to Empress Maria Theresa is one of the most impressive in all Vienna and dominates the square named after her. Flanked by the Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum) and the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), the statue was commissioned by Franz Joseph I and was unveiled in 1887.
This massive monument depicts the Empress on her throne while surrounded by major personages of her day, including a number of generals on horseback. The high reliefs depict illustrious figures from the fields of politics, economics, and the arts, including Haydyn, Gluck, and the child prodigy, Mozart. (If visiting at Christmas, be sure to check out the city’s famous festive market held here.)
Address: Burgring 7, 1010 Wien
Vienna Zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn)
The origins of the Vienna Zoo (Tiergarten Schönbrunn) can be traced to Emperor Francis I’s menagerie, founded in 1752 and the oldest zoo in the world. With many of its original Baroque buildings still intact, it’s one of the most pleasant zoos in Europe to visit, particularly if you spend a little time seeking refreshment in the original 18th -century Imperial Breakfast Pavilion that now houses a great café.
A highlight of the zoo’s more than 750 species are its giant pandas, including cubs, as well as the many fascinating creatures housed in the interactive Rainforest House and Aquarium.
Address: Maxingstraße 13b, 1130 Wien
Prater Park and the Giant Ferris Wheel
Visiting the Prater, a large natural park between the Danube and the Danube Canal, is a little like stepping into another world. Covering an area of 3,200 acres, this vast park – once a royal hunting ground – has long been one of Vienna’s most popular recreation areas.
There’s something here for everyone, from thrills and spills in the Wurstel area with its old-fashioned theme park rides to dining and dancing (there’s even a dinosaur park for the kids). A highlight is taking a ride on the famous Giant Wheel, a Viennese landmark that has provided fine views over the city since 1896 (if you can afford it, go for the super luxurious cabin, suitable for parties of up to 12).
Other park highlights include the Prater Ziehrer Monument, a larger-than-life statue of composer CM Ziehrer built in 1960; the Prater Museum with its displays documenting the park’s history; a Planetarium; and the Liliputbahn miniature steam railroad traversing a four-kilometer line near the main avenue.
Elsewhere in this vast park there’s room enough for horseback riding, swimming in the stadium pool, football, cycling, tennis, and bowls. Also worth visiting is nearby Danube Park (Donaupark), a 250-acre open space that’s home to a fun miniature railroad, an artificial lake (Lake Iris), and a theater.
Address: 1020 Vienna
Famous as Vienna’s “nature and human-friendly” house, the decidedly odd (yet fascinating) Hundertwasserhaus is well worth a visit. Designed by painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser, this brightly colored landmark on the corner of Löwengasse and Kegelstrasse was completed in 1985 and its main occupants – perhaps unsurprisingly – are artists, intellectuals, and creative types (much like the architect himself).
Although the brightly colored building can only be enjoyed from the outside, you can explore the nearby Kunsthaus Wien, a complex of apartments containing a terrace café where you can rest while soaking up the ambience (afterwards, pop over to the similarly styled shopping arcade).
The Imperial Crypt and the Capuchin Church
Dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, Vienna’s Capuchin Church is best known for its spectacular Imperial Vault (Kapuzinergruft), home to the Habsburg family vault containing the remains of 145 members of the family (almost all Austrian Emperors since 1633 are buried here).
The nine vaults are arranged in chronological order, making it easy to trace the evolution of taste, at least in burials. A highlight includes the Founder’s Vault, final resting place of Emperor Matthias who died in 1619, and Empress Anna, who died in 1618. Also of interest is the Maria Theresa Vault, a domed chamber dominated by a double sarcophagus in the Rococo style and built for the Empress, who died in 1780.
The sarcophagus takes the form of a bed of state, at the head of which is the Imperial couple with an angel and a crown of stars, while along the sides are numerous reliefs depicting scenes from Maria Theresa’s life.
Address: Tegetthoffstraße 2, 1010 Wien
Collegial and Parish Church of St. Peter
Modeled on St. Peter’s in Rome, the Collegial and Parish Church of St. Peter (Peterskirche) is built on a site originally occupied by a Roman church and later by one founded by Charlemagne in 792 AD. The present edifice was built in the 18th century and boasts a massive dome with a superb fresco and many artistic treasures.
Other highlights include the Barbara Chapel with its magnificent portal, and in which Franz Karl Remp’s Decollation of St. Barbara is found, and the choir with its High Altar and painting of the Immaculate Conception. Also of note is the nearby Plague Pillar, a 21-meter-tall Baroque pillar built to commemorate the end of the devastating plague of 1679 that cost at least 75,000 Viennese their lives.
Also of interest is the nearby Abbey of the Scots (Schottenstift), built in the 12th century and extensively renovated and enlarged since. Its school included Johann Strauss and Austria’s last emperor, Charles I, among its pupils, while its fine collection of artwork includes pieces from the 16th to 19th centuries.
Address: Petersplatz, 1010 Wien-Innere Stadt
The Franciscan Church: St. Jerome
The early 17th-century Roman Catholic Franciscan Church (Franziskanerkirche), also known as the Church of St. Jerome, is unique in Vienna for having a Renaissance façade, while its delightful interior is decorated in Baroque style. Highlights include the High Altar from 1707 and a painting of the Madonna and Child from 1550.
Other paintings are the Martyrdom of St. Capristan and one of the church’s patron saint. Also of interest is the carved Baroque organ from 1643, the oldest organ in Vienna, notable for its folding doors with their fine carved and painted saints.
The church’s most famous artifact, however, is a carved image known as the Madonna with the Axe, known for having been carried by Austrian soldiers during their campaign against the Turks in Hungary, and credited for their victory.
Address: Franziskanerplatz 4
The Famous Demel: Vienna’s Ultimate Café
Founded in 1786 , the famous Demel is not only the oldest café and bakery in Vienna, it’s perhaps the most memorable food experience you’ll have in this wonderful city. Officially known as Hofzuckerbäckerei Demel – shortened to Demel by those in the know – this exquisite café serves dishes and cakes carefully prepared by hand to traditional centuries-old recipes, some of them once used to satisfy the cravings of Emperor Franz Joseph who secretly had Demel cakes and pralines served during his tête-à-têtes with his lover (apparently his unhappy wife Sisi was addicted to their legendary violet sorbet).
A highlight of a visit is the Demelinerinnen, the modestly dressed waitresses wearing black dresses with lace collars who still address customers with the formal, “Haben schon gewählt ?” (“Has Madam/Sir already made her/his choice?”).
The other highlight, of course, is drooling over the mouthwatering displays of cakes and pastries, including special creations resembling characters or creatures from history and mythology, each a work of art.
Address: Kohlmarkt 14, A-1010 Vienna
Kärtner Strasse and the Donner Fountain
Looking to do a little window shopping after all that museum and gallery hopping? Then head to Vienna’s most elegant street, Kärtner Strasse. Linking Stephansplatz to the Staatsoper on the Ring and ending at Karlsplatz, this (mostly) pedestrian-friendly area is fun to wander thanks to its lime trees, pavement cafés, fashionable shops, elegant boutiques, and busy shopping arcades.
Although most of the buildings you see today are 18th-century, the Maltese Church still has a few features dating from the 13th-century when the street was started (take a peek inside for its coats of arms of the Knights of Malta).
Other notable buildings are Palais Esterházy, built in 1698 and now home to an upscale restaurant, while nearby buildings house high-end clothing stores. Also of note is the exquisite Donner Fountain, built in 1739 by Georg Raphael Donner to reflect the “caring and wise” city government (it was, of course, commissioned by those who ran Vienna at the time).