Vienna, city of classical music and opera, Mozart and Freud, royal palaces and white Lippizan horses, Christmas markets, coffeeshops, museums and… the Wiener schnitzel! There are many things you can squeeze into 48 hours in Vienna, but to do everything in this city guide, you’ll need at least a week.
What’s Inside this Vienna City Guide…
- Getting there and getting around
- Vienna Pass vs City Card – What’s the difference?
- Where to Stay – Hotel recommendations
- Coffee and Cake – Where to find the best cafes
- Where and What to Eat – Viennese restaurant guide
- Top Attractions and Sightseeing – Museums, Palaces, Churches, etc
- Top 3 Christmas Markets
- Useful Resources
Getting there and getting around
Austria is less than a 2-hour flight from most European countries, perfect for weekend city breaks. The airport is also conveniently close to the city centre, taking 16 minutes to reach by City Airport Train (CAT) or around 30 minutes by taxi.
Most places of interest are within easy walking distance or a quick tram or taxi ride away. However, as of recently, you’ll notice a lot of people getting around by electric scooter. Vienna is one of the first European cities to introduce Bird scooters, founded by a fast-growing American start-up.
They’re simple to use: Download the Bird app to register, find available scooters and unlock your own. Although they’re a lot of fun, it’s a little unclear what the rules are in regards to use on roads and pavements, so please be careful!
Vienna Pass vs City Card
Vienna offers two different discount cards that tourists may take advantage of, the Vienna Pass and the Vienna City Card. Which one is right for you mostly depends on how many attractions you plan to see and how often you plan on using public transport.
The Vienna Pass offers free entry into a large number of attractions, which can work out better than paying individually if you plan on hitting up a lot of sights. A 2-day adult pass costs €89.
The Vienna City Card is a discount card with free travel on public transportation, useful for getting around particularly during the colder months. However, it does not provide free entry into the attractions. A 2-day adult pass costs €25 (red) or €37 (white).
Where to Stay
Vienna has a hotel for all tastes and budgets. However, the grandest and most famous of them all is the Hotel Imperial on the Ringstrasse, which used to belong to the prince of Württemberg. Part of the Luxury Collection, the hotel is fit for a king and has indeed welcomed its fair share over the years.
We stayed at the more trendy Grand Ferdinand a stone’s throw away, taking advantage of a deal offered by Amex. This independent boutique hotel is also recommended by the Mr and Mrs Smith travel club and is the only one which has a rooftop infinity pool open during the summer.
Vienna has just one Small Luxury Hotel called Altstadt, which unfortunately was fully booked for my visit. Each of the rooms in the hotel has been designed by prominent fashion designers, architects and artists, making it something of an art museum in itself.
Other popular hotels to consider: Le Meridien, SO/Vienna (Sofitel), Sacher Wien, Do & Co, the Guesthouse.
Coffee and Cake
No Vienna city guide is complete without mentioning the cities’ famous cafes. Like its Mediterranean friends in the south, Vienna also has a strong coffee culture. Anytime is a good time for a coffee and cake. Most cafes offer all-day dining in addition to delectable sweet offerings and caffeine kicks.
Just whatever you do, don’t ask for a ‘coffee’ – because it doesn’t exist. You’ll need to specify which type of coffee you’d like, with all the varieties explained in the menu. Instead of a cappuccino, try the Wiener Melange, a local specialty which is pretty similar.
The most famous cake is of course the Sachertorte, a type of chocolate cake with a thin layer of apricot jam and thick, rich chocolate icing. You can try one at almost any cafe, but there is something to be said for the original, found at the Sacher hotel.
The most famous cafes we visited: Cafe Sacher, Café Central, Mozart, Schwarzenberg and Resident.
Other famous cafes to note: Cafe Imperial, Sperl, Landtmann, Dreschler, and Demel.
Where and What to Eat
Austrian food is the ultimate winter comfort food and Vienna is home to some of the very best Austrian restaurants in the country. But to quote my Austrian friend, “for the love of god, please don’t queue up for hours to eat a Wiener schnitzel.” They literally serve this dish just about everywhere, including most cafes. Although each restaurant loves to argue over who does it best, the truth is that they’re all pretty damn good.
Of course, Vienna has plenty of non-Austrian restaurants too, but when I travel I like to eat as much local food as possible. Here are the top Viennese beisls or bistros that I recommend. Advance reservations aren’t always necessary but strongly advised for dinner.
Top Tried and Tested Recommendations
A restaurant with a celebrity wall of fame that includes Vladimir Putin, Kate Hudson and Anthony Bourdain, which could also be the start of a great joke. Less of a tourist trap than Schnitzelwirt and Figlmüller, this is the number one place to try tafelspitz, which is a beef dish cooked in vegetable and bone marrow broth. Served first as a soup and then as a meal.
I was very excited about this dish as we eat a lot of boiled meats where I’m from (in both Norway and Portugal) and I was not disappointed. However, my Greek husband could not be persuaded and enjoyed a Wiener schnitzel instead. You’re also served a side of brown bread to spread the bone marrow over. I ordered the beef selection but recommend the more succulent beef shoulder.
This restaurant is located at the Grand Ferdinand hotel where we stayed, which we chose for convenience but also the many positive reviews. It’s an up-market bistro style restaurant with a warm ambiance and some of the best food we ate during our stay. Sometimes you can just tell how good the place is from the first impression: the bread. Crispy on the outside, warm and stodgy on the inside, and served alongside the most deliciously salty butter I’ve ever… It was hard to stop.
Next door to the Belvedere Palace, this place was recommended to us by a local and did not disappoint. It has the feel of an Austrian beer garden with waiters dressed in traditional clothes serving up caveman style portions of grilled meats and other Austrian classics – as well as plenty of vegetarian options. There was a big queue when we arrived but it moved quickly and was well worth the wait. Highly recommend.
Ok, it’s not Austrian, but it was recommended by a local! This popular French bistro is a short walk from the Staatsoper and is a great relaxed choice for breakfast, lunch or a snack. They do a truly fantastic goat’s cheese salad, as well as baguettes, cheese platters, and other light meals.
More Viennese Restaurants…
We ran out of time to try any more restaurants, but here’s what was on my list:
Wratschko Gastwirtschaft – Named the best traditional Beisl in the city by Anthony Bourdain
Gmoa Keller – Recommended by all the guidebooks and food critics for classic Viennese
Glacis Beisl – Austrian cooking with a twist and a beautiful garden – behind the MuseumsQuarter
Naschmarkt – Large market selling street food and all kinds of wursts – check the opening hours!
Zum Blauen Esel – Popular for lunch and kaiserschmarrn dessert next to Schönbrunn Palace
Steirereck – Famous Fine dining restaurant inside the Stadtpark with 2 Michelin stars
Top Attractions and Sightseeing
Now that our bellies are fully satisfied, it’s time to walk it off. To help you navigate this city guide, I’ve grouped the top sights of Vienna into the following categories: Palaces, Churches, Museums, and Entertainment.
Finally, from mid-November until Christmas and the New Year, Vienna transforms into one of the world’s most famous destinations for Christmas markets. Read on for the Top 3.
Schönbrunn Palace – A Cultural World Heritage site with 1441 rooms, it’s hard to believe that this enormous palace was just the summer residence for the Habsburgs, who lived the remainder of the year in the 2600 room Imperial Palace. Get the 1-hour guided tour to walk you through the rich and fascinating history of the palace and the Habsburg family, the last royals of Vienna.
Unfortunately, photos are not allowed inside, but the outside areas are highly instagrammable. Plan to spend at least 3 hours here to visit the palace and its impressive grounds, including the biggest garden you’ll ever see complete with its own zoo, palm house and labyrinth.
There are two cafes on site: Cafe Resident and Gloriette for those all important coffee and cake breaks.
Hofburg Imperial Palace – This was once the primary residence of the Habsburg royal family, located in the centre of Vienna. Although we didn’t have time to go inside, we did marvel at the impressive palace from the outside. Today, the palace has three museums you can visit, the Sisi Museum being the most popular. For decades Sisi was considered the most beautiful queen in all of Europe and maintains quite the following even today. The second main attraction here is the Spanish Riding School, which requires a different ticket and entrance (see Entertainment section below).
*If you suffer from horse allergies, I don’t recommend visiting the Spanish Riding School and perhaps also avoid the outside areas around the palace. I had a small allergy attack whenever we got close to this area.*
Belvedere Palace – Actually two palaces connected by a garden, which today both function as art museums. The main draw is found inside the Upper Palace, which houses the world’s biggest Gustav Klimt collection. In the smaller, Lower Palace are the works of Egon Schiele. You can purchase a combined ticket for both or just one. If you’re pressed for time, skip the Lower Palace. We spent around 1.5 hours to visit both and had a fabulous lunch at Salt Bräu next door.
Vienna has some seriously impressive churches worth visiting regardless of your religious views. Some are free to enter, while others require a ticket. There are also frequent organ recitals and choir performances you might be lucky to catch, or you can book a ticket for one of the concerts.
St Stephen’s Cathedral – Considered one of the most beautiful churches in the world and one of the most iconic buildings of Vienna. A visit is an absolute must. Mozart married here, and Vivaldi’s funeral was held here. It’s free to look around inside, but you’ll need to purchase a ticket to ride the cylindrical lift to the top. Worth it for the views and a closer look at the incredible green and yellow tiled roof.
I was also awed by the 70 m height of the dome at the Karlskirche, considered one of the most outstanding Baroque churches in Vienna (paid). We also visited the beautiful Peterskirche, which they say might be the oldest church in Vienna (free).
If you have more time, you’re bound to stumble across even more. A couple worth visiting are: St. Rupert’s Church, the Augustinian Church, Minoritenkirche (Minorites Church), and the Votive Church.
There are a staggering 100 museums in Vienna, which would take longer than your vacation time to see them all. So it’s definitely worth doing your research in advance to pick and choose which museums and exhibitions you’d like to see. Here are some of the most popular and what’s on right now:
MuseumsQuartier (MQ) – To make life a little simpler, several of Vienna’s museums share the same location inside the MQ. Here, the MUMOK Museum of Modern Art and the contemporary Leopold Museum are the most renowned. Unfortunately, the Leopold Museum is closed for renovations between 5 November and 5 December 2018.
Albertina – Next door to the State Opera House, the Albertina art museum is currently exhibiting a fantastic collection of Claude Monet until 6 January 2019. There is also a contemporary exhibition downstairs with works from Warhol to Richter until 24 March 2019. If you have the time, visit both, the contrast is fascinating.
Other popular museums: the Kunsthistorisches Museum of classical art; the Natural History Museum; the Museum of Military History; and the KunstHausWien. Exhibiting the works of Friedensreich Hundertwasser, artist and designer of the insta-famous Hundertwasserhaus.
Theatre & Entertainment
For Viennese music and theatre, I recommend going online to see what’s on and what’s available. From small concerts in cafes to open-air events with up to 100,000 visitors, there is a lot going on in the city.
State Opera House – The most famous of Vienna’s three opera houses is the Staatsoper, where all the big names have played. Tickets sell out well in advance. However, there are numerous standing tickets that go on sale on the day for little more than €3, but you have to queue up early. The venue also hosts ballet performances.
Spanish Riding School – There are three ways to see Vienna’s world-famous Lipizzan horses, known as the Ballet of the White Stallions. The most popular is to attend the morning exercises from 10:00 to 12:00 or the hour-long guided tours. Alternatively, the more serious horse enthusiasts will prefer to see the full performance (advance ticket required).
From mid-November until Christmas Vienna becomes home to some of the world’s very best Christmas markets. Understandably, it’s also one of the most popular periods to visit the city. Although almost every square or platz will have its own little Christmas market, here are three of the biggest and best to visit.
Top Tips: Bring plenty of cash as many vendors don’t accept cards. Dress warm!
Christmas and New Year’s Market at Schönbrunn Palace
The stunning backdrop of the palace and roughly 60 stalls on offer make this one of the most special markets in Vienna. Likened to a fairytale, it would be impossible to visit without sampling all the hot food and drinks on sale. The products on sale here are authentic, handmade arts and crafts from local artisans, perfect for Christmas gifts and quality souvenirs.
- Where: Parade Court, in front of Schönbrunn Palace
- When: 24th November – 26th December 2018
- Opening hours: Daily 10am – 9pm, 24th December 10am – 4pm
The Viennese Dream Christmas Market in front of the Rathaus City Hall
Another unmissable Christmas market with a breathtaking backdrop of the city hall, quite literally a Viennese dream. Best enjoyed after dusk to get that magical Christmas lights atmosphere. There are around 150 stalls, as well as an ice skating rink that runs through the park. While you’re there, why not also tour the inside of the impressive Neo-gothic Rathaus building.
- Where: On the square in front of the City Hall
- When: 17th November – 26th December 2018
- Opening hours: Sun-Thu 10am – 9.30pm, Fri and Sat 10am – 10pm; 7th December 10am – 10pm, 24th December 10am – 6pm, 25th and 26th December 11am – 9.30pm
Winter at MQ The MuseumsQuartier (MQ)
In contrast to Vienna’s traditional Christmas Market, Winter at MQ is as contemporary as the art that surrounds it. Instead of wooden stalls, they have LED lit cubes called MQbies. It’s modern and edgy, with live music, DJ sets, and designers selling interiors, ceramics, glass, fashion, jewelry and accessories.
- Where: MuseumsQuartier, Museumsplatz 1, 1070 Vienna
- When: 9th November – 23rd December 2018
- Opening hours: Monday – Friday 4 – 11 pm, Saturday & Sunday 1 – 11 pm
Other popular Christmas markets:
- Belvedere Palace
- Maria-Theresien Platz
- Altes (in front of the Former General Hospital)
Top 20 Most Instagrammable Places in Vienna, see post
For more information on Vienna, visit wien.info
To help compare some of Vienna’s best hotels, read this
For more information on Vienna’s Christmas markets, visit austria.info
Check out this 1 week Vienna Itinerary by Nomadic Matt
Or this 48 Hour Itinerary by Lonely Planet
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