When in Vienna, do as the Viennese do. Ah, but just what do they do? What counts as an authentic experience?
Sitting glumly on a tram pondering the debilitating transience of existence?
No, that was more of a 1910 thing.
I’ve selected a few “experiences” that get to the heart of what the city is about. Enjoy these at any time of year. Some you might recognise as typical tourist experiences, but often the two truly are the same.
So, in no particular order:
Drink a coffee
There’s a reason UNESCO recognises the coffee culture in Vienna as part of Austria’s intangible cultural heritage. Even McDonalds has pretty good coffee, here.
The city bursts with coffeehouses, each a place of refuge…a place to philosophise, debate politics, peruse the papers, read Goethe and Proust, or just put your feet up after a long morning sightseeing.
The more traditional ones should have black-clad waiters, marbled tables, upholstered sofas, and a slightly dishevelled person in the corner working on their next novel (it might even be me).
The particular joy of the coffeehouse experience is that you can normally sit for as long as you like after ordering and nobody will bother you.
You’re spoilt for choice as regards locations, but I’ve listed some recommended cafés.
(Vienna even has its own types of coffee. A Wiener Melange is, perhaps, the most unique to the city – it’s not dissimilar to a cappuccino.)
Let them (and you) eat cake
If you’re going to have a coffee, consider adding a piece of cake to the order.
Cake is practically a staple food in Vienna, with a range of glorious creations available to ruin any good nutritional intentions. In my adopted family, cake at breakfast is a thing.
Coffeehouses should have an excellent selection. Many famous ones, like Cafe Museum, have their own in-house patisserie.
Alternatively, pop into a more cake-oriented Konditorei. They serve cake and you can get coffee. The coffeehouse serves coffee and you can get cake. That’s my best explanation of the difference.
Top of your cake list has to be the Sachertorte: the Viennese chocolate cake invented in the house of Prince Metternich in 1832. Many places offer some version or another, but the two classic sources are:
- The Hotel Sacher shop (or café) for the original Sachertorte (and there have been long legal disputes about who can call their Sachertorte the original)
- Demel confectioners and café
Visit a classical concert
Let’s leave the food and drink behind a moment and go cultural, with a visit to a concert.
Vienna cannot escape its position as a capital of classical music. Beethoven, Mozart, Haydn, Mahler, Strauss, Brahms, and others all plied their trade here. And that genre still thrives today in the music schools, concert halls, universities, and living rooms of the city.
And it’s not hard to find a concert to attend at one of Vienna’s many historical venues.
See an opera
Don’t stop at a classical concert, of course. Enjoy an evening at the Staatsoper (State Opera House) as well. And all for the price of one of those coffees.
Vienna is rich in operatic history, helped by the fact that some of opera’s greatest composers have a strong connection to the city (cough, Mozart, cough, again).
There are three opera houses, but the Staatsoper is the biggie, a startling piece of Imperial grandeur and setting for Mission Impossible 5. The great and the good wander its decorated halls, waiting for the final aria to send them on their way in a blissful haze of musical culture. And it’s pretty much always full.
All this might make you think tickets are impossible to get or are, at the least, very expensive.
Thanks to an egalitarian tradition of opera going, you can see a production for around €4 and get these cheap tickets on the day direct from the opera houses themselves. Here’s what you should wear if you do go.
Visit a market
Vienna is a special kind of melting pot. Thanks to the days of empire, many people here trace their ancestry back to various regions to the east, north, and south.
You get a feel for that history at the many local markets. The Naschmarkt, for example, is a huge open-air market full of boisterous stallholders selling everything from black tiger prawns to baklava.
The Viennese shop, eat and drink at the Naschmarkt, since it’s also home to a variety of lovely little restaurants and bars.
One of my favourite family memories is taking the prams through the market; the shop owners used to rush over to offer my kids little tidbits of falafel and similar.
Eat a Wiener Schnitzel
Hmmm…back to food. (The Viennese do like their grub.)
I’ve written about the Schnitzel elsewhere, but to cut a long story short, it’s a fried escalope, traditionally made from veal, but now mostly from pork (and, increasingly, turkey).
Some restaurants, like Figlmüller or Plachutta, have their Schnitzels at the very center of their existence, but you’ll find one on almost any Viennese restaurant menu (even those serving non-Austrian cuisine). This makes the dish ideal as a way of comparing prices between establishments.
The true Schnitzel is eaten in quantities large enough to feed a football team, with a small serving of potato salad to make you feel better about yourself. And, yes, locals eat this in vast quantities, too.
Take a tram ride
Not quite the opulence of the opera or the frisson of gastronomic pleasure provided by a Sachertorte, but…a tram is a tram.
Public transport is smooth and efficient, and the trams take you just about everywhere in Vienna.
For example, board the tram line “1” at Schwedenplatz in the direction of Stefan-Fadinger-Platz and it takes you around to the Oper (opera house) via much of the Ring, which is the boulevard that hosts many of Vienna’s iconic buildings.
(If you want a more “touristy” tram ride around the complete Ring, there is the aptly-named Ring tram.)
Eat an ice cream
OK, I said these were experiences you could enjoy all year round. So what’s the deal with ice cream?
Well, Vienna has a number of popular ice cream parlours. Many are Italian-run and shut up shop for winter. However, some never close.
Oh, and when I say “ice cream”, I mean proper stuff – genuinely creamy in a variety of rich flavours you can mix and match to your heart’s delight (but perhaps not your cardiologist’s).
The most famous local parlour is probably Tichy, but it’s a little off the beaten tourist track at Reumannplatz and closed in the colder months.
The most famous parlours nearer the centre (and open in winter, too, I think) are probably:
- Zanoni, which is up Rotenturmstraße, the road leading northeast from St Stephan’s Cathedral
- Bortolotti, which has several outlets along Mariahilferstraße, which is Vienna’s main shopping street
Eat a sausage
Finally, the crowing culinary experience. The Everest of gastronomic achievement. The streamlined cholesterol delivery packet that is the Wurst…the sausage.
The “Würstelstand” or sausage stand is part of the Viennese soul. After a night out, locals collect around them to eat a sausage with bread and mustard (or ketchup) and set the world to rights.
The stands are everywhere, but particularly common at transport nodes, like outside subway stations. Warning: don’t take your sausage on a bus, tram or train – it’s frowned on and there’s a food ban on the subway, anyway.