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 futility of existence? Possibly, though that was more of an early 1900s thing.
As an alternative, try these genuine “experiences” that get to the heart of what the city is about. And enjoy them at any time of year.
(Some suggestions you might also recognise as typical tourist experiences, but often the two truly are the same.)
- See also: One-day itinerary for Vienna
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 a fast food restaurant like McDonalds has good coffee, here.
The city bursts with coffee houses, 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 coffee house 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 for your consideration.
(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.
Coffee houses should have an excellent selection. Many well-known ones, like Café Landtmann, even have their own in-house patisserie.
Alternatively, pop into a more cake-oriented Konditorei. They serve cake and you can also get coffee. The coffee house serves coffee and you can also get cake. That’s my best explanation of the difference.
Top of your cake list, of course, 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 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.
It’s not hard to find a concert to attend at one of Vienna’s many venues. With a bit of effort, you might find yourself listening to music composed or first performed in the same building.
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 little more than coffee and cake.
Vienna possesses a rich operatic history, helped by the fact that some of opera’s greatest composers have a strong connection to the city (cough, Mozart, cough, Strauss, cough).
The city has three opera houses, but the Staatsoper is the biggie, a startling piece of Imperial grandeur and unexpected setting for Mission Impossible 5. Viennese opera aficionados 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 €10 or less 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 (and more recent immigration), many people here trace their ancestry back to various regions to the east, north, and south.
You get a feel for that legacy at the local markets. Take the Naschmarkt, for example: 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 a variety of lovely little restaurants and bars also make their home there.
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.
And if you’re here during the Christmas season, a visit to the seasonal Advent markets may seem touristy, but it’s really not. These are the genuine article. Put it this way…if nobody visited Vienna, the markets would still appear for the domestic population.
The Viennese often meet up with friends and family around those stands selling punch and Glühwein. So you’re likely to hear the local dialect as much as English, Spanish or Chinese. Have a few roast chestnuts while you’re there.
Eat a Wiener Schnitzel
Hmmm…more food. (The Viennese do like their grub.)
I’ve written about the Schnitzel elsewhere, but to cut a long story short, what you get is a fried escalope, traditionally made from veal, but now mostly from pork (and, increasingly, turkey).
Some restaurants, like Figlmüller or Plachutta, have Wiener Schnitzel 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 for comparing prices between establishments.
The true Wiener Schnitzel comes 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 meal in vast quantities, too. The Schnitzel is as much part of the Viennese soul as waltzes, cake, and the ability to remain pessimistic in the face of any good news.
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 here runs smoothly and efficiently, 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, try 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 do stay open for all but a few weeks in the year.
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 that’s a little off the beaten tourist track at Reumannplatz and closed in the colder months.
The most famous parlour nearer the centre (and open for a longer portion of the year) is probably Zanoni on Rotenturmstraße, the road leading northeast from St Stephan’s Cathedral.
Eat a sausage
Finally, the crowing culinary Vienna experience. The Everest of gastronomic achievement. The streamlined cholesterol delivery packet that is the Wurst…the sausage.
After a night out, locals collect around the “Würstelstand” 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, such as 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.