You don’t have to spend money to enjoy Austria’s capital. Here are my suggestions for free things to do and see in Vienna…
Free activities, sights, and experiences
Like any place full of tourist attractions, this wonderful city has plenty of ways to help you part with your money. But what can you do for free in Vienna? Well, your options for sights and activities requiring no money include all the following:
- Parks and palaces
- Woods and walks
- Art and architecture
- Churches and the cathedral
- Composer and artist trails
- Free events and festivals
Before we begin, though, just a word about getting around.
Many central sights are within walking distance of each other, and the city bike scheme has free bicycle rental for the first hour (at the time of writing). But the public transport system here is very cheap, so you might consider buying a network pass to save yourself a bit of time.
Parks and palaces
(The Rose Garden in the Volksgarten park)
Vienna is famously full of public city parks requiring no entrance fee. And some of them are rather spectacular. Here some suggestions:
- Schönbrunn Palace: most people go here to tour inside the 18th-century palace that housed various Habsburg emperors and empresses (including Franz Joseph and the famous Sisi). But most of the gorgeous landscaped gardens and wider park are free to visit.
The park has such delights as Roman ruins (albeit fake), an obelisk, a rose garden, and a botanic garden. You can view the wonderful exterior architecture of the palace (obviously) but also see the giant Palm House, the Gloriette, and much more.
- Belvedere Palace: Belvedere primarily consists of two 18th-century palaces at either end of a rising terrace with landscaped baroque gardens. You need tickets to go inside the palaces, which are major art galleries and home to Klimt’s The Kiss. But the main gardens are free, as is the adjoining botanical garden.
- Burggarten: this small park sits behind the Neue Burg wing of the Hofburg place in Vienna’s centre and borders on the Albertina art museum. The Burggarten itself is just a nice bit of green space, but it has one unique point in its favour: the famous Mozart monument.
- The old St. Marx cemetery: talking Mozart…if you want to see where he was buried, then head out to the old cemetery at St.Marx. The location is remarkably atmospheric, with nature slowly conquering the gravestones.
- Stadtpark: staying on the composer theme, the Stadtpark (also very central) has its own famous monument: the golden Strauss statue that’s become one of the city’s most popular photo opportunities. The park itself is rather fine, too, with the modest River Wien running through it.
- Volksgarten: a short walk up from the Burggarten, just off Heldenplatz square, is the Volksgarten park. This one is a true delight in summer, thanks to the spectacular rose garden. Fans of Empress Elisabeth (Sisi) should enjoy the large memorial to her.
Woods and walks
(Out in the Vienna woods)
Parks aren’t the only green places to stretch your legs for free in Vienna. We have a lot of woods, for example. Not to mention a rather large river.
If that tickles your interest, browse Vienna’s information on official hiking paths around the city. Other options include:
- Riverside walks: walking and cycle paths run alongside the length of the Danube.
- Lainzer Tiergarten: a large managed wilderness on the edge of the city, notable for its wildlife (I’ve encountered wild boar there) but also for the Hermesvilla, a large summer retreat built for Empress Elisabeth in the 1880s.
Art and architecture
(The Startgalerie inside the MUSA is free to enter)
Walk anywhere in Vienna and you’re bound to bump into a historical building. To enjoy the historical cityscape, follow the detailed recommendations in the What can you do in a day? article.
But what about free art?
Most of Vienna’s many art museums and exhibition venues require an entrance ticket, but a handful of notable exceptions allow free entry.
The MuseumsQuartier houses various museums and institutions as a sort of melting pot of contemporary art and culture. The open courtyards, bars and cafés invite you to wander through the complex, though you need a ticket for the various exhibitions. With three exceptions…
- The frei_raum Q21 exhibition space usually hosts a couple of exhibitions during parts of the year. These are nearly always free. I enjoyed Japan Unlimited, for example.
- The MQ Art Box is a permanent glass-sided container in the main courtyard with an art installation inside that changes every two months or so.
- Around nine of the passageways between buildings and courtyards form what the MQ calls micromuseums, which means the thoroughfares have one or more distinctive features. A typical example might be a creative ceiling fresco.
(In late August, 2020, the MQ Libelle opens – an open space and viewing platform on the roof of the Leopold Museum. This will be free, too.)
- The MUSA: the Wien Museum MUSA features contemporary Viennese art. While the main exhibition hall requires a ticket, the smaller Startgalerie room hosts solo exhibitions of up and coming artists, with free entry.
- The Kunstforum: a similar principle applies at the Kunstforum. This prestigious venue charges for the main exhibition, but access to the smaller tresor exhibition space is free. (Note the Kunstforum closes between its main exhibitions.)
- The Theseus temple: this large Greek temple rises somewhat incongruously from the middle of the Volksgarten park. It actually owes its existence to the need for somewhere to show off a remarkable piece of art (Canova’s Theseus Group sculpture). Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum uses the temple in the warmer months for a contemporary art installation.
- The Ringturm: an insurance office, but with a few secret delights. One of which is the Architektur im Ringturm exhibition, which usually tackles some architectural theme from Central and Eastern Europe. So you might find, for example, a look at the work of a famous architect or presentations of award-winning building projects.
- The Donaukanal: if you enjoy street art, then take a walk along the Donaukanal: a channel of the Danube river that runs across the edge of Vienna’s old town. The embankment walls either side of the water burst with urban art. Some of it wonderful, some of it less so.
- KÖR: this Public Art Vienna programme deserves a special shout, too. KÖR funds freely-accessible temporary and permanent public art installations (over 200 to date), which you find dotted throughout Vienna. The subway station near my university has one, for example.
Churches and the cathedral
Vienna’s landmark sight in the very centre is Stephansdom cathedral. You do need a ticket to look around all the inside and access the towers and other interesting bits of the building. But you can actually view some of this Gothic giant without paying.
The area immediately after you enter the main entrance and up part of the north side costs nothing to wander into and around.
The old town has a number of lovely churches you can enter for free. For example:
- The Peterskirche with its extraordinary baroque ornamentation
- The Minoritenkirche with its proud bell tower
- The Augustinerkirche with its striking Canova memorial
Composer and artist trails
(Beethoven’s grave in the public Zentralfriedhof cemetery)
If you happen to be an admirer of Vienna’s famous musicians, artists and/or architects, then many biographical landmarks can be admired from the outside.
I mentioned Mozart’s grave earlier. And you’ll find those of Beethoven, Strauss, and Schubert at the Zentralfriedhof cemetery.
For detailed maps and lists of relevant biographical addresses for all the above names, plus Klimt, Schiele, Hundertwasser, and Otto Wagner, see here.
Free events and festivals
(Karlsplatz Christmas market)
I have a whole page dealing with annual events and festivals in Vienna; many of these are completely free. And the monthly suggestions for activities often include experiences that won’t burden your credit card.
Some particular highlights to watch out for:
- The seasonal markets: Vienna has dozens of open-air markets that pop up at Christmas, Easter and New Year. You can enjoy them without buying anything. Just soak up the atmosphere, breathe in the scents, enjoy the lights and historic surrounds, and browse the stands with all their crafts, gourmet foods and other items not normally sold in your average department store.
(Incidentally, the year-round Naschmarkt food market offers a similar sensory experience, minus the seasonal lights and flavours.)
- The Donauinselfest: Europe’s biggest free open-air music festival takes place in Vienna in late June: the three-day Donauinselfest draws in something like 2.5 million visitors
- Film festivals: two open-air film festivals in summer are free.
- Open-air concerts: free concerts dot the Vienna event calendar, but three particularly notable ones are…
Some cheap options
(One of Vienna’s coffee houses)
This is an article about what to do for free in Vienna, but there are two opportunities to enjoy some special Viennese experiences without spending very much money at all. So, for what it’s worth:
- Visit a coffee house: Vienna’s traditional cafés are part of the cultural fabric of the city. And you can sit in them for as long as you like with your first order of coffee and cake. Nobody will hassle you to move on. It’s all part of the coffee house tradition.
- Visit the opera: seriously. Standing tickets to the State Opera House cost €10 on the day (even less if you book in advance, though that’s a little more complicated).
After all that you should have given your finances a bit of a break. Leaving plenty over for some traditional Viennese food. Enjoy.