This article is going to be biased because I live here and love the city. But let me just introduce you to a few topics that should help you find your way around Vienna (literally and figuratively) as you consider or plan a possible visit.
We’ll look (briefly) at the city’s history, its layout, what it offers visitors, and some basic information on issues like public transport and languages.
A quick overview for tourists
(The Graben pedestrianised street in the city centre)
Let’s begin with a bit of background…
Vienna is the capital of Austria and located in the east of the country. Almost 2 million people live here, but you wouldn’t think it. The city retains the feel of a large town, despite its size. Part of that is down to the numerous parks, woodlands, and other open and green spaces.
Global urban rankings tend to put Vienna near the top, thanks to the excellent public services (particularly public transport and health), accessibility, economic success, low crime, and the wide range of leisure and cultural activities available. The city’s not perfect, but there are worse places to live!
Vienna owes its size (and much of its beauty) to the legacy of the Habsburg dynasty that ruled over large areas of Europe for many centuries. Vienna sat at the centre of Habsburg authority for almost all that period.
Monumental buildings and great art abound because various Emperors, Empresses, and aristocrats constantly engaged in a game of one-upmanship in architecture and interior decoration.
The city’s history predates the Habsburgs, of course. The Romans settled here, for example, when Vienna was known as Vindobona. But the “modern” history really began in the 12th century when Vienna became a duchy. We still have churches and other buildings from those early times.
So why do people come here?
What Vienna offers
(The coffee house in Palais Ferstel)
Vienna certainly counts as a popular tourist destination, particularly for short city breaks. The huge tourism sector and high level of education means service personnel and similar normally all speak good English (the national language is German).
People visit for various reasons, and I can’t speak to, for example, the nightlife and cocktail bars because I’m a shy writer whose idea of a good night out is a glass of wine and Netflix.
Obviously the city has all the amenities and opportunities you’d associate with a large European city (and the Euro as its currency). However, Vienna’s traditional selling points from my perspective are:
Like many of the great European cities, you can simply wander around the streets in the centre and enjoy the mix of architectural styles: from Baroque palaces to neo-gothic offices.
We have, for example, three large palace complexes: the Hofburg in the centre, Schönbrunn, and Belvedere. A cathedral. And a whole host of gorgeous museums and other buildings from the 1800s where the ancient city walls used to be.
I’ve outlined the main sightseeing areas here.
Music and art
(The State Opera House)
Vienna can legitimately lay claim to being the home of classical music, whatever the rest of the world may say. Mozart, Beethoven, Haydn, Brahms, Mahler, Bruckner, Schubert and various others all tinkled the ivories and produced copious quantities of sheet music here.
Many people choose to visit the landmarks associated with the famous composers, such as their homes, or to listen to their works in one of the city’s (often historical) event locations. Vienna has one of the world’s greatest opera houses and (possibly) the world’s best classical music venue.
As mentioned, the Habsburgs did a lot of collecting, which is why Vienna can show you quite a bit of world-class art. The top three locations are probably:
- The Kunsthistorisches Museum – as well as paintings from a who’s who of old masters, the Kunstkammer chamber of wonders never fails to blow my mind.
- Belvedere – home to Klimt’s The Kiss, for example.
- The Albertina – the permanent collection covers names like Monet and Picasso. But most times they have quite a selection of temporary exhibitions that range from Dürer to Warhol.
As a large, flourishing city, contemporary art and music gets a shout in, too (see, for example, the MuseumsQuartier).
Food and Gemütlichkeit
Gemütlichkeit is a German word that means a kind of cosy congeniality. Fast and furious are not words typically associated with Viennese restaurants and cafés.
As for food and drink, think cake and coffee. Vienna is home to a languid café culture and its own particular brand of wood-and-marble coffee houses. The latter can date back up to 200 years and once echoed to the sounds of artists, intellectuals and politicians arguing into the night over a melange and Sachertorte.
The broader cuisine errs on the heavy side (e.g. sausages), but Vienna has slowly caught up with modern trends like healthy eating and vegetarianism. It goes without saying that a city of this size covers a whole range of culinary options. But the Wiener Schnitzel still rules supreme, no matter what your doctor says.
Now for just a few words on the city’s layout and getting around…
Geography and getting around
(Trams on the Ring)
Vienna consists of 23 districts. You can think of them (roughly) as a central district surrounded by two rings of inner and outer districts.
The central (first) district corresponds to the boundaries of the historical fortified city. Until the late 1800s, a wide open space surrounded this city, beyond which you had villages, country houses, and palaces.
When the city took down its fortifications and released the open ground for development, Vienna slowly merged with those outer areas.
That first district, which grew organically over the centuries, is quite compact, eminently walkable, and stuffed to the brim with beautiful pristine buildings that either look historical or are historical. Many people just wander through the centre on their first trip.
That open area is now the Ring boulevard. The late 19th-century buildings either side of it form another highlight. Many of Vienna’s most famous sights line the so-called Ringstrassen. Like the State Opera House, for example. Or the Kunsthistorisches and Naturhistorisches museums. And the Rathaus city hall.
To summarise, many of Vienna’s tourist attractions lie close to each other in that relatively-small first district or at its edge.
But not all.
For example, some of those country residences that Vienna eventually absorbed also come top of the tourist rankings. Like Schönbrunn Palace, for example: the Habsburg summer residence and home to the zoo.
Don’t be too concerned by the prospect of travel in the city. Vienna has a fast, frequent, comprehensive, clean, cheap, and efficient municipal subway, tram and bus system that means even the outlying sights can be reached easily without ruining your holiday budget.
This also means accommodation outside the centre still provides relatively swift access to the first district – just jump on a tram, for example.
Best time to visit?
(The Christmas market on the Rathausplatz)
Finally, are there good and bad times to visit?
Given all the city has to offer, you really can’t pick a poor month for a trip to Vienna. Although, frankly, late January and February can feel a bit grim in the Austrian winter. Though that also means fewer crowds, of course.
If you force me to commit, then the best times are kind of the obvious ones:
- Second half of November through to early January: the time of the Christmas and New Year markets, which are just wonderful. Not to mention the lovely Christmas lights.
- Late May to August: warm weather allows you to wander freely around all the beautiful streets, parks and gardens, and enjoy the street café and wine tavern culture.
The downside of those dates is a lot of people agree with that assessment, so Vienna can fill up with visitors.
As I said at the beginning of this short overview, I’m biased. But this really is a beautiful city full of urban charm, with a rich and long history, plenty to see and do (even with kids), excellent services and amenities, and a selection of cakes that will do evil things to your willpower.