I went to Vienna simply knowing it was home to some of the best classical musicians. I didn’t expect to find one of the most beautiful cities in my travels.
What surprised me most is how large, diverse and truly beautiful Vienna is. Did you know Vienna has nearly 2 million people, the sixth highest population for a city in the EU? Just like Budapest and many others, the city center is a UNESCO World Heritage site. For years, the city has also ranked first or second as the best quality-of-living city in the world! And it’s not just the home of several classical greats, but also the birthplace of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis.
It’s hard to believe that I was only in Vienna for less than 48 hours. Luckily I was able to cover a good portion of the city in that time, even though Vienna is the first major city I’ve been to that didn’t have a free walking tour. Instead I was able to get a city map which also gave an alternative walking tour, seeing places in the city that were stunning, while being literally empty of tourists!
When you arrive in Vienna, purchase a metro pass. Tickets are more expensive than other cities. You can technically get onto the metro without one, but I won’t recommend it; the fine isn’t worth it. Tickets cost €2.20 for a single trip, €7.60 for a day, €13.30 for 48 hours or €16.60 for 72 hours. The metro system is very comprehensive and you can get to nearly anywhere you want between the six metro lines.
The first place to start in Vienna is in Stephansplatz to see the magnificent cathedral. Built in 1365, it’s impressive both inside and out. But it’s usually under repairs, so you’ll be hard-pressed to get a good photo. The best spot is from the south on Churhausgasse Street. After that you have your choice of directions. The Mozart House is only a couple blocks to the east, although the €10 entry fee was a bit much for me. Instead I headed west toward the Museum Quarter.
Here you find your biggest disadvantage to visiting Vienna: too many museums! Over 100 in total. There are royal and imperial museums, history museums, music museums, a museum for Freud and two for Beethoven. Standing in the Maria-Theresien you will have two of the most (at least outwardly) impressive museums in town: Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum) and the Natural History Museum of Vienna. In Michaelerplatz, closer to the center, is the Hofburg Palace, containing the crown jewels among other exhibits.
The museums and the cathedral aren’t the only stunning buildings. The state opera house, just behind the Hofburg Palace, is a must-see. The Burgtheater (Austrian National Theater) might be even more impressive while offering opera tickets for as little as €2 a piece. Across the street from that is Parliament. This Greek Revival building is simply stunning, although the facade was slightly marred by the massive screen set up in front for the 2015 Viennese Film Festival I arrived in the middle of. And then next to that is City Hall, followed by the University. They just don’t stop!
I think my personal favorite would actually be the Synagogue in Judenplatz square. I’ve seen a lot of churches in my travels, but this one was honestly one of the best! From the trompe l’oeil dome ceiling to the red, white and green marble columns, it was simply mesmerizing. But there was something else which made it completely unique. It was almost completely empty. No tourists. Just a single local praying. And me. And glory!
Beyond that, I just wandered the streets, seeing one thing after another. The cafes in Vienna are particularly impressive. There’s Cafè Nero, where you get to drink surrounded by cats (or one cat, as on the day I went). Kleines Cafè was the scene of the movie Before Sunrise. Cafè Landtmann is where Freud himself used to drink. The clubs and bars are just as interesting, and frankly it would take too long to list them all. Suffice to say, Vienna might not be in the top ten best, but it definitely has an enjoyable nightlife scene.
However, the best way to see how beautiful Vienna is, if you have a little more cash, is to get the Vienna Pass. I haven’t mentioned a city card for some time now, but this one, upon further research, seems to be one of the best deals I’ve seen. The pass costs €69 for 2 days, €84 for 3 days and €99 for 6 days. Adding the travel option costs about €6 more per day (definitely worth it), and the passes for kids are half price. What the card gives you is nearly €520 worth of free entry to dozens of attractions, such as the Hofburg Palace, Art History Museum, the Zoo, the Hop-On-Hop-Off Bus, the Ferris Wheel and even the Spanish Riding School. I don’t think you could make to every free attraction even if you got the six day pass, but it would be worth a shot. Just the Hofburg Palace, Natural History and Art History Museums would cost more than the price of a 2-day pass. Finally, the pass also comes with a guided tour, which is nice since as mentioned above there are no free walking tours in Vienna.
As far as lodging went, I stayed at Palace Hostel on the very outskirts of the city. The benefit was the elevation. On top of probably the largest hill in the region, I had a gorgeous view of the whole city at night. Not all the hostels are outside the city. There are over twenty hostels in Vienna, but they average around €20 a night. Certainly not the cheapest city to sleep in. I will mention that on the second day I just pitched my tent on the hill where my hostel was. And I had the best seat in the house, not only because of the view, but because it was about 15 degrees cooler than in the hostel rooms.
The food is fairly expensive too, and I was hard-pressed to find a non-tourist restaurant. (I’m in the middle of writing a post on my guidelines for finding an authentic local restaurant.) The main food I know to try in Vienna is the schnitzel. Unfortunately, I don’t think you’ll find one under €10, and most are €15-20. Worth it? That’s for you to decide. Otherwise, you should try the Viennese sausages, which are considerably cheaper and quite nice.
My favorite place to eat in Vienna is the Naschmarkt on Wienzeile Street. This is a long line of markets selling cheap food, everything from local Viennese cuisine to sushi and falafel. Some shops are really just for tourists, while others are actually authentic market stalls selling delicious food for dirt cheap. I purchased nearly half a kilo of all kinds of dried fruit from a vendor for only €1.20! And the several falafels I tried were delicious.
Simply put, my two days in Vienna were nowhere nearly long enough. I absolutely plan to go back someday with a little more money, get the city pass for probably the full six days and explore the city in full. For everyone else, I consider Vienna a must for any full tour of Europe, and if you have a choice between similar cities, I would recommend Vienna first. You can certainly see quite a bit in two days, but minimally a full week would be required for a full experience. Of course, if you do plan on a short visit, you’ll just fall into the first law of the traveler: the bucket list only gets longer!