Things to Do in Vienna
Built to rival the opulence of Versailles, Vienna’s Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn) was once a summer residence of the Habsburg monarchs. Today, this baroque palace is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of the most important architectural, cultural, and historic monuments in Austria.
Formerly the winter residence of the Austrian royal family, the Hofburg Imperial Palace (Hofburg Wien) is now a lasting tribute to the glory of the Habsburg Empire. It’s one of Vienna’s most magnificent baroque palaces, located within Vienna’s UNESCO-listed historic center. Visitors to the Hofburg can explore the Imperial Apartments, visit the Sisi Museum and the Silver Collection, or watch a performance at the world-famous Spanish Riding School.
With its dark Gothic spires, intricately tiled roof, and imposing bell tower, St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) is one of Vienna’s star attractions. Centrally located on Stephansplatz square in the city’s UNESCO-listed historic center, the cathedral is architecturally stunning both inside and out. It’s also a site of great historical significance—Emperor Friedrich III and numerous other Habsburg dignitaries were buried here.
A masterpiece of Renaissance architecture and one of the most prestigious opera houses in the world, the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper) is a hallowed venue for opera fans. Each year, the auditorium hosts 350 Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and Vienna State Ballet (Wiener Staatsballett) performances, as well as the Vienna Opera Ball.
Marking the boundary of the First District where the old city walls once stood, the grand boulevard of the Ringstrasse traces a 3-mile (5-kilometer) scenic ring around the historic Innere Stadt (Inner Town) of Vienna. Follow the Ringstrasse loop on a sightseeing tour of Vienna to take in some of the city’s top attractions along the route.
Standing in stark contrast to the baroque palaces and grand plazas of historic Vienna, the colorful facade of the Hundertwasserhaus is one of the city’s most unique works of contemporary architecture. This eccentric apartment complex, masterpiece of Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, is a highlight of many Vienna tours.
One of Vienna’s most beloved parks, the Prater is both an oasis full of greenery and a family-friendly amusement park. Enjoy views of the Danube from the towering Ferris wheel earns big views of the Danube, walk down leafy avenues, visit museums, and join the local crowds turns that out for Sunday races at the Prater race track.
Built in the 18th century as the summer residence of Prince Eugene of Savoy, the magnificent Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere) is among the many treasures of Vienna’s Baroque era and a UNESCO World Heritage–listed monument.
Housed in former residential apartments in the vast Hofburg Imperial Palace complex, Vienna’s Albertina museum is home to an incredible 1.5 million prints and over 50,000 drawings. The permanent collection of graphic art is considered the finest in the world, with works by Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, and Schiele.
For sheer grandness, the Neo-Gothic Rathaus, or Vienna City Hall, steals the Ringstrasse show. Completed in 1883 by Friedrich von Schmidt, it was modeled on Flemish city halls. Its main spire soars to 335 ft (102m) if you include the pennant held by the knight at the top. You're free to wander through the seven inner courtyards but must join a guided tour to see the interior, with its red carpets, gigantic mirrors, and frescoes.
Between the Rathaus and the Ringstrasse is the Rathauspark, with fountains, benches and several statues. It is split in two by Rathausplatz, which is lined with statues of notable people from Vienna's past. Rathausplatz is the sight of some of the city's most frequented events, including the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market), Musikfilm Festival and the Wiener Eistraum.
More Things to Do in Vienna
The royal Habsburgs were collectors, and their holdings—from armor to artwork—make up the heart of the vast Kunsthistorisches Museum. In this palatial building topped by an octagonal dome on Vienna’s Ringstrasse, explore the thousands of artifacts, masterpieces, and treasures that make up one of Austria’s foremost museums.
The Historic Center of Vienna is the beating heart of Austria, and the home of top attractions such as Vienna’s city hall, Parliament, and the lively Museum Quarter. Also known as the First District or Inner City and preserved as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the area is rich with baroque castles and gardens, as well as the 19th-century Ringstrasse, a beltway of grand buildings, monuments, and parks that encircles most of the inner city. There are enough landmark sites here to keep you snapping photos all day long.
St Anne's Church (Annakirche) in Vienna’s city center is a beautiful example of Gothic architecture paired with Baroque-style artwork. One of the church’s main attractions are the exquisite frescoes, created by Daniel Gran, which adorn the ceilings of the chapel. The chapel, which is said to have been in existence since 1320, draws thousands of visitors each year to view these timeless pieces of art. St Anne’s Church is a functioning Roman Catholic Church that is also a prominent venue for community functions, various church activities, and notably — musical concerts. The church is named after Saint Anne, whose grim relic (a mummified hand) is exhibited in the church every year on July 26 (St Anne's Day).
The church is widely considered to be one of the most beautiful Baroque-style churches in existence, and its incredible acoustics make the frequent musical concerts that are held there an auditory treat to attend. The classical concerts are usually string quartets, and include specific pieces of chamber music. A popular way to visit the church is by booking a musical concert combined with a tour.
Sisi, or Empress Elizabeth, was the wife of Franz Josef 1 of Austria who she married when she was only 16. She was very beautiful and strictly maintained her 20 inch (50 cm) waistline! The headstrong girl from Munich gained a reputation for rejecting court etiquette and being a bit of free-spirit. But after the death of her daughter Sophie, Sisi became ill herself and began often going south for the warmth, separate from her husband, to write poetry and meet with a string of lovers. When her beloved son Crown-Prince Rudolf died tragically in a murder-suicide pact with his lover, Baroness Mary Vetsera, Sisi was inconsolable. In 1898, aged 60, in Geneva, she herself died, assassinated by a young anarchist, Luigi Lucheni.
Her life was like a soap opera and these days she is a cult figure. The Sisi Museum houses hundreds of her personal belongings as well as a history of her fascinating life.
The Church of St Charles Borromeo, or Karlskirche, is the finest baroque church in Vienna and was built between 1716 and 1739, after a vow by Karl VI at the end of the 1713 plague. It was designed and commenced by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and completed by his son Joseph. Although predominantly baroque, it combines several architectural styles.
The twin columns are modeled on Trajan's Column in Rome and show scenes from the life of St Charles Borromeo (who helped plague victims in Italy), to whom the church is dedicated. The huge oval dome reaches 236 ft (72m); in combination with the church's large windows, the dome's height creates a bright, open nave. There is a small museum with a handful of religious art and clothing purportedly from the saint, but the highlight is the lift to the dome for a close-up view of the detailed frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr. The altar panel is by Sebastiano Ricci and shows the Assumption of the Virgin. In front of the church is a pond, complete with a Henry Moore sculpture from 1978.
Located opposite the entrance to the Imperial Hofburg Palace, St. Michael's Church (Michaelerkirche) was consecrated in 1217. Although fragments of the present incarnation date back to the mid-14th century, most of it was rebuilt in 1792 in fine Baroque style, but it is still topped with its spindly Gothic spire.
Thanks to its position at the very heart of Imperial Vienna, St. Michael's became the parish church of the Imperial Family and by default the place of worship favored by Vienna’s aristocracy. It was in this church where Hayden played, and where Mozart’s unfinished Last Requiem was performed on the magnificent Sieber Organ after his death in 1791.
Toady St. Michael's is known for both its Baroque ornamentation and its music recitals but is chiefly notorious for the grisly secrets in its crypt. In the early 17th century, the graveyard surrounding the church filled up with tombs and was closed down. From 1631 until 1784, more than 4,000 of the good burghers of Vienna were entombed in the crypt’s catacombs, and thanks to a quirk of climatic conditions down there, many of their mummified bodies and decorative coffins – skillfully carved with wreathes, flowers and death masks – have been perfectly preserved.
The caskets stand in ranks throughout the crypt; several are open to view, revealing parchment-like skin stretched taught across grinning skulls, tufts of wig and glimpses of fancy period waistcoats etched with lace.
Vienna’s most beautiful concert hall was completed in 1867 on the edge of the Stadtpark (City Park), close to the gilded statue of composer Johann Strauss, whose music is enjoyed there nightly. The Kursalon (Kursalon Wien) was designed by Austrian architect Johann Garben in Neo-Renaissance style and its original use was as a spa; just a year after it opened it was given over to music and became the meeting place of choice for Viennese high society.
Recently given a facelift, the Kursalon is now returned to its gleaming, romantic best and its halls once more drip with chandeliers and elegant stucco decoration. It is known for its nightly repertoire of favorites from Strauss, Schubert, Mozart and other Baroque musicians, played by the Salonorchestra Alt Wien, which was founded in 1994. Its concerts – all performed in traditional smock coats and crinolines – are smart affairs and offer a romp through the golden age of Vienna’s classical music tradition in the early 19th century, with waltzes by Strauss accompanied by opera singers and ballet dancers as they perform to much-loved classics such as The Blue Danube.
A choice of night-time entertainment packages at the Kursalon includes cocktails or a gastronomic blow-out at the concert hall’s Restaurant Johann before the music starts; in summer open-air concerts take place on the Terrace overlooking the Stadtpark.
A colossal piazza right at the heart of Imperial Vienna, Heldenplatz (or Heroes' Square) stretches out in front of the sweeping arcs of the Hofburg Palace, which was commissioned for the Habsburg Imperial Family in 1881. Constructed under the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph II as part of the city’s elegant Ringstrasse thoroughfare in the late 19th century, the square is dominated by two vast equestrian statues of Archduke Charles of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy, and completely surrounded by the Baroque beauty of Vienna’s most important landmarks.
The Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived on this spot in various palaces from the 13th century until its demise in 1918; now the palace is home to several sublime Imperial collections in the Neue Burg, Sisi and art museums; the Imperial Apartments; the office of the Austrian President; the National Library; the Hofburgs’ private chapel; and the Augustinian Church, parish church of Vienna’s aristocracy. The Spanish Riding School is in the Winter Riding School and members of the Vienna Boys’ Choir perform at concerts in the Burgtheater.
Originally Heldenplatz was enclosed at its southern flank, but this now stands open; the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier is all that remains of the walls. In keeping with its role in the center of Viennese history, it was from a balcony overlooking the square that Hitler announced the Anschluss on March 15, 1938.
If you’re looking to sample authentic Viennese cuisine or soak up local culture, head to the 16th-century Naschmarkt—the oldest of Vienna’s many markets. Located just south of Vienna’s historic center, Naschmarkt hosts a week-long food market and a Saturday flea market.
With rolling vineyards of grapes and apricots, plus a collection of more than 5,000 historic monuments, it's no wonder that the Wachau Valley is a UNESCO World Heritage site and one of Austria's most popular tourist attractions. Here, the Danube River carves a picturesque path through the valley's towns of Melk and Krems, uniting a harmonious blend of wineries, Gothic churches, and medieval castles.
St. Rupert's Church (Ruprechtskirche) is Vienna’s oldest church, and is made from stone taken from the ancient Roman settlement of Vindabona. It was originally Romanesque in design, with its origins reaching as far back as 740 AD. It has a dumpy and largely unprepossessing exterior that dates from the 12th century, although it has been destroyed by fire and repeatedly enlarged down the centuries. It is dedicated to St Rupert, who is (confusingly) the patron saint of Salzburg and also connected with salt mining, which was big business around Salzburg in the Middle Ages.
The simple interior is whitewashed with a simple stone altar, quite unadorned with the exceptions of the vast brass Baroque crucifix and the exquisite stained-glass windows dating from the 1990s, when the church was restored. However, one window has survived from the 13th century and it is found in the vaulted apse, depicting Christ on the cross with the Madonna and Child standing below.
A series of atmospheric concerts of ancient music take place in the church over the summer, with evening performances in July.
With its ornate golden-colored facade and grand baroque church towers set against an idyllic backdrop of the Wachau Valley and the Danube River, Melk Abbey (Stift Melk) looks more like a palace than a monastery. Founded in 1089, the Benedictine abbey underwent a dramatic makeover in the 18th century and is now regarded as one of Europe’s most beautiful baroque churches.
Also known as Peterskirche, St Peter's Church in Vienna is the second oldest church in the city. The original church building was rumored to have been established by Charlemagne, but it burned down in 1661. The new church, inspired by St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, was consecrated in 1733 and a relief plaque on the outside of the church tells the legend of Charlemagne. St Peter's Church was the first domed structure in Vienna and features an ornate interior with colorful frescoes and gold stucco. Most notable for visitors are the gilded pulpit with a representation of the Holy Trinity atop the canopy, a gold and silver sculpture of the Martyrdom of St. John opposite the pulpit and the fresco in the cupola depicting the Coronation of the Virgin.
Over the years, the 18th-century paintings in the church grew darker and the interior began to turn gray, but a massive renovation project from 1998 to 2004 restored the frescoes to their original bright colors.
Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna is the former summer residence of the royal family. The gardens at Schönbrunn Palace (Schlosspark Schönbrunn) were opened to the public at the end of the 1700s and since then have been a popular recreational area, both with the Viennese population and international visitors alike.
The palace and its immaculate grounds made it onto the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1996. Spanning some 1.2 kilometers from east to west and approximately one kilometer from north to south, these are no ordinary gardens; they house a spectacular iron and glass palm house, a maze, and a viewing terrace. The original Baroque-style layout, along with the additions made during the last decade of Queen Maria Theresa’s life, has more or less been retained.
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