As the former capital of the Habsburg Empire and a Cold War outpost, Vienna possesses an extraordinary cultural legacy. Whatever your interests – European history, geopolitics, classical music, architecture, wine-drinking, the great outdoors – you won’t be bored in Vienna. Attractions abound in the city; even if time is tight, the city’s compact layout, lack of crowds and magnificent public transport system help you pack a lot in. Although the city attracted over 12.7 million overnight stays in 2013, crowds are confined to the main arteries of the Innere Stadt, the UNESCO-listed historic centre, Mariahilfer Strasse, the main shopping mile and Vienna’s most popular attraction, the Habsburg summer palace Schönbrunn.
In the colder months, visitors can brave the chill at the city’s famous Christmas markets, or take refuge in a series of world-class museums and galleries such as the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Belvedere and the Museumsquartier complex. Vienna’s love of Gemütlichkeit or cosiness manifests itself both in the welcoming interiors of its coffee houses and bistros and in its dogged opposition to change: a full smoking ban is only coming into effect in 2018.
When the good weather kicks in, the city’s lush parks and pavement cafés really come into their own. To see the Viennese at play, take a tram to the vineyards in the leafy suburbs or the underground to the Alte Donau for boating, boozing and wild swimming.
Museums, galleries and sights in Vienna
For the first-time visitor to the city, the Ringstrasse is an essential pointer. Now 150 years old, this broad, horseshoe-shaped avenue that circumvents the Innere Stadt was opened by Emperor Franz Joseph in 1865. Take trams 1 or 2 for a cheap fast view of celebrated buildings such as the State Opera, the Parliament and the Rathaus. Virtually all of Vienna’s main attractions are within or on the verges of its 5.3km circumference.
At the epicentre of the Innere Stadt is Stephansdom, the city’s breathtaking gothic cathedral, situated at the confluence of the old town’s two principal pedestrian shopping arteries, Graben and Kärntner Strasse. From the cathedral, head west along Graben and Kohlmarkt to Hofburg, the rambling former palace of the Habsburgs and home to a clutch of exhibitions themed around the royal family. Situated in front of the palace is the expansive Heldenplatz, the scene of Hitler’s triumphal address after the annexation of Austria in 1938.
Another of the city’s wartime icons is the Prater Riesenrad (Big Wheel), immortalised in Carol Reed’s classic occupation-era Vienna flick ‘The Third Man’. Three underground stops away from Stephansplatz, the Prater is a vast area of woodland, featuring a year-round funfair, bustling beer gardens such as the Schweizerhaus, the national football stadium and some spectacular new architecture by the likes of Zaha Hadid that makes up the new Wirtschafts Universität campus.
Fans of ‘The Third Man’ should not miss the extensive private museum dedicated to the film and life in postwar Vienna. From there it’s a short step to the Naschmarkt, the bustling open-air food market, flanked by some of Vienna’s greatest art nouveau architecture: Otto Wagner’s two apartment buildings at Linke Wienzeile 38-40 and Josef Olbrich’s magnificent Secession building.
Fans of turn-of-the-century modernism should reserve a slot for the Leopold Museum in the Museumsquartier to see the world’s largest collection of paintings by Egon Schiele, superbly displayed among furniture and other artefacts dating from this early 20th-century outpouring of creativity in the city.
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Sights and attractions details
Schönbrunn Palace Schönbrunner Schloßstraße 47. Admission €12.90. +43 1 8111 3239
Kunsthistorisches Museum Maria-Theresien-Platz. Admission €14. +43 1 525 24
Belvedere Prinz Eugen-Strasse 27. Admission €14. +43 1 7955 7134
Museumsquartier Museumsplatz 1. +43 1 523 5881
Stephansdom Stephansplatz 3
Hofburg Michaelerkuppel. +43 1 533 7570
Riesenrad Riesenradplatz 1. Admission €9.50. +43 1 729 5430
Third Man Museum Pressgasse 25. Admission €8.50. + 43 1 586 4872
Secession Friedrichstrasse 12. Admission €9. +43 1 587 5307
Leopold Museum Museumsplatz 1. Admission €12. +43 525 700