With scale and glamour to rival those in much larger capitals like London and New York, it’s fair to say Vienna’s museums are truly top-tier. And no wonder, given this is a city that’s played such a crucial role in the development of pretty much every art form. To learn more about the city itself, and particularly its intellectual and imperial heyday during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, head to the institutions dedicated to Sigmund Freud and Empress Elisabeth. Into your classical music? The Haus der Musik and Beethoven Museum are well worth a trip. But it’s art historians who are really spoilt for choice in the Austrian capital – you could spend pretty much an entire weekend exploring the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Belvedere Palace, the Albertina and the MuseumsQuartier alone. Looking for more than just museums in Vienna? Then check out our guide to the city’s can’t-miss attractions.
RECOMMENDED: Full guide to the best things to do in Vienna
Best museums in Vienna
What is it? The Sisi Museum explores the tragic story of Empress Elisabeth. Married at a young age to Emperor Franz Joseph I and considered one of most beautiful women in Europe, ‘Sisi’ was very much the Princess Diana of her day.
Why go? The museum and apartments where the couple lived offer a fascinating insight into her life through an array of personal items, poems, portraits, wooden exercise equipment, her death mask and even the file used to assassinate her.
What is it? Sigmund Freud lived at Berggasse 19 for 47 years before the arrival of the Nazis in Vienna forced him and his family to flee to London. Now the site is a carefully curated museum where a range of personal items, archive footage and letters tell the story of the founder of psychoanalysis.
Why go? The museum shines a light both on the life and work of Freud, and Vienna as it was during its intellectual heyday.
What is it? The highlight of the MuseumsQuartier, the Leopold Museum houses the largest Egon Schiele collection in the world alongside a wide array of works by Gustav Klimt and masterpieces from the Wiener Werkstätte design movement of the early 1900s.
Why go? The collection puts into context the incredibly fruitful artistic period Vienna enjoyed around the turn of the 20th century. If there’s one art museum you go to here, make it this one.
What is it? The world’s oldest Jewish Museum was founded in Vienna in 1895, but was shut and plundered by the Nazis in 1938. The present incarnation was founded some 50 years later and is now based across two sites – on Dorotheergasse and Judenplatz.
Why go? As well as preserving the memory of those who died during the Holocaust and the pogroms that preceded it, the museum also outlines the huge contribution Jews have made to the city.
What is it? Housing many of the artistic treasures acquired by the Habsburgs, the Kunsthistorisches Museum is one of the most impressive fine art museums in the world. Highlights include the world’s largest collection of Bruegels and works by a roll-call of masters including Canaletto, van Dyck and Rubens.
Why go? The building is as striking as the artworks it houses. The granite, marble and stucco interior, interspersed with murals by Gustav Klimt and Hans Makart, distills the very best in 19th-century Austro-Hungarian design.
What is it? The Belvedere is actually two Baroque palaces, separated by beautiful landscaped gardens, which between them house a several art collections and boast photo-worthy views over the city.
Why go? The Upper Belvedere is renowned for its collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt, most notably ‘The Kiss’, as well as works by Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. The Lower Belvedere plays host to a range of temporary exhibitions in the opulent former residence of Prince Eugene.
What is it? The Weltmuseum offers a fascinating post-colonial take on the extensive anthropological collections acquired by the Habsburgs. Standouts include an array of objects acquired by Captain James Cook and a centuries-old feathered Mexican headdress.
Why go? The museum invites visitors to take a fresh look at these historic items, many of which were obtained in questionable circumstances. The British Museum and others of its kind could certainly learn a thing or two.
What is it? Home to one of the world’s finest collections of graphic art, the Albertina’s highlights include Albrecht Dürer’s sketch of a hare that is so fragile the original only goes on display every decade or so.
Why go? The vast archive of works by big names – from Leonardo Da Vinci to Oskar Kokoschka – and an ever-changing programme of temporary exhibitions make a trip to the Albertina very worthwhile.
What is it? The Beethoven Museum is set in the building where the great composer wrote the ‘Heiligenstadt Testament’ letter in which he despaired about his loss of hearing and failing health.
Why go? Beethoven became increasingly reliant on letters and notes as his deafness worsened, meaning much of his personal life and work is documented in extraordinary detail. The most curious item on show is a lock of his hair, which in 2007 helped reveal the likely cause of his death.
What is it? The MAK, or Museum of Applied Arts, is to Vienna what the V&A is to London. This highly eclectic exhibition space in a purpose-built neo-Renaissance building explores how design practices have evolved throughout the ages.
Why go? From Klimt’s Stoclet Frieze mosaics to an astounding collection of Jugendstil furniture, the MAK overflows with (very stylish) treasures.
What is it? This aquarium – or ‘aqua terra zoo’ – is based in a former Second World War Flaktürme, a concrete hulk that was one of six anti-aircraft towers built around the city.
Why go? The Haus des Meeres is now home to a range of fish, sharks, snakes and turtles, while marmosets scurry around the tropical house. Though getting around the building can be frustrating, a small but fascinating exhibition at the very top outlines the history of the tower.
What is it? The Natural History Museum is the mirror image and scientific counterpart of the Kunsthistorisches Museum across the square. Among its millions of objects you’ll find the 29,500-year-old Venus of Willendorf figurine, several dinosaur skeletons and the world’s largest and oldest public collection of meteorites.
Why go? Walking around the museum feels like going back in time thanks to the centuries-old display cases. Sprinkled among the older cabinets, there are some fascinating (and accessible) interactive exhibits, plus an animatronic dinosaur.
What is it? The Haus der Musik is an interactive music museum that takes in everything from the physics of creating sound and listening to the great composers associated with the Austrian capital and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
Why go? It’s all good fun and a great way to learn why Vienna is often regarded as the world capital of classical music. However, the absolute highlight is trying to – virtually – conduct an orchestra. Cue laughter from most of your fellow visitors.