Europe’s Imperial City: Exploring Vienna, Austria

Europe’s Imperial City: Exploring Vienna, Austria

Vienna, Austria’s capital city and former royal seat of the Austro-Hungarian empire, is one of Europe’s most beautiful cities. Due to its imperialist history, the historic districts of Vienna drip in opulence, now accessible to the non-royal among us. Few cities in Europe boast attractions to suit nearly every kind of traveler; those who love Paris will likely fall head-over-heels for the City of Music. Exploring Vienna is well worth a long week-end or more, as there are so many incredible things to see and do in this historic capital.

What to see in Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

One of my favorite places in Vienna, and arguably my favorite palace in Europe, the Schönbrunn Palace is worth a day to itself. It’s the former summer residence of the imperial Habsburg family, and it wasn’t destroyed during the 20th century due to its location just outside of the city center. Of course, historically, the palace was located well outside of the city, but now it’s just a quick metro ride from the city center.

Steps of Schonbrunn Palace

There is a lovely audio-guided tour of the palace; you’ll want to purchase tickets in advance and try to grab the first tour of the day to avoid some large group tours throughout the guided route. If you’re very interested in the history, you might also consider a private tour of the palace with a local guide who will explain details throughout the tour route you never would have noticed otherwise. You can book such a tour directly through the palace website.

Once you’re done with the palace tour, take a hike up to the Gloriette on the hill overlooking Schönbrunn. The Gloriette was unfortunately destroyed during the Second World War, but has since been reconstructed and provides the perfect place from which to admire the gardens of the palace. You can climb to the top of the Gloriette, but even from ground-level, you will not find better views of Schönbrunn.

The gardens of the Schönbrunn Palace are just over 1 square kilometer, and include a zoo, Orangerie, and many sculptures and impressively designed gardens. The gardens themselves are open free-of-charge, which means you’ll often see joggers and families strolling throughout the day.

As a bonus, one of Vienna’s beautiful Christmas markets is held outside of the palace each year!

Belvedere Palace

The Bevedere Palace is another of Vienna’s beautiful palaces, but was not originally a property of the imperial family. Rather, this Baroque palace was built by Prince Eugene of Savoy as a summer residence. The complex is actually made of three major structures: the Upper Palace, the Lower Palace, and the Orangerie. Later, the palace became the property of the Habsburg family, and was the location of the wedding of Marie Antoinette to the French Dauphin in 1770. The Belvedere Palace also became one of the first public museums in the world, when the monarchy opened its picture gallery to the public in 1781.

Today, the Belvedere Palace still serves that purpose as a public museum, showcasing some of the most important works of Vienna’s Fin-de-siècle, including Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss. If you have time, a private tour of the museum (at 90€) is incredible for art enthusiasts. If you don’t have the time or funds for such an endeavor, the audio guide will make an excellent substitute to take you through Vienna’s art history through the collection at Upper Belvedere. The gardens between the Upper and Lower Palace are also stunning, although naturally smaller than those at Schönbrunn.

Spanish Riding School

The Spanish Riding School is the oldest equestrian school of the Haute Ecole style in the world, founded in the late-16th century. The school is a riding school for Lipizzaner stallions, which perform today in the Winter Palace in central Vienna. The horses are trained in classic dressage style, but with movements designed to enhance the build of these particular horses bred for the purpose.

Spanish Riding School in Vienna

Visitors can come to a performance of the Spanish Riding School, or view the daily morning exercises. Having seen both, I would recommend the morning exercises to the casual observer; the tickets are less expensive and seats are not reserved. Because of this, you can have excellent seats for the exercises (seeing the same movements as are done at the performances), but for a fraction of the cost. Just be sure to arrive as early as possible for the best possible seats!

If you’re particularly interested in the history of these imperial horses, I highly recommend the guided tour as a complement to a performance or morning exercises. The guided tour takes you “backstage” to see the stables where the horses are kept, and allows you to learn about the history of the school and horses. You’ll see the tack room, the exercise rings, and you’ll be able to see the interior of the beautiful indoor arena (complete with chandeliers) without anyone else filling the seats! I prefer this tour over a visit to the Winter Palace (the Hofburg), because the interiors of that palace have been turned into a museum dedicated solely to the Empress Sisi, while the Spanish Riding School allows you an authentic look into a bit of the monarchical history of Austria.

Vienna Opera House

The Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera) is one of the most famous in the world, and for good reason. It opened its doors in 1869 with a performance of Mozart’s Don Juan, and has continued to produce world-renowned performances until today. Now, the Vienna Opera features 350 performances per year in one of the most beautiful theatres in the world.

Vienna State Opera from outside

If you’re interested in seeing a backstage look at the Vienna Opera, you can join a guided tour on the hour in English, German, or Spanish. Tours in Italian, French, Russian, and Japanese are also available by prior arrangement.

In case you aren’t up for purchasing tickets to see a performance in the theatre, you may also view projected performances live outside the Vienna Opera in April, May, June, and September through Vienna’s “Oper live am Platz” program.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Stephansplatz is likely destination for any visit to Vienna. The square is right in the center of Vienna, and is towered over by Stephansdom, or St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Despite the deceptive German name, St. Stephen’s Cathedral doesn’t have a Dome like St. Paul’s in Vatican, but is rather a Gothic cathedral. The unique beauty of this particular cathedral lies in its roof tiling, which has a beautiful, intricate pattern that glows in sunlight.

St Stephan's Cathedral Vienna

Guided tours of the cathedral are available in English from Monday to Saturday at 10:30 am. It’s also possible to climb the South Tower (affectionately known by locals as “Steffl”), which is 137 meters (just under 450 ft.) tall.

Where to stay in Vienna

Vienna is such a diverse city, and likewise has incredibly diverse options for accommodation. If you’re more of a budget traveler, I highly recommend the Wombat City Hostel Naschmarkt. While technically a hostel, Wombat offers private ensuite rooms that would lead you to believe you’re in a hotel, along with a buffet breakfast option. The location of this hostel, though, is the real reason to stay! The Naschmarkt area of Vienna is one of the best places to stay in the city to soak up a little local culture while being close enough to explore all of the major attractions. The Naschmarkt itself is the largest outdoor market in Vienna, with over 100 food and dining stalls.

Where to eat in Vienna

Vienna can be a tough city for eating, particularly in the city center near Stepansplatz, because it lends itself to be on the high-end scale in this area. There are, however, plenty of great options throughout the city, and Vienna is one of those cities where international cuisine reigns supreme. Naturally, you can’t have a trip to Vienna without a taste of wiener schnitzel, apple strudel, or sacher dort, but these can easily be found in any traditional cafe or restaurant in the city.

For some other options, I highly recommend the neighborhood surrounding Naschmarkt. The market itself is a great source of local, inexpensive take-away food as well as some great sit-down dining options. Yak and Yeti, not far from Naschmarkt, is a great Nepalese restaurant. If you’re looking for something even more low-key, El Burro is an excellent Mexican restaurant in the neighborhood- also surrounded by great bars, cafes, and other restaurants.

With the Schönbrunn Palace gardens, you’ll find loads of cafes and restaurants. My favorite by far in spring and summer is the Landtmann’s Parkcafé (closed only in winter). This is an outdoor-only restaurant with great food and drinks, hidden away in the gardens and generally ignored by tourists who don’t know to look for it.

Vienna is such an incredible central European city. It’s an excellent city to combine with travel to nearby Bratislava, Prague, or Budapest, as all are well within 4 hours by train from Vienna’s city center. No matter if you’re interested in history, art, culture, food, or any other facet of travel, Vienna has something for everyone!

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Interested in visiting Vienna, but don’t know where to start? Book a travel consultation with me, and I’ll help you to plan your perfect trip from start to finish! What a more detailed travel guide for Vienna? Check out my “3 Days in Vienna” travel guide and itinerary!

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