Exploring Vienna, Austria
Back in March, I reviewed a book, The Accidental Empress, and was hugely inspired to visit Vienna and Budapest (you can read my review of that book in my March Book Report). Fortunately, one of my friends loves to travel as much as I, so not long after I mentioned my burning desire to travel to these cities, we started booking our trip!
Earlier this month, I returned from a 10 day trip to Vienna (Austria), Bratislava (Slovakia), and Budapest (Hungary). It was an amazing trip and probably my favorite European vacations to date! As I posted pics of my adventures on Instagram, I had some requests to share my trip upon my return.
So, today, I’ll start things off with our first stop…Vienna!
We spent 3-1/2 days in this lovely city and it was the perfect way to start our vacation! My friend had been to Vienna before and had raved about it, promising me (multiple times) that I would LOVE it. He may have oversold it slightly since I went in with pretty defined images in my head of what I expected.
As with any case where we build up our expectations, it didn’t quite align with the visions in my head, so I was initially a little disappointed. We also spent quite a bit of time the first day and a half doing a walking tour that took us outside of the Old Town. Once we abandoned this plan and focused on exploring Old Town, Vienna started to show me her charm and I started to get more excited about being there.
Outside of Old Town, Vienna is like any other large European city. Old Town, however, is where you want to spend your time. This is where you’ll find the cobblestone streets, horse drawn carriages, and the quintessential European charm. Cafes line the streets with outdoor seating filled with happy diners, gelato stands greet you around every corner tempting you with the colorful variety of flavors, and charming shops beckon you inside to explore their goods.
Vienna is one of those cities that can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace or you can pack your day with endless options for exploring every nook and cranny.
Today, I wanted to share my favorite spots for what to do to enjoy this city, along with suggestions for things to eat, and the best areas to stay if you’re looking to pay Vienna a visit in the near future.
WHAT TO DO & SEE
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
If you spend any time walking around Old Town, you won’t miss St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It stands tall and proud in the center of Stephensplatz and is a beautiful example of Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The tiled roof is quite stunning and was my favorite part of the church.
As beautiful as the cathedral is on the outside, the inside is even more stunning. Stained glass windows line the exterior walls, allowing a rainbow of light to shine into the cathedral. As we walked around inside, you can’t help but feel humbled by the beauty and the history that surrounds you.
On our last day in Vienna, we bought tickets to go to the top of the tower (it’s only a few Euro and well worth it!). From the tower, you can walk around the exterior of the upper levels of the church. This offers birds eye views of Vienna as it lays stretched in front you in all of it’s colorful splendor. This also allows you a close up inspection of the beautiful tiles that cover the roof.
Narshmarkt is a multiple block outdoor market filled with food stalls and vendors selling various home and gift items. The predominant offering here is food with stalls lining both sides of the walkway filled with fresh fruits and vegetables, prepared small dishes and appetizers (i.e. stuffed olives), sweets and candies, and fresh meats. There are also numerous restaurants to choose from since walking through here will cause your stomach to start growling!
As you go through the stalls, vendors are quite aggressive in offering you samples, but this is their (very successful) tactic for getting you to buy from them. I only indulged in sampling from one vendor and I left with a small package of sweets since I couldn’t resist after my small nibble, so you consider yourself warned!
This is also a wonderful place to pick up beautiful scarves or other unique gifts to take home to family and friends. While you only need an hour or two to work your way through the stalls, it’s well worth the time since it affords a wonderful example of Viennese culture.
Stadtpark is large park in Vienna with lots of walking paths, grassy space, and a small river. In the height of summer, flowers bloom everywhere and provide a very colorful and peaceful place to get away from city life.
Unfortunately for us, our stay in Vienna was at the end of summer, so there weren’t many flowers left and it was an overcast and slightly rainy afternoon. Despite our bad luck in weather, the park was quite beautiful, so I can only imagine how much more beautiful it is at the height of the season!
Dotted along the walking paths are statues of famous Viennese artists, writers, and composers. Since I love history, I found these to be quite intriguing. Overall, Stadtpark provides a peaceful corner of the city for relaxing and reflecting.
Hofburg Palace is the former imperial palace located in the heart of the city. It’s history dates back hundreds of years and even today, the President of Austria resides within it’s walls. It is a stunning building and as you walk through Old Town, you can’t help but stumble upon this massive structure with it’s striking green dome.
It is well worth the time to tour the Palace and my recommendation is to get the pass that allows you to tour the Sisi Museum, the Apartments, and the Silver Collection. Sisi is the Empress Elisabeth that was the subject of the book I referenced earlier that served as my inspiration for this trip. I loved having the opportunity to see her former rooms and hear more of her life (I could write an entire post just on her!).
As an optional second tour, I recommend touring the Imperial Treasury also located at the Palace. Here you will find room after room of the imperial Crown Jewels including crowns, jewelry, royal robes, etc. The excess of the royalty is quite impressive as is the beauty of the jewels the royals used to wear.
And finally, the grounds behind the Palace are arranged in walking gardens where paths wind you through rose bushes and other colorful flowers. Benches are aplenty, so if your feet are needing a break, this is the perfect spot for a refreshing break.
As a side historical note…the infamous Marie Antoinette was born within Hofburg Palace in 1755.
Hofburg Palace was considered the winter home of the royals. Their summer residence was Schonbrunn Palace. I found this a little odd since I expected a summer vs. winter residence to be located in different locations, but Schonbrunn is just on the edge of Vienna and a short ride on the Metro.
If you go to Vienna, I highly recommend taking the time to visit Schonbrunn Palace! It is a gorgeous palace that is massive in size, so be prepared to set aside an entire day for exploring not only the house, but the grounds and the Vienna Zoo.
One thing to note about Schonbrunn is that it’s a very popular tourist destination and it’s very crowded. We arrived around 10:00 and in hindsight, we should’ve gotten up early to get there when they open. Just expect crowds of people and long lines to get tickets. To avoid the last part, I believe you can buy and reserve your ticket online…do that!! That will save you significant time.
The palace is modeled after the Palace of Versailles in Paris and contains almost 1,500 rooms. While it is quite beautiful inside, I thought the real beauty was on the outside. Behind the palace is acres of sculpted gardens with walking paths and mazes.
We enjoyed lunch at a cafe in one of the gardens, visited the Palm House which was the largest greenhouse in Europe when it opened in the mid 1800s, and enjoyed a couple of hours at the Vienna Zoo, which is the oldest zoo in world!
One final spot to visit while you're at Schonbrunn is the carriage museum. We almost wrote this off, but popped in just before leaving and I'm so glad we did! It's filled with carriages from the past, including some that Sisi and Franz rode in, which I loved seeing!
WALK AROUND OLD TOWN
While there are plenty of specific locations to tour and visit, we loved exploring Old Town on foot and taking in all the sites. Near Hofburg Palace, you’ll find all of the governmental buildings including Town Hall and Parliament Building. Those are definitely worth walking by to examine the ornate architecture.
Aside from these structures, taking time to explore Old Town will allow you to take in the charm that Vienna provides, dig into the little shops for unique souvenirs, and numerous photo opportunities to capture the essence of the city.
What to Eat & Drink
Vienna has many options for amazing food! There wasn’t a single thing that I tried that I didn’t really like, but these topped my list as my faves from my short time in Vienna.
The Viennese LOVE their Gelato! I’ve never seen so many gelato shops in a single city, nor have I seen as many people walking around with cone in hand as I have here. But, it's with good reason…the gelato is fabulous. I don’t think I should admit to how much gelato I had while on this trip, but I enjoyed every single cup and cone!
The Viennese do chocolate right, so just indulge and enjoy it!
For a true treat, make your way to the famous Demel Bakery. They’ve been around since 1786 and they’re located in the shadows of the entrance to Hofburg Palace. In the front of this lovely shop is all varieties of chocolates. You can buy boxes to bring home for family and friends (or a treat for yourself!).
In the back, you can watch the masters at work as they make the chocolate! You can also proceed upstairs to the cafe for lunch or dessert. We opted for an afternoon break of coffee and dessert and it was so yummy! My friend had a cup of hot chocolate and it was without a doubt, the best hot chocolate I’ve ever tasted!
You might argue this is more of a German speciality and maybe it is, but I thoroughly enjoyed this main entree for several of my dinners in Vienna! Weiner Schnitzel is a thin cut of veal that is breaded and fried. It is generally a very large piece and comes with fries or, in one case, potato salad. You can pretty much find it at every restaurant, so you won’t have any trouble finding it!
Since cafes line the streets of Vienna, you can’t help but stop for a cafe or two during your travels. Their cappuccinos are excellent and if you’re looking for the best, I found the cappuccinos at Daniel Moser in Old Town to be the best of the bunch (they were the best of my entire trip!)! Maybe this is because the very first coffeehouse to open in Vienna in 1685 was on the very spot where Daniel Moser is located today!
Where to Stay
If you’re planning a trip to Vienna, I highly recommend staying in Old Town. This is where you’ll likely spend the bulk of your time and where it’s most charming. Also, you have an abundance of restaurants to choose from, particularly if you aim to stay near the area known as the “Bermuda Triangle”. This section is essentially all restaurants and we were fortunate to be about a 5-10 minute walk from here.
If you’re looking to go the route of an Airbnb, which is what we did, I definitely recommend the place we stayed (just note there is no elevator, so you have to lug your luggage up 4 flights of stairs!).
By the end of our 3 days in Vienna, I was sad to say goodbye. It’s a lovely, laid back town that oozes with charm. If you are planning a trip, I’d recommend about 3-4 days to really experience everything. Bring comfortable shoes since most of the streets are cobblestones and you will be doing a lot of walking!
As an extra tip, if you are looking to bring home nice gifts for family and friends, scarves are the way to go! They are everywhere (particularly at Narshmarkt) and they’re cheap…they generally will only run you about 5 Euro! This is pretty much the case for all 3 cities we visited, so between gifts for others and myself, I could’ve passed for a scarf importer upon my return home!!
Next week, I'll continue our journey and share all about the beautiful and quaint Bratislava, Slovakia...