City Guide to Vienna: Exploring and Must See Attractions
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We arrived in Vienna, Austria after a short (1 ½ hr) bus ride from Bratislava. We disembarked, strapped on our backpacks, and started to walk into city center. It didn’t take long before we were looking around and up in awe! We walked down narrow streets with residential buildings that towered above us. It should have been claustrophobic and daunting, but instead it was majestic. We couldn’t believe how beautiful the buildings were. We’re not architectural experts, so forgive our narrative, but the buildings were covered in sculptures, paintings, window and terrace accents, and gold, bronze, and silver ornaments. We’ve been in other cities with similarly beautiful buildings, but they weren’t like Vienna, in that here the buildings continued beyond just a few blocks within city center. While unlikely, the ornate buildings seemed to be endless in all directions. It made for such a great walk, and we’re sure we stood out a bit, looking up more than straight ahead!
We were in Vienna for a house sit, so we made our way to the apartment and were extremely grateful for our fortune. The homeowners welcomed us into their home, located in the 8th district of Vienna, Josefstadt. It's the smallest district in Vienna and it's mainly residential, but we were literally minutes away from City Hall, Parliament, and Hofburg Palace. We could walk out the door and in less than ten minutes be in the heart of Vienna and its first district, Innere Stadt. We can’t even begin to count all of the benefits that house sitting opportunities have provided us, both in location and with meeting amazing people and pets!
We knew before arriving that Vienna would be beautiful, but we didn’t fully understand it until we stepped foot in the city and started walking through all of the districts and enjoying everything it had to offer. Most tourists stick to the main attractions within the first district, Innere Stadt, but to truly get to know Vienna, we’d highly recommend exploring the surrounding districts. They’re easily within walking distance from Innere Stadt, as the first district is the center and the other ones radiate out from it.
As we started to explore the city, we noticed that several people we talked to kept referring to an ‘inner ring’, also known as Ringstrasse (Ringstraße). Once we asked for clarification, it was explained to us that it’s the tourist centric downtown, with amazing imperial architecture, parks, and a fascinating history. The present day 5.3 kilometer (3.3 miles) Ringstrasse was an urban planning feat that took over 50 years to complete. Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria declared in December 1857 that he'd connect the Vienna suburbs to the center of imperial power. He'd do this by demolishing the city’s 8 meter (26 foot) tall, 13th century fortification walls and moat, replacing it with a grand circular road, lined with imperial buildings, gardens, and parks. On May 1, 1865 Ringstrasse was inaugurated, and if you just did the math, then you've realized that’s nowhere near 50 years since inception, and that’s because on its inauguration, only a portion of the road was complete. Construction continued into the 20th century, with the last major building opening in 1913. Today, if you travel along Ringstrasse, you’ll see countless points of interest including the Vienna State Opera, the Austrian Parliament Building, City Hall (Rathaus), the University of Vienna, and the Museum of Natural History, just to name a few.
Must See Sights in Vienna
If you follow us at all, you know we’re planners. So, before we arrive to a new destination, we scour the internet to try and find everything there’s to do in a new location. We narrow down the list to things that stand out to us, focusing on both the ‘off-the-beaten-path’ destinations, as well as the must see places. We also explore the city by foot, walking in neighborhoods and places the average weekend tourist usually doesn’t visit. When we find great spots, we add them to our map with all of the other destination we’ve found. So, to possibly make your research on sightseeing in Vienna (and other destinations) easier, we’ve kept our maps with all of the information we gathered (accurate at the time of our sightseeing). Finding hours, prices, and general information can sometimes be challenging, so we’ve tried to include these details on our maps and provide appropriate links below. And finally, not every attraction is suitable for every visitor, but the copywriters and marketing departments for the destinations sure make it sound like it. How many times have you read “Great for kids and adults alike” and shown up at the venue to wonder why anyone over 20 years-old without kids would go out of their way to be there? Below we’ve included our must-see destinations with tips, impressions, and our takeaways on each place that, when combined with the official attraction information and website, may help you decide if it’s a destination for your travel adventure or not.
NOTE: We used this sightseeing map for our personal sightseeing adventures, because of that, some notes may not make perfect sense, and some information could be outdated. Information on this map was valid at the time of creation. All prices are shown in US dollars but are actually Euros (local currency). That being said, feel free to save it to your Google account and use it as a starting point (or modify it accordingly) for planning out your personalized itinerary in Vienna, Austria.
There’s so much to see and do in Vienna that we want to share with you our top, must see places! Of course, we’ve included some of the big destinations that other sites and blogs include as well, but we’ve also included some hidden gems we found along the way. If you have any personal recommendations, be sure to comment below, we’d love to add to the list!
- Schonbrunn Palace (Gloriette, Gardens, Zoo, and More)
- Prater Park
- City Hall (Rathaus)
- Austrian National Library
- Hundertwasser House
- Hofburg Palace
- Wolf and Cow Playing Backgammon Mural
- And More...
Without further ado, here are some of the sights in Vienna that are must see destinations…
Ringstrasse is so high on our list that we’ve already mentioned it (above), however this road has so many attractions that it deserves another mention! As it’s the outer ring of district 1, many tourist destinations are dotted along this road, hence you’ll definitely be visiting attractions on it. However, we highly recommend incorporating a walk on this famous road. Not only will you get to see some of the most famous places in Vienna, but you’ll also get a good sense of life in downtown Vienna. Be sure to admire the stunning architecture, ranging between neo-Gothic, neo-Renaissance, neo-Classical, and neo-Baroque. While on your walk don’t overlook wandering through the parks along the way. Also, when you need a break, or want to people watch on a patio, there are plenty of classic Vienna cafés along the way. If you fancy a snack, stop at a bakery or food stand for a traditional Austrian wiener schnitzel or apfelstrudel (apple strudel).
Schonbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn), Gloriette, Gardens, Zoo, and More
Schonbrunn is one of many palaces in Vienna, however it’s the most famous and most visited one in the city. It’s much more than a palace, it’s an entire complex that offers over a dozen things to see and do. In fact, the complex is considered to be such a significant cultural monument in Austria that it’s been added to the UNESCO World Heritage Site List. Visitors can easily spend more than an entire day here, so be sure to read on, as we've detailed many of the attractions at Schonbrunn. Also, use their website for ticket and operating hour information.
The palace was originally built as a hunting lodge but later became a summer residence for the Habsburg family. The facility was destroyed during the 1683 Turkish attack, but was rebuilt in the emerging Baroque design style of the time. It’s such a splendid example of the style, both inside the palace and extending into the gardens, that in 1996, UNESCO added the palace and the gardens onto its World Heritage Site List, stating:
Through the centuries, this palace has evolved with the tastes of the royalty occupying the residence, and today you can tour some of the rooms that showcase the decadence of the royal 18th century style of Maria Theresa, the only female Habsburg ruler. In our opinion, it’s a bit unfortunate that this tour is focused on the lavish court life of royalty and that of the 40 rooms on the tour (out of 1,400 total rooms in the palace) none of them are of kitchens or servant quarters. There’s no doubt that walking through the rooms of the palace will give you a great understanding of what lavish court life was like, but what about the lives of the countless servants and their quarters? And what about the 'behind the scenes' day-to-day operations of the palace? Although, to be fair, we've visited many palaces and no tour has included these aspects.
By far, in our opinion, the highlight of the tour is the Ballroom, which you come to shortly after the room where Mozart gave his performance for Empress Maria Theresa. The Ballroom, also known as the Great Gallery, is a magnificent view into the opulence of royal life, with ceiling frescos, gold accents, and elaborate chandeliers. This room even has notable American history, as it’s where President John F. Kennedy met with Nikita Khrushchev, the Premier of the Soviet Union in 1961.
This 18th century garden is the largest open space in all of the gardens and is considered an extension of the palace’s magnificent design. It continues with the Baroque style of the palace and is a beautiful example of a symmetrical, patterned royal garden. Be sure and notice the statues and hedges that line each side of the Great Parterre and give it a ‘final touch’. The Great Parterre is located directly behind the palace and is free to visit. You can find it by going to the northwest side (to the right if you're facing the palace) and making the first left into the garden and following the path to the rear of the palace.
The original maze in the gardens was constructed in 1720 and actually didn’t have any dead ends, as its purpose was to offer a nice stroll. It was sadly abandoned, but fortunately the overgrowth was cleared near the end of the 19th century. The maze you find today, offering a puzzle made out of tall hedges to those who explore it, was constructed in 1999, and covers 1,715 square-meters (18,460 square-feet or just under half an acre). Although, unlike the original, this maze does indeed have dead ends and once you’ve stammered through it and solved it, you can celebrate your victory by standing on the viewing platform and looking over the puzzle. Separate tickets are required for this part of the garden.
The Gloriette was built in a Neo-Classical style in 1775 and offers a 20 meter (65 foot) high observation terrace with views of the palace complex that have been enjoyed for centuries. The Gloriette is crowned with an eagle perched on a globe between sculpted trophies of Roman armor shields, standards, and lions. Considered a crowning centerpiece, the Gloriette was used as a breakfast room for Emperor Franz Joseph I and a dining hall through the Danube Monarchy. Today, you can pretend to be an Emperor for a day and enjoy the view in similar fashion from Café Gloriette. Take note, you’ll find that from the palace and gardens, getting to the Gloriette is a bit of a climb up a hill, although, you’ll probably find it well worth it! Separate tickets are required for the viewing deck.
The imperial collection of carriages housed at the Vienna Hofburg Palace was transferred in 1922 and can now be admired by visitors from around the world at Schonbrunn. Be sure to view the imperial coach that was built for Joseph II in 1764 which was later used for Habsburg coronations. Separate tickets are required for the museum.
The Orangery is the second largest orangery in the world, only second to the one at Versailles. The large space was used for cultivating citrus and tropical trees, as well as court festivities such as banquets and festivals. Separate tickets are required to visit the Orangery.
Visit the Schonbrunn Zoo because it’s the world’s oldest zoo (1752) or because it’s home to twin pandas! And pandas aren’t all there’s to see here though, don’t miss a single one of the 700 species in the zoo, including the Siberian tiger and koalas. Children will love walking through the South American enclosures and seeing the recently returned polar bears, or the new giraffe park that was opened in 2017. Before arriving, be sure to check the latest visitor information for the zoo. Separate tickets are required for the Zoo.
A hands-on museum for kids that spans 12 rooms of the west wing of the palace and explores childhood during the Imperial Era through toys, costumes, furniture, and other exhibits and games. Any child who enjoys dress-up, photos, and 'royal life' will have a blast here. While we didn’t visit, we’ve heard that it’s family oriented and a fun experience for kids that includes slides, smelling of aromas from the imperial era (perfumes and kitchen smells), trivia that even kids will find fun, and plenty of games in the toy room. The museum is recommended for kids between the ages of 6 and 12 and can be found on the far right side (when facing the palace) just before passing through the arches for the gardens. Separate tickets are required for the Children’s Museum.
Schonbrunn Panorama Train
See more of the grounds with ease by hopping on the Panorama Train, which has nine stops spread across the palace grounds. A convenient day pass ticket is available and there's a lift for wheel chair access. We recommend checking out their website for the route map, list of stops, train times, and ticket prices.
The Privy Gardens include both the Crown Prince Garden and the Garden on the Cellar. They date back to the mid 18th century and are located on the eastern side of the palace. Since the area is sheltered from wind, specimens from the citrus collection of the Federal Parks Authority are transferred to this garden during the summer. Separate tickets are required to visit the Privy Garden.
Statues, Monuments, and Fountains
Visitors are invited to enjoy the statues, monuments, and fountains located throughout the gardens. The gardens are free to visit.
- Neptune Fountain – Commissioned by Maria Theresa in the 1770s, it lays at the foot of the hill behind the palace and is a glorious accent to the Great Parterre.
- Roman Ruin – Located at the base of the hill, this 1778 structure was originally called the Ruin of Carthage. Many visitors probably see the romanticism of the structure with its elements of ruins, Roman columns, decorative stones, a pool of water, and the sculptures of the two gods of the rivers Danube and Enns. However, it’s thought that the original name, Ruin of Carthage, indicates that it’s the representation of the victory of Rome over Carthage, showing the dynastic claims of the Habsburg’s who saw themselves as successors to the Roman Empire.
- Obelisk Fountain – The fountain was erected in 1777 and was built in a Baroque style. It’s thought the obelisk stood for steadfastness and a stable government and that the eagle perched on the sphere is a mediator between heaven and earth. The fountain and the many symbolic features are no doubt intended to express the breadth and power of the Habsburg family.
- Fair Spring – It’s located on the east side of the garden and is a beautiful square pavilion with a well-house built in 1771.
- Statues along the lateral hedges – 32 statues, all of the same height, line the hedges on the sides of the Great Parterre. They represent mythological or historical figures and were placed in the garden in 1777.
- Monuments – They can be found throughout the gardens and include the Family Monument, the Monument for Philipp Franz Siebold, Franz Stephan, and Joseph II.
An octagonal, two-story pavilion circa 1775 located on Schonbrunn Hill near the Maria Theresa Gate. Originally it was used as a viewing platform, but the inside is where its true beauty is, as it’s graced with Rococo style architectural murals.
It’s thought to have been built between 1750 and 1776 and is a tall, circular aviary with a wire mesh dome. As you view the Columbary, you’ll probably notice the four alcoves which were added as a roosting space for doves. Today the aviary, maintained by the Vienna Zoo, is home to the park’s pigeons. When visiting, be sure to walk the circular paths around the Columbary that are known as the 'Schonbrunn Merry-go-round'.
Palm House and Dessert House
The Palm House dates back to 1881 and contains three different climate zones: a cold zone on the north side, a temperate zone in the center, and a tropical zone in the southern pavilion. The iron and glazed structure is impressive from the interior, although the exterior, with its gardens and landscaping are a beautiful sight to see! Perfectly paired with the Palm House is the Desert House (formerly the Sundial House). It was completed in 1904 and is home to specimens that thrive in harsh desert habitats, particularly Australian and South African botanical specimens.
See the Schoenbrunn Palace Orchestra perform at the Palace Orangery, the same place Mozart performed in 1786. The show includes music by Mozart and Strauss, as well as ballet and opera vocal performances. For more information, as well as how to book tickets, including package tickets with a palace tour and dinner, visit the Schonbrunn website.
Our take of Schonbrunn you ask?
Prior to visiting Schonbrunn we’d been to the better part of two dozen palaces across Europe, so, in our humble opinion, the palace tour (we did the Imperial Tour) was over-priced for the experience. But again, do keep in mind that we’ve been to many palaces throughout different parts of Europe and this one seemed ‘on par’ with what we’d already seen. If Schonbrunn was our first visit to a palace, we’d have been quite impressed! It’s also worth mentioning, that visitors aren’t allowed to photograph or take videos inside the palace. We may have completely missed it while standing at the counter to purchase our admission tickets, but we only saw signs indicating ‘no photography’ when lining up to scan our tickets (which is far from the area where we purchased the tickets). On the other hand, we were very impressed with the gardens and spent a significant time exploring the different paths and admiring the monuments and sculptures that we encountered along the way. Plus, the view from the rear of the palace, across the Great Parterre to the Gloriette, is as they say, ‘worth a thousand words’!
To the northeast of Old Town is Prater Park, which for adventure and dare seekers shouldn’t be missed, as it’s home to the world’s oldest amusement park. There’s no fee to enter the amusement park and you'll only pay for the attractions you want to ride or try your skills at. Choose from large roller coasters, classic bumper cars and swings, a 4 kilometer (2.5 mile) train ride, or a giant Ferris Wheel from 1897. For wax museum fans, the famous Madame Tussauds is located within the park, and for gaming and arcade fans the Admiral Arena Partner may just be the place for you! After walking the park, visitors can sit back and enjoy the new 5D cinema or a meal at one of the many restaurants in the park. A list of the 250 attractions can be found on the Prater Park website.
When visiting the amusement park in Prater Park be sure to live the nostalgia of the park through the 27 foot high Calafati statue in the center of the amusement park. It was a figure in the merry-go-round from the mid-19th century, that was owned by the magician Basilio Calafati. Also, an intriguing sight to visit is the spherical house, that by it’s owner Edwin Lipburg, was declared the independent nation of the Republic of Kugelmugel in 1984. After much debacle, including tax evasion, a stint in jail, and a pardon by the Austrian president, Kugelmugel was moved to Prater Park. Find it easily by plugging the GPS coordinates into your map (48.2155, 16.3961).
City Hall (Rathaus)
City Hall was built between 1872 and 1883 and is a dominate building along Rinstrasse. From afar, you may see the tower of this building and assume that it’s the tower of a church. However, this tower is part of the magnificent Gothic style building that is now the office of Vienna’s municipal administration. When visiting, be sure to take the time to admire the intricate details of the building, the magnificent archways, balconies, and sculptures on the facade. When done admiring the exterior, you can go around the side of the building where you’ll find the entrance. You can roam the courtyards inside, but we’d recommend taking the free guided tours at 1 pm on Monday, Wednesday, or Fridays, to fully enjoy the 20,000 square meters (215,278 square feet) of the building. In addition to touring the building, there are events year-around that may coincide with your visit that shouldn’t be missed, like the Summer Festival, the Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt), or the Ice Skating Rink (Wiener Eistraum).
Austrian National Library (Osterreichische Nationalbibliothek)
The Austrian National Library is the largest library in Austria, with over 7.4 million items in its collections. Interested visitors have plenty of choices on what to see and do, with four museums and multiple special collections and archives. The modern library is the main Vienna library and is the magnificent and dominating building you’ll likely spot right away when making your way to Hofburg Palace. Inside the modern library, you'll find material that dates back to 1851 and you'll have over 400 reading places to choose from. Beyond the main library, there are eight collections covering various interests including music, photography, rare books and manuscripts, and maps. Visitors also have the opportunity to see five museums: State Hall, Literature Museum, Globe Museum, Papyrus Museum, and Esperanto Museum. And while the library is free, the collections and museums require a separate ticket, but if you’re interested in the topics, the historical documents and information found within make it well worth the cost.
Even if you’re thinking that a library isn’t a place you want to be on your vacation, or you feel the cost of admission isn’t worth it, we’d like to say, that in our humble opinion, the State Hall of the Austrian National Library is a must-see for all visitors. Built in the 18th century, this large, two story room is decorated with a baroque style that's magnificent to the senses! From the two stories of leather bound books (which you can’t touch, but you can admire from afar), to the spiral stair cases, the fresco ceilings, and the chandeliers, this is a room that will have you loving literature, even if just for the time you’re in the room. State Hall is a stunning room with so much to see, so make sure you take your time to take it all in. Furthermore, don’t miss the marble columns and statues of the four large Venetian globes in the center of the library.
Hundertwasser House is an extremely unique landmark of Vienna that’s a bit off the beaten path. The expressionist painter, Fredensreich Hundertwasser, became interested in architecture throughout his career. In 1972 he made his first architectural models of buildings with forested rooms and window facades that each tenant would design and embellish. To us, his style seemed well before its time and his model reminded us of the Vertical Forest (Bosco Vertical) in Milan. In partnership with architect Josef Krawina, Hundertwasser made his ideas a reality in Vienna in the early 1980s. The apartment building has 53 apartments, four offices, 19 terraces, and 250 trees and bushes. If you’re one for the unique, enjoy vibrant design, or have an aversion to straight lines, we highly recommend visiting! When there, be sure to see the building from both the street (Lowengasse) and from the pedestrian area on Kegelgasse, as both offer different perspectives of the building. Directly across from the apartment building on Kegelgasse is Hundertwasser Village, where you can take a break, eat, or shop in a village designed in the Hundertvasser expressionist style. There are gift shops, eateries, and even the bathrooms carry the unique style and design of Hundertwasser!
One of the best ways to get to know a place is to visit the markets, and in Vienna that means going to Naschmartkt. Dating back to the 16th century, this market has over 120 stands and restaurants. Whether you’re buying something or not, this is a great place to get to know the people of Vienna, as it has become a popular meeting place within the city. When here, be sure to explore all the offerings of the market, from the produce and meats, to the baked goods. In addition, if you have the chance, be sure to come on a Saturday, as the Flea Market is a great place to find international delights and goods. Plus, if you’re looking for a trendy restaurant or café, Naschmarkt has become the place for some of the best restaurants in town. Visit the Naschmarkt website for information on the flea market, restaurants, food stalls and opening hours.
Hofburg Palace, translated to 'Royal Castle', is the former imperial palace of Vienna and where the Habsburg royal family ruled from. While Schonbrunn Palace was their summer residence, Hofburg Palace, located in the center of Vienna was their winter residence. Constructed in 1279 as a fortified castle, the complex has been expanded many times and includes the imperial chapel (Hofkapelle or Burgkapelle), the imperial library (Hofbibliothek), the treasury (Schatzkammer), the Burgtheater, the Spanish Riding School (Hofreitschule), the imperial mews (Stallburg and Hofstallungen), and many residences. It’s essentially a city within a city that consists of 18 wings, 19 courtyards, and over 2,600 rooms across 240,000 square meters (2.58 million square feet or 59 acres). Today, much of the palace is open to visitors and it’s where the office of the President of Austria is located. Highlights for visitors are the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Imperial Silver Collection. Whether you decide to visit a single location, visit everything that’s open to the public, or just walk the grounds and admire the buildings, you’ll be glad you put Hofburg Palace on your sightseeing list! Before arriving, check visiting information on the Hofburg Palace website.
Wolf and Cow Playing Backgammon Mural
In medieval times, the homes of Vienna were decorated with paintings, likely consisting of religious and historic murals, and perhaps surprisingly also images of daily life, including some humorous ones. To see one of these murals that remains today, make your way to the Hare House (Hasenaus in German) on Bäckerstrasse 12 (GPS Coordinates: 48.2089 16.3762), where you’ll see a partial image that has been restored on the exterior wall. The image of the Wolf and Cow Playing Backgammon dates back to the beginning of the 16th century and was part of the original murals that covered the home. In the 18th century, the home was remodeled and all but the scene with the wolf and the cow was destroyed. If you’re wondering what the meaning of the painting is, you aren't alone. Many have wondered and a few have ventured to guess that it’s an allegory for the political tensions between the Protestant and Catholic religions. Others think that it’s as simple as a man waiting behind the wolf and the cow, so he can take the hide of the looser. We’re not sure which is accurate, if either, but it does make for an interesting discussion.
There’s So Much More to See in Vienna!
We’ve included some of our favorite places in Vienna, but there’s so much more that we saw during our time in the beautiful, imperial capital of Austria. As always, we encourage you to use our Vienna sightseeing map to curate your own personal Vienna sightseeing itinerary. If our words and pictures of Vienna so far haven’t been enough to add Vienna to the top of your travel bucket list of destinations, here are some more images of our time in the city. Warning, they may cause wanderlust!