It’s entirely possible that no city in Central Europe captures the region’s grace and charm better than Vienna. With its entire city centre listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, you’d better believe that any trip to the capital of Austria is bound to mesmerize.
Whether it’s as simple as sipping on dark-roast coffee in historical cafés among the ghosts of intellectual giants or marvelling at grand palaces that generations of emperors called home, there’s plenty to see & do while visiting the city. Get started with this list of some of the best things to do in Vienna…
What to see & do in Vienna
Eat & drink at a traditional Heurigen
You’ll want to try authentic Viennese food & drink while visiting Vienna, and there’s no better place than at a Heurige, a traditional Austrian wine tavern. Of all the areas in Vienna to go for it, the most famous is Grinzing, a collection of Heuriger in the vineyards overlooking Vienna.
Instead of jostling past the hordes of tourists here, you’ll be much happier venturing just outside Vienna to Heuriger frequented by locals. There are some great ones in Austria’s Weinviertel (Wine Quarter) in Stammersdorf and Hagenbrunn or the picturesque town of Perchtoldsdorf to the south. Try to visit in autumn, one of the best times to visit Vienna, when the years new batches of wine make their debut.
All of these villages are within easy reach of Vienna.
Feed your sweet tooth with Viennese desserts
Whether you have one day in Vienna or a week, you simply need to try the world-famous Sachertorte. This world famous dessert consists of two layers of chocolate cake separated by a layer of apricot jam in the middle and covered in a dark chocolate glaze. Now, Hotel Sacher holds the right to the “Original Sachertorte,” which makes it the most famous (and most expensive), but not necessarily the best.
While the hotel’s Cafe Sacher, located directly across from the State Opera House, offers a sumptuous atmosphere, if it’s a magnificent Sachertorte you’re after, then I’d recommend L. Heiner K.u.K. Hofzuckerbacker.
There’s another famous Viennese speciality that you probably already know well, but didn’t realize its origin: the “Danish.” Although the Danes are proud of their “Danish” pastries, even they call it wienerbrød (Viennese bread) because it originated in Vienna, not in Denmark!
While indulging your sweet tooth, also keep on the look out for Viennese specialties like the Apfelstrudel (apple strudel) and Topfenstrudel (a sweet Topfen or quark-cheese-filled strudel), often served with a vanilla sauce.
Sip some java at a Viennese coffee house
Cafe Central was once one of Vienna’s most venerable coffee houses. Intellectuals and authors such as Peter Altenberg, Theodor Herzl, Egon Friedell, Hugo von Hofmannsthal, Anton Kuh, Vladimir Lenin, Adolf Loos, and Leon Trotsky would meet here to discuss politics, philosophy, economics and the like.
With such famous patrons, a long history, and a beautiful atmosphere, it’s no wonder that every tourist guide recommends a visit to Cafe Central while exploring Vienna.
However, all of it is slightly deceiving.
The real Cafe Central was located in another part of the building, the Palais Ferstel, and closed at the end of WWII. Although you’ll see pictures of these celebrities-of-old beaming at you from around the cafe, they never actually sat here.
To be honest, besides its historical place among Viennese intellectuals, there’s nothing overly special about Cafe Central. The architecture’s impressive, but the food & drinks are mediocre at best and not exactly worth the inflated prices.
If you’re visiting Vienna on a budget and still want a traditional Viennese coffee house experience, try Cafe Prückel or Cafe Hawelka, where they serve fresh Buchteln, sweet yeast dough dumplings with jam fillings.
(Whatever you do, don’t cave and choose a Starbucks; you’ll be passing up the perfect opportunity to experience the unique personality of each Viennese coffee house!)
Stroll through beautiful old palaces
One of the things you’ll immediately notice when visiting Vienna is that it’s nearly impossible to wander around without bumping into a beautiful old palace. Hinting back at the city’s long history as the centre of Hapburg power in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the diet of palaces in Vienna is bound to astound you.
Even if you’re crunched for time while visiting Vienna, try to hit up at least one of these best palaces in Vienna:
- Hofburg Imperial Palace: Former imperial palace originally dating back to the 13th century. Renovations and additions throughout the centuries have made Hofburg Palace a massive complex with a museum, treasury, church, theater, horse-riding school and even the residence and workplace of the President of Austria.
- Schönbrunn Palace: Another imperial palace that acted as a summer residence. This Baroque palace dating back to the 17th century is absolutely massive, containing over 1,400 rooms. Besides the palace itself, Schönbrunn Palace features an incredibly-manicured garden (including sculptures and the Neptune Fountain) and Tiergarten Schönbrunn, the world’s oldest zoo.
- Belvedere Palace: A grand Baroque palace (actually two palaces) with a rich history rooted in the 17th century. Like Schönbrunn, the grounds at Belvedere Palace are spectacular for walking about and is one of the absolute must-see places to visit in Vienna.
Take a spin on the Wiener Riesenrad (Vienna Giant Wheel)
As featured in the 1987 James Bond film, The Living Daylights, the Wiener Riesenrad (Vienna Giant Wheel) is a 65-metre (212-foot) high Ferris wheel that dates back to 1897, making it one of the oldest in the world.
A regular ride on the Wiener Riesenrad, to catch magnificent views of Vienna from above, costs €10. Those who want to splurge can take it a step further though. Rent out one of the private & luxury cabins for a romantic dinner, dessert or even just a couple cocktails high above Vienna.
For the ultimate experience at the Wiener Riesenrad, time your visit in the autumn when the wheel’s surrounding park, Prater, plays host to the Vienna Wiesn, an Oktoberfest-like harvest celebration that’s one of the top festivals in Vienna.
Dabble in Viennese cuisine
Although often treated as equivalent to Austrian cuisine, Viennese cuisine is all to its own. Even worse, is when it’s thought to be a simple variation of German cuisine!
With the city’s location at imperial crossroads, Viennese cuisine pulls in influences both from western European cuisines like Italian and French as well as inspiration from the east including Hungarian, Jewish, and Polish. Some of the best Viennese dishes to keep on the lookout for include:
- Rindsuppe: A beef soup with a clear broth often served with thin wheat noodles.
- Wiener Schnitzel: Veal pounded into a thin slice, breaded with batter, and pan-fried to golden perfection.
- Gulasch: Vienna’s own style of goulash, based on the Hungarian original, often uses only onions and is served with dark bread.
- Tafelspitz: Beef boiled in stock and often served with apple and horseradish sauces.
- Selchfleisch: Smoked meat often served with sauerkraut und dumplings.
Dazzle at The Lipizzaner Horse Shows
Even if you aren’t a self-professed animal lover, spending some time marvelling at the Lipizzaner Stallions is undoubtedly one of the best things to do in Vienna. The Lipizzaner Stallions have been trained at the Spanish Riding School Vienna for more than 400 years—and their deep tradition shows in their graceful movements.
Originally trained by the Habsburgs, the stallions perform two times a week in late spring and fall. It’s a good idea to purchase your tickets online six to eight weeks in advance, although some standing-room only tickets are available on performance days.
Watch the Vienna Boys’ Choir
Undoubtedly, one of the most popular things to do in Vienna for music fans and culture lovers alike is to catch the Vienna Boys’ Choir in action. This all-boys soprano & alto choir is unique to Vienna and traces its roots back over 500 years.
The Vienna Boys’ Choir performs in the Hofmusikkapelle at Hofburg Palace on Sunday mornings. (Check schedules and dates here). They do not perform in Vienna between July and November as they’re out touring Austria, Germany, and the United States.
Purchase your tickets online about two months before for the best chance on securing a seat.
Where to stay in Vienna for sightseeing
Thanks to the immense size of Austria’s capital, choosing among the best places to stay in Vienna isn’t always a cinch. The city stretches out over 400 square kilometres, making it extremely important to pick the right area to experience all of the top points of interest in Vienna!
For most travellers, the Innere Stadt, where most of the top tourist attractions in Vienna lie, is a great choice. Start your search with a few of these top Vienna hotels…
- Motel One Wien-Statsoper: Despite a name that draws parallels to road trip accommodations gone bad, this budget-friendly hotel is a surprising winner. It’s built in a classic 19th-century heritage building that, as its name would imply, is located just steps away from the State Opera.
- Boutique Hotel am Stephansplatz: If you’re looking to get central, don’t let this fantastic boutique hotel pass you by! Located beside St. Stephen’s Cathedral, this top mid-range pick features spacious & sophisticated and is one of the city’s most sought-after hotels; you’ll need to book well in advance to secure your spot.
- Park Hyatt Vienna: One of the best luxury hotels in Vienna, the incredible Park Hyatt occupies a lovely early 20th-century heritage building that perfectly conveys the city’s reputation for class & elegance. Besides the regal rooms, this 5-star hotel offers a ton of extra amenities from a wellness spa & indoor pool to an on-site brasserie & cigar lounge.