Vienna is one of the world's great cities. Palaces, opera houses and museums contrast with cheerful coffee houses, irresistible cakes, fun shopping and prancing horses
Vienna is one the world’s great cities. Art and architecture, grand boulevards and historic coffee houses, opera houses and palaces: there is much to see and do. I like to mix and match on a short break: some culture, some shopping, some fun… and lots of walking.
The Habsburg Empire dominated European politics for over 400 years. The grandeur of that legacy is everywhere. But, before starting a city tour, you need to build up your strength. At the 150-year-old Café Central (Herrengasse 14), Peter Altenberg, or rather a statue of the poet and writer, who frequented the café a century ago, greets you at the entrance. Order coffee and a croissant. After all, legend has it that this supposedly-French flaky pastry was invented right here in Vienna over 300 years ago.
Now head off to see the crown jewels and the paintings, antique furniture and Imperial Silver Collection in the Hofburg, the baroque Imperial Palace. Emperor Franz Joseph may have ruled from 1848 to 1916, but it is the spirit of his wife, the Empress Elisabeth that is everywhere. Always known as Sisi, she is the most-loved of Austrian monarchs; discover more about her in the Sisi Museum in the Imperial Apartments.
Alternatively, visit the four centuries-old Spanish Riding School, where riders and dashing Lipizzaner horses practice their dressage and morning exercises.
At noon, crowds gather in front of the century-old, Art Nouveau Anker Clock in the Hoher Markt square. A different figure from Austria’s history appears every hour; but at midday, all twelve figures parade. One is composer Josef Haydn; Austria marked the 200th anniversary of his death last year.
The Hoher Markt is also known for its Würstlstand, a typical Viennese hot-dog stand. Order a Käsekrainer, sausage with melted cheese in the middle.
Next stop is the 850-year-old St Stephen’s Cathedral, with its red-marble tomb of Emperor Friedrich III in the south apse and the elaborate Gothic pulpit. Work off that hotdog by climbing the 343 steps to the tower-keeper’s room at the top of the south tower. Alternatively, take the lift in the north tower.
A few steps from the cathedral is Figlmüller, home of the Wienerschnitzel. This Viennese classic dish is made with veal, pounded wafer-thin, coated with breadcrumbs and quickly fried. Always crowded, the century-old, family-run tavern is up a little alleyway.
Although Vienna is synonymous with music, there is much more than classical music on offer. Check out what’s on at the Volksoper, where popular shows range from My Fair Lady and Guys and Dolls to Die Fledermaus and The Magic Flute.
Start the day at the 125-year-old Café Sperl, with its irresistible cakes and its own Sperl Torte. Or try the hip Café Drechsler. This 90-year-old institution serves breakfast from 3am to 2am, but after renovations is now a 21st-century coffee house. Another, far older Viennese institution is a market, the 500-year-old Naschmarkt. Among the mile of stalls piled high with cheeses and hams, fruit and veg are small ethnic restaurants. Don’t miss Gegenbauer, whose vinegars, made from wine, fruit and even beer, make great souvenirs.
Stroll over to Vienna’s newest hot spot, the MuseumsQuartier Wien, usually referred to as MQ. Now one of the world’s largest cultural complexes, it combines the old royal stables with leading-edge architecture. Experimental works and pop art are on show at MUMOK, the Museum of Modern Art; the box-like Leopold Museum offers Austrian painters, such as Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka who shocked society a century ago.
Among the design-conscious cafés and restaurants in the MQ, the MUMOKKA, the “milo” and The Kantine are all fun.
For the afternoon, choose between a world-class art gallery and a world-class palace. The Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Art) is a palace of culture. Think Vermeer and Velázquez, Rubens and Rembrandt and the largest Bruegel collection in the world. If the weather is fine, head out (on tram 10, 58 or 60) to Schönbrunn Palace, once the summer getaway for Empress Sisi. Take a tour to see the imperial apartments – even the emperor’s loo! Outside, the extensive gardens include a carriage museum, a palm house and the zoo.
Rather than dine in a restaurant, relax as the Viennese do – in a Heuriger, a wine tavern. The best-known are in Grinzing, in the vineyards on the outskirts of the city. Less touristy is Stammersdorf, the last stop on tram 31, on the other side of the Danube. The century-old Wieninger vineyards are known for their quality Grüner Veltliners, Pinot Noirs and blends: taste them, then drink them with hearty dishes. You’ll feel like a local!
Where to stay
Hotel Am Schubertring is quiet, with rooms in elaborate Art Nouveau or Belle Epoque style. Within walking distance of the city’s main attractions.
is a well-priced, family-run hotel just outside the Ringstrasse.
The ViennArt hotel is a 56-room boutique hotel where the emphasis is on contemporary design, paintings and colours. In the Spittelberg, close to the Museumsquartier, Hofburg, Mariahilferstrasse for shopping.
From London Luton: easyJet, Austrian Airlines and Aer Lingus.
From London Heathrow: British Airways, Austrian Airlines and Aer Lingus.
From London Stansted: Air Berlin, Austrian Airlines and Aer Lingus.
From London Gatwick: Austrian Airlines and Aer Lingus.
Vienna a la carte (€18.50) gives you 72 hours of public transport and reductions at 210 museums, attractions, theatres, concerts, restaurants and more.