Refined, polished and primed to impress, Vienna is model dollhouse city at its finest. Its palatial buildings, litter-free streets and perfectly-manicured gardens almost belie its long and tumultuous history – one of a military camp during the Roman Empire, a city besieged by Hungary then the Turks, and a Republic divided and occupied during the Second World War.
No number of photographs can quite capture its near-exaggerated grandeur – the pillars, gold-adorned statues and arched windows carved into robust façades, ceiling frescoes in unexpected places, the intense flavours of its oversized dishes and pastries, the dizzying sensation that grips you as you stare up the spire of St Stephen’s Cathedral by night.
This adorably showy city is designed for those looking to gush, swoon and be taken by surprise at every twist and turn. Although it covers more than 400 square kilometres, it holds a small and very walkable heart – perfect for squeezing its best sights into two days – be mindful, though, that the city likes its languorous weekends, so avoid staying on a Sunday if you intend to shop, slurp and feast your heart out, as you’ll find a lot of things are closed.
Begin your sojourn, as one should, with a bang: take a vintage tram to Volkstheater, from which point pristine museums and tourist-packing landmarks are all within walking distance. You’ll find family-friendly displays and the 29,500-year-old Venus of Willendorf at the Naturhistorisches Museum, as well as the photogenic Justizpalast, Burgtheater and Parliament nearby. The expansive Museumsquartier is right behind you, home to contemporary delights at mumok and the Leopold Museum’s modern Austrian art collection. A short walk will lead you to the exceptionally elegant Kunsthistorisches Museum – more impossibly elegant inside than out. (Keep in mind that few museums and galleries are free in Vienna, so expect to pay a pretty penny for entry tickets.)
For a mid-museum-hopping break, seek out an opulent, traditional coffee house. Located on a corner of Bellariastrasse, Café Bellaria certainly lives up to the city’s reputation for a great cup of joe: this elegant, chandelier-filled spot serves up a warming cup of Verlängerter (coffee), saccharine hot chocolate and savoury dishes ranging from Hungarian-style goulash to spinach feta strudel. Walk east onto Burgring and wander through gorgeous gardens, from Volksgarten to the smaller Burggarten – home to a Palmenhaus café, ideal for those looking to drink and dine amongst tropical greenery.
Ambling past a front of prestigious buildings, including Hofburg Palace, Augustinerkirche and the breathtaking Stadtpalais Liechtenstein, you’ll reach Stephansplatz dominated by St Stephen’s Cathedral’s gothic spire and mosaic roof tiles – walk up its south tower’s 343 stairs for compelling city views. To its left, the eccentric Golden Quarter is a true shopper’s paradise and the Globenmuseum at the Österreichische Nationalbibliothek is worth visiting; for a small entry fee, you’ll have access to a comprehensive collection of world and celestial globes. To its right, the Franziskanerkirche’s modest exterior belies an entrancingly dark interior shimmering with gold detail, making for a truly unforgettable experience.
Should this accumulation of extravagant sights work up an appetite, make a beeline for Café Hawelka – one of the city’s oldest coffee houses, serving great coffee and an even greater apple strudel within a brooding, deep red atmosphere. Bigger appetites will be satiated with Figlmüller’s schnitzel – a thin, generously-sized pork escalope breadcrumbed to perfection (have this with a side of potatoes and lamb’s lettuce, and precede it with a clear broth of beef and sliced pancakes). If the queue to its flagship Wollzeile restaurant stretches on too far, worry not – a second one is just around the corner on Backerstrasse. Take the 15-minute walk to the Wiener Staatsoper for an opera show, or digest your dinner with a sobering tour of Judenplatz – the city’s historical Jewish district, where a Holocaust memorial is squared off by impressive architectural sights.
After a full day of tourist-swarmed attractions, make your second one more laid-back by exploring the quieter Viennese outskirts. Make an unmissable stop for Schönbrunn Palace and take a romantic tour of its gardens. Amble along Neubau’s colourful side streets, taking your pick from a plethora of cafés on your way to WestLicht, a photography gallery which houses contemporary exhibitions and glass shelf upon shelf of old film cameras. Enjoy the windy blows down Spittelberg, where yellow-hued buildings and balconies to old homes are hidden behind lush plants. Whilst here, head to the lauded Amerling-Beisel to slow-sip wine and knock back beer, as you take in the crawling green vines above your head.
Continuing your circle around the city, give yourself a few hours to explore Belvedere Palace, where refinement finds its true meaning: expect to be impressed by its gardens, water basin and Marble Hall – where a pink ceiling fresco and giant chandeliers steal the show – and admire a wide collection of fine art paintings ranging from Jacques-Louis David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps to Gustav Klimt’s gold-flecked Kiss. Should you need time to let all these sights sink in, choose Stadtpark as your next stop for a stroll along the Wienfluss river.
Another fascinating dose of art and culture awaits as you head northeast to the decidedly loopy Hundertwasser House and Village, designed by the Austrian artist and architect from whom they take their name. Next, make tracks for the canalside Kunst Haus Wien – a museum also designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, with a façade covered in mosaics, glass, wood and a mish-mash of colour. At the adjacent TIAN Bistro, you can treat yourself to marmalade-filled sachertorte, and while a few hours away to the sound of Latin music under swaying trees and fairy lights.
As the evening sets in, cross the Donaukanal for vintage-themed fun at the nostalgic and world’s oldest amusement park, Prater. Here, challenge your nerves on a roller coaster or two, experience otherworldly adventures at the planetarium, make a pit-stop for warming Austrian fare and beer at the open-air Schweizerhaus, and round your trip off with a ride to the top of the Wiener Riesenrad – a historical ferris wheel from which spectacular nighttime vistas over the city keenly await.
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