Vienna is a cradle of artistic and royal history. Countless landmarks throughout the city bear witness to the Habsburg legacy, and Vienna’s heritage as a center for classical music has attracted modern musicians and composers. A visit to Vienna is the past crashing into the present around every corner. Vendors dressed like Mozart – powered wigs included – stand on street corners to sell opera tickets while cars and trams whiz by.
Of the European cities I’ve visited, Vienna is one of the most culturally vibrant. As a disclaimer, I visited Vienna pre-COVID. So all the sites and info on this list may be subject to COVID-19 restrictions, even after international travel is allowed again. You might be planning your Vienna trip in the distant future, but even so, always check that these places are open and operating before buying tickets or showing up at the site.
I’ve listed the 10 things that are a must-see or must-do on your visit to Vienna – when this pandemic is over and you can travel again.
Vienna is known for its opulent palaces, and Schönbrunn is probably the most sumptuous of them all. Originally serving as a summer palace for the Habsburgs, the Schönbrunn estate was given to Empress Maria Theresa as a wedding gift. The palace you see today was mostly constructed in the 1740s-50s.
The grand, Rococo-style palace has dozens of rooms on display for visitors to marvel at, and you can tack on more rooms if you pay a higher admission fee. A walk through the Schönbrunn is a walk through the history of the Habsburg family, most notably Franz Joseph. While gawking at the palace’s decadent furnishings and massive rooms, you also discover the significance of one of Europe’s most powerful royal families.
The visit to Schönbrunn doesn’t stop at the palace, either. The gardens and orangery are a delight to amble through as well (and don’t any cost extra). We visited in July and the weather was perfect for an outdoor stroll. With the striking Neptune Fountain, the maze through the French garden, and the sculptures and Roman ruins, the grounds at Schönbrunn merit a visit all on their own.
The large public park Prater is home to an amusement park, the Wiener Riesenrad Ferris wheel, and dreamy tree-lined walkways. Tourists at Prater will find all the theme park staples – carnival games, rides, fun houses, and food stalls. Prater was our first stop after arriving in Vienna and it was a weekday around lunchtime. The place was mostly empty, and we found a mostly respectable-looking outdoor eatery to order some schnitzel for lunch. I ate some great food in Vienna, but the amusement park schnitzel was definitely the most memorable.
If fun parks aren’t your thing, don’t worry, Prater has plenty more to enjoy. Get a bird’s eye view of Vienna from the top of the historic Riesenrad, originally built in 1897. Or rent a pedal carriage to leisurely cycle through Prater and enjoy the park’s scenery.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral has become an important symbol in the history of Vienna. Located in the middle of Stephansplatz, the church combines Romanesque and Gothic architecture with construction dating back to the 12th century.
As a testament to its importance, St. Stephen’s Cathedral has the tallest church tower in Austria. The monolithic church dominating Stephansplatz is already impressive, but the interior is even more decadent than the outside. Much like Vienna’s palaces and other historical landmarks, St. Stephen’s is notable for its rich, decorative interior. It’s no surprise, as the cathedral played an integral role during the Habsburg reign.
The Albertina museum is in the heart of Vienna’s city center, in the 1st district. It houses one of the largest collections of graphic and print art in the world. Albertina also boasts an exhibition of Impressionist painters from the early 20th century, as well as some works of the famous Art Nouveau painter Gustav Klimt.
Albertina is down the road from the Hofburg and nearly adjacent to the large Burggarten park. Just beyond that is the sprawling Maria-Theresien-platz. With so many of Vienna’s major tourist sites nearby, the Albertina is a great first stop on your visit.
Love museums? Read The Best Museums in Brussels.
Spanish Riding School
The riding school in Vienna has remained a long-standing tradition in Austria. The Spanish Riding School is considered one of the four most prestigious classical riding academies in the world. Horses and trainers from the school sometimes go on world tours to perform, but they usually train at the school inside the Hofburg in Vienna.
The training sessions are open to the public with an admission fee. For horseback riders, the riding school is a must, but it’s also a treat for non-equestrians. Steeped in tradition and held to the highest standards, the Spanish Riding School is a stalwart of Austrian heritage.
When you get tired of eating schnitzel (and you might, at some point), head to the Naschmarkt for some culinary variety. Vienna is a cosmopolitan city after all, so you’ll see everything from Mediterranean fare to East Asian dishes, as well as traditional Austrian food. There’s enough for all tastes at Naschmarkt.
And if you don’t want to dine at Naschmarkt you can just browse the cheeses, sausages, produce, and many other fresh foods for sale. The famous open-air market, situated between Karlsplatz and Kettenbrückengasse, dates back to the 16th century. If you head there on a Saturday you might also score some rare finds at the 400-stall flea market. Tourists and residents alike are drawn to the Naschmarkt and it’s not to be missed.
The Hofburg Palace
The Hofburg is the centerpiece of Vienna. It was the former palace of the Habsburgs and today is the official seat of the President of Austria. The palace complex has been gradually expanded since it first served as the seat of government in the 13th century. It now includes several wings with an imperial library, chapel, residences, the Burgtheater, and the Spanish Riding School.
As such an iconic symbol of Austria’s history and current affairs, the Hofburg should be one of your first stops in Vienna. Visitors can marvel at the expansive Heldenplatz the palace sits on before going on a tour of the imperial residences inside. With so much to discover at the Hofburg, we explored for half a day, but you could easily stay longer.
The delicious sachertorte isn’t a place to visit, it’s the signature cake of Vienna. It’s a chocolate sponge cake with dark chocolate ganache and apricot jam, served in many of Vienna’s charming, trademark coffee houses. The two most famous bakeries that create this delicious cake are Hotel Sacher and Demel, and they are in fierce competition with each other to create the best sachertorte. To help you determine which bakery does it better, you should probably try both, multiple times.
Stopping to taste the sachertorte – along with many other famous Viennese pastries – should be on your Vienna to-do list. For the optimal experience, head to a classic coffee house in the mid-afternoon for coffee and a pastry. The Viennese like to pause their day and have this “kaffee und kuchen” so you’ll fit right in.
Vienna State Opera House
Name a better city to hear live performances of Mozart in than Vienna. There aren’t many! And what better theater to listen to the works of Mozart and other masters than at the grandiose Vienna State Opera House?
Almost destroyed during World War II, the Opera House was faithfully reconstructed with the help of Austrian architects and reopened in 1955. The Opera House hosts over 300 performances of ballets and operas each season, with a wide variety of works in the mix. If you can’t land a ticket to a performance inside, then head to a free, outdoor screening during the summer months. When you visit Vienna, try to attend at least one musical performance.
The Vienna Zoo
The Tiergarten Zoo is technically part of the Schönbrunn grounds. It was started as a menagerie and expanded into a full-fledged zoo with the addition of both classical and modern buildings. The animals are well-cared for by expert zookeepers, who give frequent lectures and presentations each day.
If you haven’t spent your whole afternoon wandering around Schönbrunn palace or getting lost in the garden maze, then head over to the zoo. It’s a treat for people of all ages.
Vienna is sure to please history buffs and culture-lovers alike. It’s difficult to visit modern-day Vienna without soaking up its rich heritage – you’re met with the city’s history everywhere you go. There are plenty of sites and activities in Vienna that I haven’t included here. With so much to see and do, you’ll stay busy on your visit to the Austrian capital.
What about you? Have you ever been to Vienna, and did you visit any of these places? Let me know which one was your favorite in the comments!
And remember – some of this info may have changed since COVID, so double-check beforehand!