Let me start by disclaiming that I am by no means an expert on Vienna. But have you ever noticed that it can be hard to think like a tourist in your own city? A Viennese local I am definitely not, but I feel like for five days, I rocked at being a tourist in Vienna.
Here’s my takeaway on everything we saw:
You absolutely must take the metro down to Schönbrunn and frolic in the gardens. They are huge and magnificent and [drumroll] free! There’s a restaurant at the top of the hill (the Gloriette) but it was just okay, so I would pack a picnic instead.
You can also visit a zoo and other attractions on the ground for a small fee. My mom and I wandered around the labyrinths and played on the weird garden toys for the low low price of three euros.
Go if: the weather is nice and you have at least an hour or two to stroll around.
Skip it if: you hate beautiful gardens.
The Albertina wasn’t even on the list of things to visit, but we squeezed it in on the last day and it was one of my favorite things in Vienna. It’s a gorgeous estate that now houses many famous works of art. You can tour the rooms and, if you’re me, lie down on the floor in each room to get a shot of the chandeliers from below (they are like snowflakes! Each one is different.)
Then, you can view works by artists like Monet, Picasso, Rodin, Munch, Chagall, Miro, Magritte, and many more in their Batliner collection, and then say hi to Warhol, Lichtenstein, and their contemporaries across the hall.
I was most surprised by the photography exhibit dedicated to Lee Miller. She began as a surrealist while dating Man Ray, and later went on to document stuff like Hitler’s living quarters, and Germany and Austria after World War II. She worked as a photographer for Vogue and was the only authorized female photographer from the press during the war. Then she spent four years in Egypt photographing deserts and the like. Badass lady, am I right?
They have a nice restaurant on location, although the cover charge is something like 3 euros per person.
Go if: you love art and beautiful historical homes with chairs you can’t sit on.
Skip it if: art and chandeliers bore you
The Hofburg Treasury is a collection of jewels and crowns and capes in illuminated cases within a dimly lit maze of exhibition rooms. You can see things like swords bejeweled with diamonds, an emerald the size of my fist (which is small for a fist but big for an emerald), a narwal tusk, and dazzling crowns that look like they would be uncomfortable to wear. This kind of museum isn’t my favorite, but it does have a large collection of shiny artifacts, if that’s your thing.
Go if: you loooove jewels and seeing pieces of royal history up close
Skip it if: you’d rather just go to Tiffany & Co.
Chateaux are cool, but after awhile they all start to look the same (gold doors, velvet chairs, blah blah blah. Wow, I’m such a snob) so I love that Belevedere is also a museum! Like the Albertina, it’s a chateau and an art museum in one. Efficient. Nice.
The Belevedere is most famous for The Kiss by Klimt, but it has a large collection of works in a variety of styles. I liked these funny heads:
Go if: You like art and chateaux.
Skip it if: You’re terrified of inflatable Hulks.
If you like quirky, this colorful, shiny building is for you. Hundertwasser was an architect who believed in recycling objects and wasting nothing, and he was an interesting multitalented dude. He even designed the public toilets across the street, and I heard a tour guide saying, “You can’t pee on a Rembrandt, but you can pee on a Hundertwasser!”
It’s free to visit, but you can’t go inside because people actually live here.
Skip it if: The idea of looking at the outside of a building with bits of mirror glued on doesn’t sound like fun to you.
Mariahilfe neighborhood / Neubaugasse
When I go to a new city, I like to spend time wandering around cool neighborhoods where people actually live. The Mariahilfe neighborhood is centered around Mariahilfestrase, a long shopping street, and although most of the shops on the main drag are chains you could find anywhere, I discovered cute cafes and boutiques on side streets like Neubaugasse.
Skip it if: You hate shopping and hipster cafes, or don’t have a lot of time to spend in Vienna.
The Vienna opera house is grand. The chandeliers are crystal and the ceilings are gold. Bust out your pearls and your cufflinks. You can choose between seeing an opera or a ballet. It’s right in the city center, so there’s no excuse not to go!
Even if you don’t normally go to the opera, Vienna is the place to try it out. It’s hard for me not to sound biased when I say that because I like, majored in opera (sounds like a joke, but it’s the truth, so the joke’s on me) but really, the opera is worldclass. We saw Placido Domingo in one of the last performances of his career (Nabucco) and a lovely ballet, La Sylphide (gorgeous dancing, idiotic storyline.)
Go if: You like music and/or dance and/or golden ceilings.
Skip it if: Why would you skip the opera, man?!
The place to see operetta, musical theater, and select operas. If you’re an opera beginner, you might find the Volksoper more accessible than the Staatsoper, but you’ll miss out on the golden ceiling. It’s not in the city center, but there is a tram stop across the street, and a cab is about 10 euros.
We saw Die Fledermaus – the quintessential Vienna operetta by Johann Strauss. Subtitles were in English, but most of the German dialogue was untranslated. Judging by the reaction of the German speaking audience, it was hilarious. But it would have been nice to be in on the joke!
Go if: You enjoy music and theater.
Skip it if: You hate music and theater.
Big cathedral. Gothic architecture. Enough said.
Go if: You like big cathedrals and gothic architecture. (And you might as well. It’s in the city center, so you’ll probably walk right by it anyway.)
Skip it if: You can’t bear the thought of looking at more gargoyles after all the gothic cathedrals you’ve visited in Europe.
I loooove food, and I loooove to go to local markets. I had a good time walking through Naschmarkt. It was filled with trendy cafes and little shops, and I got a kebab as big as my head for three euros. The pushy falafel dudes annoyed me (can’t a girl stroll the market in peace?!) but their falafel did look damn good.
Go if: You like food.
Skip it if: Outdoor markets make you claustrophobic.
Demel is a Vienna institution. It has so much cake. Cake so famous, it was even featured on Buzzfeed (which we all know is the height of fame). It is to Vienna what Ladurée is to Paris, only with tortes instead of macarons. Buzzfeed called it “one of the 25 bakeries you have to see before you die” and while I don’t know if I would go that far, it’s worth checking out if you’re in Vienna. It’s right next to the Hofburg Palace in the city center.
It has a little shop where you can get gifts and souvenirs, a cake museum (check for opening times), and of course, lots of cake. The enormous kitchen is separated from the cafe by a glass wall, so you can watch cake-makers like fish in an aquarium.
I am most definitely a dessert person, but I honestly didn’t care for their chocolate-liqueur Annatorte. There were so many options that I just went with their specialty, but it was too sweet and cloying alcoholic. Their rhubarb apple strudel was the best dessert I had in Vienna, though. (Thanks for sharing with me, Mom!)
I can’t see myself ever coming here if I lived in Vienna, but it was fun to see it once.
Skip it if: You’re “not a dessert person” or you’re on a tight budget.
What? Sofitel? Why is this a Vienna attraction? It’s not, exactly, but it has an amazing view over the city from the restaurant on the top floor. You can pop up and check out the view even if you’re not dining, as long as it’s not peak meal time and you don’t disrupt people who are actually buying something.
Skip it if: You get frustrated trying to take photos behind glass because of the reflections (DAMN YOU REFLECTIONS!)
Cafe Central is a famous historical restaurant near the Hofburg Palace. Freud and other greats hung out here. It is beautiful and a little snooty. The food was pretty good and pretty expensive.
Skip it if: You would rather eat cheap than fancy.
You may have heard of the Sacher-torte. It’s a chocolate torte with apricot jam filling and it’s a big deal in Vienna. There was a whole lawsuit war over who invented the original Sacher-torte, and the Sachers won. They are very, very proud of their torte. And hey, it is good. My gourmet-cook dad said it was very good. So if you like famous cake, sure, come wait in line and give it a try.
But if I can offer my opinion, don’t bother getting a meal. The food is so overpriced and it’s nothing special.
Go if: You enjoy eating famous food in an elegant setting.
Skip it if: You are willing to eat equally good but less famous cake elsewhere.
(More photos and impressions of Vienna here.)