Julie Goffredo lived in Vienna while on a year abroad from university. She shares her favourite and secret spots from all around Vienna in what’s a very comprehensive guide for anyone who’s passing through Vienna on their Eurail trip. Read more from Julie on her blog.
For a small city, Vienna has a surprising amount of culture, sights and grandeur to rival any European capital – just in a more manageable, walkable way. And set against a backdrop of rolling hills and vineyards, it’s the perfect mix of exciting city life, with a slow, easy going attitude. Well, what do you expect for a city built on cafe culture?
The Viennese Coffee House
In Vienna, stopping for coffee and cake is an essential part of the cultural experience! Believe it or not, The Coffee House played a vital role in society when housing was poor and cold, offering a warm refuge for the everyday citizen. They were also used by artists and playwrights of the time who couldn’t afford offices (or heating) so also played a vital cultural role, becoming a hub of literary inspiration and philosophical debate.
Today, the Viennese Coffee House continues to be an institution and to experience it in all its glory head to Cafe Central, one of the oldest and most famous. Full of old world charm and grandeur, chandeliers dangle from the high, arched ceilings, oil paintings decorate the walls and the waiters wear black tie. If that doesn’t intimidate you, then their snootiness will. But don’t take it personally, it’s just how they are and it’s worth it for the amazing cakes.
Despite this snobbery, they will never hint you should leave or that you’ve outstayed your welcome. In fact, it can be quite hard to chase someone down when you do want to leave because whiling away the whole afternoon is just the Viennese way.
For your next stop, try Cafe Landtmann for similarly spectacular surroundings and amazing Kaiserschmarrn (fluffy bits of pancake drizzled in apple sauce) or Demel, for a slightly less intimidating but equally Viennese experience. You can watch the bakers at work through the glass at the back and they have a nice fancy shop too (think a Viennese Fortnum and Mason).
If you have time, make a stop at the more “local”, shabby-chic options for the real deal. Cafes like “Cafe Sperl” and “Cafe Jelinek” just out of the centre have all of the same last-century charm, just without the tourists and much bigger slices of cake! Café Jelinek does a great slice of Sachertorte.
So do as the Viennese do, order a Melange (Vienna’s answer to a cappuccino), indulge in the fancy patisserie and spend the next few hours (and around 10 euros) relaxing. Just don’t expect the coffee to be any good… no, for that you’ll have to step into the modern world and Vienna’s “third wave” cafes. For a pure caffeine fix try Coffee Pirates, Julius Reinl or Café Phil.
Sight-seeing around the “Ringstrasse”
Now the most important bit is out of the way, the best way to explore is on foot, especially since most of the main sites are located in a tourist-friendly ring around the centre. Just follow the Ringstrasse – the main (ring) road that circles around the city, starting at the Hofburg, the former imperial palace.
You don’t even need to necessarily go in, it’s an iconic Viennese sight in itself. It also has a nice grassy area, perfect for a picnic and a Radler or two. From there, the Museum Quarter is just a short walk away, which houses the Natural History Museum and the modern art galleries, which have good exhibitions by well-known artists, such as Andy Warhol and Tracey Emin. Sadly, it’s not free but flash that student card for a good discount!
Carry on from there towards the Parliament, an impressive building that offers free tours on certain days and then on to the equally impressive Rathaus (town hall) whose Gothic turrets swirling up into the sky look like something out of Hogwarts.
Cross back over the road and head in towards the Jewish quarter, getting lost in the cobbled streets as you make your way to the main event: the Stephansdom. A grand, Gothic cathedral with dazzling roof tiles.
And that’s basically it, you’ve seen the centre of the city!
Another great way to get around is to cycle. Vienna is the perfect city for this with lots of hire bikes, huge parks and cycle paths all around the city. On the main roads like the ringstrasse they are separate from the traffic. Just watch out for the ruthless Viennese cyclists themselves!
High Culture: Palaces, Art & the Opera
Aside from being bike and walking-friendly, Vienna is also a very sophisticated kind of city. Thanks to centuries of Hapsburg rule, an influential monarchy in Europe, they left their mark in the form of fancy palaces, high- brow art and a love for opera and music.
There are too many for one trip, but the one palace that should be on your list is Schönbrunn, the holiday home of the Hapsburgs. With stunning grounds it is a great place to wander around (the grounds are free) and admire just how regal Vienna is. There is a nice view of the city, too, from the hill behind the palace. You may want to leave a couple of hours for this though because the grounds stretch for miles. They are so big there is even a zoo inside! (which has pandas!)
For art, start small with the Succession building that along with modern art, displays Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s famous “Beethoven Frieze” (this is one of the cheaper options to see his work). Then there is the Albertina which has everything from Monet to Picasso and has even been known to exhibit pop-art from time to time.
Phew! That’s a lot of art, so if you’d rather watch a world-class show, right next to the Albertina is the most impressive one of all – The Royal Opera House. You can pay for tours, but to truly experience it in all its glory, queue for a cheap-as-chips standing ticket for an opera or ballet. Just turn up a few hours before the start and head around to the back where you’ll find the sign for standing tickets.
Standing for a few hours really isn’t as bad as you might think. It’s all very civilized with a bar to lean on and for 3-5 euros it is basically free! There’s even a standing-ticket etiquette which means you can reserve your “standing spot” with a scarf on the bar in front of you and no one can move it. This not only saves your legs while waiting for it to begin (usually about an hour) but also means you can pop out to get some food.
Handily there is a little imbiss around the back of the theatre, the one with the pink rabbit on top, that serves THE most disgustingly unhealthy but oh so good hot dogs that are filled with hot, oozing cheese. Behold the Viennese Kasekrainer – it may sound weird but – trust me – it’s delicious and is a great way to fuel up before the next few hours on your feet.
Talking of food, the 7th district (Neubau) is a foodie heaven. It’s where you’ll find traditional Austrian spots as well as the vegan ice-creams, tapas, craft beer and even a Persian restaurant. Have a wander around here and you are bound to stumble upon something good.
Otherwise, for the cheapest schnitzel in the city there is Schnitzelwirt (also in the 7th). You’ll have to jostle for a table and might end up sharing with strangers but it’s all part of the fun. Just get one schnitzel to share (you get two huge pieces in one portion) and a side of chips and your dinner will be less than 7 euros. If you want to push the boat out there are different kinds of Schnitzel to try like the Cordon Blu with ham and cheese inside or even Schnitzel served on a bed of spaghetti!
Slightly less rough and ready but still great for those on a budget is the quaint little Amerling Beisel hidden away in the 7th district. Still mainly Austrian but with other options too like pasta, it’s great for when you are suffering from the overload of Austrian meat and carbs. There’s also a nice little courtyard to sit in.
For a cheap, quick lunch check out the Naschmarkt. Expect a mix of Austrian, Mediterranean and Turkish food and lots of tasters. It’s also famous for its falafel so skip the sit-down restaurants and buy a bag of falafels from the many stalls that sell them hot and fresh, all competing for your custom. Try the ones from Dr. Falafel – they’re the best!
And if all else fails, Vienna does have a Vapianos.
Vienna is also pretty big on their “Eis” (ice cream). If it’s sunny, get a few scoops from “Eis Greissler” – proper “Italian” grade gelato with carefully crafted flavours.
Another big thing in the city are the bakeries. Unpretentious and cheap, they have an amazing array of pastries and pretzels that are perfect for a quick breakfast or afternoon snack in-between sights. Especially since the underground stations are full of them! Look out for the one called Ströck.
Opting for cheaper food options means you can treat yourself to a drink at a fancy bar. Great for a final night in the city on your Eurotrip, Das Loft sky bar at the Sofitel hotel boasts amazing views over the city. You can pick out all the sites from your Ringstrasse tour and even Schönbrunn, in the distance. It’s quite fancy, so dress smartly, but not nearly as pricey as you would expect. Try and head there earlier rather than later (around 6pm) if it’s a weekend.
For something more casual when the weather is good, there are plenty of bars along the canal in the city. Order a Hugo, find a deck chair and enjoy the chilled vibes of the Donau canal. Tel Aviv Beach, complete with real sand, is usually a good bet with good cocktails for around 5 euros.
When the City gets too much
If it all gets too much, it’s very easy to escape to the peace and tranquillity of the Austrian countryside with just a 40 minute tram ride thanks to the very efficient public transport.
Hop on the D tram to Nussdorf (the last stop) from Schottentor in the city centre for a nice 2-3 hour walk through the rolling hills and vineyards of Kahlenberg. The main thing is the walk as there isn’t that much there when you reach the top, just a church and a fancy hotel. But if you can make it down again, head towards the little village of “Grinzing” at the bottom (the tram back goes from here anyway). With cobbled streets and pastel buildings, this fairytale town feels far removed from the city below.
Here, there is a cute little family run Austrian restaurant called Brandl where you can get a well-deserved, post-hike bratwurst and kartoffeln (potatoes) and homemade Strudel for pudding. Don’t worry, this place is as local and “Austrian” as you could get and you’ll always be welcomed in with a smile.
Then, when Vienna’s summer hits (it can get pretty hot, trust me) there is the Danube. Get the metro out to “Alte Donau” for some pedalo-ing on the river or even some open-water swimming! Turn right out of the same station and a little way down the road will be an entrance for a designated swimming spot complete with lockers, showers and toilets. There’s an entrance fee but it’s very cheap, especially if you can prove you are a student and if you go after lunch it’s cheaper still (let’s face it, who is going to be up early anyway?) A whole afternoon of swimming can cost less than 5 euros.
So, go and indulge in your cultural side and don’t be surprised if you end up falling in love with Vienna! Your Eurail adventure awaits…