Technically we weren’t even in Vienna for a full 48 hours…which is a crime. That city is glorious, brimming over with art + history + music. Our itinerary could easily have been spread over three days or more, and we only saw a fraction of what is there. Still, we had an incredible time and I’m already dreaming of going back.
If you’re going to Vienna, slow down and savor it if you can. And if you have to sprint like we did, I’m sure you’ll still love it.
Day 1 started when we arrived in Vienna around 3 PM local time. Our train out of Brno had been delayed over an hour, leaving us little time to visit anything that day.
Travel Tip: Note when museums and historical sites open + close and plan (or adjust) your itinerary accordingly. The museum we went to was open a full hour later than most, which made it the perfect place to go on an already late afternoon.
We grabbed a sandwich on our way to our hotel—which was conveniently located just outside the Ringstrasse and nearly equidistant to three different train stops—checked in, dropped off our stuff, and headed right back out to the Kunsthistoriche museum.
And I died of sensory overload.
The Kunsthistoriche Museum is next to an almost identical building that houses the museum of natural history. Between the two is a colossal sculpture of Maria-Theresa, Holy Roman Empress and Queen of Austria in a beautiful courtyard. (MT is a big deal in Vienna. Like…a really really big deal.) I so wish I had stopped to take a photo of her; she’s rather imposing.
Then you walk in and have to pause because the interior is breathtaking. Exquisite floors and soaring ceilings and a grand staircase flanked by marble sculptures. Its four floors are jam-packed with all kinds of incredible art. There were literally rooms where every inch of every wall was covered in paintings. We would be walking along, minding our own business, when BAM! All of a sudden I’m staring down Rafael’s “Madonna of the Meadows” like that’s totally normal.
I felt a little uncomfortable about the collections that were obviously a result of colonialism. There’s a whole Egyptian wing, including sarcophagi + mummies, walls from ancient buildings, and too many statues to count. There’s a room full of miniatures carved from ivory. SO MUCH IVORY. Most of the top floor is dedicated to giant tapestries depicting battles with the Ottomans. That’s another post entirely, though. Suffice it to say, Maria-Theresa and Co. were quite the collectors.
We stayed almost till closing. Afterward we rode the Ringstrasse tram back toward our hotel.
Location: The Kunstihistoriche Museum is right on the Ringstrasse, here. By metro, get off at either Volkstheatre on the U2 or U3 line, or Museumsquartier on U2. It’s about halfway between the two stops. The Ringstrasse tram has several stops nearby; hop on + off wherever it’s convenient. Admission is €15 per adult, or €20 if you get a combination ticket for this and the Imperial Treasury, which is what we did.
Travel Tip: Public transit in Vienna is inexpensive and excellent, although often crowded. The trains are punctual + clean; the trams are frequent and easy to hop on + off. Get a 24 hour (or multi-day if you’ll be there longer) pass and a map, then make good use of them!
After a little searching on Yelp, we found a highly recommended restaurant with traditional Viennese cuisine nearby. I wasn’t about to leave Austria without tasting some schnitzel!
Restaurant Info: Gmoa Keller is located just south of the Stadtpark stop on the U4 line.
Apparently it’s crazy busy…but you can get by without a reservation. Show up before 7 and ask for a table. The staff may tell you to be out within an hour because that table has a later reservation, but that’s totally doable. We were able to enjoy our meal without feeling rushed at all.
I had the schnitzel and it is HUMONGOUS. Get it with the potato salad, which is deliciously different from any I’ve ever tried. David had some kind of roast which was also excellent. We also had the bone marrow crostini; it tasted great but I’m not sure I feel a need to ever get it again.
Day 2 began bright and early so we could see ALL THE CHURCHES. St. Peter’s opens earlier than St. Stephen’s does, and is just a short walk from Stephansplatz, so we started there.
Travel Tip: If you get to St. Peter’s right when it opens, you can watch the caretaker unlock the front doors with an enormous old iron key. Suuuuuper cool.
Location: The Church of St. Peter (or Peterskirche) is here, only a short walk north-northwest of Stephansplatz.
We were the first ones there, and only a handful of people showed up after us. It was so nice to have a quiet moment in a beautiful sanctuary before braving St. Stephen’s. The exterior of St. Peter’s is so simple and clean, I was surprised at how ornate the interior was.
First thing in the morning, Stephansplatz isn’t too bad but it got exponentially more crowded as the day wore on. Our plan was to do as much as possible while the traffic was light, including climbing up the south tower and taking a tour of the crypt. Given how claustrophobic that tower climb was, I’d say we made a good choice. You literally have to stop and press yourself against a wall to let people pass going the opposite direction. Yikes.
That said, the views from the top are unbeatable. You know, once you can breathe well enough to actually see straight.
Travel Tip: The south tower of St. Stephen’s is a looooong, steep climb up a spiral staircase with only one landing to stop and catch your breath. Wear comfortable shoes and plan to go as soon as it opens to avoid too much up + down traffic.
The crypt houses the remains of several prominent Austrians, including the viscera of the Habsburgs. (If you want to see the rest of the royal family’s remains, visit the Imperial Crypt to see their coffins and Herzgruft in the Hofburg complex where their hearts are kept. Them Habsburgs were an interesting bunch, lemme tell ya.) A newer portion of the catacombs includes more recent vaults, while the older sections contain the mass graves of plague victims and others. You’ll also visit a room full of old damaged statuary from the exterior of the cathedral, which is super cool.
Travel Tip: The catacombs are only available via tour, but the tour guides are excellent and the price is right. I highly recommend it. Even if you’re not interested in the history of the cathedral and its dead occupants, it’s nice and cool down there in the summer! You can read a little bit more about our crypt experience in this post.
St. Stephen’s is incredible, both inside and out. The cathedral is in use, which means regularly-scheduled masses and other events, so be mindful of worshipers when you visit. While we were there, a choir was rehearsing, which I thought made our experience extra special. We found a pew off to the side where we could sit, listen, and enjoy simply being there. And after climbing the tower and wandering the crypt, sitting for a minute was just what I needed.
Location: The Cathedral of St. Stephen is located here, right in the heart of Vienna. The U1 and U3 metro lines both have a stop at Stephansplatz, the square that gets its name from the cathedral.
Visiting the cathedral is free, but you can pay for a tour. (We did not.) Climbing the south tower costs €4.50 and the crypt tour costs €5.50 per adult. Both are 100% worth it, in my opinion.
Travel Tip: There’s an excellent little gelato spot only a few steps away from the main doors of the cathedrals. You might have to plow through buskers and actors advertising performances to get there, though. And be mindful of pickpockets; it’s an extremely crowded, touristy part of Vienna, making it easy to get distracted and become a target.
Our next stop was going to be the National Treasury within the Hofburg complex. We made a quick stop in the entrance of the library because the exterior was amazing and we wanted to get a peek.
Travel Tip: There’s a drinking fountain across the street from the library in the Hofburg. Friends. If you happen upon a drinking fountain in Vienna, STOP AND GET A DRINK. 1) Viennese water is apparently some of the cleanest, best drinking water in the world. 2) It’s cold and free. On a hot summer day, that’s all the motivation I need.
Unfortunately, as we were making our way to the treasury, David realized his wallet was no longer in his pocket.
We spent the next couple hours retracing our steps: back through the Hofburg, through the metro to Stephansplatz, around + inside the cathedral (I even got to step inside the sacristy for a minute, since that’s where the lost and found is!), down the back steps of the catacombs (because our tour guide just happened to be outside so we asked if he could help us look), to the gelato place, and back to our hotel.
So we made some calls to cancel credit cards, etc. Luckily, he had kept his passport in the hotel room so that wasn’t lost, and I still had all my stuff. And the story has a happy ending! Turns out it had fallen out somewhere around the library (the ONLY place we didn’t look) where a German tourist had picked it up. He found David on Facebook, sent him a message, and passed the wallet on to the police. The police gave it to the American embassy. After some roundabout emailing and tweeting with them, we learned their policy on lost items is to simply mail them back to the address on the ID. All was returned.
Hooray for good people!
Anyway, we lost a lot of time on our wallet hunt, which was frustrating but what can you do? Move on and make the best of things, I guess, since that is what we did.
David’s cousin Chris was living in Vienna for a study abroad program at the time, and we had made plans to meet up with him early that afternoon. It was close enough to our meeting time that we figured we’d head that way and hit the Hofburg later…and that ended up working out perfectly.
We told Chris what we’d been up to all morning—he was pretty impressed at how much we’d already seen in such a short time!—and gave him some suggestions of other places we wanted to go. He decided to take us to Karlskirche first, then hit the treasury, since he worked in the Hofburg complex but had never been. So convenient!
After some meandering around, we made our way to Karlskirche. It was even better than I’d hoped, because it was under construction! Not usually something to get excited about, but in this case it made for a really unique experience. Scaffolding had been built up in the cupola and visitors could take an elevator up to see the brilliant frescoes on the ceiling. The boys climbed even higher to the tippety top of the dome, but after St. Stephen’s I was maxed out on stairs for a while and contented myself with photographing all the artwork.
Travel Tip: There’s another drinking fountain right by Karlskirche. So convenient. Take advantage of it.
Location: Karlskirche is located here. It’s within walking distance if your head straight south from Stephansplatz (the whole central city is pretty walkable) but you can also take the U1, 2, or 4 metro lines and get off at Karlsplatz.
There are frequently concerts in the plaza outside Karlskirche. If you’re interested in something fun to do in the evenings, check to see what events might be happening there on the dates you’re visiting!
By the time we finished at Karlskirche, it was nearly 3 PM and we still hadn’t had lunch, so that was my next priority. Fortunately, one of Chris’s favorite places to eat was near where we were headed. We grabbed some wursten from a little cart right across from the opera house, just outside the Hofburg gates. It was the perfect late lunch.
Restaurant Info: Bitzingers is right by the Albertina. It’s basically a tiny hot dog stand that sells enormous wursten stuffed into baguettes. I’ve never loved hot dogs more. Get the spicy one (it’s not spicy, just flavorful) and a bottle of Almdudler, Austria’s favorite soda.
We ate our lunch on the grass near the Schmetterling Haus, enjoying the people watching and the company. Then it was off to the Treasury!
Y’all. That collection was IMPRESSIVE. Opals the size of my fist. Emeralds as big as golf balls. Tapestries, ivory carvings, bejewelled golden crowns, an exhaustive collection of livery, and a narwhal tusk taller than me. The holy relics alone were jaw-dropping: the Lance of Longinus, a piece of the Cross, possibly the Holy Grail… It just. Kept. Going. Those Habsburgs, man. They had money and power and were not embarrassed to show it. I didn’t expect to be so fascinated by the treasury, but I could’ve stayed for a couple hours easily.
Location: The Hofburg complex is huge, and the Imperial Treasury is right in the middle: here. On the metro, take either U3 to Herrengasse or Volkstheatre, or U2 to Museumsquartier or Volkstheatre. There are multiple stops on the Ringstrasse tram around the perimeter of the Hofburg. Admission is around €15 if you didn’t get a combo ticket for the Kunsthistoriches.
Our last stop was Schloss Belvedere, at Chris’s recommendation. It was getting late, and only the Upper Belvedere was still open, and only for another hour at that. Since Chris had already seen it, he told us to go enjoy ourselves and he’d meet us outside at 6. That gave us an hour to sprint through the palace.
The building was as beautiful as we’d come to expect from Vienna, and the art collection was fantastic. There was an entire room of Klimt, who, as it turns out, painted a whole lot more than just “The Kiss.” We found plenty of French Impressionists, a good selection of Gothic religious work, and some modern stuff that was a little strange even for me.
At one point I was so overwhelmed I had to pause at a window in disbelief: I was in yet another stunning historic building, surrounded again by priceless works of art, in one of the most charming cities in the world. Art history nerd Jen was majorly geeking out.
Location: Schloss Belvedere is located here. Because the complex is so large, there are lots of transit options to get there. If you’re visiting the Upper Palace like we did, take tram D, which stops right outside the gates. Admission varies depending on which parts of the complex you visit.
Once we’d finished at the Belvedere, we were all pretty exhausted and ready for dinner. Some pasta did the trick, followed by Chris’s favorite gelato place right by the Donaukanal (a canal off the Danube).
Restaurant: Eissalon am Schwedenplatz is mere steps from the Schwedenplatz station on the U1 and 4 lines.
It was getting late, and Chris had places to be, so we parted ways after dessert and went back to our hotel to relax for a bit. Despite our insanely busy day, there was still one more stop I wanted to make that night: the famous Wienerprater.
Less than a theme park but more than a carnival, that place is kind of like a year-round state fair. It’s got all kinds of rides and games and music and food; we could’ve spent several hours and plenty of money just playing. The main attraction though, for me anyway, was the Wiener Riesenrad: the giant Ferris wheel.
It was originally built in 1897, burned down in the mid-’40’s, then rebuilt and reopened in 1947. It’s humongous and gives you an incredible perspective of the city. We arrived just at dusk, which made for some gorgeous views.
Just as we were getting ready to crash into bed, we heard fireworks. Our view was spectacular, looking southeast over the Stadtpark, and we were able to see the whole show from the comfort of our room. It was a perfect way to end the night.
All too quickly it was morning and time to head home. Much as I wished we could spend even one more day in Vienna, I missed my babies. We were footsore and full of great memories of easily the best work trip David has ever taken.
Before we caught the train to the airport, we had breakfast at an adorable little bakery down the street from our hotel and the train station.
Restaurant info: Joseph bakery + bistro is walking distance from the Center Wien Mitte, a major train station + shopping center. So convenient for grabbing a pastry before hopping on a train. Or you could get the eggs Benedict and die because it’s basically the best breakfast you’ve ever eaten.
Travel Tip: The CAT or City Airport Train provides nonstop service between Wien Mitte and Vienna International Airport. The train runs every half hour and the trip is about 15 minutes, so plan accordingly. Nobody wants to miss their flight because they missed their train.
There’s SO MUCH to see + do in Vienna. I would’ve loved to visit a few more places in the Hofburg: the Albertina Museum, or maybe the actual palace. On a cooler day, we might have cruised around the Ringstrasse and see all the great architecture, but it was waaaay too hot on the trams for that to be much fun. Perhaps we could’ve stepped into the opera house for a quick tour, spent more time at the Kunsthistoriche Museum, or even visited the natural history museum across from it. An additional day might’ve taken us out to the Schonbrunn palace complex. But even with the hours we lost searching for the lost wallet, we could only do so much.
Guess we’ll have to go back one of these days. OH DARN.
How about tomorrow?