Vienna boasts an impressive clutch of glittering palaces, art-rammed galleries, Baroque streetscapes, grand monuments, and other landmarks due to its centuries-long position as the heart of the Habsburg Empire. These attributes along with its unmistakably cosmopolitan atmosphere and joie de vivre attitude make Vienna an essential place to visit. 3 days in Vienna isn’t nearly enough time to explore all the city has to offer but gives you enough time to get a good overview of the city. Let us help you make the most of your trip, so you can experience some of the best things to do in Vienna over the weekend.
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Table of Contents
How to Get Around During Your 3 Days in Vienna
For this ‘3 days in Vienna’ itinerary, I primarily recommend exploring the city on foot. There is no better way to see the city than to walk around Vienna at your own pace. Many of the major attractions are conveniently huddled together in close proximity and attractive streets are peppered with inviting plazas, gardens, and cafés offering plenty of places to stop.
Walking in Vienna is not without its hazards though. Traffic seldom stops at pedestrian crossings, so be alert when crossing the road. When walking, pay close attention not to walk along bike paths and tram lines, as this is prohibited and dangerous.
However, in order to save time or if the legwork gets too much, you should make use of the extremely efficient city transport system, known as the Wiener Linien. Vienna’s public transport network consists of trams (Strassenbahn), buses (Autobus), underground (U-Bahn) and trains (S-Bahn) and Almost every part of Vienna is accessible by public transport. Most of the main sights in Vienna’s historic center are located on the popular Ring Tram route. The U-Bahn is generally the quickest way to get around. It operates seven days a week from around 05:30 to 00:30. A 24-hour service runs on weekends and public holidays.
There are a number of ticket options ranging from a single ticket (2.40 EUR) to 24-hour (8 EUR), 48-hour (14.10 EUR), and 72-hour (17.10 EUR) tickets. Buying a ticket in advance is the easiest option. Tickets are sold at newsagents (Tabak Trafiken) and at the ticket machines at U-Bahn and S-Bahn stations. You can even purchase a mobile ticket using the Wiener Linien app. Children under six travel free on public transit, and children under 14 travel free on Sunday and public holidays providing they can show proof of age.
Tickets are valid for all public transportation—buses, trams, and the subway. You’ll need to punch your ticket before entering the boarding area at U-Bahn stops, but for buses and trams, you punch it on board. If you’re caught without a ticket you’ll pay a hefty fine. You can plan your trip using public transport here.
If you’re visiting Vienna in the warmer months, exploring the city on a bicycle is a good option. The city has introduced a system of free bike rental called Citybike. Bicycles can be rented or returned from any of the 120 or so Citybike stations over the city. To use a Citybike, you need to register first with a debit or credit card (at any Citybike Wien station or online), for a one-off fee of 1 EUR; when the bike is returned, the charge is calculated automatically and debited from your account.
It is unlikely that you will have to use a taxi during your stay in Vienna but if the need arises it is easier to get a taxi at one of the taxi ranks rather than hailing it in the street. Alternatively, taxis can also be booked on the phone – there are three numbers: 313000, 40100, and 60160.
Is the Vienna City Card/Vienna Pass Worth It For 3 Days?
When spending three days in Vienna, it might be a good idea to invest in a sightseeing pass/card given the city’s plethora of cultural attractions and sights. The Vienna Pass is the kind of tourist card you are probably used to where you pay a flat fee and gain free access to a large number of attractions. The 3 days Vienna Pass costs a hefty 129 EUR but if you plan on seeing a lot of paid cultural attractions, it is a great choice. The only downside of the Vienna Pass is that it doesn’t cover public transport.
The Vienna City Card differs from the Vienna Pass as it doesn’t include free entrances to sites and museums, but rather offers discounts, usually in the range of 1-5€. One of the main benefits of the Vienna City Card is that the discounts don’t only apply to sights and museums, but also to selected restaurants, shops, and leisure activities. It also allows unlimited free travel on the city’s metro, tram, and bus lines.
To find out which is the better alternative for you, read our in-depth comparison between the Vienna Pass vs Vienna City Card.
Your 3 Days in Vienna Itinerary
For this three day itinerary of Vienna, I have included nearly all the must-see sights in the city. I’ve divided the itinerary in such a way that it gives you a multifaceted view of the city. It, of course, isn’t possible to explore all the main sights in a city as culturally rich as Vienna in just three days. For your convenience, this post includes a free map which highlights the main points of interest in Vienna for three days. You can find the addresses of the attractions by clicking on the icons in the map.
I understand that everyone travels at a different pace so feel free to choose the destinations according to your own pace. The earlier you start your day the more time you’ll have to see the attractions. Below I have compiled a list of the best things to see (or eat) in Vienna over the course of three days:
Day 1 in Vienna
1. Breakfast at Café Central
2. Ferstel Palace & Freyung Passage
3. Vienna City Hall
4. Imperial Court Theater
5. Austrian Parliament Building
6. People’s Garden
7. Loos House
8. The Hofburg
9. Neue Burg
10. Heroes Square
11. Traditional Austrian Lunch
12. Wolf and Cow Playing Backgammon Mural
13. Mozart House
14. Anker Clock
15. St. Stephen’s Cathedral
16. Haas House
17. Stock im Eisen
19. Plague Column
20. St. Peter’s Church
Day 1 in Vienna: Classical Vienna
Day One of this ‘3 days in Vienna’ itinerary will mostly focus on the classical sights in Central Vienna, i.e. all the sights that conjure up the most vivid and romantic images of the city. The winding streets and spacious squares of this area form the ancient core of Vienna. Unsurprisingly, this is the most touristy part of Vienna. Don’t be daunted at the large number of sights I’ve mentioned. They’re mostly for observing from outside.
1. Breakfast at Café Central
Kick-off your 3 days in Vienna by heading to one of its famed coffeehouses. Vienna is the spiritual home of coffeehouses and since the late 19th century, coffeehouses have been the city’s most important social institution. The best thing about the coffeehouses is that for the price of a small coffee, you can still sit for as long as you like without being asked to move on or buy another drink. That time can be used to relax, discuss business or politics, write, play cards, and above all, can go through an unlimited number of newspapers and magazines.
A lot of Austrians take pride in the fact that many of the world’s great cultural moments had their genesis in coffeehouse discussions in Vienna. This is where Leo Trotsky regularly played chess while working out the subtleties of the communist theory (Café Central), where Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele formed their vision for modern art (Café Museum), and where Sigmund Freud spent evenings laying the foundation for modern psychoanalytic theory (Café Korb).
Although a lot of generic espresso bars and coffee shops are cropping up in Vienna, these establishments simply are no match to the role traditional Viennese coffeehouses have played in defining Viennese identity. Even today, there is still something unique about Viennese coffeehouses that makes them worth visiting. The high ceilings, marble table-tops, velvety upholstery, the bentwood coat stands, and the notoriously brusque waiters all add to the unique flair. Each coffeehouse attracts a certain clientele and has its own atmosphere.
Café Central is Vienna’s most famous coffeehouse and undoubtedly its most palatial. Founded in 1876, This grand cafe offers a glimpse into 19th-century Viennese life, having been immaculately restored in the 1980s. The interior of the café is very elegant with its chunky marble pillars, glowing chandeliers, and spectacularly vaulted ceilings. A popular meeting place of the city’s intellectuals, over the years Central’s clientele has included Tito, Freud, Hitler, and Lenin.
Central offers a vast selection of pastries and desserts, and Viennese and provincial dishes making it is a fabulous place to have breakfast. Since coffee-drinking is virtually an art form in Vienna, there is a legion of varieties to choose from. Two of the most popular coffee options are Kleiner/Großer Brauner and Melange. A Brauner is basically black coffee with a little bit of milk. A popular variation of this is the Verlängerter which is a bit milder. A Melange consists of frothed milk and steamed milk.
Other popular options are Pharisäer (coffee in a glass-topped with whipped cream, served with a small glass of rum on the side), and Maria Theresa (double espresso with orange liqueur and whipped cream).
Check the opening hours of Café Central on its website before your visit. Book a table in advance so as to avoid queues.
Legend has it that coffee was first introduced to Vienna by a certain Georg Franz Kolschitzky, an Austrian spy who regularly penetrated the Turkish camp during the siege of 1683. When the siege was finally lifted, Kolschitzky was asked what he wanted in return for his services. He requested to be given the “camel fodder” – in actual fact sacks of coffee beans – left behind by the hastily departed Turks, and went on to open the first coffeehouse in Vienna the same year.
2. Ferstel Palace & Freyung Passage
The aforementioned Café Central is housed in the grandiose Ferstel Palace (Palais Ferstel), built in 1860 for the Austro-Hungarian National Bank. The facade of the palace is distinctly Italianate, a throwback to the Florentine palaces of the early Renaissance. It’s not really a palace but more of a complex which housed the Stock Exchange until 1877. Unusual for its time, the building was named after the architect, Heinrich von Ferstel, and not after the owner of the building.
The Freyung Passage (or Ferstel Passage), is an upscale arcade in the interior of Ferstel Palace. The marble-clad passage with pilasters and a vaulted ceiling is lined with luxury stores. The eclectic interior of the passage is a wonderful hodgepodge of Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, and Baroque. As you walk through the passage, you will pass a small inner courtyard which is occupied by a beautiful fountain, which is crowned by a statue of the Danube water nymph holding a fish in her hand.
3. Vienna City Hall
Vienna City Hall (Rathaus) casts a distinctive and imposing shadow over Vienna’s cityscape. Built from 1872 to 1883 as the most expensive of all the grand buildings along the Ring Road (Ringstraße), this is in fact the New City Hall, replacing the Old City Hall in the inner city. It is Neo-Gothic in style and serves as a powerful symbol of the city’s late 19th-century political clout. I think it kind of looks like a cross between a cathedral and a Gothic fantasy castle with its many spires and turrets. The impressive building has seven arcaded courtyards and over 1500 rooms where the Vienna City Council and the mayor have their offices.
The City Hall’s facade holds a lavish display of standard-bearers brandishing the coats of arms of the city of Vienna and the monarchy. The building’s huge central tower is over 100 meters high and is topped by the 3-meter statue of a medieval knight in armor with a lance, known affectionately as the Rathausmann. Also worth noting is the lofty loggia with its intricate tracery and curved balconies.
In the month leading up to Christmas, when the city’s most famous takes place, the large square (Rathausplatz) plays host to the most famous Christmas Market (Christkindlmarkt) in Vienna. At this time of the year, the square is crammed with stalls selling candy, hot mulled wine (Glühwein), decorations, and traditional wooden toys. After Christmas, this same area is turned into a huge outdoor ice-skating rink.
Although you can get a look at the ornate interior of City Hall by signing up for a guided tour, I wouldn’t recommend it for this itinerary due to time constraints.
4. Imperial Court Theater
The historic Imperial Court Theater (Burgtheater) is situated directly opposite City Hall. Affectionately known as the “The Burg”, it is the most prestigious stage in the German-speaking world. This majestic building was constructed between 1874 and 1888 in the Italian Renaissance style. You can’t help but admire the beauty of its richly ornamented facade.
It features a seated Apollo, with the muses Melpomene (Muse of Tragedy) and Thalia (Muse of Comedy) on either side presiding over a frieze of Bacchus and Ariadne. Busts of famous writers such as Shakespeare, Goethe, and Schiller can be seen on the Corinthian pilasters and columns. The balustrade is fancifully decorated with figures of putti, each of them playing a different musical instrument.
Some of the world’s most famous operas, including Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, were premiered at the Imperial Court Theater. The interior of the theater features two imposing staircases and some marvelous ceiling paintings by Franz Matsch and Gustav Klimt.
5. Austrian Parliament Building
The sprawling Austrian Parliament Building (Parlamentsgebäude) is one of the most eye-catching buildings along the Ring Road. Erected in 1883 in Neoclassical fashion, it was designed in Greek style to celebrate the cradle of democracy and looks very much like a Greek temple with eight monumental Corinthian columns.
Pause to admire the building’s exterior which contains more than 100 statues and friezes on all sides. Two broad ramps leading to the main entrance are lined by statues of Greek philosophers, writers, politicians, and thinkers. The building’s lovely main pediment frieze shows Emperor Franz-Josef I granting the people of the Habsburg Empire an undemocratic constitution.
It was here, on 11 November 1918, after the collapse of the Habsburg Empire, that the parliamentary deputies proclaimed the formation of the Republic of Austria. From street level, it’s not so easy to see past the massive Corinthian portico and its accompanying wings and pavilions. If you stand back, though, the sprawling main body of the building becomes visible. It is home to the lower house or Nationalrat (National Council), and upper house or Bundesrat (Federal Council), of the Austrian parliament.
The Greek Revival theme carries to the Athenebrunnen, a big fountain standing in front of the building. It features a giant statue of Athene, the Greek goddess of wisdom, sporting a natty gilded plume in her helmet. Athene is shown sternly presiding over a fountain served by four writhing mermen, representing the Danube, Inn, Elbe and Moldau, the four most important rivers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
6. People’s Garden
The elegant People’s Garden (Volksgarten) was created between 1820 and 1823 after the destruction of the city walls by Napoleon. Occupying a large triangular wedge, the People’s Garden is laid out in French formal style and has long been a favorite gathering place for the nobility.
I really like the People’s Garden for its geometric flower beds, beautiful rose garden, decorative fountains, long wide paths, and interesting monuments. At the northern end of the park is the wistful white-marble memorial to Empress Elisabeth (Sisi), Franz Josef’s Bavarian wife, who died of a dagger wound inflicted by an Italian anarchist in Geneva in 1898.
The focus of the park is the Doric Theseus Temple, a replica of the Temple of Hephaestus (Theseion) in the Ancient Agora of Athens. Commissioned by Napoleon to house Antonio Canova’s statue of Theseus and the Minotaur, its high, white marble columns and simple, low portico are rather attractive. It is used for a range of changing exhibitions since the statue was transferred to the Art History Museum.
The People’s Garden is open 24/7. Free entrance.
7. Loos House
On the corner of Kohlmarkt and Herrengasse at Michaelerplatz, facing the Hofburg lies the modernist Loos House (Looshaus). Many people now hardly notice the building when walking past it, but when it was erected in 1911, it immediately became the most violently condemned building in Vienna. Having seen two centuries worth of Baroque and Neo-Baroque exuberance in the city, the building’s architect Adolf Loos wanted to create a structure with a business-like style, straight lines, functionalist design, and little or no decoration.
Loos House’s modern design caused such an outcry that construction was even temporarily halted. Emperor Franz Josef, who lived across the road, was so offended by the modern design of the Loos House that he ordered the curtains of his windows to remain permanently shut. He despised it so much that he declared he would never use the Michaelerplatz entrance to the Hofburg.
Today, it’s difficult to comprehend what the fuss was all about since the building’s facade and green marble columns seem rather innocuous. At present, the building’s interior is occupied by a bank that reflects the exterior’s simple, stylish elegance.
8. The Hofburg
A sightseeing tour of Vienna wouldn’t be complete without taking a tour of the Hofburg (Court Palace). This sprawling palace was once the winter home of the Habsburgs. It is from here that the Habsburgs reigned supreme over Austria and large parts of Europe for more than six centuries, from 1279 until their downfall in 1918.
This vast complex of imperial edifices of varying architectural styles grew with the empire and today the palace is almost like a city within a city. It has 18 wings, 54 staircases, and some 2,600 rooms! The Hofburg complex consists of the Imperial Apartments, two imperial treasuries, six museums, the National Library, and the famous Spanish Riding School, and the President of Austria’s offices.
There is so much to see and do in the Hofburg that there’s no way you can take it all in one day. Many people come to the Hofburg for the Spanish Riding School and the Vienna Boys’ Choir. The real reasons to visit the Hofburg, though, are the Imperial Treasury (Schatzkammer), the richly decorated Baroque library (Prunksaal), and the exquisite Silver Collection (Silberkammer). To utilize your time well, I strongly suggest only focusing on these places.
Although the Hofburg has several entrances, try to enter through the majestic semicircular Michaeler Gate. It is the main entrance into the complex, and its imposing dome with golden decorations looms over Michaelerplatz. This part of the city brings you back to the days when Vienna was the capital of a mighty empire and you will often see horse-drawn carriages cutting through the square.
Once you pass through the spectacular portal gate of the Michaelertor—you can’t miss the four gigantic statues of Hercules and his labors—descend to the ground floor into the often-overlooked Silver Collection (Silberkammer). The collection of elaborate kitchen utensils, bed linen, crockery, stone jugs, silver cutlery, and candelabras is top-notch. Also on display are several original imperial menus and napkins which give you a view of court life.
The highlight of the Silver Collection is the massive 19th century Milan centerpiece. This gilded table-centerpiece stretches more than ten meters and is decorated with allegorical figures and bronze-and-crystal urns.
Climb the marble Emperor’s Staircase (Kaiserstiege) to begin a tour of the Imperial Apartments. Quickly make your way through the 18 conventionally luxurious rooms where the emperors lived, along with their wives and children. While the apartments are richly decorated, they can seem a little dull since virtually every room is decorated in the same style – creamy-white walls and ceilings with parquet flooring, gilded details, and red furnishing, which seems a bit prosaic.
Six rooms are devoted to the tragic empress Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, lovingly known to Austrians as “Sisi”. The rooms display many of her treasured possessions, including her jewels, the gown she wore the night before her marriage, her wooden gymnastics equipment, and the opulent court salon railroad car she used. Sisi enjoys an almost cult-like following in Austria ever since a 1950s trilogy of romantic films, starring Austro-French actress Romy Schneider as the empress.
Of all the things to see in the Hofburg, the Imperial Treasury is by far the most rewarding. It serves as a perfect foil to the dull Imperial Apartments. Some of the finest medieval craftsmanship and jewelry in Europe can be found here, including the imperial regalia and relics of the Holy Roman Empire. The Habsburgs’ own crown jewels, the bounty of a once-great empire, including countless reliquaries and robes, goldwork, and silverware can also be found here.
There are a couple of other pieces that vie for your attention like the Holy Lance, reputedly the lance that pierced Jesus’s side, the Saber of Charlemagne, and the Imperial Crown, a sacred symbol of sovereignty once stolen on Hitler’s orders. I really liked the Cradle of the King of Rome, which is adorned with gold and silver, while a goddess of victory crowns the child with a diadem of stars and a laurel wreath.
Finally, make your way to the National Library. It is one of the grandest Baroque libraries in the world, the focal point of which is the glorious Grand Hall (Prunksaal). The hall is stacked with shelves of invaluable leather-bound manuscripts in walnut wood bookcases from floor to ceiling. Another highlight is the statue of Charles VI standing guard under the central dome, which itself has a magnificent fresco depicting the emperor’s apotheosis.
The Silver Collection, Imperial Apartments, and Sisi Museum are open daily from 10:00-17:00 (15 EUR). The Imperial Treasury is open on all days except Tuesday from 09:00-17:30 (12 EUR). The National Library is open every day except Monday from 10:00-18:00 (8 EUR).
9. Neue Burg
Quickly admire the sweeping curve of the Neue Burg, an imposing wing built between 1881 and 1913, and the newest part of the Hofburg complex. Built in Neoclassical manner, the building represents part of the bombastic aspirations of Emperor Franz Joseph to make the Hofburg rival the Louvre or Versailles. But with the onset of World War I and the empire’s collapse, these grand plans never materialized.
In March 1938, from the Neue Burg’s main balcony, Adolf Hitler proclaimed the Anschluss – the union of Austria and Nazi Germany – to tens of thousands of cheering Viennese. Today, the Neue Burg is home to a number of museums.
10. Heroes Square
Standing in front of Neue Burg, the somewhat asymmetrical Heroes Square (Heldenplatz) was left without a proper shape due to the fact that the Neue Burg was never completed. The square owes its name to two Austrian war heroes: Prince Eugène of Savoy, the victor over the Turks in the 17th century, and Archduke Charles, Duke of Teschen, who defeated Napoleon in 1809 in Aspern, near Vienna.
Both of them are honored with a monumental equestrian statue. The one of Archduke Charles is particularly interesting as it depicts the horse cleverly balanced on its hind legs. To the side of Heroes Square in the direction of the Ring Road is the Burgtor, a triumphal arch. It commemorates the Battle of Leipzig in 1813 where Austria and its allies defeated Napoleon’s outnumbered troops.
11. Traditional Austrian Lunch
For a well deserved traditional Austrian lunch, head to Plachutta Wollzeile, a fantastic restaurant in the heart of Vienna. Oozing with style and finesse, this laid-back restaurant is a great place to sample classic Viennese and Austrian cuisine. While you can try Austrian dishes such as the classic Wiener Schnitzel and Zwiebelrostbraten (roast beef with onions and sautéed potatoes), I highly recommend getting Tafelspitz.
The Wiener Schnitzel may be more well-known but no Austrian dish is more typical than the fabled tafelspitz favored by Emperor Franz Joseph. Boiled beef sounds dull, but tafelspitz is far from bland. It’s by far my favorite Austrian dish and I always have it when I’m in Vienna. It is normally served with fried grated potatoes and a mix of chopped apples and horseradish or sour cream mixed with chives.
Tafelspitz is a particular specialty at Plachutta and they offer 10 variations of the boiled beef dish. I recommend getting schulterscherzel (shoulder of beef), beinfleisch (juicy beef from the ribs), or the classic tafelspitz (rump of beef), but if you’re in doubt, ask the knowledgeable waitstaff. Make a reservation before you go in order to avoid waiting.
12. Wolf and Cow Playing Backgammon Mural
One of the most overlooked and unusual attractions in Vienna is the mural of a Wolf and Cow Playing Backgammon. This colorful mural dates back to the 16th century when it was common practice to have frescoes painted on houses. These images mostly consisted of religious and historic scenes, and also scenes of daily life. Over time, many of these murals have been destroyed.
This particular one, on the facade of the seemingly unostentatious Hasenhaus (Hare House), features a wolf and a cow in spectacles thoroughly engaged in a game of backgammon. Behind them, are the legs of a person, who appears to be holding a fly swatter. Although there have been many different interpretations about what the mural means over the centuries, no airtight explanation has been found so far. The most popular notion is that the mural is a satire of the tensions between Catholics & Protestants at the time. What do you think it means? 🙂
13. Mozart House
Vienna has been home to some of the biggest musical virtuosos in history. Arguably, the greatest of these was Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart who spent time in no less than 11 residences in Vienna. This particular residence, in a relatively inconspicuous building in the inner city, is where the great composer and his family lived for three years from 1784 to 1787.
The first-floor apartment was Mozart’s most luxurious residence in Vienna and the one which he liked the most. It is also where he composed a significant number of works like the melodic Haydn Quartets and The Marriage of Figaro. The apartment is now home to a museum with displays about Mozart’s life and the masterworks that he composed here.
14. Anker Clock
The lovely Art Nouveau-style Anker Clock (Ankeruhr) is one of my favorite things to see in Vienna. The clock spans two wings of an insurance company building in the Hoher Markt Square, Vienna’s oldest square. Commissioned by the Anker Insurance Company, it was installed between 1911 and 1914 by Franz von Matsch.
The clock bridge spans a width of ten meters and a height of 7.5 meters while the watch itself is four meters in diameter. Above the clock is a sun disk, flanked on one side by a child holding a butterfly as an allegory for life, and on the other by an endoskeleton holding an hourglass as a symbol for death.
Every hour a set of gilded cut-out figures, including the Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius, Duke Leopold VI, Maria Theresa, and Joseph Haydn, among others, step forward and shuffle across the dial of the clock. Noon is the best time to visit as the entire set of twelve figures slowly stagger across to a ten-minute melancholic medley. A plaque next to the clock reveals the identities of these rotating figures, who are all key players in Vienna’s history.
15. St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) is undoubtedly one of Vienna’s top attractions. It has endured a lot of attacks in its long history including two Turkish sieges, Napoleonic bombardment, and World War II bombings. The cathedral’s survival through all those conflicts is seen as a miracle and has made it the city’s most beloved landmark.
The foundations of the original Romanesque church date back to 1147, but the earliest surviving features today are the 13th-century Giant’s Door (Riesentor) and the Heathen Towers (Heidentürme) on the west side. St. Stephen’s Cathedral lacks a definite symmetry and is an intriguing architectural ensemble ranging from 13th-century Romanesque to 15th-century Gothic.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral steeply pitched yellow, blue, and green rooftop has been fancifully decorated with almost a quarter of a million glazed tiles that are said to be modeled on a Saracen carpet. They form enormous mosaics depicting a double-headed eagle (symbol of the Holy Roman Empire) and the coats of arms of Vienna and Austria.
The cathedral is inextricably intertwined with Viennese and Austrian history. Many notable events have taken place here including Mozart’s marriage and funeral. Napoleon even posted his farewell edict on the door in 1805.
The nave of the St. Stephen’s Cathedral is enormous and stands out due to its Gothic vaulted ceiling. While the cathedral is mostly Gothic in style, the exquisite marble and stone high altar is clearly Baroque. The altar shows statues of four saints and the central painting shows the martyrdom of St. Stephen.
One of the other highlights of St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the early 16th-century carved stone pulpit, masterfully crafted by stonemason Anton Pilgram. It contains portraits of the four fathers (saints Augustine, Gregory, Jerome, and Ambrose) of the Christian Church. Each is given a different personality.
The staircase is beautifully adorned with figures of lizards, salamanders, and toads pursuing one another up the banister, symbolizing the fight of good against evil. I love how Pilgram himself makes a cameo, as he devilishly looks out of a window at the foot of the stairs.
The cathedral piece de resistance, however, is undoubtedly the elaborate Wiener Neustadt Altar. This richly gilded masterpiece from the mid-15th century is composed of two triptychs. If the altar’s wings are closed (on weekdays), only four rows of saints will be depicted; when open (on Sundays), they reveal gilded wooden figures depicting events in the life of the Virgin Mary.
Other highlights of the interior include the centuries-old sculpted Renaissance tomb of Emperor Frederick III. Consisting of pinkish Salzburg marble from the 17th century, the carved tomb depicts hideous hobgoblins trying to wake the emperor from his eternal sleep. The Chapel of St. Catherine featuring the four apostles is also worth noting. You can also check out the catacombs which are lined with cages filled with bronze caskets containing the remains of the later Habsburgs.
If you’re up for the challenge, you can even scale the cathedral’s south tower which soars to a height of 137 meters. Ironically nicknamed “Steffl” (Little Stephen) by the Viennese, you can scale the 343 steps leading to a viewing platform offering far-reaching views of Vienna.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is open Monday-Saturday: 09:00-11:30 and 13:00-16:00, Sunday: 13:00-16:30. The entrance to the cathedral is free but if you want to see the catacombs (only on a guided tour), the fee is 6.50 EUR.
The Stephansdom’s “Pummerin” (Boomer) bell, located in the North Tower’s cupola, is Austria’s largest and heaviest. It weighs nearly 20 tons, and was cast from 100 cannon balls seized during the Turks’ failed siege of Vienna in 1683. It is used just once annually—to ring in the New Year. Beethoven discovered the totality of his deafness when he realized he could no longer hear the sound.
16. Haas House
It takes cojones to design a modernist glass and steel edifice opposite the city’s most revered structure. When the Haas House (Haashaus) was unveiled in 1990 by its architect Hans Hollein, it understandably caused a furor. Certainly not worthy of the negative press it generated, the Haas House’s asymmetrical design has an elegance to it, especially the multiple curves of its blue-green marble facade.
The building’s appearance is attractively enhanced by the presence of elements such as lopsided marble cubes attached to its facade, and a protruding structure high up on the roof which sort of looks like a diving board platform. You can also see the mirror image of St. Stephen’s Cathedral reflected in its semicircular glass facade. Today, the Haas House is home to a variety of high-end boutiques and also boasts a terrace restaurant with a panoramic view over Vienna’s historic core.
17. Stock im Eisen
Of all the offbeat things to see in Vienna, the Stock im Eisen tops the list. It stands at the corner of Graben and Kärntner Straße, at the southernmost corner of Stephansplatz. This unusual sight consists of a sheet of curved Plexiglas bolted to the corner of an inconspicuous building. Behind it are the preserved remains of a dusty tree trunk that is covered with an almost uninterrupted casing of angular, hand-forged nails. The Stock im Eisen was first mentioned in historical documents in 1533, but scientific examination has revealed that the tree was felled around 1440.
Theories abound as to why the nails are embedded in the log. The most popular claim is that in the 16th-century blacksmiths would drive a nail for luck each time they left Vienna to ensure a safe passage home.
The pedestrianized shopping street of Graben is one of the most exclusive shopping streets in Vienna. It still retains an air of exclusivity and many of its upscale shops still bear the “k. k.” and “k. u. k.” – kaiserlich und königlich (Imperial and Royal) tag. The name Graben literally means “moat” or “ditch which comes from the fact that it was once a moat that lay outside the Roman camp. Graben is lined with an eclectic brand of architecture ranging from Baroque, Art Nouveau, or Belle Epoque eras.
19. Plague Column
Vienna’s Baroque-style Plague Column (Pestsäule) is one of the most notable points of interest in Vienna. It was built by a team of the most famous sculptors of the era on the orders of Emperor Leopold I between 1682 and 1693 as thanks to God for delivering the city from a particularly devastating plague that may have killed as many as 150,000 people in Vienna. It consists of a splendid mass of clouds piled on top of one another like whipped cream, cherubs, gilded crowns, and shields.
The Plague Column’s central sculpture group is dotted with allegorical figures depicting Faith vanquishing the Plague. Most striking is the image showing Faith and a cherub overseeing the destruction of a hag representing the plague, while the Emperor prays above. The Plague Column inspired similar monuments throughout the Empire on the initiative of the Jesuits, and these were erected as much to celebrate deliverance from the Protestant “plague”, and the Turkish siege.
20. St. Peter’s Church
St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche) is my favorite Baroque church in Vienna and that says something in a city where there are a number of fine Baroque churches. The church is positioned in a small square and is almost obscured by the buildings surrounding it. The most vivid feature of the twin-towered church is its great turquoise-colored oval dome. St. Peter’s Church dates from the early 18th century and was modeled on the St. Peter’s in Rome.
The church’s sumptuously decorated interior is full of pomp and grandeur and features an abundance of marble pilasters, gilded woodcarvings, rich stucco, and exuberant frescoes. The High Baroque main altar, the fabulous Trompe-l’oeil cupola painting, and the gilded pulpit are worth noting.
I really love the gold and silver monument depicting St. John of Nepomuk being thrown into the Vltava River off Prague’s Charles Bridge after refusing to divulge the secrets of confession, with King Wenceslas IV overlooking the proceedings. The spectacular fresco on the domed ceiling entitled The Assumption of the Virgin Mary is another standout.
St. Peter’s Church is open from 07:00-20:00 (Monday-Friday) and 09:00-21:00 (Weekends and public holidays). Free entrance.
Cap off your first day of sightseeing in Vienna by treating yourself to a well-earned dinner. QERO Peruvian Cuisine & Bar is a chic restaurant specializing in Peruvian classics like Aji de Gallina (Creamy Chicken), ceviche, and Lomo Saltado (Stir-Fried Beef).
Day 2 in Vienna: Imperial Vienna
Day Two of this ‘3 days in Vienna’ itinerary will mostly focus on the two imperial palaces in Vienna – the Belvedere and the Schönbrunn, and the Prater, the former royal hunting ground.
1. Breakfast at Café Demel
If you have a sweet tooth, you shouldn’t miss out on Demel during your visit to Vienna. Arguably the most famous café and pastry shop in Vienna, Demel has been around since 1786. It moved to its current location in 1888 and now boasts the city’s finest array of delectable pastries and desserts. Demel’s edible art pieces in the shop windows are a work of art as are the café’s Rococo salons, gilded mirrors, and coffered ceilings.
Don’t miss out on house specialties like the “Demeltorte” and the chocolate nougat “Annatorte”. The “Apple Strudel” and the “Esterhazy Torte” are also amazing! Demel is open daily from 08:00-19:00. Book a table in advance so as to avoid queues.
Demel is also known for its longstanding feud with the Hotel Sacher Wien, over who has the right to sell the famous “Original Sachertorte”, a chocolate sponge cake covered with chocolate icing, filled with a layer (or two) of apricot jam. In the 1960s, a court ruled in favor of Hotel Sacher, but Demel still claims that Eduard Sacher (cake creator Franz Sacher’s son) gave them the exclusive rights to use his name and recipe.
To be honest, the Sachertorte at both Demel and Hotel Sacher is pretty similar although you’ll hear strong arguments about why one is better than the other. I don’t really care much for Sachertorte anyway since it’s overhyped and other Austrian cakes are way better.
2. Schönbrunn Palace
Visiting the grand Schönbrunn Palace is one of the best things to do in Vienna. What Versailles is to France, Schönbrunn is to Austria. Schönbrunn served as the former summer residence of the Habsburgs and symbolizes what an imperial residence ought to be: symmetrical, palatial, and imposing.
Schönbrunn was initially built between 1696 and 1712 at the behest of Emperor Leopold I for his son, Joseph I. Leopold envisioned a palace whose grandeur would surpass that of Versailles. Unfortunately, these grand plans were never carried out due to a lack of support from the nation’s treasury which was drained by the costly wars.
Construction on Schönbrunn started and was altered in the mid-18th century when Maria Theresa became empress and the way the palace looks today is a lot like she conceived it. The central palace measures 175 meters in width and has a symmetrical Baroque facade. It is painted in a light yellow/ocher manner (Schönbrunn yellow), a combination that can be seen throughout many residences in Austria.
The interior of Schönbrunn is opulent with a superb array of Rococo State Rooms (Prunkräume). The extravagant decor of these rooms gives an evocative insight into the lives of the royals. Of the palace’s 1441 rooms, only 40 are accessible to the public. Many of the rooms are adorned with priceless furniture and white paneling, which is often adorned with a gilded ornamental framework. Of course, the rooms vary from extremely sumptuous to rather plain.
I really love the Vieux-Laque Room, whose glistening interior blends Rococo elements and Oriental art. Black lacquer panels from Beijing are set into walnut paneling and embellished with gilt frames. The panels show birds, landscapes, and flowers. Maria Theresa lived in this room during her widowhood and had several portraits of her husband Franz Stephan hung here as a memorial.
The Millions’ Room is particularly fascinating and is so named because it’s estimated that Maria Theresa paid more than a million Gulden (former Austrian gold coins) to have it decorated with fabulous Caribbean rosewood paneling. The room’s Indo- Persian miniatures portray scenes from the lives of the Mughal rulers of India in the 16th and 17th centuries.
Of course, the Great Gallery is also splendid. The 40-meter long hall is a highpoint of Rococo design with its tall windows, splendid crystal mirrors, chandeliers, and white-and-gold stucco embellishments. It has some fabulous ceiling frescoes as well. The hall was used for banquets during the 1815 Congress of Vienna, and it was here, in 1961, that J.F. Kennedy and Nikita Krushchev held their historic détente meeting.
The other prominent room is the Mirror Room, which features stunning white-and-gold Rococo decoration and crystal mirrors. It is famous as being the room where, in 1762, the precocious six-year-old Mozart performed a private duet with his older sister Nannerl, for Empress Maria Theresa.
After touring the state rooms, you should take a stroll in the Schönbrunn Palace Park (Schönbrunn Schlosspark). The glorious gardens are themselves worthy enough on their own to make the trip to Schönbrunn. The park is laid out in Baroque style across a sloping landscape making it ideal for scenic vistas. The central axis of the parterre is lined with beautifully regimented flower beds flanked by rows of stone statues.
As you make your way up the slope, take a moment to admire the Neptune Fountain (Neptunbrunnen). This lovely Baroque fountain shows a mythical scene in which the sea god Neptune is presiding over his entourage of nymphs, goddesses, horsemen, sea horses, and other characters. Kneeling below Neptune, Thetis pleads with him for calm seas to ensure her son Achilles a safe voyage to Troy.
The picturesque Gloriette sits at the apex of Schönbrunn’s hill. This triumphal arcaded structure was built in Neoclassical style to celebrate the 1757 victory of the Habsburgs over the Prussians at the Battle of Kolín. The gloriette was formerly used as a dining hall and is now home to a café. Today, you are treated to a magnificent panoramic view not only of Schönbrunn Palace and the Gardens but also over Vienna.
One other aspect of Schönbrunn Park I love is the maze and the labyrinth. The maze is a conventional head-height maze consisting of winding hedges that is quite challenging to navigate. If you’re young at heart or have kids in tow, the Labyrinth’s fun stepping-stones, glockenspiel grid, zany mirrors, and mathematical teaser will prove great fun.
Another notable feature is an architectural folly of Roman Ruins, built in 1778. Such ruins were in vogue at the time and provided a romantic backdrop for open-air concerts and theater productions. The park is also renowned for its magnificent tropical Palm House, which is home to a glorious canopy of palm trees and lots of rhododendrons, lilies, hydrangeas, and cacti.
The park is also home to a botanical garden, an orangery, a privy garden, a zoo, and much more. Schönbrunn Palace and the Schönbrunn Palace Park are open daily throughout the year. The entrance to the palace park is free with the exception of special attractions like the maze, privy garden, and the orangery. Opening hours of both the Schönbrunn Palace and palace park vary according to the time of year. Check opening hours and prices here.
For seeing the interior of Schönbrunn Palace, there’s a choice of two tickets: the “Imperial Tour” (18 EUR), which takes in 22 state rooms, and the “Grand Tour” (22 EUR), which includes all forty rooms open to the public. Take the Grand Tour because the Imperial Tour skips the palace’s most magnificent Rococo delights. For both tours, you get a hand-held audio guide in English, lasting 35 and 50 minutes respectively. Book online in advance to avoid long queues and waiting times!
There aren’t a lot of dining options nearby Schönbrunn Palace but Restaurant Sokače is a great option when visiting the palace. This Serbian restaurant offers an array of tasty Balkan grills and sausages.
4. Belvedere Palace
The Belvedere Palace is one sight that no visitor to Vienna should miss. The grand palace complex actually consists of two imposing Baroque palaces that are separated by a 17th-century French-style garden parterre replete with fountains, cascades, and statuary. More so than the Hofburg and the far more famous Schönbrunn Palace, I firmly believe the Belvedere Palace is the most impressive palace in Vienna, at least from the outside.
The Belvedere was built outside the city fortifications between 1714 and 1722, the complex originally served as the summer palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy, Austria’s greatest military leader who oversaw the Habsburgs defeat of the Turkish army in 1683. The prince was an avid patron of the Arts and amassed a large collection of paintings and sculptures from across Europe. Today, both palaces are state museums and within their walls lie opulent rooms and famous works by Gustav Klimt and other European masters.
Though the Lower Belvedere is impressive in its own right, it is the much larger Upper Belvedere, used for state receptions, banquets, and balls, that steals the show. The main entrance gate of the Upper Belvedere is a lovely Baroque iron gate that features a pair of standing lions, each showing a gilded crest of Prince Eugene of Savoy.
It’s hard not to be impressed by the Upper Belvedere’s elaborate facade. Its domed copper roofs resemble the shape of Turkish tents as a symbolic reflection of Prince Eugen’s victory. The numerous sculptures that adorn its facade are an allusion to the victory over the Turkish army.
As soon as you enter the Upper Belvedere, you are greeted with a gush of some of the finest examples of Rococo interiors you will ever see. Don’t miss the exquisite Sala Terrena hall which features four muscle-bound giant Herculean figures supporting the vaulted ceiling aswirl with ornately molded stucco.
In May 1955, the Allied powers signed the Austrian State Treaty in the lofty Marble Hall of the Upper Belvedere. The treaty guaranteed the withdrawal of foreign troops in return for Austria’s neutrality. The treaty is on display in a large salon decorated in red marble.
The Upper Belvedere’s other claim to fame is being home to the Austrian Gallery, with art dating from the Middle Ages to the present day. Medieval and Baroque art is found at street level, with Neoclassicism, Romanticism, and Viennese Biedermeier on the top floor. While these artworks are stellar in their own right, the Austrian art from the 19th and 20th centuries is undoubtedly the big draw.
The Upper Belvedere is the best place to see the collection of works by Gustav Klimt and features his world-famous painting The Kiss. Displayed behind a protective glass shield, the masterwork shows Klimt himself embracing his long-term mistress, Emilie Flöge. The painting perfectly captures the essence of erotic art with its elaborate patterning set against a stardust backdrop, making the couple appear to transgress the canvas. Judith and the Head of Holofernes is another one of Klimt’s seminal artworks that shouldn’t be missed.
Other artworks that shouldn’t be missed at the Upper Belvedere are Egon Schiele’s Death and the Maiden, Oskar Kokoschka’s Still Life with Dead Lamb, Max Oppenheimer’s musical masterpiece The Philharmonic, Claude Monet’s The Chef, Caspar David Friedrich’s mist-shrouded Rocky Landscape in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains, and Richard Gerstl’s mesmerizing Laughing Self-Portrait. Make use of your time wisely as there is a lot to take in here.
Make your way down the Belvedere’s formal gardens which are laid out on a wide slope, punctuated with box hedges, fountains, waterfalls, and statuary. The view from the top of the sloping gardens in the direction of the Lower Belvedere is absolutely majestic. The garden has three levels, separated by two large cascades. Watch out for the huge statues of sphinxes in the upper half of the garden and the wonderful statues of eight muses on the lower level.
The Lower Belvedere is a relatively simple garden palace, built for Prince Eugène’s personal use, rather than for affairs of state. However, it preserves more of its plush original decor on the inside than the Upper Belvedere.
One of the best rooms to see inside is the Hall of the Grotesques whose walls are decorated with beasts and fanciful floral murals. This style of painting was derived from ancient Roman wall decorations and this is where the name “grotesque” comes from. The hall is essentially one giant grotesque painting and the flowing, quasi-floral patterns featuring botanical, zoological, and mythological elements is absolutely mesmerizing.
The most overwhelmingly impressive room in the Lower Belvedere is the Gold Cabinet. This glittering room was later decorated with gold walls, a cabinet of mirrors, and grotesque paintwork. If there ever was a room that personifies royal decadence, this would be it. I dare you not to take a selfie standing in front of the mirrors. The final room worth seeing is the Marble Hall, a richly stuccoed white-and-reddish brown reception room.
The Belvedere Palace Complex is open daily from 10:00-18:00. A visit to the Upper Belvedere is only possible with a time-slot ticket meaning that you need to book a fixed entrance time. It is better to book tickets online in order to avoid queues. A ticket to the Upper Belvedere costs 16 EUR while a ticket to the Lower Belvedere costs 14 EUR. The combined ticket for both palaces costs 24 EUR. The Belvedere Palace Gardens are open daily from 06:30 or 07:00 in the morning until 18:00 and 21:00 depending on the season.
The final sightseeing attraction for the day is the Prater, Vienna’s equivalent of NYC’s Coney Island. The Prater is basically a large, flat tract of land, taking up nearly half the island of Leopoldstadt, and includes large swathes of mixed woodland, racecourses, sports stadiums, a miniature railway, booths, sideshows, beer gardens, a trade-fair center, a planetarium, an amusement park and, most famously of all, Vienna’s giant Ferris wheel. The Viennese love coming to the Prater en masse on the weekend.
The Prater began its life as a hunting preserve and riding ground for the aristocracy. Much to the dismay of the nobility, the Prater was opened to the public in 1766 by Emperor Joseph II. It is a popular spot for jogging and biking and the chestnut-lined Hauptallee, the main thoroughfare, is a great place for a stroll.
However, most people visit the Prater for the Volksprater Funfair. Home to an amusement park since the 19th century, the large funfair has all the typical attractions—high-adrenaline roller coasters, dodgem cars, merry-go-rounds, nostalgic rides, tunnels of love, and game arcades. The Volksprater Funfair is perfect if you have kids in tow or are young at heart.
Though the Volksprater Funfair is worthy of a visit, the main reason to visit the Prater, especially for people like me, is to see the iconic Ferris Wheel (Riesenrad). The Ferris Wheel is the most famous landmark in Vienna after St. Stephen’s Cathedral. It was designed by the British military engineer Walter Basset and erected in 1897 for Emperor Franz-Josef I’s golden jubilee. Its cute little red gondolas were destroyed during World War II, and only half were replaced in deference to the wheel’s old age.
The giant Ferris Wheel became famous partly due to it being immortalized in Graham Greene’s film noir classic The Third Man. It’s the location in front of which Orson Welles does his famous “cuckoo clock” speech just after he takes a ride on the Ferris Wheel. Since then, the huge Ferris Wheel has achieved celluloid fame in the James Bond flick The Living Daylights and Richard Linklater’s Before Sunrise.
Taking a ride on the Riesenrad is one of those things you simply cannot miss when visiting Vienna. The huge wheel circulates very slowly at a speed of about 75 cm per second, meaning it takes about 20 minutes to complete one circuit. The Ferris Wheel is especially magical at night. It reaches a maximum height of 64 meters, allowing riders to snap some fantastic shots of Vienna.
The Prater isn’t a fenced-in park, but not all things here are open throughout the year. The season lasts from mid-March to the end of October (daily from 10:00-23:00), but the giant Ferris wheel operates daily all year round. Admission to the park is free, but you’ll pay for games and rides. A ticket for the giant Ferris wheel costs 12 EUR (opening times vary so check the website before you go).
Fun Fact: Vienna & The Third Man
Nothing has done more to create the myth of postwar Vienna than Carol Reed’s classic 1949 film noir The Third Man. Just as Salzburg is inextricably linked to The Sound of Music, Vienna will forever be linked to The Third Man. The only difference is that in Vienna’s case, the locals actually like the film whereas nobody in Austria gives a second thought about The Sound of Music. The Third Man is a personal favorite of mine and its bleak, black-and-white, expressionist cinematography, haunting theme and seedy bombed-out locations perfectly captured the fatigued, defeated atmosphere of the city at the beginning of the Cold War. Vienna was then divided into four sectors, each commanded by one of the victorious armies—American, Russian, French, and British. Reed’s film version of the Graham Greene novel features Vienna as a leading player and many of the sites where the film was shot are easily visited. It was the first British film to be shot entirely on location. When it was first released, the postwar Viennese were appalled and horrified at the depiction of their beloved city as a “rat-infested rubble heap.” Over decades, they have come to love the film, and since the early 1980s, The Third Man has been shown every Friday and Saturday at the Burgkino cinema. The film’s enduring popularity has spawned a mini tourist industry all of its own. There are regular The Third Man tours and there’s even a The Third Man museum, completely dedicated to the film!
As long as you’re in Vienna, you definitely ought to try the classic Wiener Schnitzel. Vienna’s most famous meat dish is said to have originated in Milan. The classic Wiener Schnitzel should be made from veal (it can also be made from chicken or pork) which is covered in breadcrumbs and fried until golden. It is normally accompanied by a potato salad in a watery, sweet dill dressing.
Skopik & Lohn is a fantastic bistro that serves one of the best schnitzels in the city. The restaurant also has an extensive wine list to accompany your meal.
Day 3 in Vienna: Cultural Vienna
Day Three of this ‘3 days in Vienna’ itinerary focuses on some vital cultural sights in the city such as the Art History Museum, the Vienna State Opera, and the Central Cemetery.
1. Breakfast at Café Jelinek
Begin your day by treating yourself to a fantastic breakfast spread at Café Jelinek. This bohemian café isn’t as well-known as some of the other famous coffeehouses in Vienna and as a result, you’re likely to come across locals in this joint.
The café’s yellow walls are adorned with signed portraits of celebrities from the Austrian theater, literature, and cabaret scene. Unlike most other coffee houses which have a polished interior, Café Jelinek has bucked the trend and reeks of shabby chic. The food and cakes there are very good. Try the Gugelhupf—a simple sponge cake baked in a fluted ring mould and cut into slices, which was supposedly a favorite of Sigmund Freud’s.
Café Jelinek is open daily from 09:00-22:00. Payment with cash only.
2. Art History Museum
Vienna is a city blessed with several world-class museums, out of which the Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches Museum) stands unequivocally above the rest. Being an avid art lover, this museum is my all-time favorite attraction in Vienna and I have spent countless hours inside its hallowed walls. The rich collection owes its existence to the wealth of successive Habsburg rulers and contains treasures from classical Rome to Egypt and the Renaissance that play like a ride in a time-travel capsule.
The museum is housed in a huge Neoclassical edifice that’s every bit as glorious as the art it contains. The scale of the Art History Museum can be particularly daunting for first-time visitors as the vast collection is spread over three floors. It is thus essential to go in with a plan of what to see, especially if time is limited. Otherwise, museum fatigue will get the better of you.
One of the great joys of stepping foot inside the Art History Museum is immediately being greeted by the main foyer and staircase, both of which are sumptuously decorated, from the monochrome marble floor to the richly stuccoed dome. Antonio Canova’s imposing statue of Theseus Defeating the Centaur is a treat to observe as you ascend the main staircase as are the amazing intercolumnar murals and the lunettes on the first-floor balcony. The huge eye-catching ceiling painting celebrates “The Triumph of the Renaissance”.
A large chunk of the art collection of the Art History Museum is composed of 16th- and 17th-century masters and as such it’s a good idea to focus on these if you don’t have much time. The museum is most famous for containing the largest collection of paintings under one roof by the Dutch 16th-century master Pieter Bruegel the Elder.
Some of the most beguiling of Bruegel’s works focus his interpretations of religious stories and allegorical peasant scenes. The most famous of these is the captivating Hunters in the Snow, in which Bruegel perfectly captures a vivid depiction of Flemish life in a wintry monochrome landscape. Room 10 is a Brueghel shrine—on its walls hang celebrated works like Children’s Games, The Tower of Babel, The Peasant Wedding, The Return of the Herd, and The Nest-Robber.
Besides Bruegel, the museum has an excellent collection of Flemish masterworks. Peter Paul Rubens is particularly well-represented. Look out his famous painting The Fur, an intimate portrait of Rubens’s wife in a naturally graceful pose. Rubens’s work is also known for its Counter-Reformation themes and mythological symbolism. Works like The Worship of Venus and the Ildefonso Altarpiece are great examples of his artistic prowess. Another highlight is the many portraits done by Van Dyck and his celebrated religious painting The Vision of the Blessed Hermann Joseph.
The Dutch section also has some fantastic pieces such as Rogier van der Weyden’s Crucifixion Triptych, Hieronymous Bosch’s evocative Christ Carrying the Cross, and Jacob Van Ruisdael’s serene impression of nature The Large Forest. Three remarkable self-portraits by Rembrandt are superb studies of exceptional realism and show why he is the master of the self-portrait. The other masterpiece you shouldn’t miss is Johannes Vermeer’s The Art of Painting, a complex work with layers of allegories.
Besides this, the museum is also loaded with Italian, Spanish & French masterpieces. You can marvel at masterworks by the likes of Tintoretto, Titian, Nicolas Poussin, Raphael, Caravaggio, and Velázquez. There are hundreds of exemplary paintings by the Old Masters and even a succinct description would go on for pages.
Before you leave the museum, take a look at the Albrecht Dürer collection. Known for his innovative art and his painstakingly detailed workmanship, the German Renaissance painter and engraver is well represented here though masterpieces like Virgin and Child with a Pear and the gruesome Martyrdom of 10,000 Christians.
Also, if you have time, take a look at the Egyptian & Near Eastern Collection. Beginning with predynastic and Old Kingdom treasures, this remarkably extensive stock of monuments includes stone sarcophagi, scarabs, canopic jars, gilded mummy masks, jewelry boxes, papyrus, pots, sphinx busts, and pharaoh statues.
The rooms here are tastefully decorated with typical Egyptian motifs and hieroglyphs. While the Art History Museum owns some superb Egyptian sculptures, the most popular item is the small blue ceramic statue of a hippopotamus, whose body is tattooed with papyrus leaves, lotus flowers and a bird, pictorial elements from its natural swamp habitat.
In addition to all this, the Art History Museum is home to Greek and Roman Antiquities where you’ll find a vast array of statues and busts from Roman emperors as well as Greek vases and statues. There’s also a huge numismatic collection, with coins dating back to 650 BC, and an extraordinary amount of sculpture and decorative arts bought by the Habsburg connoisseurs. Unfortunately, there’s too much to take in a single visit.
The Art History Museum is open Tuesday-Sunday: 10:00-18:00 (Thursdays till 21:00). The price of admission is 16 EUR.
3. Naschmarkt & Lunch
Visiting the Naschmarkt is a must when in Vienna and after a grueling tour of the Art History Museum, this will be a welcome respite. Although Vienna has several outdoor markets, the Naschmarkt is the city’s most famous outdoor produce market. It’s a great place to grab a quick bite and definitely one of the premier open-air markets that I’ve come across in Europe.
The Naschmarkt occupies what was originally the riverbed of a branch of the Danube River, which was diverted and paved over during the massive public works projects of the 19th century. The market is very lively and bustling with activity where you’ll find packed rows of polished and stacked with exotic fruits and vegetables competing for visual appeal among the hundreds of stalls.
The market commences at 06:00 when vendors selling flowers, meat, and fish open their stalls. On the weekend farmers from outside the city offer their produce and on Saturdays, a bustling flea market takes place at the tail end of the market where you can find everything from antiques to second-hand clothing.
The Naschmarkt has taken on a markedly international flavor in recent times and you’ll often smell the fragrance of spices reminiscent of Asia or the Middle East. Naschmarkt is home to many food stalls in traditional wooden huts offering Middle Eastern, South Asian, East Asian, and Balkan food. There’s plenty of Austrian food on offer too with Austrian sausages being a popular choice. Try the käsekrainer, a fat frankfurter with tasty bits of cheese, or feast on bratwurst and the Bosna.
4. Wagner Apartments
One of the great joys of roaming the streets of Vienna is seeking out the city’s astonishing fin-de-siècle Art Nouveau architecture. This youthful (or Jugendstil) version of Art Nouveau features a sinuous and stylized form of architecture and decorative arts, known as Secession. Jugendstil motifs are generally geometric in style and involve decorations based on plant forms such as sunflowers, as well as female figures, heads, and masks.
Although you’ll see many wonderful examples of Jugendstil architecture in Vienna, the apartment houses that line the Wienzeile, overlooking the Naschmarkt, are particularly exceptional. Two of these, the adjacent private apartment blocks of Linke Wienzeile 38 and 40, stand out in particular and are firm favorites of mine. These buildings were designed in 1899 by Secessionist pioneer Otto Wagner and are a photographer’s delight.
The building on the right (no. 38) is richly embossed with gold palm fronds and medallions and even features an elaborate top-floor loggia replete with Art Nouveau urns and a few figures. The building on the left (no. 40) is even more flamboyant, its pollution-resistant cladding of red majolica tiles spawned the nickname, “Majolica House”. Its facade contains subtle flower patterns in pink, blue, and green.
5. Secession Building
The distinctive Secession Building is arguably Vienna’s most famous example of Jugendstil architecture. The Secession Movement began in 1897, when 20 dissatisfied Viennese artists, headed by Gustav Klimt, “seceded” from the conservative and strict artists’ society associated with the Academy of Fine Arts. It promoted the radically new kind of art known as Jugendstil, which is characterized by simple, functional lines, organic flowing motifs, and extensive use of iron, stucco, and stained glass.
The Secession Building is virtually windowless and sort of resembles a squat cube. A massive filigree dome of gilded bronze laurel leaves, it’s most prominent feature, rests on top of the building. Subjected to much ridicule at the time of the building’s opening in 1898, the dome is nicknamed “the Golden Cabbage”.
Nonetheless, on closer inspection, you can admire the building’s decorative details. The main entrance is beautifully adorned with a trio of gorgons, a pair of salamanders, and plentiful gilded foliage.. Above the entrance of the pavilion is the motto of the Secessionist Movement “Der Zeit ihre Kunst. Der Kunst ihre Freiheit” – “To every age its art, to art its freedom”. Just outside the building is a bronze statue of an overweight Mark Anthony, the Roman emperor is shown on a chariot being drawn by lions.
The interior of the Secession Building continues to host contemporary art installations. The main reason to step inside the building, however, is to appreciate Gustav Klimt’s Beethoven Frieze, a 34m-long visual interpretation of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It was originally intended as a temporary exhibition but has now become the marquee attraction.
Drawing inspiration from Greek mythology, the frieze is utterly mesmerizing, rich in symbolism, and adorned with jewel-like details. The frieze depicts mankind’s desire for happiness and shows humanity’s struggles to conquer hostile forces such as sickness, madness, wantonness, death and finally finding eternal bliss in art.
The Secession Building is open Tuesday-Sunday from 10:00-18:00. The entrance costs 9.50 EUR.
6. Vienna Opera House
Given Vienna’s passionate and enduring love affair with music, it’s no surprise that it is home to one of Europe’s leading opera houses. One of the most majestic buildings in the city, the Vienna Opera House (Staatsoper) holds a special place in the hearts of the Viennese. It was the first public building to be completed on the Ring Road – opening in May 1869 with a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni.
Designed in Italian Renaissance style, the Opera House has a suitably grandiose exterior, with a fine loggia beneath which the audience could draw up in their carriages. The bronze statues in the loggia are allegories of heroism, drama, fantasy, comedy, and love, as seen from left to right.
The Opera House suffered extensive damage during the last days of World War II — only the outer walls, the front facade, and the main staircase survived. It reopened in 1955 with a production of Beethoven’s Fidelio, marking Austria’s independence from occupation. Naturally, reconstruction meant that some parts of the interior couldn’t avoid a postwar look.
Once inside, the grandeur of the lavish marble staircase leading up to the auditorium is an unforgettable experience as you get to witness the resplendent frescoes, mirrors, and chandeliers. The statues in the arches symbolize the seven liberal arts.
One of the other highlights of the Vienna Opera House includes the Schwind Foyer, a large hall whose walls are decorated with lovely oil paintings representing some famous operas. Busts of famous conductors are also on display here, among which is Auguste Rodin’s bronze bust of Gustav Mahler.
The splendidly decorated Tea Salon is the most visually pleasing room in the Opera House and is where Emperor Franz Joseph spent time sipping tea between opera intervals. The auditorium seems relatively unembellished, especially if you’ve seen ornate auditoriums like the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples and Milan’s La Scala, but still has a simplistic elegance.
To see the interior of the Vienna Opera House, you can either take a guided tour (approx. 40 minutes) that is offered daily or by attending a performance. The guided tour costs 9 EUR. Check the website for details about tour times.
7. Karlsplatz Pavilions
Otto Wagner, the renowned Austrian architect and leading member of the Vienna Secession movement, is responsible for several notable landmarks over the city. Wagner was also in charge of designing and engineering many aspects of the Vienna City Train, the horsedrawn and later steam-powered predecessor of today’s underground, in the late 19th century. Of all these structures, the identical pair of underground railway exit pavilions are certainly amongst his best work.
The Karlsplatz Pavilions are made of green, wrought-iron framework and marble slabs, and the roof over the arched gate is adorned with golden ornaments and sunflower motifs. These motifs are a great example of the classical Jugendstil style, combining simplicity and elegance. Both pavilions lost their function as the Vienna U-Bahn came into use. Today, one pavilion houses a café, while the other has an exhibition on Otto Wagner.
The Karlsplatz Pavilions are open Tuesday-Sunday: 10:00-13:00, 14:00-18:00 (April-October). The entrance costs 5 EUR. Free entrance on the first Sunday of each month.
8. Church of St. Charles
The fantastic Church of St. Charles (Karlskirche) is one of the veritable must-see attractions in Vienna. After Vienna was hit by the plague in 1714, Emperor Charles VI vowed to build a church as soon as the city was delivered from its plight. The Church of St. Charles was built between 1716 and 1739 and marks the pinnacle of Baroque architecture in Vienna. It is dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, the 16th-century Italian archbishop who was famous for his ministrations of Milanese plague victims.
As you approach the church, you’ll notice the amalgam of architectural styles that have been employed in its exterior. The church is a fascinating blend of Byzantine and Baroque architecture with ancient Greek and Roman elements. In fact, it is one of the few churches that I like better from the outside. As stunning as the church is during the day, it is even more beautiful at night when it’s bathed in light and reflected in the pond sitting in front of it.
The church’s green copper dome rises to a height of 72 meters making it a prominent feature in the Viennese skyline. The marble-white facade of the church is dominated by the Neoclassical portico. Resembling the covering of a classical Greek temple, the pediment is embellished by reliefs showing the suffering of the Viennese during the 1713 plague.
The church’s facade is further enhanced by the presence of the two columns that are topped by giant gilded Habsburg eagles and the imperial crown. Inspired by the ancient Roman column of Trajan, these columns are decorated with scenes of the life of St. Charles Borromeo. The left column shows the quality of steadfastness while the right one shows courage. As you make your way inside, take a look at the pediment reliefs which show the suffering of the Viennese during the 1713 plague.
The interior of the Church of St. Charles is decorated in a typically opulent Baroque manner. The High Altar is one of the highlights and features golden rays intertwined with a stucco relief showing St. Charles Borromeo being whisked away to heaven on a cloud crammed with cherubs. Also noteworthy are the fine vault frescoes with scenes from the life of St. Charles Borromeo.
You can also take the elevator up into the elliptical cupola to get a closer look at the fresco on the dome showing the Virgin Mary imploring the Holy Trinity to bring an end to the plague. From here, you can climb the top steps to enjoy sweeping views of Vienna.
The Church of St. Charles is open Monday-Saturday: 09:00-18:00, Sundays, and public holidays: 12:00-19:00. The entrance costs 8 EUR.
9. Central Cemtery
A cemetery might seem like an odd place to visit while sightseeing but Vienna’s Central Cemetery (Zentralfriedhof) is one of Europe’s finest cemeteries and making the trip there is totally worth the effort. The cemetery’s attractive layout, Art Nouveau architecture, ostentatious graves, and beautiful flora make it an inviting place for a stroll.
The Central Cemetery was built in 1874 and has grown into the second-largest (in terms of area) cemetery in Europe. It’s so vast in fact that it even has its own bus service to help people get about. As the Viennese say, the Central Cemetery is half as big as Zurich and twice as enjoyable. It contains more than 300,000 graves over 3 million deceased are interred here. In comparison, there are only 1.9 million living inhabitants in Vienna today!
There are several interesting works of architecture worth seeing at the Central Cemetery. One of them is the elegant Art Nouveau St. Charles Borromeo Cemetery Church. Look out for the amazing monuments carved in the semicircular arcades that face the main entrance. In addition to this, there’s a Russian Orthodox chapel, a grand central avenue, and a large monument honoring the victims of WWI.
Most visitors, however, make a beeline for the Graves of Honor (Ehrengräber) section. This is where you’ll find the headstones of eminent politicians, writers, actors, artists, and musicians. Funerals are traditionally rather lavish affairs in Austria and consequently, you can see many ornate tombstones here that are beautifully decorated with numerous reliefs and sculptures.
The most visited graves by far are those of famous composers. Beethoven, Brahms, Salieri, Schubert, Schoenberg, and Johann Strauss II are among the musical luminaries who have their tombstones here. You can also pay homage to Mozart at a monument dedicated to him, although the great composer’s body lies in the St. Marx Cemetery in Vienna.
The Central Cemetery is open daily from 07:00-18:00. The entrance to the cemetery is free. Buy the cemetery map (1 EUR) for orientation.
10. Hundertwasser House
The eccentric Hundertwasser House (Hundertwasserhaus) is one of the best things to see in Vienna. With its multicolored patchwork facade, oriel windows, and spontaneous vegetation, it is one of the city’s most prominent landmarks. This wacky fairytale-like structure vividly stands out among the rather inconspicuous architecture surrounding it.
The colorful public housing unit is the concoction of the flamboyant Austrian painter and architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. Hundertwasser’s buildings stand out for their bright colors contrasted by black and gold, undulating floors, a notable lack of straight lines, and their highly experimental and Gaudi-like shapes that employ a variety of unusual materials, combining the artist’s vision of structures that blend with the natural environment. An unrepentant hippy, his goal was to find harmony between nature and man.
Hundertwasser designed the building in 1986 as a playful take on the usually lackluster style of social housing. Universally panned after its construction, the Hundertwasser House is now an intrinsic part of Vienna’s cultural heritage. Since it was Hundertwasser’s goal to truly align architecture with nature in every sense, you can see several trees covering the roofs, while more trees grow inside other units, their limbs sticking out windows. Two of the most prominent features of the Hundertwasser House are the irregular shaped, glazed beaded columns, and the two glistening onion domes on top of the building.
Today, almost 200 people live in the 52 apartments. Each differently colored section marks one apartment and the size of every apartment is visible as it is marked by an uneven line of ceramic tiles. A remarkable feature of the building is that the individual apartments have access to a little piece of nature in the form of roof gardens and balconies that are scattered all over the building.
If you visit, just remember that the apartments are private residences and can’t be visited.
To conclude your 3 days in Vienna, why not go to one of the city’s upcoming craft beer pubs. 1516 Brewing Company is one of the trendiest brewpubs in Vienna with a great assortment of craft beers brewed on-site and delicious pub grub.
Where to Stay in Vienna
Since most of Vienna’s attractions are located in the city center area, it is best to select a hotel close to the center. Even if you stay further out, it’s a good idea to stay anywhere on the metro line (i.e. 5-minute walk from the nearest metro station), which is part of Vienna’s excellent public transit system. With more than 500 hotels to choose from, there is something to suit every taste and budget in Vienna, from impeccable five-star hotels to avant-garde to low-cost chains.
Hostel: Wombats Naschmarkt, a popular hostel in walking distance from the city center.
Budget: Motel One Wien Hauptbahnhof, unpretentious choice within 2 minutes of the Central railway station.
Mid-range: Mercure Secession Vienna, a reasonably-priced 4-star hotel in the city center.
Splurge: Hotel Sans Souci Wien, one of the city’s most prestigious hotels, the glamorous Sans Souci features trendy rooms and deluxe furnishings.
Extending Your Stay
Although three days in Vienna is a good amount of time to explore most of Vienna’s must-see sights, you could easily extend your stay for 2-3 more days in order to check out some more intriguing sights, fun neighborhoods, and excellent museums. Alternatively, you could also undertake a day trip from Vienna as there are several great possibilities in the vicinity.
Now, what do you think? How would you spend 3 days in Vienna? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!