Vienna, Austria is best known for its role in music, history, coffee & the waltz. We visited this surprisingly cosmopolitan city, illuminated by beautiful Christmas lights, on a very cold day in December on our Viking River Cruise down the Danube. The route below hits the highlights of our day, including plenty of stops to take advantage of Vienna’s famous coffeehouse culture (&, of course, a stop at Hotel Sacher for their famous torte!):
Vienna State Opera
We took the subway from our ship’s dock into town & as we emerged from the station, our first glimpse of Vienna was of the majestic Vienna State Opera. Constructed in the 1860s, this gorgeous neo-Renaissance opera house is home to the Vienna State Opera & the Vienna Philharmonic. There are performances almost every day of the year & standing room tickets are available the day of the performance for a huge discount (they’re generally just a few Euro). Unfortunately the day they were there, they didn’t have a performance, so a return trip is definitely in order to check out this cultural institution.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
Almost every city in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire has a cathedral named after St. Stephen & Vienna is no different. Built in the 12th century & extensively restored following the war in the 1950s, it stands tall in the center of town. For €6, take a tiny elevator up the north tower for panoramic views across Vienna. From up here, we were able to spot Riesenrad (Vienna’s famous ferris wheel – the first in the world), the newer buildings part of the international business district & many church steeples dotting the landscape. Vienna seems to stretch on forever – a testament for how big of a city it truly is.
Katholische Kirche St. Peter
Tucked down a side street off of Graben, the main pedestrian shopping street, St. Peter’s Catholic Church is a beautiful hidden gem – & possibly the oldest church in Vienna (no one is exactly sure). We stopped in to check it out just as afternoon Mass was starting & decided to stay for the service. It was worth the 20 minute detour for a few minutes of peace & to be able to enjoy exploring the church further after service.
Of the many squares in Vienna, visitors are likely to pass through Michaelerplatz before or after a visit to Hofburg Palace, located right behind it. During the wintertime, a small Advent Market sets up in the square, selling beautifully decorated ornaments & other handmade goods &, of course, mulled wine. If you’re a collector of Starbucks mugs around the world, there’s one to the right, just off the square; grab your mug, but go elsewhere for espresso, as Vienna’s coffeehouse culture can’t truly be experienced at an international chain.
Just inside the Palace through a passageway is the world famous Spanish Riding School & their creamy white Lipizzaner Stallions. There are performances throughout the week, with the exception of Monday’s (which is, of course, the day we visited). Even if you don’t make it to a performance, visitors can see still the stallions peeking out from their stables or being guided through the square after their morning exercises – they’re really quite majestic!
Christkindlmarkt at the Rathausplatz
A highlight of our trip to Vienna is only around for six weeks every year: the amazing, grand, majestic (there really aren’t enough adjectives…) Christkindlmarkt at Vienna’s City Hall, the Rathauplatz. Over 150 stands sell everything from ornaments (so. many. ornaments!) to handmade toys, to sweet treats & mulled wine. We spent a few hours walking up & down the rows, plotting our purchases in the shadow of the towering Vienna City Hall. There are clean, free bathrooms in the City Hall building, along with more food & a small children’s market. It was our favorite market of our trip!
Even if it’s not Christmastime, it’s still worth a wander over to the Rathausplatz, as the rest of the year the area is a lovely park & gardens. During the winter, a skating rink (or, really, more of a skating path winding through the trees) fills the park – this year was the first year the rink was there during the Christmas Market as well.
Museum of Natural History & Fine Arts Museum
(& Christmas Village Maria Theresien Platz)
Two of Vienna’s best museums are located across from each other & during the holidays, there’s a cute little Christmas Village in the square in between. The Natural History Museum & Museum of Fine Arts would be a great way to spend a chilly day. The Christmas Village was one of our favorite stops for food, as they had several booths of sausages, goulash in a bread bowl, gingerbread & mulled wine.
Enjoying Vienna’s Coffeehouse Culture
Vienna is perhaps one of the only places in the world where Starbucks is not thriving. Several of their stores have actually closed because the concept of grabbing coffee in a to-go cup & drinking it in the car or while walking is still a foreign concept to many Viennese. The first European coffeehouse may have opened in Venice, but I think the Viennese would argue that they perfected the concept. Even if it’s just a five minute stop for an espresso, Viennese take their time to enjoy their beverage. Coffeehouses are social gathering places, where patrons can sit for hours with a newspaper, book or (increasingly) a laptop, while being served a traditional coffee on a little silver tray with a small glass of water.
Our first coffeehouse experience was recommended by our local tour guide. We wandered into Café Gerstner, which is located just off St. Stephen’s Cathedral square, to warm up & have a little snack. Greeted with a glass case full of goodies, we shared a “house cake” (which turned out to be unexpectedly rummy!) to go along with our hot chocolate & hot tea. A small, intimate cafe, it was the perfect mid-morning break.
Café Sacher, best known for it’s world famous chocolate cake, is both a cafe & a hotel. We popped into the cafe for a light lunch & a piece of Sacher Torte. The whole process was a bit formal & we felt a little underdressed. Checking coats is mandatory (& complimentary) & after getting ourselves organized, we were led to a small marble topped table. We shared an order of their famous sausages (Sacher Würstl), which came with sauerkraut & homemade mustard. They looked a bit like footlong ballpark hot dogs, but tasted much better! After lunch, we shared a piece of Sachertorte, which is served with a giant mound of whipped cream. The cake is extremely dry, so you’re going to need every bite of the whipped cream to go with it. How a chocolate cake that’s actually not very good became so famous is beyond me & while the whole experience was touristy, it was unexpectedly enjoyable. Make sure Hotel Sacher is on your snack list for a visit to Vienna, just maybe get the apple cake instead (several people on social media recommended it to us).
Opened in the late 1800s, Café Central is one of Vienna’s oldest & grandest coffeehouses. While we didn’t make it here during our visit to Vienna (the line was out the door & we had just come from lunch), it’s definitely on the list for the future. There’s something so romantic of the notion of sitting under vaulted ceilings with a coffee & a book! Besides, both Trotsky & Freud were regulars here – maybe there’s still a little wisdom to rub off on modern day visitors.
To Vienna, With Love
When we arrived, we had almost no preconceived notions of this booming, cosmopolitan European city. It instantly reminded us of New York & London, but its connection to the past – beautiful architecture & coffeehouse cafes galore – reminded us more of Paris. Incredibly pedestrian friendly, this easy to navigate city is definitely on our return list for exploration!
One of the challenging things we had to balance on our Viking River Cruise was our desire to explore independently, while still taking advantage of their complimentary city tours. Our stop in Vienna worked out especially well for us to do both: we took Viking’s “up close” tour in the morning (where we took the subway into town with a local guide), toured on our own for the bulk of the day, & then met back up with the Viking group in the evening for a fabulous Mozart concert. While this wasn’t the usual way of doing things for Viking, the on-board staff was more than willing to be flexible for us so we could get in everything we wanted. And thank goodness they did, because Vienna turned out to be our favorite city on the trip.
Know if you go…
-Austria uses the Euro. Everyone speaks a Bavarian dialect of German & most people speak at least some English.
-The subway system consists of four main lines in the city center & is very easy to use. Buy a ticket in the station from the attendant, based on how much time you’re going to be on the system, & stamp it before going onto the platform. There’s no formal process to check tickets, but we were told that there are random checks.
-There are advertisements for classical music concerts all over town – take advantage of Vienna’s widely available inexpensive, wonderful music. The concert we attended was organized through Viking & consisted of a small chamber orchestra, four singers from the Vienna State Opera & two dancers. The concert was magnificent! B even got to dance the Danube Waltz with one of the opera singers.