In 1857 Austrian Emperor Franz Josef ordered the city walls surrounding Vienna torn down, an unprecedented move for a European capital. After eight years of construction, a grand boulevard replaced the former ramparts. On May 1, 1865, Josef presided over the gala opening of the Ringstrasse, today a loop just over 3 miles long that the Viennese proudly refer to as the world’s largest open-air museum, thanks to its wealth of important buildings and cultural sights. For the 150th anniversary of “The Ring” next year, the city is once again undergoing transformation.
Almost all of Vienna’s major attractions sit within or just on the edge of the Ringstrasse, a concise historic city center that is largely pedestrianized and offers one of the most extensive car-free zones in Europe, designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The city is ideal for strolling, as virtually every major museum; the Hofburg Palace complex; Austria’s grandest cathedral; the famed Spanish Riding School, home to the white Lipizzaner stallions; and the top shops, restaurants and world-renowned Viennese cafes are all close together and easily visited on foot.
It requires at least a long weekend to really appreciate the city, but longer if you like art, music and museums. The marquee attractions start with the Kunsthistorisches Museum, really several museums combined into one vast neoclassical building. Its heart is one of the world’s great art collections, with an amazing collection of classical works from many countries and eras, including Rembrandt’s famous Self Portrait. An entire wing is given over to the Kuntstkammer, which means “cabinet of arts and curiosities.” A hodgepodge collection from the Hapsburgs, its 20 rooms are full of unique items from around the world, such as ancient fossilized sharks’ teeth and tribal religious icons. Reopened just a year ago, this colorful new section has been a huge hit.
Other must-visit attractions include Stephansdom, or St. Steven’s Cathedral, freely displaying its Gothic architecture and underground catacombs. The endless spiral staircase of the South tower rewards you with the city’s best views, with the possible exception of those from the famous Ferris wheel in the Prater area. With large capsules like an early London Eye, it is a skyline icon so venerable it played an important part in the most famous novel and film about Vienna, Graham Green’s Third Man, brought to the silver screen in 1949.
The indoor and outdoor Hofburg Palace complex sprawls over several blocks just north of Stephansdom, and includes the home of Austria’s President, various government offices, gardens and several museums, and takes the better part of a day to fully explore. The liveliest parts of the pedestrian core are the interconnected plazas directly in front of Stephansdom, full of crowds and a litany of ice cream and gelato shops – everyone in Vienna seems to carry a cone. Running north from here is Kartner Street, downtown’s longest broad boulevard, with outdoor cafes down its center and shops on either side, reaching all the way to the Ringstrasse.
For those less inclined to spend the whole day walking, a whirlwind way to take in the best of the city is with the Ringstrasse Tram Tour, a hop-on/hop-off sightseeing tram that does the entire loop with 13 stops at key sights plus informational video and audio on board (about $10). Vienna also is renowned for live entertainment, with three famous attractions including the Vienna Boys Choir, which has been wowing audiences since 1498. Their normal venue is the Burgkapelle church during Sunday Mass from September to June, which requires tickets, along with special performances elsewhere. Another must is the equestrian dressage marvels performed by the white Lipizzaner Stallions at the Spanish Riding School, typically on Sundays from February to June, and late August-December, with less frequent shows other days. Sometimes you can do both at once as the Boys Choir occasionally performs at the dressage shows.
Vienna was Mozart’s town, and opera here is huge. While some performances sell out in advance, you can usually buy tickets on short notice from one of the Mozart-attired reps working the sidewalk in front of the Opera House.
Vienna is currently undertaking its largest project since the Ringstrasse, building a new central rail station that will consolidate all its train service throughout Europe. Because Austria largely dodged the Eurozone financial crisis, foreign investment has poured in recently in the form of new apartments, stores and hotels. Just in the past year, the pedestrian zone was expanded to include Am Hof Square and a couple of blocks that were between it and the main walking thoroughfares. This new section has been dubbed the Golden Quarter for its more upscale boutiques, including Europe’s largest Louis Vuitton store outside of France and a new Prada flagship store.
But the biggest addition is the Park Hyatt hotel, opened in June in an opulent, century-old former bank building that was painstakingly renovated to maintain its theme: The swimming pool is in the former vault and has real gold tiles lining it. The only hotel in the Golden Quarter, its biggest asset is its location, closer to the major landmarks and sights than most other top-tier luxury properties, and sitting right on Am Hof Square, home in summer to a pop-up theater company and weekend antique fair, and in late fall, to a large Christmas market. Two blocks away in smaller Kuntsforum square is an urban farmers market of sorts with picnic tables ringed by stands selling produce along with grilled sausages, bread, cheese platters and not one but two wine bars with extensive by-the-glass menus. It’s a great way to “picnic” in the heart of the metropolis.
Vienna claims to be the only world capital with a designated viticulture district within it, and in a part of Europe known for its beer-drinking culture, wine rules here, especially whites such as gruner veltliner, which the city is well known for. In fact, at Vienna’s most classic schnitzel parlor, they don’t even offer beer, though the wine list is extensive.
Cuisine revolves around a triumvirate of schnitzel, wursts, and bakery sweets. The former is a pork cutlet (you can also find chicken and veal schnitzel) pounded paper thin, breaded, fried and generally served overhanging all sides of a dinner-sized plate and found on practically every traditional restaurant menu in town. Sausages are common too, especially bratwurst and kasekrainer, similar to kielbasa except the interior is studded with chunks of cheese. Wursts are best enjoyed from sidewalk stands found throughout the city. Whatever you eat, you should probably skip desert and instead head to one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses, where everyone from painter Gustav Klimt to Sigmund Freud to Leon Trotsky to Mozart, and more recently, Sir Paul McCartney and Hilary Clinton has gorged on the city’s famous pastries such as apple strudel and sacher torte.
But the real specialty is relaxed lingering. The Viennese coffee house is such an integral part of the city’s social fabric, UNESCO named it to its Intangible Cultural Heritage list, describing them collectively as a place “where time and space are consumed, but only the coffee is found on the bill.”
IF YOU GO
Where to stay: The hottest room in town is at the brand-new and perfectly located Park Hyatt (vienna.park.hyatt.com) in the equally new Golden Quarter, the latest expansion of Vienna’s pedestrianized historic core. Rates: $484-$585. Louder and brasher, DO & CO (docohotel.com) is a homegrown 43-room design hotel with large rain showers and some rooms with hot tubs, right on the city’s busiest square, opposite the Stephansdom cathedral. It has an incredibly popular rooftop bar. Rates: $560-$813. For stylish but affordable lodging just steps from the cathedral, the sleek 25-room Hollmann Beletage (hollmann-beletage.at) is a hidden gem design hotel that includes free Wi-Fi, breakfast, afternoon snacks, loaner iPads and even a restored eight-seat cinema theater for guests. Rates: $230-$298.
Where to eat: In a schnitzel-mad city, Figlmuller, hidden around the corner from Stephansdom cathedral, has been the top table in town since 1905, more than a century as “The Home of Schnitzel.” They have a broad menu of Austrian specialties but everyone has the same thing: a foot-in-diameter schnitzel made from a half-pound pork tenderloin with a side of the best imaginable potato salad. Entrees: $13-$25. The Bitzinger sausage stand at Albertinaplatz right behind the Opera House is widely held to be the best of many in Vienna, serving a mix of tourists, cab drivers and tuxedo-clad opera patrons. They offer fried bratwurst, kasekrainer and delicious wieners (hot dogs) alone or stuffed into baguettes, with spicy mustard, hot peppers, pickles, fresh hot pretzels and crispy French fries. Down this hearty street food with homemade sodas, local beer or fine French champagne. Sausages: $5-$6. Vienna has lots of famous grand coffee houses but the Café Central, where Trotsky and Lenin played chess, has it all: the high ceilings, huge columns and classic grandeur, yet is just off the main tourist path and remains both user friendly and more local in feel. Set lunch: $13
Where to drink: The heuriger is a distinctly Austrian institution, a limited license tavern at a winery, serving only its own wines and a limited selection of local foods like charcuterie meat and cheese boards. Vienna is the world’s only capital with wineries within city limits, so visit the 3rd-generation Heuriger Wieninger, for bargain-priced but high-quality wines by the glass or bottle at picnic tables surrounded by vines, overlooking downtown. Loos American Bar is Vienna’s cocktail classic, where mixology has been a hot trend for over a century, just off pedestrian thoroughfare Kartner Street. But it is as tiny as it is popular, seating less than two dozen patrons. Offering more than 300 cocktail choices, Sky Bar is the best of the city’s al-fresco rooftop lounges, atop a nondescript downtown department store.
For more information: vienna.info/en. To book a trip to Vienna, contact a Tripology.com travel agent expert.