I went to Vienna with low expectations.
How do I dare to say something like that about one of the most beautiful cities in Europe? After all, half of the planet has a desire to visit. Most of my friends looked uninterested about my Central / Eastern European travel plans until the word Vienna came out of my lips. The mention of the city provoked elation.
“Vienna!!! I have dreamed for years of visiting the city,” was the reaction I heard like ten times.
I understand there are legitimate reasons to look forward to visiting the city. But, on the other hand, I have read articles describing it as cold, unwelcome and with no soul. That worried me a bit since I am the kind of traveler who is very interested in human interaction.
After strolling around the city for a day, I was more than happy with what I experienced.
There is no discussion about the aesthetics of Vienna. If you look left, there is a palace. If you look right, there is another palace. Your eyes get saturated with one grand building after another. And, did I mention those buildings are squeaky clean? Their pale-colored surfaces shine like gold under the sun.
However, I found the city to be more than a striking beauty. I discovered a city full of life. During that first stroll, we bumped into a film and gastronomic festival. We passed lively markets, terraces full of people eating alfresco and shops full of flowers. Concert venues were scattered around the parks and the Museum Quarter.
It was fun to absorb the festive atmosphere. Plus, it was fascinating to have the opportunity to talk to locals and visitors from all over the world. After all, Vienna ended up being a blast!
I found the action concentrated around the Innere Stadt or Vienna’s Old Town. This part of the city is surrounded by the Ringstrasse. This circular road follows the outline of the former fortification walls. Most of the main attractions, including the Habsburg residence or palace, are located in or around this area.
If you are short on time and only have one day in Vienna, I suggest you plan your sightseeing around this area. The distances can be covered by foot or using public transportation such as the tramways or Metro.
How to Spend One Day in Vienna
The Museum Quarter is one of the premier cultural areas in the world. It has an area of 60,000 square meters and it holds about eight different institutions. The buildings have Baroque (former Imperial Stables) and Modern influence.
This is a place to spend an entire day. I recommend taking a quick look or stopping by on the evening in order to take advantage of the free offerings (concerts, plays, etc.)
If you want to dedicate part of your day to museum hopping, here is a list of institutions in the area:
- MUMOK – Museum of Modern Art
- Leopold Museum
- Kunsthalle Wien
- Achitekturzentrum Wien
The Albertina, a museum containing the largest and most important print rooms in the world, is located nearby.
Maria Threresien Platz
This large square houses two more museums: the Natural History Museum and the Art History Museum. The buildings are near identical, except for the statuary on their façades.
As the name implies, a huge statue of Empress Maria Theresa (mother of Marie Antoinette, last queen of France) stands in the middle of the square.
This was the former winter palace of the Habsburg rulers and part of it is used as the residence and workplace of the President of Austria.
The magnitude of this palace is beyond the scope of this post. You are going to notice its enormous size if you visit Vienna. In my opinion, the palace represents the center of the city. It cannot get unnoticed. We saw an exhibition about the Imperial Kitchen (more interesting than how it sounds) and entered the living quarters of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Sisi (Elizabeth). The Spanish Riding School is located on the grounds too.
If you want to learn how Austria became a powerhouse for centuries, this is the place for you. In my opinion, a guided tour of the palace is a must (believe me, the audio guide is excellent). Now, take into consideration that seeing the interiors and exteriors of the palace can take 2 -3 hours. Adding a performance at the Spanish Riding School (the public is welcome to see the horses performing their daily exercises) will set you back half day. It is important to take into consideration those times if you have only one day in Vienna.
This square is dominated by the Michaelertor, the entrance gate to Hofburg. Roman and medieval ruins can be seen in the square.
Many carriages congregate at this point.
Note: I took pictures of them but I am not a fan.
It was time to hit one of the pedestrian parts of the city. These streets are full of high-end shops, cafes, restaurants, and galleries. Indulge a little bit and have some ice cream, chocolate or cake. This was my favorite area to sit down and people watch.
When walking around, it is impossible to miss churches such as St. Peter and St. Stephen (the mother church of Vienna). You can climb to the top of St. Stephen for phenomenal views of the city.
The coffee culture in Vienna is huge. Many of the cafes in the city were frequented by writers and artists who reached international fame. As a consequence, stories, legends and an air of nostalgia have permeated the dimly-lighted corners of these institutions. What is more, these cafes serve the decadent cakes and pastries Vienna is known for.
Old Town is an excellent area to experience the café culture. Café Central seems to be the most popular place to experience Viennese cuisine, homemade cakes and music. Here are other cafes located in the area:
- Café Bellaria
- Café Hawelka
- Café Hofburg
- Café Imperial
- Café Landtmann
- Café Schwarzenberg
Cafes are places to sit down, relax and enjoy good conversation. Do not expect “fast food” type service in here. It is possible to visit less formal sweet and ice cream shops (there are several chains in the city) but expect a relaxed service.
A visit to Vienna would not be complete without taking a look at its Opera House.
The institution is one of the busiest opera houses in the world producing 50 to 60 operas per year and ten ballet productions in approximately 300 performances. It is quite common to find a different opera being produced each day of a week. As such, the Opera has 1,000 employees (that is crazy!).
This was my favorite church in Vienna. It is located on the edge of the Old Town and it is surrounded by a park.
I felt like this area is highly visited by locals when compared to other places in the center. Kids were riding bikes, dogs were taking a dip in the fountains and adults were enjoying a bite from a nearby stand.
The Austrian Parliament Building, built in Greek Revival style, is where the two houses of parliament conduct their sessions. We stopped by the building late in the afternoon but we were able to appreciate the straight lines and imposing statues.
This building houses the city hall and Vienna’s mayor office. It is interesting to see the country’s parliament and the city’s main hall located almost next to each other.
The Rathaus is one of Vienna’s most iconic structures and the square in front of it hosts numerous activities. This is where we found the film and gastronomic festival.
The Burgtheater or the Imperial Theater is located across the street.
Bonus Attraction: Schonbrunn
I know I said you should concentrate your sightseeing on the Old Town if you only have one day in Vienna. But, but, but …
Schonbrunn, the Habsburgs winter palace, is so magnificent that I think you should do the impossible to stop by. Hofburg is splendorous but Schonbrunn is a totally different level. You will understand this once you have seen both.
This is the thing, this palace is located about 4 miles (8 km) from the city center. But, do not fear my friends. The metro will take you there in a cinch. I will visit this palace first things in the morning and then continue my sightseeing in Old Town.
Read more about Schonbrunn here.
Tips to Make the Most of your Day in Vienna
If you want to utilize your day to the max, take into consideration the following:
- Start your day early
- I will save time by having breakfast at my hotel
- Make sure you have everything you need with you for the day
- Wear comfortable clothes and shoes
- Protect yourself with sunglasses, a hat, and sunblock
- Take short breaks to energize yourself. Cafes and ice cream parlors are excellent places to relax for several minutes
- Have a well-detailed itinerary for the day. I am not an advocate of over planning but structure is needed if time only allows a day at a city
- Leave room for spontaneity and enjoy the ride!
Where to Stay in Vienna
Staying close to the city center is an excellent way to save some sightseeing time. Here are some mid-range options located close to the action:
- Hotel Admiral
- Hotel Royal
- Hotel zur Wien Staatsoper
- Drei Konen Hotel
- Hotel Kaiserin Elisabeth
- Pensione Suzanne
More of Vienna
- If you have more than one day in the city, I encourage you to read my post on what to do in Vienna in 1, 2 or 3 days
- Hundertwasserhaus – Explosion of Color in Vienna
- Naschmarkt – Vienna’s Largest Outdoor Market
- The official tourism site is a great source of information
Other European Capitals
It was my pleasure to take you around a small part of the Imperial City. Hope you join me in the future in order to discover more of what the city has to offer.
Have you visited Vienna’s Old Town?
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