Perhaps it was the streets sans crowds… or the open spaces without too many skyscrapers… or maybe the sheer elegance. I’m not quite sure what it was, but Vienna provided an instant sense of relief from the claustrophobia I had felt in Prague while walking through cluttered, crowded, narrow streets lined by tall buildings. I didn’t have to make much of an effort to like Vienna.
I spent the evening of my first day in Vienna acquainting myself with the roads in the city. The walk lasting a little over an hour was enough to get a glimpse of the imperial grandeur of the city and I couldn’t wait to start exploring the city.
A random walk in the city on a Sunday
I woke up on Sunday morning to find that all the roommates were gone except a girl from Portugal who too was about to check out. “Where’s everyone?” I asked. “Oh, they’ve checked out already! It’s a Sunday. Vienna is closed on Sundays and public holidays. There’s not much to do!” She replied. Really? Well, there had to be some way to utilize my day!
I decided to visit the city center or Innere Stadt and started walking as directed by Google Maps. The Mariahilfer street that’s usually supposed to be quite busy, thanks to the numerous shops and cafes, wore a deserted look on Sunday since the shops were closed.
Argh! Rains?!? Not again! By the time I reached Maria-Theresian-Platz, the enormous public square flanked by the Museum of Art History and Museum of Natural History, it started raining. I idled around in a park nearby for some time and then continued to walk ahead.
After I’d walked a considerable distance, Google Maps indicated I’d reached my destination – I looked around in that empty lane, not a person in sight! Where was I? Clueless, I walked back, now without help from maps and finally reached a place with some people – Stephensplatz! In the St. Stephen’s Cathedral nearby, Sunday mass was on. I entered inside hoping to escape the chill in the air outside and get some warmth. I spent some time observing the ongoing Sunday mass.
Staying inside the cathedral didn’t help much to feel warm and the multiple layers of clothing didn’t help either. Unable to bear the cold, I decided to return to the hostel.
On my way back, near Maria-Theresian-Platz, I came across thousands of runners and wheelchair-bound participants of the Wings for Life World Run. While I was finding the breeze and drizzle too unbearable to keep walking, they continued with their run braving the weather, cheering one another and waving at the people standing on the sides of the road. I couldn’t help but admire them for their indomitable spirit! I wasn’t as brave though and so after reaching the hostel, I decided to call it a day.
A walk along the Ringstrasse or Ring Road
Ringstrasse is a little over 5 kilometers long circular boulevard around the Innere Stadt (city center or Inner Town), lined with opulent palaces, galleries, and museums. It is one of the important historical roads. In the 12th century, walls were erected around the city for protection since Vienna was gaining importance within the empire. The walls were heavily fortified and they separated the city from the suburbs. In the 18-19th century, the fortification was no longer felt to be necessary. The walls were destroyed and a grand new boulevard was built, which demonstrated the grandeur of the Habsburg dynasty and unified the city and suburbs. Some impressive buildings were soon built around this road.
While walking along the ring road, you’ll end up discovering numerous places of interest such as the Maria-Theresian-Platz, Hofburg Palace, Rathaus or City Hall, Parlament – the Austrian parliament, Stadtpark or the City Park, Schwarzenbergplatz, Albertina museum and lots more. These places lie within the ring. Stephenplatz with the St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom) is at the center of the Ringstrasse. (Ah, so I’d already followed the Ringstrasse on Sunday without knowing where I was really going!)
There’s no better way to explore places in Innere Stadt than to follow the Ringstrasse on foot. Of course, I hadn’t realized it until I’d spent €10 on the less-than-half-an-hour tram tour and hadn’t gotten much out of it except a bit of an overview. If you don’t like to walk much, regular trams is an option that’ll cost way lesser than the 30-minute tram tour, which takes you on a non-stop 30-minute tour.
A stroll in the Hofburg Palace gardens
My first stop on the cloudy Monday morning while walking along Ringstrasse was the Hofburg Palace. The complex of the Hofburg palace is a place that you cannot miss when you visit Vienna, not just because of its beauty, but its importance in history. It is from here that the Habsburg family, one of Europe’s most powerful families, ruled Austria from the 13th century to 1918 until the end of the monarchy. Now, the palace serves as the official residence for the president of Austria. It is also home to the National Library, the famous Spanish Riding School (named so since Spanish horses that are the mainstay of the riding school) and the Hofburg Chapel where the world-renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir participates in the Sunday mass.
TIP: Vienna Boys’ Choir concert and Spanish Riding School performance ickets cost a considerable amount. Vienna Boys’ Choir participates in Sunday mass. You can get standing room tickets for free for Sunday mass if you queue up at Hofburg chapel on the day of the mass. Spanish Riding School standing room tickets cost €25-37. You can alternatively watch Lipizzaner horses’ morning exercise to music between 10 a.m. – 12 p.m. for €15.
I spent some time near the Neue Burg, admiring its semi-circular structure and occasionally listening to the rhythmic pounding of grooves of horses as some fiakers (the traditional horse-drawn carriages that continue to be part of Vienna’s character) passed by, before proceeding to the palace gardens.
Burggarten and Schmetterlinghaus or Butterfly House
Just behind the Neue Burg is the Burggarten, the garden that was created initially as a private garden of the emperor and was opened to the public in 1919.
It was at the Palmenhaus or palm house in this garden that I found a small tropical paradise – Schmetterlinghaus or Butterfly House. Spellbound, I stood there, surrounded by greenery, small water bodies, and numerous beautiful, colorful butterflies fluttering around showing off their vibrant wings. The entrance fee for the small place is €7, but considering the fact that most things in Vienna do cost you a bit of money, I didn’t mind paying for this unique, fascinating experience at all.
The Volksgarten (People’s Garden) of the Hofburg Palace was created in place of the city fortress walls after Napoleon demolished those. The rose garden within Volksgarten is the perfect place to just sit back on one of the benches and relax. I visited the garden almost every day during my stay and enjoyed my coffee and snacks breaks there.
A visit to Belvedere Palaces
Belvedere is a huge historical complex with two Baroque palaces – the Upper and Lower Belvedere – and a beautiful expansive garden. The complex is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The palaces are now used to exhibit a collection of artworks by Austrian and international artists.
I opted to visit the Upper Belvedere palace since that’s where permanent exhibitions of masterpieces by medieval artists and sculptors and a collection of paintings by world-renowned painters are held.
There was lots to appreciate in the Upper Belvedere palace – the beautiful painting on the ceiling of the marble hall, the views of the expansive gardens from the windows of the halls and of course, the numerous paintings by artists such as Gustav Klimpt, Vincent Van Gogh, Fernand Khnopff, Franz Sedlacek.
The paintings were beautiful, some stories around the paintings and the artists – those of love/extramarital affairs and suicides/early deaths were rather depressing though! For instance, when I saw Vincent Van Gogh’s beautiful landscape titled “The Plain of Auvers”, I’d believed it to be a happy picture. After getting to know that he painted it shortly before his suicide and that to him, it represented hopelessness and loneliness, the painting seemed less beautiful. And then there was the self-portrait of Richard Gerstl, who was in love with his friend’s wife and who committed suicide at 25!
To be honest, I ain’t much of an art-gallery visitor and this was one of the very few experiences I’ve had of visiting them. I learned quite a lot through this experience because the audio guide included a good amount of description. My favorite painting? The one titled “Calm Water” by Fernand Khnopff.
The First experience of Mozart’s magic at Golden Hall in Musikverein
“Go attend a Beethoven or Mozart concert!” a friend urged me when she got to know I was in Vienna. Why? Well, because Vienna is known as the city of music. The music-loving Habsburg family that ruled Austria for over 6 centuries played a significant role in the cultural and music scene in Vienna. As a result, great musicians, such as Beethoven, Mozart, Schubert, and Haydn, came to Vienna and composed music for years and their legacy lives on in the city.
“€50 is the minimum price for a seat. If you are ok to stand for 90 minutes, the ticket will cost €15”, said a guy who was selling tickets just outside Burggarten for a Mozart concert in the Golden Hall (Grosser Saal) at Musikverein – one of the best concert halls not just in Vienna but in the whole world.
€15 or €50? After a bit of thinking, I bought the ticket to a seat in the first row on the second floor of the Golden Hall. A good decision. I doubt if I’d have been able to see the performers while standing for 90 minutes in the crowd.
This was the first time that I attended a western classical music concert. Listening to a huge ensemble rendering one of the world’s greatest musician’s compositions and performing in such perfect harmony in a beautiful setting was an incredibly precious experience.
TIP: If you want to experience an opera, Vienna State Opera, which is considered to be one of the world’s best opera houses, is the place to go. The tickets to the opera are expensive and sell out way in advance. You can buy tickets to the standing room on the day of the opera for €4. You will find more information to buy inexpensive tickets to opera here. You can also check the schedule of concerts and operas at various venues in Vienna here.
A walk along the Danube canal or Donaukana
An arm of the Danube river, Europe’s second-largest river, was turned into a canal that borders the Vienna city center (Inner Stadt). As I walked by the Danube canal, I couldn’t help but think of my several peaceful evenings walking by the Danube river in Budapest with the gorgeous buildings by the banks of the river. The walk by the Danube canal was nothing like it. The places around were busy and some youngsters were listening to some loud music. The graffiti on the walls around seemed like a mismatch with the character of the city. Overall, to me, this was quite an underwhelming experience.
A walk in the Stadtpark or City Park
Located right at the heart of the city, the Stadtpark or Vienna City Park is the oldest park in Vienna. The 28-acre park covered with greenery and water bodies is possibly one of the most serene places in the city. A walk along the winding pathways in the park, a powernap on the cool lawn beneath trees, some peaceful time just observing people around – a perfect way of unwinding after a whole lot of sightseeing. Loved it!
A stroll in the Schönbrunn Palace gardens
A huge palace with its 1441 rooms! What did they do with so many rooms!? Such extravagance!
While Hofburg palace was the main palace of the Habsburgs, Schönbrunn was their summer residence. The name of the palace “Schönbrunn” means “beautiful spring” and has its origins in the spring that Emperor Matthias is believed to have discovered. The palace, like all the other palaces in Vienna, has extensive park and gardens and you can visit the gardens free of charge. The palace is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site. I ended up spending most part of my day just walking around in the park and gardens, from the palace to the Gloriette and to the Obelisk fountain.
There are numerous other attractions in the palace complex, such as the Privy Garden, the Orangery Garden, Tiergarten Schönbrunn Zoo (world’s oldest zoo and one of the few zoos that has giant pandas), Maze, Palm House. A visit to these attractions takes up an entire day and these require an entry ticket.
Other places of interest in Vienna
I’d have loved to visit museums and art galleries on Ringstrasse, but I decided to give those a miss on my last day and spent some fun time shopping with some new friends from the hostel. Also, my wish to do at least one hike while in Vienna remained unfulfilled because of various reasons. Here are a few places on my wishlist that make me want to visit Vienna again.
- 11 Stadtwanderwege or hiking trails around Vienna – I’d have loved to follow one of these well-marked trails. They’re apparently easily reachable by public transport.
- Haus der Musik Museum– Five-storied interactive sound and music museum in Vienna.
- Albertina – The museum that has artworks of the likes of Da Vinci, Michelangelo, Picasso, Durer.
- Museums Quartier– The area that has some of the leading art galleries and museums in the world.
- Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Art History) and Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History)– The two museums at Maria-Theresian-Platz that are architectural mirror images of one another. The art museum has a collection of objects from the Habsburgs’ treasure chambers and the nature history museum has a collection of more than 30 million objects such as minerals, gemstones, and insects.
Vienna is underrated. “Don’t go to Vienna. We found Vienna boring. It’s like any other city”, I remember being told by an acquaintance. I’m glad I didn’t go by the advice. I found Vienna amazing, with lots and lots of things to do. And oh… the fondest memories during my stay in Vienna are those of the incredible people I met at the hostel. Kelly from Taiwan, Bhagyashree and Priya from my homeland, Maria from Portugal, Lisa from France – a lively and lovely bunch of people whose company I thoroughly enjoyed. I’ll remember Vienna as one of my happy-places. 🙂