Vienna might be one of the most boring cities in the world, but it’s definitely one of Europe’s most stunning. It’s the quintessential high school field trip destination, probably because it’s historical but a lot less fun than all its neighbors. So why would you ever go there and what can you do on your visit?
Stroll through Vienna’s historic center (and then get the hell out)
The center of Vienna is both the most beautiful place you’ll ever see but also the most sterile uninteresting neighborhood on earth. Full of tourists and tacky European shit like horse and carriage rides, Vienna’s historic center is a spotless array of beautiful gardens, elaborate building facades, and busy pedestrian streets. Many of the city’s parks, like Volksgarten and Stadtpark, were once the site of classical concerts by greats like Strauss (whose golden statue can be found in the latter) and Schubert. Today, they’re perfectly green spaces full of fountains and ornate statues.
You’ll also find a few iconic churches dotting the streets of city center including St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which offers both audio and guided tours in addition to tower and catacombs visits, and the baroque St. Peters Church. If you don’t care about churches for the beautiful architecture, you may be interested in a free concert which are frequently held in St. Peters.
But maybe the most famous tourist attraction in central Vienna is Café Central – the blueprint for fancy Vienesse cafés all over the world, one that has seen famous and infamous patrons such as Freud, Trotsky, Hitler, and Lenin. The most famous modern-day visitors are probably travel vloggers who stood in line for 35 minutes waiting to get in so they could order a €7 cake. So after you’ve had your €7 cake and walked around for half a day, you can pretty much cross historic Vienna off your list.
Tour Vienna’s historical palaces
Schoenbrunn Palace and gardens
Vienna’s most popular tourist attraction is Schoenbrunn Palace which is a massive Baroque palace with even larger grounds which served as the summer palace for Habsburg monarchs. The grounds are free to visit and might take you a while considering their size – in fact, you can find a zoo and a hedge maze inside.
But if you’re interested in seeing some gaudy royal apartments, you’ll find a few different tours of Schoenbrunn Palace depending on how many fancy halls you can stomach in one sitting. Like many of the other sights in Vienna, the palace is significant among other reasons for being the site of Mozart’s first concerts when he was 6 years old.
Another one of the Vienna’s most popular garden palaces in the style of Versailles is Belvedere Palace, which currently houses art exhibitions ranging from medieval to modern. Notably it has the largest collection of Klimt paintings in the world. The Belvedere is technically two palaces, not one – Upper and Lower Belvedere. It was once home to Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in Sarajevo started WWI. The vast manicured grounds of Belvedere including the Botanic Gardens are free to visit.
If you need a little liquid incentive to be able to tolerate yet another grand ceremonial hall, I recommend popping into Salm Braeu Brewery and Distillery before you start trekking the grounds. Salm Braeu is legitimately the only thing I remember from my original visit to the city in 2014 because of their chili beer. Do note: an overwhelming amount of reviews for the brewpub accuse the staff of being racist, which honestly, is par for the course in Vienna, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
Hit up the Museum Quarter
Vienna is an amazing destination if you love gigantic museums, because not only are there several of them, they’re also all conveniently located next to each other in the Museumsquartier district. The most popular Museum Quarter stop is probably Kunsthistorisches Museum which was built to house the art collections of Habsburg rulers. The building is just as impressive as the collection with its marbled pillars and decorative ceilings, maybe more so. In the tradition of the Met and the Louvre, you know that any museum full of stolen Egyptian art is going to be way too big and boring to justify the three hours you’ll lose walking in it.
If you haven’t had enough of palaces, the Hofburg is a palace complex that served as the main residence of the Habsburgs for 600 years. It currently houses a museum dedicated to the Empress Elisabeth, also known as Sisi. On your visit, you can check out the Sisi Museum, which showcases the empress’s life, the Imperial Habsburg Apartments, and the Silver Collection if you’re really interested in imperial dining utensils for some reason.
Hang out in Neubau and Mariahilf
Perhaps the most palatable thing about Vienna avoiding everything historical or touristy, which will dazzle you for three seconds and then immediately be forgotten forever. Instead, you may want to venture outside of Ringstrasse, which surrounds all the bullshit in city center to hip and more residential areas like Neubau and Mariahilf. The neighborhoods are divided by Neubagasse, where you can find block after block of large retail chains and small boutiques.
On either side of the retail pedestrian street, you’ll find a ton of restaurants, bars, clubs, and galleries. Food options are not only diverse, but quite good so you can enjoy something other than schnitzel. Sometimes even places with subpar reviews impress – bad reviews are almost always related to service because people from Vienna are absolute cunts. Sour-faced servers notwithstanding, these neighborhoods can offer a good time whether you’re looking for a buzzy place to dine outdoors in the middle of the day or a nice pub to party at well into the night. Though all of Vienna is pretty LGBT-friendly, the “Gay Mile” district in Mariahilf is where you’ll see the most rainbow flags waving outside of cafes, clubs, and bars.
Take a train to Budapest or Prague
I visited Budapest in 2014 on the same trip in which I visited Vienna. I still remember the crazy ruin pubs, the way the Hungarian Parliament Building lit up from our boat tour, and the incredible thermal baths. By contrast, on returning to Vienna, I went back to Café Central and Schoenbrunn Palace as if was my first time, because my actual first time made such a bland impression.
So perhaps my best Vienna travel tip is to leave it. Both Prague to the northwest and Budapest to the southeast are cheaper, more interesting destinations with a hell of a lot more personality. A train to Budapest is around 2:30 hours, and one to Prague is a little over 4 hours. That might just be the best €15 you spend in Vienna.