Vienna wasn’t built in a day, but let’s attempt to see it in two.
Viennese history in a nutshell:
1st century: Part of the Roman Empire.
9th century: The Babenberg dynasty takes control of the Roman empire, i.e future Austria.
13th century: The Babenbergs disappear and the mighty Hapsburgs enter.
1521: The Empire moves the capital to Vienna
1683: The Turks invade for the 2nd time; Invasion is thwarted leading to the BIRTH OF CROISSANT and Viennese coffee.
1857: Emperor Franz Joseph (FJ) signs a decree to tear down the medieval roman walls, expand the city, and transform it into the modern and elegant city that it is today. Make way for the Ringstrasse.
Austrians collaborate with the Hungarians to form the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
1916: FJ bites the dust, and so does the Austro-Hungarian empire. Peace out Hapsburgs!
1918: Vienna is annexed by Nazi Germany and later by Allied Powers after WWII.
1945: Austrians celebrate Independence with peach schnapps!
2014: Divya eats Sacher Torte. 😉
Day 1: Old Vienna and the Ringstrasse
Breakfast at a Vienna classic: Cafe Central
Herrengasse 14, Vienna A-1010
Legend has it that in 1683, at the end of the second Turkish siege, Viennese soldiers discovered a number of sacks filled with what they initially assumed was camel food. While many of them wanted to burn these “useless” sacks, one smart soldier by the name of Kulczycki decided to take it home to investigate. After many culinary experiments, he determined that the brewed beans tasted great with milk and sugar, and voila, the first Viennese coffee was born.
The locals loved this new concoction (what’s not to love ey?) and soon Kaffeehäuser or coffee houses started to emerge all in the town’s many alleyways (and grand boulevards, eventually.)
At the turn of the 19th century, Vienna was bursting at seams trying to contain its population, which had almost doubled in size with the immigration of many Eastern Europeans. The living conditions rapidly deteriorated; apartments were divided and subdivided until entire families were living in shoebox-sized accommodations, sometimes sharing a bathroom and a sink with the entire floor.
With such living conditions, nobody wanted to invite friends and extended family home, so they met in the coffeehouses instead; coffeehouses at that time boasted of grandiose Neo Renaissance interiors, heating in winters which was quite a luxury, marble tables with plush red velvet seating, a wide array of international newspapers and sometimes even chess sets and live music.
Café central opened its door in 1876 in a building that also housed the Vienna stock exchange. It soon rose in popularity and many prominent artists, writers, philosophers, and politicians made it their preferred place of work and pleasure. They would sometimes buy a single cup of coffee and lounge all day. The creepy statue near the entrance is that of the Viennese poet and writer Peter Altenberg, who spent so much time here that he began to use it as his mailing address. Even Hitler is believed to have sipped coffee under the café’s magnificent arches when he lived in Vienna, struggling to make a living as a painter.
Stroll through Graben, Kohlmarkt and Kärntner Straße
Vienna’s most elegant street, Graben was a giant ditch in 12th century (Graben is German for “ditch”) and marked the western end of the city. In 1867, Maria Theresa converted it into one of Vienna’s main arteries.
The hustle and bustle of Graben extends up to KartnerStrasse and Kohlmarket (cabbage street and coal market street). These three streets are chock full of fancy fashion boutiques, exquisite cafes, and up-market stores. Many of the shops have “K. &. K” branded on their facades, which stands for Königlich und Kaiserlich, a recognition awarded by the Hapsburgs to stores that sold their products to the court.
Look for Swarovski (hails from Austria) and Chanel flagship stores, Café Demel, St Peter’s church, and the column of the plague. You can also find a number of beautiful houses on Kohlmarkt.
Stephansplatz or St Stephan’s square
At the centre of this magnificent square, which served as a cemetery until the 18th century, stands the towering Gothic-style Stephen’s cathedral. You can climb its Steffl tower or Small tower (343 steps) for beautiful views of Vienna. The intestines of many of the Hapsburgs are stored in the cathedral’s crypts, which make for a very interesting visit.
Gingerbread stop at Pirker
Have a bite of history at Kipfelhouse, the birthplace of the croissant
Grünangergasse 1, 1010 Wien, Autriche
In 1683, during the second Turkish siege, the Ottoman Turks dug tunnels underneath the medieval walls at night-time to penetrate the city unseen. Unfortunately for these crafty Turks, some hard-working bakers heard these noises while firing up their ovens early in the morning and alerted the authorities, thwarting the imminent attack.
To celebrate Austria’s victory and the part they had played in protecting it, several bakers in Vienna created a pastry in the shape of a crescent, the symbol they had observed on the battle standards of the Turks. They named the pastry “Kipfel”; which is German for “crescent”.
When young Marie Antoinette moved to France in 1770 to be with her husband, the future French king Louis XVI, she introduced the French to the Austrian breakfast specialty, Kipfel. It was a tremendous hit and soon renamed to “croissant” or crescent in French.
People-watch at Stadtpark with a kipfel in hand.
1030 Vienna, Autriche.
Sample fresh local produce at Naschmarkt and buy souvenirs at Folhmarkt
Devour the world famous Sacher Torte at Café Sacher
Philharmoniker Str. 4 Wien, Austria
Sacher Cafe claims they offer the best slice of chocolate you will ever have in your life, the Sacher Torte. I almost missed my flight back to India trying to debunk their claim and while I won’t say this is the best chocolate cake, it is definitely good. Franz Sacher whipped up this dessert in 1932 at the age of 16 when asked to bake for a party.
Take the tram or walk around the Ringstrasse
In 1192, the Pope Gregory the 8th ordered all the kings of Europe to win back Jerusalem from the Muslim armies of Saladin. The English king Richard the Lion Heart (famous from the tales of Robin Hood) fought alongside friend and ally Duke Leopold of Austria for five years until the important victory of Aker. When Duke Leopold’s army raised his flag as high as King Richard, Richard was deeply enraged as he considered Leopold to be his subordinate and had Leopold’s flag crumpled and thrown into a moat. Humiliated, Leopold threatened to imprison and ransom Richard if he ever set foot in Vienna.
As luck would have it, on the way back home near the Mediterranean Richard’s ship sank due to a storm. He and his army disguised as monks and embarked on the long march back to England. King Richard, the proud king that he was, kept his royal ring and demanded to eat roasted chicken every now and then, a luxury that was reserved only for the royals at that time. Due to these tantrums, he was soon recognized, captured and imprisoned in a castle close to Vienna. Duke Leopold demanded a huge ransom from England to release him. Since he had been a terrible king, England didn’t want him back. Richard’s brother held the throne at the time, and offered 8000 francs to keep him in captivity for 2 more years. But his mother stepped in and bailed him out. A huge chunk of this ransom money was used to fund the construction of medieval walls that shielded the city during the 1st and 2nd Turkish siege.
By the late 18th century these fortifications had become outdated and Emperor Franz Joseph signed a decree to tear down these walls and built the Ringstrasse in their place, uniting the 22 towns outside the walls and the glacis into a newer, more modern and significantly larger city of Vienna. The Ringstrasse or ring boulevard, inspired by the Parisian boulevards, today is a wide tree-lined boulevard that encircles the inner city and houses buildings that showcase the splendor and glory of the Hapsburg empire.
Staatsoper or State Opera
The first of the Ringstrasse buildings to be completed opened its doors in 1857. The architects in charge of this massive project were harshly criticized for the opera’s design; critics called it “the sunken box.” Hearing this, one of the architect flung himself from the first floor of the building and the other died from a heart attack immediately after. The Renaissance style building was completely bombed in WW2 and rebuilt in 1957 strictly according to the original design.
Built in 1819; this garden houses the greenhouse of Imperial Palace “Palmenhaus”, which is also a café at the moment.
Look for Mozart’s statue.
Check out the famous Cellini salt cellar at The Museum of Art history , which was the victim of the one of the biggest art heists
The Museum of Natural history and The Museum of Art History are two identical Renaissance-style buildings right across from each other. In 2003, a man posing as a window cleaner snuck into the art museum and stole the Cellini salt cellar (called the Saliera in Vienna). The museum offered a reward of €1,000,000 for its recovery. The Saliera was eventually recovered in 2006, buried in a lead box in a forest north of Vienna. The thief, Robert Mang, subsequently turned himself in.
These museums flank MariaTheresianPlatz, a monument dedicated to Empress Maria-Theresa, the only woman to ever rule the Holy Roman Empire. Her father proclaimed her as his heir to the throne after her brother died in infancy.
Some of the other notable buildings you will notice are the Volksgarten or the People’s garden, the Parliment, the Rathaus or City hall, BurgTheatre and the Hofburg palace
Grab a cafe mélange and rub shoulders with artists at Café Hawelka
Day 2: Schronbrunn palace and the MuseumQuartier
The Schronbrunn palace, the Hapsburgs’ summer residence
Try to go early, lots of crowds.
Learn how to make an apfelstrudel at the palace kitchens.
Breakfast at Cafe Residenz in the palace
See Gustav Klimt’s Kiss at The Belvedere place
Built in 1700s as a summer palace for Prince Eugene, it was acquired by Maria Theresa following his death. She opened the two palaces to the public to display paintings. Today, you can view many works of art here.
Kegelgasse 36-38, 1030 Wien, Austria
A controversial architect designed a colorful social housing block w/o any right angles or straight lines.
Ride the iconic ferris wheel at Prater
FJ 2 gifted the old hunting reserve (Prater) to the people of Vienna, which up until then could only be visited by the imperial family and nobility. Today this vast expanse of greenery is a famous recreational spot, with rides, wine taverns and street stalls. Ride the ferris wheel for great views of Prater and Vienna.
Spend the evening in a traditional Viennese Heuriger
Vienna is particularly famous for its Heurigers or wine taverns that sell great Viennese wine and some regional fare. Typically, a heuriger is a courtyard with wooden tables, where the entire area is lit by lanterns that hang from trees and vine-covered walls. I highly recommend Heuriger Wieninger.
Dance the night away
The locals recommended Flex at the Danube Canal, which was previously a subway. It has won awards for the best sound system in Europe. For more info check out this article.
–Vienna’s best street eats during Christmas–
I recommend you also watch an episode of Street foods around the world before you go; you will thank me later. 🙂
This guide is by no means exhaustive but should give you an intro to some notable Viennese sights and culture.
Have you visited Vienna? What was your favorite part?
P:S Thanks to Tim Dodd, for proofreading my post.