The world associates Vienna with museums. Does it mean there is nothing else to do? Of course not! The city hides many things besides its colossal palaces & museums. So this is an assorted list of the best things to do in Vienna that shows why a non-museum lover like me fell in love with the city.
Heads Up – Read our post “Complete Vienna Travel Guide for first timers“ to know why you must not buy a Vienna City pass and how to save money using VOR tickets.
1. Take a guided walking tour.
Vienna holds many historical stories and astonishing facts. Many buildings may look similar in the city, but only a historian or a proud Viennese can tell you the truths behind them. The best way to start your Vienna trip is to go on a walking tour. Many walking tours are free but don’t forget to tip at the end. I went through Guru walk and opted for “A perfect start for your visit to Vienna” tour.
This tour doesn’t just narrates the history. But our Guru showed some interesting things that would go un-noticed by common folks without a Viennese guide. Such as, the king who ordered it to be built didn’t like it and said, “It looks like a cheap Railway Station; build another one.” Thank god they didn’t!
These wicked, witty facts are the best part of walking tours.
Vienna Opera House – Does it looks like a railway station to you?
The Guru also showed some cool place to hangout later and was super knowledgeable.
2. Have lots of coffee.
Vienna is one of the top 5 countries in the world regarding cafe culture.
The Viennese coffee culture began in 1683 when the Hofburg king’s army chased away Ottomans who left their coffee bags in the city. The king asked his people to make good use of the beans. The first person to set up the coffee shop in Vienna was an Armenian who was a spy of Vienna’s imperial court. He knew the art of converting the beans into refreshing coffee.
Now Vienna imports coffee beans from free Brazil Columbia, and you find only a few tea places!
In the 1700s, the coffee house culture spread all over Vienna with some typical traditional things – Serving coffee with a small cup of water. Later a cafe began keeping newspapers for the guests!
The locals started treating coffee houses as reading & meeting places! So you find antique-styled wooden newspaper stands holding newspapers even today! Comfy-cosy cafes reflect olden times, where you can chat for hours together or find solitude with a book without being disturbed in an aromatic ambience.
What is the famous cafe in Vienna?
- Cafe Hawelka since 1939–I wasn’t alive in the 1940s, but it feels like nothing has changed after that! Their coffee is the best one I had in the world. Don’t forget to try their cheese strudels after a cup of divine coffee.
- The Landtman since 1873! – Closer to Austria Town hall, this is where philosophers and artists met back then. The coffee is good, but the decor is even more charming.
- Cafe Central since 1876 – The cafe in which Austrian neurologist Sigmund Freud walked in is a charm by the name itself! Their coffee and cuisine are to die for if only you are patient enough to stand in the waiting line for at least 30 minutes.
- Cafe Bellaria, Near Rathaus. It has wonderful croissants and cakes, too, along with refreshing coffee.
3. Meet the only Hofburg female ruler at Maria Theresa Plaza.
This is my favourite square in Vienna for many reasons. First, two highly ornate 1800s palace-turned museums surround the yard on two sides. The manicured gardens are perfect for people to nap in the shade after visiting museums. Moreover, the square focal point has the stature of “bad-ass” queen Maria Teresa- the queen who had an unusually successful life.
She lived for 63 years between 1717s to 1780 and was the only female ruler of Hofburg. The intriguing part is the lady gave to 16 children during her 40-year reign. The math goes like this –
- 16 Kids X 9 months poignancy =144 weeks
- = 12 years which is more than 1/3 of her reign!
And I took a selfie with her at Melk
I am not talking about the time she spent postpartum. She was either pregnant or mother to a newborn for more than half of her reign! But the Austro-Hungarian empire reached the greatest extent during her time because she got her 15 kids married to other European imperials and let only one daughter choose her soulmate.
4. See some Dinosaurus.
After her husband’s death, Queen Maria Teresa converted two of her palaces into museums. One of them is the Natural history museum, with more than 30 million exhibits, a must-visit Museum in Vienna. She called archaeologists and geologists from around the world and made a fine collection of exhibits.
There are skeletons and replicas of some unheard animals that existed billions of years ago. And there are dinosaur bones and even an animated toy that feels super real. The dinosaur ( Allosaurus) is enormous (15m long almost) and takes up most space in the grand hall where it is kept.
What should you not miss in Vienna?
Spending time here learning about extinct species is good. But I had fun watching kids see the animated toy dinosaur and getting terrified. Don’t call me a sadist – How the kids react after seeing the giant creatures is hilarious.
There is an excellent collection of geological findings on the upper floor – The raw form of precious gems is more embellished than I expected.
Spend at least three hours here and take a coffee break in their cafe – The fresco-painted ceiling and the grand stairway make you wonder if you will encounter a royal here.
5. Lose yourself in Mozart’s Music Concert.
You need to know neither notes of some symphony nor the German language to understand Oprah. The whole vibe gets into your vein when the strings of Cello create a tone that resonates with violin cheer followed by sweeter, brighter music. The opera artists are so versatile that their facial expressions narrate the story. Witnessing the soft yet energetic, soothing yet cheerful orchestra in its birth town is a different feel.
Where can I see music in Vienna?
The most enigmatic venue is the Opera house near Albertina-this gets booked super fast. But you find men selling concert tickets everywhere wearing white wigs similar to that of Mozart-. So I picked the one at Schonbrunn, “Vienna Mozart Orchestra”. Later my hotel receptionist told me that locals prefer Mozart Orchestra over any other. I was lucky to choose what locals pick, unknowingly.
6. Stroll and watch people at Stephenplatz.
The “zero Kilometre” of Vienna, the city’s geographical centre, is this plaza with places to eat, shop, and stroll. Or do nothing! Mom and I bought ice cream at a trendy pink cafe, “Aida ”, and sat by a bench watching hundreds of tiktokers, Ukrainian supporters in passive protest and even Falun Dafa activists! The world moves faster here. You won’t realise your ice cream is melting until you take your eyes off the horse chariot on the move.
If you feel Vienna is empty in any part of the city, come here even at midnight! Probably except at 6 in the morning, this plaza is never quiet.
7. Pray for no more pandemic at Plague Column.
The brutal outbreak of plague in Vienna killed almost 75000 people in 1679! The situation was so bad that the prisoners were asked to remove bones from their bodies to stack them in catacombs because the church received an uncountable number of deceased.
So the king of Austro-Hungarian of that time built this monument at Graben street as a sign of faith and hope. The king restored the existing simple wooden column with more sculptures of angels and himself praying to the god.
The column feels glorious until you realise why it was built. It is common to pass by admiring this column, but don’t forget to observe the minute details of the sculpture – The agony, begging for mercy expressions on those sculptures will surely haunt you or remind you what happened to the world in 1679 and 2020.
8. Take a Horse Chariot ride and see more of Vienna.
I am not a fan of horse chariot rides. But having stayed in Vienna for three days and wandering, I felt I needed to know more tales and see more streets because it was impossible to walk everywhere in just three days. Nothing better than a horse chariot ride that starts by the backside of Stephen cathedral. With tourism evolving, the coachmen have learnt many languages to cater to tourists.
The clip-clop begins with an explanation of why the cathedral wall was burnt in the 1200s and world war 2. Then, the ride goes through a Tuchlauben street once occupied by textile merchants.
The journey continues through the Hofburg palace courtyard and takes you to another old road where the Liechtenstein embassy is housed in an ancient baroque building. It is interesting how your carriage makes its way through the street full of cars parked and cyclists beside Burgtheater.
A ride for 20 minutes cost us 55 euros, which is worth it.
9. Have a carefree evening at Museum Quarters.
Do you want to know where Vienna’s young crowd chills? Wanting to check out the latest fashion trend going on? Tired after wandering in the city and ready to watch movies for free in the open air? Do you need a break from history? Come to Museum Quarters.
One of the world’s largest cultural areas, MQ houses many institutions related to art, dance, architecture and paintings. The court, surrounded by ancient buildings, has many cafes, beer places and a Vegan ice cream shop. So grab anything to drink or eat, come and lay back on that Urban furniture and watch! The site is way different from any historic plaza.
10. Lust over Hofburg’s Jewel Treasure.
The Hofburg palace has darker and glittering sides: The palace balcony where Hitler stood and proclaimed the “homecoming of Austria” reminds you of the turbulence of 1945. But the glitter side lies in Hofburg palace at Schatzkammer, which houses several items for which the word “priceless” really applies. Most originate from the time of the Haofburgs. The room voyage shows crowns and ceremonial robes, swords and sceptres, gems and jewellery, relics and rich altar tapestries that belong to 1000 years.
No doubt, those objects are the epitome of artistry. But the royals had to be strong and sturdy to wear such heavy clothing and jewels! An extra piece of hairdressing fatigues me. But the royals had to carry so many things and remain poised. Wow!
Spend an hour and buy the audio guide – They are super useful.
11. Check out Kohl Market’s Goldness.
After seeing the glitters of Horburg and Sisi’s silver collection at the palace, you won’t stop thinking of the genius goldsmiths who made them. Those Goldman appointed by royals lived outside the palace on this street called Kohl market. Continuing the royal (rather expensive) legacy, some traditional Viennese luxury jewellery designers have shimmering windows and are a perfect street for shopping for the rich and a fantastic place to wander for window shoppers.
12. Watch some sexy horses being Ballet Dancers.
In the 1560s, it was a “Let us have fewer wars and more peace” time in Europe. The Spanish Riding School in Vienna was founded in 1565 to teach the art of classical horsemanship. Almost 100+ years later, a Hofburg king built a baroque-style building to train the horses to become ballet dancers – because the cavalry wasn’t the only thing horses could do! The king had spent a lot of time in Spain and brought the horse breed “Lipizzan” from Morish Andalucia.
Now, these horses are bred in Slovenia and brought to Vienna
These are the most elegant horses I have ever seen – They are born greyish and turn white as they age. The riders explain that they are highly intelligent and trainable. So they are taught to dance to Viennese Waltz! The best way to see the horse ballet is by taking a paid guided tour on particular days. Or events where they perform on specific days.
13. Learn the “not-so” romantic love story of Franz Joseph I & Sisi at Burggarten.
The story of a royal couple who was supposed to live happily ever after in Schonbrunn palace is tragic – but interesting.
- Frans Joseph married pretty Sisi from Bavaria when she was 16.
- Having a carefree childhood, the Bavarian princess didn’t like the formal life of Hofburg as a queen.
- Devastated by her orthodox life, she often used to go on trips away from her husband – She is famous for taking long walks.
- The unhappy “beauty-conscious queen” wore the tightest corset and kept her waist to 21″ size.
- She spent most of her time dressing up, studding her “floor touching long hair” with some 20+ diamond pins.
- After three abortions, she gave birth to a child named Rudolph in the 1850s. At 30, Rudolph shot himself after killing his mistress in 1889.
- 60-year-old Sisi was out in Geneva’s promenade in 1898. An Italian anarchist stabbed her to her death with a needle.
- After his arrest, the happy murderer said, “Because I am an anarchist, I am poor, I love the workers, and I desire to see the death of the rich.”
Even with so many things happening in his personal life, Frans Joseph lived for 86 years and ruled the Austro-Hungarian empire for 68 years! Amen.
14. Visit Schonbrunn Palace for Gardens and grandeur.
The light ochre wide facade punctured with bottle green windows astounds you with its size. Fortunately, the vast courtyard in front and the gardens spread across 300 acres give plenty of space for viewers to admire its beauty. They call it imperial residence – The “meaning” of residence is very much different to the Hofburg royals – Because this residence has 1440 rooms designed with Baroque style bling. It was built for King Frans Joseph 1 and his Bavarian queen Sisi to live there post-wedding.
Thank god, the palace complex has been divided into eight zones, and you can buy tickets to each zone. I recommend purchasing a GLORIETTE pass called “Crowning Glory of Schonbrunn” for some fantastic views of the gardens by the pavilions. If you want to see all eight attractions in the complex, like every garden, the oldest zoo in the world and stately rooms, you will need one whole day.
15. Go haggle and hog in Naschmarket.
The open market with more than 120 shops takes the diverse culture of Vienna to the next level! Built on the closed Weiner canal, this place was meant for farmers and milkmen to serve those who come along Donaukanal. Cheaper clothes from Bangladesh, aromatic spices from the middle east, Tea leaves from India, Turkish Delight, Italian cheese and olives, Tropical country’s coconut – I wonder if there is something from each country in this one impressive market.
Plus, you can have a gastronomical gala here – Have Israeli Shakshuka for breakfast. Have some Viennese croissants and coffee during the shopping break. Eat Greek Saganaki with Fatah cheese salad for lunch and return home with Turkish Baklwas! You find at least half of the world here.
16. Have lunch at Viennese special restaurants.
You can go on listing some traditional Viennese non-vegetarian cuisines. Naturally, their meals revolve around meat. The Wiener Schnitzel, tafelspitz are meat eater’s deliacy. But surprisingly, there are some conventional vegetarian meals too! Kaisercharm (scrambled sweet pancakes) and Scher cake are famous among tourists. But the best thing to do in Vienna (or even in the whole of Austria) is to have the world’s most delicious food(in my opinion), Strudels! The apple strudel is popular, but my heart beats for Cheese strudel.
“Open Brotchens” at Trzesniewski since 1902 is another real Viennese treat. The unique small open sandwiches in this 120-year-old fast food joint that gives you a fresh, juicy and healthy meal with a small glass of beer have been Viennese go-to meal during work days. The concept here is to have a quick dinner and refresh with a little quantity of beer so that you can work happily even after meals!
Vienna is so multi-cultural that you are never away from “Non-Austrian” restaurants.
Some of the best restaurants in Vienna I found are
- Motto am Fluss by Donau canal for breakfast with a view.
- In Naschmarkt –
- Trattoria Santo Stefano
- MQ Daily in Museum Quarters for snacks.
- Cafe Arnes near Westbahn street for Viennese and Greek food
17. Climb Saint Stephen Cathedral tower to look at the city like a bird.
St Stephen cathedral, built on an ancient Roman cemetery, is a prominent landmark of Vienna and is the highlight of Stephenplatz. The two altitudinous towers dominate the silhouette. But the coloured roof tiles bring their dominance down.
The cathedral inside is equally impressive -typical of any gothic style with ribbed vaults, detailed sculptures, and stained glass windows. The catacombs with walls of stacked bones can bring chills to anyone’s spine.
The south tower is the shorter tower and is accessible by an elevator. The taller northern tower is a good place to digest your cheese strudel or schnitzel by climbing up and down 350+ steps oneway.
On the roof of St. Stephen’s Cathedral, colourful roof tiles were laid to create the Royal and Imperial double-headed eagle. This fascinating feature comes with an extraordinary view of the city aerially. You may not be able to go to all 26 districts; but when you climb either of the towers, you see most of it.
18. Get surprised by Viennese Grafitti at the Donaucanal.
The historical buildings of Vienna are subjected to strict Heritage conservation rules. As most of the city is covered with such buildings, Viennese don’t get the “Free Walls to smear” much. When they get, they go more than artsy! You ask for a shade on the colour wheel; I am sure you will find it on the Donaucanal walls. Anger to love, climate to coitus – A walk through the passage of art after a heavy breakfast in one of the canal-side cafes is a good way of starting that “No-More History day” in Vienna.
19. Wander around Rathaus; that reminds you of Greece.
Perhaps, outside of Greece, the Austrian parliament building is the only structure built with perfect resemblance to an ancient Greek temple. The distinct Greek flavour makes you wonder if it was really built during Greek time. As an architectural history teacher, I could recognise Corinthian columns instead of Doric. But the proportions and statue of Athena with a bit of gold is a masterpiece of Neo-Classicism time.
A few steps from the parliament building, the town hall with its towers like beanstalks takes you to the Gothic era. But Austrian’s flavour of window boxing in those Gothic towers reminds you that it is a Gothic revival.
An entire street is a nice place for morning jogging before the cafes and parks get filled up.
20. Stroll through Kapelplatz and Mariahaf street.
The Naschmarkt is a flea market. The other historical streets are expensive because they are the hot spot for tourism. Let us say you want to try cafes and go shopping where Viennese go; head to Kapelplatz on Sunday evening. The families are out, and their kids will be giggling at the carousel set by the streetside. Irish pubs will be full of fans with hands on their heads and gulp beer if there is a football match that evening.
I found walking in Marihaf street the best thing to do in Vienna because it gave me time. I could observe Vienna beyond history with nothing “touristically or historically” significant. The Kapelplatz, with cheaper shopping places, was a nice place to take a break in Vienna’s “not-so-famous” yet great cafes.
21. Wonder why Mozart died so early at his monument.
The greatest composer of Symphony was born in the enchanting town of Salzburg in 1756. He composed his first music in the 1760s – A 4-year-old kid! Then he travelled through 10 European countries, composing and giving concerts. He settled in Vienna in the later 1780s and married in the city. His fame rose to a peak in 1790. A year later, he fell ill and passed away! The man was celebrated as Vienna’s pride and was buried in a pit grave along with many other bodies at age 35. There was neither a cross nor an epitaph for his grave.
In 1896, this marble statue in the park was built as his memorial. His body is believed to be in another cemetery – But nobody is sure.
22. Visit the most unique houses -Hundertwasser and Kunst Haus.
Most who stroll through Vienna’s historical districts wonder,” Why do so many palatial buildings in Vienna look similar and monumental?” Of course, we also had the same query. But an artist turned architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, didn’t ask the question but broke the pattern in 1985 with his philosophy of Humans and nature becoming one.
So the postwar rigid and stern straight lines weren’t a thing for the artist who was inspired by architect Gaudi (the one who built Sagrada Familia in Barcelona) – And took a winding turn in every possible element of the building along with adding a kaleidoscopic vibe to it.
The two houses he built have undulating flooring, no right-angled walls and irregularly yet rhythmically placed windows! Kunst House is converted into an exhibition space while actual residents occupy Hundertwasser house.
23. Visit any “not so famous” churches for some tranquil time.
There is nothing wrong with visiting the popular ones. But in those churches, as tourists, we mostly focus on admiring architecture and clicking photos. Perhaps, in a city like Vienna, taking 30 minutes break in a spiritual place rejuvenates you. So while mom rested in the room on a hot afternoon, I took 30 minutes of refuge inside the Catholic Church on Mariahilf street.
“Kirche Maria vom Siege. – The brown brick church with a black byzantine dome stands out on busy Grutel road. Having not seen a “dark” coloured church, I wanted to see how it is inside – Unfortunately, this 1875 church has been under restoration for many years (until 2022)! If you are lucky, you may get to go inside in future.
24. Walk the neighbourhoods and take Random Trams!
You can’t hit all 26 districts in a few days. But the best thing in Vienna is to take a tram to districts beyond 12. It sure shows you another side of Vienna. And you get to meet with actual Vienna residents going or returning from work.
If they haven’t plugged their ears and seem friendly, you can always crack a talk – They give the address of the best restaurant and may even tell you a beautiful secret spot in Vienna. Perhaps their favourite vineyard in District 26?
25. Make Many day -trips from Vienna
Vienna’s connectivity and proximity let you make many day trips. I even met people going to Budapest from Vienna for a day! While Salzburg and Melk are popular day trip options, I recommend stayover trips to those places. I planned to make a day trip to either Rust or head to outer districts to see places like Wortuba Church. Unexpectedly Vienna kept me very much occupied on all three days, and I continued my Austrian 15 days vacation by going to Melk for two days and then a week in Salzburg, followed by three days in Tirol.
Do you have a different list of “Best things to do in Vienna”? Let us know in the comment section below.