Things to Do in Vienna
Schonbrunn Palace, or Schloss Schonbrunn, means 'beautiful spring' and was a royal hunting park when plans were made to build a sumptuous palace to rival Versailles. Queen Maria Theresa's architect, Nicholas Pacassi, is responsible for the eventual design of a long, symmetrical palace full of gilding and crimson displays drawing on Japanese, Italian, Persian and Indian works of art. There are ceiling frescoes celebrating the Habsburgs and 18th century furnishings. It was finally finished in 1749.
The gardens are huge and beautiful. There is a spectacular iron and glass palm house, a maze and labyrinth, and a viewing terrace. Since the end of the monarchy the Viennese people have flocked to these gardens for recreation. The palace is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
Vienna’s most beautiful concert hall was completed in 1867 on the edge of the Stadtpark (City Park), close to the gilded statue of composer Johann Strauss, whose music is enjoyed there nightly. The Kursalon was designed by Austrian architect Johann Garben in Neo-Renaissance style and its original use was as a spa; just a year after it opened it was given over to music and became the meeting place of choice for Viennese high society.
Recently given a facelift, the Kursalon is now returned to its gleaming, romantic best and its halls once more drip with chandeliers and elegant stucco decoration. It is known for its nightly repertoire of favorites from Strauss, Schubert, Mozart and other Baroque musicians, played by the Salonorchestra Alt Wien, which was founded in 1994.
Standing in stark contrast to the baroque palaces and grand plazas of historic Vienna, the colorful facade of the Hundertwasserhaus is one of the city’s most unique works of architecture. Unconventional and somewhat eccentric, the apartment complex is the masterpiece of 20th century Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, one of the country’s most imaginative and controversial contemporary artists. Mimicking elements of Gaudí’s Art Nouveau style, Hundertwasser’s designs marry whimsical shapes and curved lines with a bold color palette, resulting in some of Austria’s most recognizable and most visited landmarks.
The Hundertwasserhaus was finished in 1986 and features a playful mix of painted mosaics and different sized windows, spread over the 52 apartment buildings. The organic theme even goes one step further, with a grass-covered rooftop sprouting with trees that appear to be grown from within.
Staatsopera, the Vienna Opera, began in the early 18th century. Since then it has continuously produced performances every year. The building was opened in 1869, part of Franz Joseph's expansion of Vienna which has left such a magnificent legacy of grand buildings in the city. There are guided tours, or, better still, attend one of the 300 performances held every year in an every changing program.
A visit to the new Viennese State Opera Museum can be combined with a guided tour of the Opera House. The museum has photos, costumes, playbills, models of stage sets and information on every performance of the last fifty years.
A colossal piazza right at the heart of Imperial Vienna, Heldenplatz stretches out in front of the sweeping arcs of the Hofburg Palace, which was commissioned for the Habsburg Imperial Family in 1881. Constructed under the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph II as part of the city’s elegant Ringstrasse thoroughfare in the late 19th century, the square is dominated by two vast equestrian statues of Archduke Charles of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy, and completely surrounded by the Baroque beauty of Vienna’s most important landmarks.
The Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived on this spot in various palaces from the 13th century until its demise in 1918; now the palace is home to several sublime Imperial collections in the Neue Burg, Sisi and art museums; the Imperial Apartments; the office of the Austrian President; the National Library; the Hofburgs’ private chapel; and the Augustinian Church, parish church of Vienna’s aristocracy.
Marking the boundary of the First District, where the old city walls once stood, the series of boulevards that make up the Ringstrasse trace a 5km scenic loop around the historic center of Vienna. Created in the late 19th century to replace the fortification walls demolished under Emperor Franz Joseph, the Ringstrasse was designed to accommodate some of the city’s most spectacular works of architecture.
For visitors to Vienna, following the route of the Ringstrasse is a popular way to take in the sights, starting with the dramatic neo-Gothic Rathaus, or City Hall, set in the landscaped Rathauspark and the neighboring Parliament buildings. The magnificent Burgtheater and Volksgarten park stand opposite, and heading south, the ring road passes Maria Theresa Square and Franz Joseph’s elaborate Kaiserforum, now home to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History).
The Church of St Charles Borromeo, or Karlskirche, is the finest baroque church in Vienna and was built between 1716 and 1739, after a vow by Karl VI at the end of the 1713 plague. It was designed and commenced by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and completed by his son Joseph. Although predominantly baroque, it combines several architectural styles.
The twin columns are modeled on Trajan's Column in Rome and show scenes from the life of St Charles Borromeo (who helped plague victims in Italy), to whom the church is dedicated. The huge oval dome reaches 236 ft (72m); in combination with the church's large windows, the dome's height creates a bright, open nave. There is a small museum with a handful of religious art and clothing purportedly from the saint, but the highlight is the lift to the dome for a close-up view of the detailed frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr. The altar panel is by Sebastiano Ricci and shows the Assumption of the Virgin.
More Things to Do in Vienna
The Vienna Prater is both a huge outdoor area and an amusement park. Once the Emperor Maximilian II's hunting ground in the 16th century, in 1766 Emperor Joseph II declared it open parkland for everyone. Coffee-houses and cafes sprang up and nobody seemed worried that it continued to be used for hunting until 1920! It was also around the 18th century that the Wurstelprater began - an amusement park which continues to this day and includes the giant ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, one of Vienna's famous sights. There are also bumper cars, a roller-coaster, and carousels.
The Prater also houses a planetarium and the Prater Museum, a little disappointing as museums go although the antique slot machines are worthwhile.
The House of Music, or Haus der Musik, rates among the best museums in the city. Spread over 4 floors (the 5th is a café and restaurant), it helps explain sound in an amusing and interactive way, accessible to both children and adults.
The 1st floor houses the Vienna Philharmonic's historical archives, where a shortened version of the world famous New Year's concert can be heard and you can compose your own waltz with the interactive roll of a die. The 2nd floor's "prenatal listening room" re-creates noises heard by babies in the womb. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss and Mahler each have a room on one level and yet another floor deals with experimental and electronic music. Displays are very interactive.
Founded in 1768 by its namesake, Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, son-in-law of Empress Maria Theresa, Vienna’s Albertina museum is renowned for housing the world’s most prominent collection of graphic art. Displayed in a former residential palace on the tip of the vast Hofburg Imperial Palace complex, the grand Albertina is among the city’s most notable attractions, home to an incredible 1.5 million prints and over 50,000 drawings.
The Albertina’s gigantic permanent collection is broken into 4 principal departments, most notably the aforementioned Graphic Art Collection, of which highlights include the world’s largest collection of Dürer drawings (totaling around 145) and a large number of works by Raphael, Rembrandt and Schiele.
If you’re looking to sample authentic Viennese cuisine or soak up some local culture, pay a visit to the Naschmarkt, the oldest and most beloved of Vienna’s many markets. Dating back to the 16th century, the Naschmarkt has occupied its present location since 1793, stretching for more than a kilometer along the Wienzeile, just south of Vienna’s historic center. Over 170 stalls take over the vibrant market hall each day between 6am and 6.30pm, selling an array of food produce from around the world.
Visiting foodies will be in heaven here, with stalls heaped with fresh meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, international wines and artisan cheeses. Most notable is the variety of ethnic cuisines, from an Indian and Middle Eastern section dotted with kebab and falafel huts, to a spread of stalls devoted to Oriental cuisine and a colorful array of exotic spices.
Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna is the former summer residence of the royal family. The gardens at Schönbrunn Palace were opened to the public at the end of the 1700s and since then have been a popular recreational area, both with the Viennese population and international visitors alike.
The palace and its immaculate grounds made it onto the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1996. Spanning some 1.2 kilometers from east to west and approximately one kilometre from north to south, these are no ordinary gardens; they house a spectacular iron and glass palm house, a maze, and a viewing terrace. The original Baroque-style layout, along with the additions made during the last decade of Queen Maria Theresa’s life, has more or less been retained.
With a history dating back to 1889 and a permanent collection made up of over 20 million objects, the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) is one of the largest and most renowned natural history museums in the world. The counterpart to the Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum), both museums are located on Maria Theresien Platz in central Vienna and rank among the city’s top attractions.
Based on the collected works of Emperor Franz Stefan, husband of Empress Maria Theresia, Rudolph II and Prince Eugène of Savoy, exhibits include a vast assemblage of minerals, rocks, fossils, meteors and flora specimens; a zoological display featuring a series of rare stuffed animals and extinct species; and a Dinosaur Hall, which houses the skeleton of a Diplodocus.
Filled to bursting with Austrian art from the early 20th century, the Leopold Museum has an appropriately contemporary design. Constructed in Vienna’s innovative MuseumsQuartier by design partnership Ortner & Ortner, the museum opened in 2001 and is essentially a gleaming white, limestone cube that contrasts neatly with the flamboyant Baroque architecture of Imperial Vienna.
Named after philanthropist and art collector Rudolf Leopold, who died in 2010, the museum holds around 5,200 works of art; the permanent exhibitions displayed around the vast atrium and open galleries range from masterly silverware and ceramic decorative arts from the Wiener Werkstätte (Vienna Workshops) of 1903–32, to stylish Art Nouveau furniture designed by Kolomon Moser, and some rather brutal portraits by Expressionist Oskar Kokoschkar.
Mozart had multiple residences in Vienna, but only one survived to the present day. The Mozarthaus Vienna at Domgasse 5 served as the composer’s home from 1784 to 1787, during the height of his musical success. Within his first-floor apartment, Mozart penned some of his most iconic works, like the opera The Marriage of Figaro.
Audio-guided tours of the house begin on the building’s top floor, where exhibits explain the lifestyle and prominent figures of society life in eighteenth century Vienna. Heading down a floor, visitors are immersed in all things music; a highlight is a holographic performance of a portion of The Magic Flute. On the ground floor, visitors enter Mozart’s bedroom, furnished with pieces from the time to give a sense of what his living quarters might have looked like.
With an extensive collection, large exhibition halls, themed special exhibits, and a rich program of events, Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (commonly called MAK) is a great place to spend an afternoon. The museum is located in the ‘Innere Stadt’ (Vienna’s First District), and combines the applied arts, contemporary art, design, and architecture under one roof. The MAK boasts a unique collection of applied arts and is known worldwide as a first class destination for contemporary art. The museum’s spacious halls in the impressive Ringstraße building have been redesigned by contemporary artists to best showcase the MAK’s permanent collection, keeping the artistic heritage of the building as part of the viewing experience. The windows of the MAK are distinctively illuminated by James Turrell’s light sculpture, which was permanently installed in 2004.
Madame Tussauds is a worldwide favorite with children for its realistic waxwork models of famous rock stars, royalty, movie stars, athletes and historical figures. The Vienna outpost opened in 2011 and is found close to the rides, sideshows and landmark Ferris wheel of Prater, the world’s oldest amusement park.
Although displays change frequently as the world of stardom waxes and wanes, Madame Tussauds Vienna is currently divided into eight themed sections packed with family fun. Film fanatics can shoot a movie with producer Quentin Tarantino or join Audrey Hepburn for tea, while history buffs learn about European history from Empress Maria Theresa or the German World War II hero Oskar Schindler. President Obama and the Dali Lama feature in the Politicians and Visionaries exhibition while a smattering of world-famous stars—Angelina and Brad, Robbie Williams—all attend Vienna’s most exclusive A-list party.
The lovely green, gold and white-marble pavilion on Vienna’s Karlsplatz has finally found a new purpose in life; designed by Otto Wagner in 1897 as part of the city’s new train station, it has now become the permanent home to an exhibition on the life of this extraordinary, forward-thinking Art Nouveau architect. The revamped interior of the pavilion presents a detailed look at Wagner’s architectural legacy to Vienna, including churches and private houses as well as the Russian Embassy, which he completed in 1886. The museum also acts as a springboard to other Wagner-related sites around the city, such as his monumental Post Office Savings Bank on the palatial Ringstrasse.
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