“The hills are alive with the Sound of Music…” – you truly won’t be able to resist humming that song when you see the beautiful hills and countryside in Austria. Enchanting enough to be a destination on its own, in our case we combined it with a visit to Switzerland and as a result had just 5 nights in Austria. Our itinerary included 3 nights in Vienna and 2 in Salzburg. Most first time visitors also include Innsbruck in their schedule. There is much more to Austria but on our first visit we opted to focus on just the Vienna and Salzburg areas.
We flew into Vienna or Wien from the US and flew out of Geneva, Switzerland. All intercity transfers in Austria and Switzerland were on the wonderfully efficient and comfortable trains.
We bought a 72 hours Vienna card from the tourist information point at the airport. Vienna card gives you discounts for various attraction tickets. From Vienna Airport we took a taxi and we stayed in an apartment in the second district – Leopoldstadt. However in hindsight, I think it would be better to stay in Vienna’s inner city itself where the maximum tourist attractions are located. District 1010 is where the city center of Vienna is located.
One reason we rented an apartment was that we are a family of four and wanted to save money by not getting two hotel rooms. But I paid no attention to the fine print which said that the apartment was on the fourth floor of an old building with no elevators. Needless to say we got plenty of exercise and that initial trip up all those stairs with luggage was quite the experience. I also thought it would be quiet being away from the inner city but I was mistaken. It turned out some crazy folks in the building were banging doors and having an argument in the middle of one night. If I were to visit Vienna again, I would stay at the Benediktushaus Guest House in the heart of the city.
Living away from city center, we learned how to work the subway system in Vienna fast. The first time we went out and came back we could not get the door to the building itself to open and this being a rental there is no front desk. A really nice Austrian lady passing by gave me her phone to call my rental contact and helped by flagging down a police officer who found the trick to opening the door. She waited until our problem was resolved. Most Austrians we met were helpful and gracious. But such are the issues you may face if renting versus using normal hotels. But on the positive side, unlike a tiny cramped hotel room, we had plenty of space, kitchen, laundry and 2 bedrooms.
Vienna’s city center is beautiful architecturally and is filled with several historic buildings. We walked around the city center and visited St. Stephen’s Cathedral (Stephansdom). You can if you desire buy tickets to see the remains of royals or climb 340 steps up to see the view.
St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche) in Vienna was magnificent. A lovely small church which looks ordinary, but inside it’s ornate with gold ornamentation everywhere. Admission is free. While the church is a bit on the smaller side, the visitors can get up close to most of the interiors and it can be found just around the corner from St Stephens.
Another beautiful building is the Vienna State Opera House and it is definitely worth going on the tour inside this magnificent opera theater. Tours are every hour.
The Imperial Palace Hofburg was wonderful. Be sure to buy a combination ticket that covers Schonbrunn, the summer palace as well. The Sisi Ticket (Sisi was Empress Elizabeth’s nickname) will provide you with access to the Hofburg and, Schonbrunn Palaces and the Imperial Furniture collection in addition to fast track access to the palaces, avoiding the lines. Buy tickets at whichever one of the palaces you choose to do first. Schonbrunn Palace is a bit away from the city center.
The Treasury at Hofburg contains some of the best crown jewels, clothing and artifacts anywhere in Europe. The library is spectacular and the complex also has the world famous Spanish Riding School. The Imperial Palace can be seen from the outside for free and you can admire the building, architecture and the garden but to access any of the inside areas you need tickets. An audio guide is available or you can view the pieces and read the cards next to each of the exhibits. Be prepared for lots of walking and a tiring day but absolutely worthwhile.
Schonbrunn palace is equally magnificent and you can easily spend a whole day here if you want. Try to arrive first thing in the morning at 8.30 am for the 9 am tour. The Imperial tour which covers 22 rooms should be enough with the free audioguide. Also check out the gardens and the panoramic train up hill or walk to Gloriette which is a café on top of the hill. There is also a maze and strudel show and many other displays. We also took the horse carriage for a tour of the grounds and found it worthwhile since it is impossible to see the grounds on foot in one day. To reach Schonbrunn Palace you need to board the Vienna Metro / Underground / U-Bahn. Reach the Karsplatz subway station and board Line U4 towards Huttledorf till Schonbrunn subway station. Once you reach the Palace just look for the fast lane / Sisi Ticket signs and collect your Audio /guide and you are all set for The Grand Tour of the Imperial Apartments.
We were also glad we took the time to visit Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere) another World Heritage site. Stunning building with beautifully laid out gardens and fountains. We caught a bus from the city here. Admission to the Botanical Garden and tours of the garden are free! If we had more time we would have toured the inside of the palace too. There is an Indian restaurant nearby called Demi Tass where we had lunch.
Other worthwhile things to do in Vienna if you have time
- The Danube cruise for the Melk abbey which is an entire day trip
- 11:00 am Mass at the Augustinian Church with its beautiful music
In Austria, the Beef Goulash was generally good at most restaurants and also you can find an excellent assortment of pastries. Tap water in Vienna is good so there is no need to buy water.
Danube Cruise for Melk Abbey
The Melk Abbey is a wonderful day trip. Its library, chapel and lovely gardens, are just awesome and parts of the complex over look the Danube river. You can use either the train or boat to reach the Abbey.
You can catch a train about every hour from Vienna’s Westbahnhof station to Melk Abbey. You then walk to the Abbey. The signs read Melk Stift, veer to the right up the hill away from the river and zigzag up the hill. It can be a little confusing. Note that Abbey in German is Stift. Melk Abbey is open daily 9am-6pm. You can tour the Abbey at your own pace without joining a group.
You can also take a relaxing boat trip down the Danube River to Melk Abbey. Enjoy the scenery of castles and ruins while having lunch. Upon arrival at the Abbey, you can tour the grounds, explore the beautiful Tea Room and then join a guided trip of the Abbey itself by one of the kindly monks. This trip takes an entire day as there is a bus ride to the boat, the trip down the Danube and your time at the Abbey.
If returning to Vienna by train, remember to get off the train in Vienna at Spittelau station as you are not returning to Westbahnhof, the train back to Vienna is a different line. Train leaves on the hour such as 1 pm or 2 pm for a one hour train ride back to Vienna.
Restaurants in Vienna
Visit the Oberlaa pastry store, Kurkonditorei Oberlaa at Neuer Markt 16, Vienna 1010 for delicious torte and pastries.
Le Cedre – Ausstellungsstrasse 51, Vienna 1020, Austria (Leopoldstadt)
Leopold – Grosse Pfarrgasse 11, Vienna 1020, Austria (Leopoldstadt)
Wurstelstand am Hohen Markt
Hoher Markt, top-rated sausage places just a stand within walking distance of the city center
Cafe Central – Herrengasse 14, Vienna
Bangkok-Vienna – Joanelligasse 8, Vienna 1060
Konditorei Heiner, Wollzeile 9, Vienna 1010
Heindl’s Palatschinkenpfandl, Kollnerhofgasse/Grashofgasse 4, Vienna 1010
Le Bol – French cafe
Neuer Markt, Vienna 1010, Austria – try soup with bread, grilled goat cheese salad, salade nicoise (eggs) – vegetarian
Palmenhaus – Burggarten, Vienna 1010 – Located between Opera and Hofburg, ask for the fish of the day (sold by weight) .
You can take the metro to the area of the Naschmarkt where there are many options for food.
Vienna certainly has an imperial and stately feel all around. It’s a very charming and historic city and well worth visiting.