Vienna is like one of those rainbow cakes: all classy business on the top but once you cut it open, WHAM! All these different layers and weird new flavours pop out. (Coincidentally, it also seems to be a very rainbow-folk accepting city.) While all of its grandiose old architecture give Vienna a definite fancy feel, in truth it is a lively city full of counter-culture, student parties and graffiti. In a word, cool.
No wonder Vienna was voted the most livable city in the world in 2018.
Since it was my first time visiting Vienna, I made up a whole laundry list of attractions I wanted to see. Then I forgot to post about the trip for a year. But here I am now! And if you find yourself en route to the capital of Austria this summer and absolutely clueless about what’s going on in the city, then this helpful list might be able to point you in all sorts of right directions.
It’s like Tripadvisor but fun.
The Schloss Schönbrunn might just be the most famous sight in Vienna, so we’ll start with that. This 16th century Baroque castle was the main residence of the Habsburg family. You might best know these 19th century Kardashians for Emperor Franz Joseph, the longest-reigning emperor in Austria, who was both born and died in the castle. (I wonder – if he haunted the premises, would he haunt them as a baby or as a feeble old man?)
After World War I, the palace was acquired by the Austrian republic and turned into a museum. These days it is popular among tourists who have never seen ornamental mirrors and fancy chairs.
While I didn’t enter the palace (I just peeked in through the windows to verify that yup, it does have ornamental mirrors and fancy chairs), its surrounding lands are absolutely gorgeous – and free to enter, unlike the palace. You could wander around the Schönbrunn gardens for hours getting lost between the skinny trees and lots of naked stone women on top of water fountains.
Fun fact: The word “Schönbrunn” actually means “beautiful fountain” and is said to stem from the name of a fountain where the first residents of the palace got their water from.
Since it’s such a popular attraction, prepare for tourists. Like, a lot of them. You can get there early in the morning to avoid the worst crowds but if you’re late, good luck trying to get any pictures of just yourself.
Also, there is a nice viewing point on a low hill next to the palace; although while I was there, there were “dangerous caterpillars” around the forest leading up so maybe that’s something to prepare for as well.
Rating: 8/10 (one extra point for the presence of horses; one minus points for using said horses for carriage rides)
Or, in English: “The Royal Castle”.
I bet you thought it was going to be something deep and insightful, didn’t you? Well life is disappointing.
Hofburg is the one-time residence of the Austrian emperors, now full of people who like to take iPhone selfies. It’s located smack-bang in the middle of the city so it’s easy to find, and if you’re looking for a horse carriage ride (spoiler alert: you’re not), that’s where you’ll find them.
The palace is also famous for its white Lipizzan horses; its royal stables host horse shows where you can see these super pretty ponies doing tricks and cool stuff. Book your ticket in advance though, so you don’t have to be sad like me to find out that everything is booked out.
Since I was broke I didn’t go in. Probably would have liked it better if I did. But I would probably also like cocaine if I tried it and some things are just not worth the risk.
Rating: 2/10, didn’t see horses, did see a bunch of tourists and one (1) abandoned flip slop
The first time I heard of Sacher cakes was when I was like 12. A chapter in my German textbook talked about them and mentioned the super duper secret recipe that only the original Hotel Sacher was allowed to make. No one knows what the secret ingredient is. Love? Sacrifice of twelve virgins to the pagan gods? There is no secret and the secret ingredient is a placebo?
For reasons definitely not related to my sugar addiction, Hotel Sacher was high up on my visit list. I dragged my Couchsurfing host with me, and on a sunny June afternoon we stomped into this five-star hotel in our shorts and 3-dollar Primark sneakers, expecting to be promptly kicked out.
I mean, not really. Tourists are gonna tourist. Which means wearing cargo shorts, sturdy dad sandals and backpacks to visit its world-famous café. Hotel Sacher doesn’t have much glamour left, or if it does, you’ll probably have to book one of those thousand euro rooms for a night to feel it. I’m not kidding – the cheapest room you can find is a 1,120 EUR junior suite.
The cake is damn good, though.
Rating: 8/10, would eat chocolate cake again.
TOP TIP: Even though only Hotel Sacher has the original recipe, there are a lot of mock-ups around town that you can also try. A Sacher-crawl, if you will.
Prater, an amusement park on the outskirts of the Viennese centre and one of the hotspots for local tourists, is probably best known for its 65-metre Ferris Wheel (known as Wiener Riesenrad). I don’t quite get the fuss. I mean yeah, it is one of the oldest Ferris wheels in the world, but it’s still just a big cheese wheel without the cheese. And it costs 12 euros just to ride it.
I guess it’s because it’s a movie star: it’s been prominently featured in various Hollywood hits, including one James Bond flick and a Graham Greene adaptation The Third Man.
Luckily, the amusement park has other traditional wild rides, like fun houses equipped with all kinds of up-and-down staircases and spinning plates ready to trip you, and bumper cars, swing carousels and roller coasters to make sure you get to scream like a little girl in public.
If you’re scared of children, come to Prater in the evening; Prater After Hours is FUN. They sell (surprisingly cheap) beer at almost every stand. Release your inner teenager and get tipsy, ride the rides and gawk at the wonderfully weird statues posed all over the amusement park.
Riesenrad: 1/10 because no Austrian James Bond came to offer to buy me a ride in it so I didn’t go. I’m not strong independent woman enough to pay a whole bill and a coin for a ride.
Prater sober: 7/10
Prater drunk: 10/10 certified rad
TOP TIP: Prater is also used as a venue for a lot of different events; while I was there, they had a free opera in the garden. We couldn’t go in because we, classy students, had a bottle of wine in our backpack, so we sat on a bench outside of the garden and listened to the opera from there.
The Viennese Cathedral is big, impressive, beautiful – and wedged between sweets shops and banks on a tiny square that really doesn’t allow you to admire the thing in its full, spiky glory. Built on top of the remains of an old Romanesque church, the modern construction is in Gothic style – although it’s all lies, since the cathedral was rebuilt after World War II. Nazis ruin nice things.
There are a few viewing towers you can visit – apparently you have to climb up to get to the Southern one, but there is a lift to the North Tower for people with no legs or only a little bit of legs. If you like dead people, you can also get access to the creepy underground catacombs from the cathedral. The ossuary (that’s the fancy name for a bone garden) houses the remains of over 10,000 people, including the Habsburgs – although only their internal organs.
Kind of sad that I didn’t get to see the whole structure thoroughly since my couchsurfing host called and wanted to hang out.
Rating: 3/10 because I got to meet locals (art students) but not other locals (royal corpses)
I have nothing to say except that it’s real pretty, and for some reason I ended up walking past it like three times a day. Is this place magical?
The Danube River
The second longest river in Europe (after Volga, which is just as Russian as it sounds) flows from Germany to Romania, stopping by for a quick visit in Vienna in between.
If you’re visiting in the summer, the Danube Canal will be filled with groups of people picnicking, people-watching and day-drinking. That’s right, folks – public drinking is legal in Austria, as long as you’re old enough. (The drinking age in Austria is 18.)
In fact, Austrians are the third biggest beer drinkers in Europe (after Czechs and Germans). There are tons of micro-breweries to discover but if you just want to grab something quick from the supermarket, Ottakringer is the most popular commercial brand from Vienna.
During summer, there are probably all kinds of events going on around the river, from indie concerts in small, alternative riverside bars to food stalls. Oh, and did I mention that the sides of the river are filled with cool graffiti? You’re welcome, world.
The colourful patchwork building is the brainchild of a painter-turned-architect Friedrich Hundertwasser, who famously adored bright colours, hated standardisation, and encouraged people to let mould grow in their homes. After he got okayed to build this crazy apartment building, he realised that he should probably get help from an actual architect, and brought in a dude called Joseph Krawina. Joe was later kicked out of the project since Freddie looked at his plans of the building and probably was like, ‘Ugh, ugly.’
The house was finished in 1985 but it wasn’t until 2011 that the Austrian Supreme Court was like dude, not cool, and ruled that Joey boy needs to be acknowledged as a co-creator.
You can’t go in; but you can buy kitschy souvenirs from literally every other building on that street.
Rating: 8/10 would live in a cool house
Not an actual attraction but just thought you should listen to his song Vienna while you’re in Vienna. It doesn’t have anything to do with Vienna, it’s just a cool song. Also listen to Dear Vienna by Owl City which also has nothing to do with Vienna.
In addition, one of my favourite authors, John Irving, lived in Vienna for a while and incorporates the city in a lot of his stories. Check out Hotel New Hampshire and The World According to Garp.
So, are you booking your tickets yet and practicing your German? Like a wise man once said: Vienna waits for you…
Who’s been to Vienna? Are you planning to go?