For travellers looking to experience the very best Europe has to offer, you’re going to need to visit Vienna while on your trip. The grand capital of Austria, Vienna is the kind of classic tourist destination that impresses visitors with its attractions, atmosphere and culture. Once the heart of an empire, Vienna’s elegance and grandeur easily delights visitors with romantic notions of what Europe is like. Despite all this, you’ll find there are many things to know before visiting Vienna to help you make the most of your time there.
Vienna is not a small or simple destination, so there’s plenty worth knowing about Vienna tourism. Some information will be invaluable while you’re planning your trip, while other advice will help with sightseeing around town. Then there’s some tidbits on understanding how things are done in the city just so you don’t get into unnecessary trouble. Hopefully, all of this together will help make your next Vienna trip a resounding success.
1. When to Visit
As soon as you start planning a Vienna trip, one of the big decisions you have to make is when to visit. The time of year you visit can have a major impact on what you can do in Vienna due to weather, crowds and seasonal festivals and events. Ultimately, the best time to visit will strongly depend on your interests and what you hope to get our of your trip. For a more comprehensive look at when to visit, read this dedicated guide to Vienna’s seasons.
2. Public Transport
Since Vienna is a capital and international city, it can require some effort to get around. While it is possible to drive around Vienna, it’s not really necessary thanks to the city’s excellent public transport. With an urban metro, suburban metro, buses and trams at your disposal, getting about while sightseeing couldn’t be easier. I once read someone complain about how hard it is to walk everywhere in Vienna and the simple response to that is you don’t have to. For more info on getting about, see my guide to using Vienna’s public transport.
3. Districts of Vienna
Understanding the layout of Vienna can make following your Vienna itinerary while sightseeing quite a bit easier. Like other European capitals, you’ll find that Vienna’s attractions aren’t solely concentrated inside a central Old Town. Yes, the inner city of Vienna is where many of the city’s most popular landmarks are, but that’s just a start. Known as the 1st District, it sits in the centre with the other districts spiralling out from it, starting with the 2nd District to the north.
You can tell which district you are in by looking at the nearest street sign. On the sign, a number will sit in front of the street name, telling you where you are. For the most part, you’ll be sticking to districts under 10 as you go about the city. One major exception to this though is when you head out to Schönbrunn Palace, a decent metro ride off into the 13th District.
One of the classic questions that arise in a new destination is what the local customs are regarding tipping. Every country in Europe and even cities within seem to have different practices regarding tipping, so it’s a frequent problem for travellers. Anyway, when tipping in Vienna, it’s general practice to round up the bill when paying at restaurants and cafes. For smaller amounts, simply round up to the nearest euro, while for larger amounts consider rounding close to 10%. Tell the waiter while you’re paying what you want to pay including the tip instead of leaving change on the table at the end.
5. Viennese Dialect
English speakers normally assume that people in Vienna speak German just like they do in Germany, but that’s only half true. Much like in different parts of Germany, different regions of Austria have their own dialects and Vienna is no exception. Known as wienerisch, the local dialect may not sound very different if you don’t know any German. If, however, you studied High German in school then things can start to sound a little strange.
The different emphases and sounds in their pronunciation is one thing, but locals also their own words too. While words like semmeln for rolls, erdäpfel for potatoes and marillen for apricots are different in Austria than Germany, Viennese goes one step further. Normally for a bag at a supermarket the German is tüte and yet the Viennese say sackerl. When they want the bill at the end of a meal, instead of asking to pay or bezahlen, they ask for “the numbers” or die zahlen. I know there are many more but those are the most common ones I’ve noticed with my middling German skills.
6. Winter and Christmas
It may come as a surprise but one of the busiest times of the year in Vienna is the lead up to Christmas. From mid-November onwards, Christmas markets pop up in every square possible and Christmas lights appear in the city streets. The city has a long tradition of making the most of this festive time of year and so Christmas in Vienna really is something special. Don’t expect much snow this early on but even still it’s a magical time for Vienna travel.
7. Vienna Festivals
Of course, Christmas isn’t the only festival that Vienna wholeheartedly embraces. Vienna really loves its festivals and there’s always great interest and participation when an event is on. While there are the big seasonal festivals like Easter and Wiesnfest, the local equivalent of Oktoberfest, the local festival calendar showcasing the best of Vienna has so much more on it. Summer in particular is a hectic time of year for this, often with multiple festivals going on at the same time, like the Music Film Festival coinciding with the Jazz Festival and others. But there are festivals at other times of year like the awesome Genuss Festival in early May.
8. Bicycle Paths
A common mistake I notice with visitors to Vienna is not recognising the city’s bicycle paths. Vienna, but especially the inner city, has many bicycle paths alongside roads that see quite a lot of traffic. Unfortunately, many tourists in Vienna fail to realise they’re standing or walking on these paths. Not only does this make pedestrians a hazard that could get themselves and others hurt, but it also drains the tolerance for tourists that locals have. Just as you should be mindful of cars and trams as you walk about, please be aware of bicycle paths, because they’re generally well marked.
9. Where to Stay
No matter where you’re visiting, working out accommodation is always a pressing concern. You want to find somewhere nice and comfortable in your budget but location is also important. While it’s nice to stay in the dead centre of the city, that can be expensive in Vienna. Also, thanks to the city’s public transport, staying further out isn’t really that much of a hassle. Vienna has attractions, restaurants and hotels in most of the inner districts, so don’t be afraid to stay beyond the 1st District. For more on accommodation in Vienna, check out my guide to where to stay in Vienna.
10. Coffee and Cafes
There are all sorts of food and drinks that are closely tied with the city of Vienna, but coffee is chief among them. A visit to Vienna is incomplete with experiencing coffee in Vienna at one of the city’s signature coffee houses. Formally dressed waiters serve up coffee and cake on silver trays inside establishments that range from quiet and reserved to lavish and lively. It’s not only the ceremony that sets Vienna coffeehouses apart, it’s also the important of cake and emphasis on alcoholic coffees that makes this such a unique experience.
11. Things Closed Sunday
A personal bugbear of mine is the fact that many things will be closed on Sundays in Vienna. Being a predominately Catholic country, Vienna abides by this common European practice. That means that most supermarkets and stores will be closed on Sundays. General exceptions include restaurants and cafes, as well as pretty much everything in the bustling first district in the city centre. This also goes for Catholic holidays which have a way of sneaking up on you, so just try and stay aware.
12. Great for Day Trips
Even though many people think of Vienna and Austria as western European destinations, the city is very much part of central Europe. In fact, Vienna is extremely conveniently located in Europe with borders for three different countries quite close by. Throw in other fun destinations on the outskirts of the city and in neighbouring states and you’re spoiled for choice in terms of day trips.
It’s to be expected that a destination like Vienna has plenty of history to it. The thing is, most travellers don’t realise just how much of a history Vienna has. Much of the focus for tourists is usually on the days of the Habsburg Empire thanks to its many grand palaces. But there are other sides to the city’s past as well. Take for instance, Vienna’s surprising Roman days that can be explored through museums and underground excavated remains. Then there’s Vienna’s Jewish history and the community’s place in the city before the tragic events of WWII. Even Vienna’s post war history has its own fascinating quirks that you can explore. Clearly, no matter which era interests you, there’s history in Vienna for you to learn more about.
14. Museum Free Days
Vienna is a city of high culture, so there’s no question that it is home to loads of museums and art galleries. I mean, Vienna even has its own Museum Quarter. Among the city’s world class museums are the Albertina Art Museum, the Vienna Natural History Museum, the Sigmund Freud Museum and the Vienna Museum. Basically, you could spend days in Vienna just visiting museums and not run out of thing to do. What’s great is that city museums like the Vienna Museum and the Roman Museum, are free to the public on the first Sunday of every month and October 26th, Austria’s National Day.
15. Vienna Viewpoints
You really won’t have any trouble finding viewpoints of Vienna; the challenge instead is deciding which you want to see. Some in the city are free to visit, like the terrace at Belvedere Palace, Lainzer Tiergarten and Kahlenberg. Then there are the obvious ones, like the roof of St Stephens Cathedral or the observation deck up on the Donauturm. But one unconventional viewpoint I’m still waiting to see is from the top of the Haus des Meeres Aquarium in the 6th District. I hear good things though!
16. Protest Days
Highlighting the organisational nature and civic-mindedness of the Viennese, Thursday seems to be the designated protest day for Vienna. What I mean by this is that nearly every Thursday you’ll find a protest march occurring in the city centre. Often these are anti-fascism marches or organised by students, but it seems to be just the dedicated day for any protests in Vienna. So used to this idea, I was once surprised on a Sunday to find myself walking out of a metro station into a march. Exception that proves the rule and all that. The main areas of focus are Stephansplatz, the Ring and over near Vienna University.
Coming from Australia, one of the biggest adjustments when visiting Vienna is getting used to how common smoking is in the city. There are certainly places around the world where smoking is more common, but Vienna’s not great in this regard. Smoking indoors isn’t a thing thankfully, but if you’re sitting outdoors at a cafe or restaurant, chances are someone’s smoking. Really all you can do is scope out tables away from people smoking or sit indoors, but that’s not ideal especially in summer.
18. Drinking in Public
Speaking of vices, it’s also generally allowed to drink alcohol while in public in Vienna. Of course you must be of the legal drinking age, which in Vienna is 16 years old. So seeing people with open beer cans outside venues or down along the river is perfectly normal. There are plenty of exceptions of course, such as public transport, and this shouldn’t be taken as strict legal advice. It’s also useful to remember that people in Vienna are quite reserved and won’t usually look kindly on drunken behaviour. Basically, still use your head but know that you can have a beer somewhere like Lichterfest without getting in trouble.
19. WWII Damage to the City
It’s probably no surprise that Vienna sustained some damage during the Second World War. Allied forces bombed cities with strategic and industrial importance and Vienna fit the bill for sure. One big reminder of this period are the immense concrete Flak towers that can be found around the city that were used for anti-aircraft guns.
Around 50 bombs were dropped on Vienna during the war, causing considerable damage to the city. You can often tell which buildings were destroyed then by the design of buildings in their place. Either there will be a sudden and jarring change in architecture, say from 17th century design to unattractive 50’s design. The more subtle indicator though is the number of storeys in a building. I was told that the large buildings in the inner city used to have high ceilings and were generally four storeys tall. However the rebuilt buildings feature five storeys to fit more tenants in, something you can tell by counting the windows on the front facade.
20. Just So Much to Do
Perhaps the biggest piece of advice I have for Vienna is not to underestimate it. Don’t try to see the city in a single day because you’ll only catch a fraction of what it has to offer. Part of the reason I’ve yet to write a sightseeing guide to Vienna is that there’s just so much to see and do. When you think of all the landmarks, palaces, churches, museums, viewpoints and more it becomes overwhelming. Give yourself at least two days in Vienna just so you don’t feel likely you’ve completely missed out if you can.