Ooooooh Vienna! This grand city of Europe is a centre of culture, coffee houses and excellent eighties pop tunes.
Lesley Ellen presents her top 10 things to do on a visit to the Austrian capital.
1. Ride a tram round the Ringstrasse
Celebrating its 150th birthday in 2015, the Ringstrasse – a circular boulevard stretching 5.3 kilometres – is home to many of Vienna’s most imposing buildings. Get your bearings by taking a 30-minute tram ride round the route and catch glimpses of some of the city’s lovely parks, nestled amongst buildings such as the Parliament, City Hall, State Opera, Museum of Fine Arts and the Hofburg Palace – all built in oddly contrasting styles.
2. Listen to music at the State Opera House
Vienna constantly reminds you of its illustrious musical heritage – just look at the gilded memorial to Johann Strauss in the Stadtpark or the (less dignified) Mozart-related tourist shops in the old town. And a concert at the impressive State Opera House has to be a highlight of any visit. Even if you can’t get a seat for one of the performances – which are held on 300 days of the year – standing-room tickets are available every day for a fraction of the price. With operas and ballets shown live on a giant screen outside the Opera House in April, May, June and September, you don’t even need to go inside to enjoy the music.
3. Indulge yourself in one of Vienna’s famous coffee houses
Places "where time and space are consumed but only the coffee is found on the bill": that’s how Vienna’s elegant coffee houses are described by Unesco’s National Agency for Intangible Cultural Heritage. You can sit in one of these grand cafés all day long, reading the papers or discussing the issues of the moment, just as Sigmund Freud, Leon Trotsky and many others did in the past. There’s a huge variety of coffees to choose from and, for a more indulgent experience, tuck into some Sachertorte or Apfelstrudel with lashings of whipped cream – your taste buds will thank you but your waistline probably won’t!
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4. Climb Stephansdom tower
You can’t really miss Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral). This magnificent Gothic structure at the heart of the city stands out with its 136 metre-high tower and colourful roof tiles. Climb the 343 steps to the top of the south tower (a great way to work off some of those cakes) and take in the panoramic view of the city. You’ll also get a great close-up of the amazing roof with its mosaics of the double-headed imperial eagle and Vienna’s coat of arms. Back at ground level, have a look around the cathedral and check out the Gothic stone pulpit, decorated with toads and lizards fighting each other in the battle between good and evil.
5. Visit imperial palaces
There are symbols of the imperial might of the Habsburg dynasty all over Vienna, and nowhere more so than at the Hofburg Imperial Palace, the centre of the Habsburg empire until 1918. These days it’s the official seat of the President of Austria, but the Hofburg spans a vast array of buildings, including imperial apartments, museums, the national library, an art deco glass house with hundreds of exotic butterflies, and the chapel, where you can listen to the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir. Schönbrunn Palace, the former summer residence of the Austrian emperor, is also well worth a visit thanks to its extensive gardens and zoo, as is the splendid Belevedere Palace, home to some of the best of Austrian art and a wonderful collection of Gustav Klimt works, including The Kiss.
6. Watch morning practice at the Spanish Riding School
Also to be found at the Hofburg is the Spanish Riding School, where the famous Lipizzaners, Europe’s oldest horse breed, go through their paces. The precision of these beautiful white stallions as they do ‘ballet’ in harmony with the music is a sight to behold, and you have to marvel at the skill of the riders as they lead the horses through their routine in the baroque hall, which dates back to 1729. Tickets for the gala performances are expensive and sometimes hard to come by, so a better option is to watch the horses go through their morning practice for a fraction of the price. Oh and by the way, it’s called the Spanish Riding School because the Lipizzaners were bred from Spanish horses. Fun fact!
7. Wonder at the curiosity of the Hundertwasserhaus
When the artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser designed this apartment block, he billed it as a "house in harmony with nature". Judge for yourself as you look at the eccentric, brightly coloured building with its mismatched windows and more than 200 trees and shrubs on its balconies and terraces. The building was opened in 1986, and the residents were given the right to decorate the exterior around their windows in any way they liked, giving it its quirky patchwork appearance. Although you’re unable to go into the building (it’s a private residence after all), you can learn more about it at the nearby Kunst Haus Wien with its permanent exhibition on the work of Hundertwasser.
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8. Get down and dirty on the trail of ‘The Third Man’
Who’s he? Seedy smuggler Harry Lime, played by Orson Welles in the classic 1949 film The Third Man. The screenplay for the film was written by Graham Greene and it’s set on the dark side of post-war Vienna, when it was occupied by the Allies. There are several Third Man tours, but the most atmospheric one takes you down into Vienna’s sewers to see where some of the most legendary scenes were filmed. If you’re at all claustrophobic though, you might want to stick to one of street-level tours or try visiting the fascinating Third Man Museum.
9. Amuse yourself at the Prater
The Prater public park (home to one of the oldest amusement parks in Europe) is just a short distance from the centre of Vienna. With around 250 attractions and rides – including the Giant Ferris Wheel, which dates back to 1897 and was featured in The Third Man – there’s plenty here to amuse kids of all ages. But the Prater is more than an amusement park. Once the imperial hunting ground, the Prater is a vast green space where the locals go for recreation. With its lawns, woodland and water areas, you can come here to jog, hire a bike, swim, skateboard, play tennis and even watch horse racing.
10. Go for a cruise on the Danube
Take a day trip cruising on the Danube through the beautiful Wachau Valley, listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site. Sip a coffee or maybe an Austrian wheat beer as your boat slips past picture-perfect castles and villages surrounded by vineyards. Don’t miss a visit to Melk Abbey with its stunning baroque interior and impressive views of the Danube. And if you haven’t yet sampled any Wiener schnitzel, the pleasant abbey restaurant is as good a place as any to try it, along with other Austrian specialities such as the local wine.
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