Things to Do & Must-See Attractions in Vienna
Founded in 1752 as a menagerie by Franz Stephan, Tiergarten Schönbrunn, or Vienna Zoo, is the oldest zoo in the world. It houses some 750 animals of all shapes and sizes; the most recent arrivals to excite crowds were giant pandas in 2003 although lemurs, armadillos and baby Serbian tigers spurred plenty of interest in 2006. Thankfully most of the original cramped cages have been updated and improved, but the odd one still remains.
The zoo's layout is reminiscent of a bicycle wheel, with pathways as spokes and an octagonal pavilion at its center. The pavilion dates from 1759 and was used as the imperial breakfast room; it now houses a fine restaurant (so you can feel regal, too). Feeding times are staggered throughout the day - maps on display tell you who's dining when.
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.
The St Stephen's Cathedral, or Stephansdom, is the heart of Vienna both geographically and emotionally. It is a magnificent dark Gothic church, beloved and unmissable in Vienna.
A church has stood on this site since the 12th century, but little remains of the original structure aside from the Riesentor (Giant's Gate) and the Heidentürme (Towers of the Heathens). Both features are Romanesque in style. The Riesentor (rumor has it that the gate was named because a mammoth's tibia, mistaken for a giant's shin, once hung here) is the main western entrance, topped by a tympanum of lattice patterns and statues. Stephansdom's Gothic makeover began in 1359 at the behest of Habsburg Duke Rudolf IV, who earned the epithet of 'The Founder' by laying the foundation stone.
The church's dominating feature is the skeletal Südturm (south tower). Standing 450 ft (136.7m) high, it was completed in 1433 after 75 years of hard labor.
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.
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.
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.
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).
More Things to Do in Vienna
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.
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.
Hemmed in by the famous Ringstrasse, which marks the route of the former city walls, and encompassing the majority of the capital’s top attractions, the historic center of Vienna is renowned as one of the most beautiful in Europe. Known as the First District, or Inner City, and inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list, a walk through historic Vienna reveals enough landmark sights to keep your camera snapping all day long.
The central district is characterized by its breathtaking architecture, from medieval hangovers like St. Stephen's Cathedral through the golden age of the Habsburg Empire, represented by the grand Imperial Palace. The 19th-century Ringstrasse is also lined with iconic buildings, with the Vienna City Hall, the Parliament buildings and the Kaiserforum all within close proximity, and the lively Museum Quarter adding a modernist flavor.
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.
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.
For good old family fun and a rip-roaring jaunt through history, Time Travel Vienna is the city’s newest kid on the block, and where great culture meets light-hearted Disney. Housed in the former monastery of St Michael, the history of Vienna from its beginnings as Roman Vindobona is presented in a magical 5-D show featuring animatronics and multi-media special effects. After this, visitors come face to face with the Vienna of Strauss, Mozart and the waltz as well as the great characters in the Habsburg dynasty before experiencing an air raid during World War II. Proceedings come bang up to date with a simulator ride taking in today’s major sights in Vienna. Shows last about 50 minutes and there are several in English per day.
For sheer grandness, the Neo-Gothic Rathaus, or Vienna City Hall, steals the Ringstrasse show. Completed in 1883 by Friedrich von Schmidt, it was modeled on Flemish city halls. Its main spire soars to 335 ft (102m) if you include the pennant held by the knight at the top. You're free to wander through the seven inner courtyards but must join a guided tour to see the interior, with its red carpets, gigantic mirrors, and frescoes.
Between the Rathaus and the Ringstrasse is the Rathauspark, with fountains, benches and several statues. It is split in two by Rathausplatz, which is lined with statues of notable people from Vienna's past. Rathausplatz is the sight of some of the city's most frequented events, including the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market), Musikfilm Festival and the Wiener Eistraum.
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.
In the 1980s travelers flocked to these popular rock and roll-themed cafes to collect iconic Hard Rock t-shirts from locations around the globe. And while that trend may have passed, the upscale bar, scenic outdoor terrace and huge live entertainment space still at Hard Rock Café Vienna still attract plenty of visitors to this historic city.
Travelers can saddle up to the bold art deco bar and sip on signature cocktails before settling in to one of the space’s cozy tables for a meal that blends typical Hard Rock fare with more traditional, hand-crafted local food that’s always made from scratch. The restaurant’s walls are decorated with an impressive array of musical memorabilia, which includes international superstars as well as local legends like Christina Sturmer and Parov Stelar, which means this place stays true to the Hard Rock vibe.
Starting life in the Middle Ages as a civic garbage tip, Freyung Square has morphed down the centuries into one of Vienna’s prettiest public piazzas. It’s a triangular cobbled space dominated by the Austriabrunnen (Austria Fountain), which was gifted to Vienna in the 1840s by sculptor Ludwig Schwanthaler. The cobbles are bordered by the medieval monastery of Schottenkirche and – thanks to its location not far from the Hofburg Imperial Palace – a smattering of elegant Baroque palaces built by royal courtiers, including the ornately decorated yellow-and-white stucco façade of Palace Daun-Kinsky, which dates from 1717. The Ferstel Palace was built in 1860 and is home to Vienna’s famous Café Central as well as the upmarket, arcaded Freyung Passage shopping mall; nearby the Bank Austria Kuntsforum holds frequent cutting-edge contemporary-art exhibitions.
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