In the summer of 2014, I studied abroad in Innsbruck Austria as part of a Law School program. We had long weekends to explore nearby cities and countries. During one of the weekends, my roommate and I traveled to Salzburg and Vienna. To stay on budget, we stayed at hostels, skipped a lot of the expensive tourist attractions, and walked everywhere (though on occasion we took the metro (U-Bahn)).
We arrived in Vienna late Friday evening, so we went straight to our hostel, Pension Stadthalle, grabbed a quick dinner, then went bed. Discovering the city would have to wait till morning when we were well rested (we didn’t sleep well in Salzburg). The hostel was located at Hackengasse 33, 1150 Wien, so it was outside of Old Town Vienna. But it was only a block or two from a metro station (Burggasse-Stadthalle–a station on Line U6). We’d take the metro to either the Museumquartier or Volkstheatre metro stops, then walk everywhere else.
Here’s everything we saw in our short stay in Vienna, the capital of Austria.
Austrian Parliament Building
Our first stop, after exiting the Volkstheatre metro station, was the Austrian Parliament Building. You can get tickets for a guided tour of the building, or plan ahead and visit on a day when non-guided tours are offered. We decided to skip the tour.
The building was built in the 19th century. In front of the Parliament building is a fountain with a statue of Pallas Athene (the Greek goddess of wisdom, strategy, war and peace) holding in her right hand Nike (the goddess of victory) and a spear in her left. On either side of Athene are allegories of the executive (holding a sword) and legislative powers (holding a book of law).
Down the street from the Parliament building is the Burgtheater. Once a vacant banquet hall used by royalty, the building was rented out to theater companies under Empress Maria Theresia’s authorization. It became known as the Nationaltheater by 1776 and later renamed to K.K. Hoftheater nächst der Burg in 1796. Like many buildings in Austria, it was damaged during WWII, but restored to its former glory. I only walked past the theater, you can experience the grandeur of this 18th century building on a guided tour.
Rathaus (Vienna City Hall)
Across the street, located in the Rathausplatz, is the Rathaus and park. This is by far the prettiest city hall I’ve ever seen. To find out more about the City Hall or about taking a tour of this 19th century Gothic building, click here. The tour includes the Schmidt Halle, two Grand Staircases leading to the Assembly Hall, the Heraldic Rooms, the City Senate Chamber, and the Mayor’s reception room.
When I was there, the Music Film Festival was in full swing. I wasn’t able to capture the front of the massive building for this reason. Since didn’t have enough time to spend some of our day at the festival, we made our way to our next stop, the Votivekirche.
Votivekirche (Votive Church)
The front of the Votivekirche was under renovation, which may have been why it was almost empty of people as it was hard to tell from the street if you could even enter. Being devoid of people made for a wonderful experience. I was able to walk slowly around the church and take several photos.
The Votive Church is the second tallest church in Vienna. It was constructed in 1856 as a symbol of gratitude when an assassination attempt on Emperor Franz Joseph failed. His brother, archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, Emperor of Mexico, insisted on the building and arranged for donations to help pay for its construction. Votive is “thank you” or an offering in Spanish.
After visiting the church, we followed Maria-Theresien-Straße across the Danube river to see the Augarten. All along the river you’ll find graffiti. Some it is very good while some are just tags. If you’re into graffiti art, I suggest taking a stroll along the river. There’s lots of bars, too, but more on that later.
Across the Danube River from Old Town, is the Augarten. The Augarten houses the country’s second-oldest porcelain manufacturer. The “manufactory” opened in 1718 in the former imperial gardens. If you want to purchase some of the famous porcelain, you can do so at the manufactory or at the store located in the city center. To find out more about visiting the manufactory, click here.
The park is 52.2 hectares with covered pathways great for jogging or taking an afternoon stroll. There isn’t a whole lot else to see otherwise. However, there are some Flak Towers in the vicinity., if you’re a history buff. We didn’t know what they were when we saw them peeking out above the treeline. They are anti-aircraft gun blockhouses built by Nazi Germany. As of today, these towers are emoty. In the Augarten, you can see Flakturm VII, codename “Peter” and Feuerleitturm.
After waking around a bit, we headed back across the river towards Stephansplatz.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral, with its colorful roof, is one of the most famous churches in Vienna. The cathedral is located in Stephansplatz. The church has existed since the 12th century and has been remodeled and added onto over the centuries. The 137-meter high South Tower (Steffl) was added in the 15th century. Everything was reconstructed after WWII.
For views of Vienna, you can either climb the 343 steps to the Steffl’s Watch Room in the South Tower or take an elevator (lift) to the Pummerin Bell platform on the North Tower.
There are many chapels inside St. Stephens: Tirna Chapel, Cahterina Chapel, and Eligius Chapels each have its own unique features. This is a popular spot for tourists and will be quite crowded by the afternoon. We showed up too late in the day to truly enjoy walking around and admiring each nook and decoration. Some parts of the church are also roped off. I suggest making this one of your first stops. As your first stop, you’ll also have time to go to the top of the North Tower, which we were unable to do.
If you want to see a layout of the church before making visit, check out this website.
St. Peter’s Church
We stumbled upon this church, surrounded by other buildings, while trying to take less-traveled streets away from St. Stephen’s Cathedral. The front of the church was being renovated, so I only took a photo from the side street. It was serendipitous that we happened to walk down that street when we did.
Not only was the inside magnificent (especially compared to St. Stephen’s), but a choir was singing. It was surreal and beautiful. We couldn’t walk around, so I only took a few pictures of what I could see. I couldn’t see the choir because they were behind us in the choir loft.
Column of Pestsäule
Down the street from St. Stephen’s Cathedral and near St. Peter’s Church is the Column of Pestsäule (Plague Column or Column of Pest). The name comes from the bacteria, Yersinia pestis, that causes the plague. The original wooden column, designed in the style of a Trinity Column with Mary on top, was erected while the plague was rampant in Europe. The permanent column present today was built when the plague was eradicated as a thank you to God.
There are three layers in the column: humans at the bottom, angles in the middle, and a representation of the holy trinity at the top.
At the end of the street, get some gelato from Zanoni Filiale. If you want to do some high-end shopping, turn down Kohlmarkt.
From there, we strolled towards the Hofburg Palace. Along the way we passed by Michaelskirche.
Michaelskirche (Parish of St. Michael)
Located in Michaelplatz, the Parish of St. Michael stands out from other buildings with its Greek design. The church’s portico is topped with three figures. In the middle is the archangel Michael sending the devil into hell. Michael is joined by archangels Raphael and Gabriel, on either side of him. While I was there in the summer of 2014, renovations were taking place on the inside of the Parish. For more information about this church and for images of the inside, go to the church’s website.
Also located in Michaelplatz, topped with a green (bronze) dome, is the Hofburg Palace. The Hofburg Palace was originally planned as an Imperial Forum for the Habsburg empire. The royal family lived at the palace until 1918. Today, this lavish palace is the official seat of the Austrian President. For tourists, there’s plenty to see at the Palace, inside and out.
- Sisi Museum – dedicated to Emperor Franz Jopseph I’s wife, Elizabeth Sisi, this museum highlights her life with displays of jewelry, clothing, portraits and more of her memorabilia.
- Silver Collection – this museum offers you a glimpse into the life of royatly. You can view pieces of silver tableware once used by the imperial court.
- Imperial Apartments – the palace was the former residence for the Habsburgs, and each member of the family had their own apartment. Some of these have been turned into museums, but the apartments of Franz Joseph and Elisabeth are open for the public to see.
- Imperial Treasury – the Treasury houses the crowns of the Holy Roman Empire and the Austrian Empire and other extraordinary heirlooms
- Spanish Riding School – watch a performance of classic equestrian riding skills at the Spanish Riding School. Built between 1729 and 1735 for the aristocrats’ children, the school is now a UNESCO heritage site.
- Café Hofburg – enjoy a cup of coffee in style at the Café Hofburg, located at the entrance of the Sisi Museum and Imperial Apartments.
You can pass through the palace, through the archway directly under the dome, to an inner courtyard. There is one gateway, highly decorated in red and with a lion statue, which leads to the Treasury.
Next to this gateway are three plain archways that lead to Heldenplatz.
Heldenplatz and Neue Burg
Next to the Hofburg Palace is the Neue Burg Museum and Heldenplatz park. The structure was finished in 1913 and Archduke Franz Ferdinand stored items from his own collection in the portion of the newly erected palace which now houses the museums. This is also where Adolf Hitler stood to announce the annexation of Austria to Germany. (When in Prague several years ago, I saw photos from the 1930s-1940s of Hitler making speeches in Old Town Square. The square was filled with people in the photos. It was hard to imagine when standing in the huge square in 2007 that those events occurred where I was standing.)
Passing under the Äußeres Burgtor (City Gate), and crossing the street Burgring, you’ll find yourself in the public square known as Maria-Theresien-Platz. The square is flanked by two museums: the Museum of Natural History and a Fine Arts Museum. In the center of the square is a monument to Empress Maria Theresa. The Empress sits on her throne and surrounded by generals on horseback and prominent figures from the time, including Haydyn, Gluck, and Mozart.
The Museum of Natural History
We didn’t have enough time to visit either museum and still had a lot more walking to do, so we took a break at the monument. I also prefer Fine Art over Natural History museums. If you’re interested in visiting one of the largest natural history museums in the world, displaying everything from dinosaurs to meteorites, click here to view its website.
The Museum of Art History
Erected in the 19th century as part of Emperor Franz Joseph I’s expansion plan for Vienna, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, was built to store and display the Habsburgs’ artistic treasures.
Behind the Neue Berg, is the Burggarten. Surrounding this park are the Austrian National Library, the Butterfly House, the Albertina Museum, and the Opera House Museum. Although we didn’t tour any of these locations, we did stroll by to admire the beautiful architecture and park.
The National Library
The largest library in the country, the National Library, is more than just a place for book lovers but a treasure trove of knowledge. Inside its walls are 200,000 volumes dating back to 1501 to 1850 within the State Hall and four museums. You can take a guided tour of the State Hall on Thursdays at 6 PM. Every second Wednesday of the month, you’ll have a chance to view the the baroque Augustinian Reading Room. Tickets for the museums (Papyrus, Literature, Globe, and Esperanto) can be purchased online.
Imperial Butterfly House (Schmetterlinghaus)
Also in the Burggarten is the Imperial Butterfly House (Schmetterlinghaus). With its large arched, green glass windows stretched out across the length of the park, its hard to miss the Butterfly House. This spot was originally the private garden of the Emperor. It was created in 1819 by `Flower Emperor´ Joseph II who loved gardening. In 1919, after the fall of the monarchy, it was opened to the public. The Butterfly House was added to the gardens in 1998.
If you’re traveling with children (or just really love butterflies), this may be something they would enjoy. To see entry fees, click here.
The Albertina is located in the Museum Quartier, behind the Imperial Butterfly House. The palace is named after Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen (1738-1822), a son-in-law of Austrian Empress Maria Theresa. This former Hapsburg Palace is now a museum displaying 7 “Principal Collections”, including the permanent exhibit “Monet to Picasso.” In addition to the art museum, there are a total of 20 State Rooms within the Albertina, with several open to the public. The museum is open from 10 AM to 6 PM daily (staying open later on Wednesday nights). You can purchase tickets online.
If you don’t have time to roam the museum, head towards Augustinerstraße to reach the patio with a large statue of Archduke Albrecht. Emperor Franz Joseph erected the monument to Albrecht in honor of his vitctory in the Battle of Custozza in 1866 against the Italian army.
The Museum Shop is also along the street and you can enter the shop without having to visit the museum.
Opera House (Wiener Staatsope)
Across from the Albertina is the magnificent State Opera House. To purchase tickets ahead of time, go to the Staatsope’s website. You can take a 40 minute guided tour of the theatre. After touring the Opera House, or maybe before seeing a concert or ballet, stop by one of the many street cafes outside the Opera House.
Like many buildings in Austria, the Opera House was severely damaged during WWII and went under a massive restoration. The front facade, however, is the original structure decorated with 5 statues in arches above the veranda. When facing the Opera House, the statues from left to right represent heroism, tragedy, fantasy, comedy, and love. The roof is topped with Erato’s two winged horses. On the corner of Opengrasse and Openring is a fountain representing the world of music, dance, joy, and levity. While on on the right side of the building, at the corner of Openring and Kärntnerstraße, is a fountain representing seduction, sorrow, love, and revenge.
Karlskirche (St. Charles’s Church)
The Karlskirche is located between Old Town and the Belvedere Gardens. When I visited, I actually visited this church and the Belvedere gardens right after seeing the Augarten. I don’t recommend doing this. I can’t remember why we chose to do this…We also walked the whole way. I don’t recommend doing this either. If you’re in the Museum Quarter, it may make sense to walk. But, although it seems close, you’ll be tired before you even reach the palace grounds. You should probably take the metro to Karlsplatz station to see the church then walk to the Belvedere. You can walk through Resslepark to reach the church.
The church was built under orders of Emperor Charles VI after the plague epidemic. It was finished in 1739 and is named after the patron saint of the Habsburg emperor, Saint Charles Borromeo. The exterior was inspired by Greek churches and the columns mimic the Trajan’s Column found in Rome. Each column depicts scenes from St. Borromeo’s life and is topped with golden eagles.
The interior is decorated with frescoes and marble, but all of that pales in comparison to the stunning main altar portraying the ascension of St. Borromeo.
When you enter the church (I believe on the right side under one of the arched walkways), you’ll be asked to pay a small admission fee. (Here’s the website, but its in German). If you aren’t afraid of heights, I suggest you pay a little extra to stand on the Panorama Platform inside the church. The reason I suggest it is that you cannot see the ceiling of the church unless you take the Lift to the Platform. I don’t recommend standing on this platform if you’re afraid of heights because it sways a little. There are also stairs to a narrow platform where you can look out the windows in the Dome of the church. There’s a sign stating only so many people can be on the stairs at a time, but no one was there to monitor how many people were going up and down. And its impossible to tell until you start walking up the steps yourself. Luckily for us, there were only maybe 5 other people when we ascended the shaky stairs.
The fresco of the dome displays St. Borromeo, supported by the Virgin Mary, pleading to the Holy Trinity to end the plague in Vienna.
Follow these directions to from Karlskirche to reach Belvedere Palace to ensure a scenic route: Head down Argentinierstraße and turn left down Kreuzherrengasse which is the street behind the Church. Turn right down Technikerstraße. You’ll come to a large intersection with a park on the other side. You’ll know you’re at the right place when the French Embassy is on your left. In the middle of the park is a large fountain and a WWII monument to the fallen soldiers of the red army.
We walked down Rennweg towards the Belvedere. This street takes you to the Lower Belvedere and entrance to the Orangery.
The Belvedere Palaces and Gardens
I suggest purchasing tickets in advance to both the Upper and Lower Belvedere Palaces. If you have time during your stay in Vienna, you can purchase tickets for the Winter Palace (just south of the Lower Belvedere) and the Museum of Modern Art (21er Haus) located just north of the Upper Palace.
There is a lot to see at the Belvedere and you can easily spend half a day there. Since we were on a budget and time crunch, we skipped the tours and only walked around the grounds. This alone can take some time as the walk from the Lower to the Upper Palace is at least 1700 feet (520 meters). If you walk beyond the Upper Palace to take photos of the front of the palace, you’ll find yourself walking almost half a mile. And there’s plenty of flowers, statues, and fountains along the way.
Built in the 18th century as a summer residence for Prince Eugene of Savoy, the Belverdere consists of the Upper and Lower Belvedere Palaces. The Belvedere is where you’ll find exhibits dedicated to Austrian artists, most notably a large collection by the artist Gustav Klimt.
The Lower Belvedere, pictured above, was primarily used as a residence, while the Upper palace was reserved for displaying the Prince’s wealth and prestige. You can walk the halls of the Lower palace and admire the plaster medallions and ceiling fresco in the Marble Hall in the way that guests to the Palace would have done during Prince Eugene’s time. The Orangery was the Prince’s winter garden, equipped with a removable roof so the trees wouldn’t have to be moved. After his death in 1736, it became stables with a false ceiling. Today its used as an art gallery.
The Palaces and Gardens are listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The main garden is divided into three large terraces with fountains, flowers, hedges, and more.
Maria Theresa acquired the property and the Upper Belvedere, pictured above, was transformed into an art gallery for the Imperial Collection. The gallery opened its doors to the public in 1776, . Today, the palace still displays masterpieces dating back to the Medieval Ages. Along with the paintings, you can tour a few halls, a chapel, and the grand staircase.
Danube River Nightlife
To end your night in Vienna, head back to the Danube Canal (AKA “Little Danube”) near the Augarten. When I was there, the World Cup was underway and a lot of the bars had big screen showing different soccer (football) matches. A lot of the bars had lounge chairs, hammocks, and other comfortable seating.
Or you can go a little further and head to the Danube Island. The Donauinsel station will take you there. Walk down the steps to the river bank and walk along the river to find your perfect bar or restaurant. The restaurants line the island and both sides of the canal.
At the end of the night we took the metro back to our hostel. We were so tired (and a little tipsy) so we headed in pretty early for Vienna. Most people were just starting their night. But we had to wake up early and catch a train back to Innsbruck and prepare for class the next day.
For an interactive map of Austria and its metro system, check out this website.
Not in this Post but worth seeing if you have time:
I was unable to visit the Schönbrunn Palace during my stay in City Center Vienna. The palace is located outside of Vienna, a little too far for us when we were only there for a day.
The Winter Palace is one of Prince Eugene of Savoy’s residences and is located across the street from the Lower Belvedere. To find out more about visiting this palace, click here.
Have you been to Vienna? Comment below with your favorite spots!