A city of sophistication, beauty and elegance, Vienna should to be top of everyone’s city break lists. Yet it isn’t. And suddenly it has surged in popularity, with so many friends wanting to go and asking for tips. I cannot recommend it enough.
Having lived there for three years from 1998, and returning many years later, the city has changed immeasurably. Thankfully it has retained its pristine grandeur and cultural draw, but it has modernised in terms of its cosmopolitan offering. It now also appeals more to a younger crowd; less pompous, more accessible. Now you can find countless cool coffee shops, stylish restaurants, rooftop bars and edgy night clubs – a side I rarely saw when I lived there years ago. And while I found Vienna remarkably peaceful (which may also have to do with it being August, and holiday season), I was constantly surprised to find restaurants buzzing on a Sunday night, and the club in the Volksgarten full and pumping until the early hours on Saturday. It therefore makes for a very relaxing, easy going weekend break, but with the opportunity to party if you want. The ideal mix.
HOW TO GET AROUND
Getting from the airport to the city is as easy as it gets. Grab the City Airport Train (CAT) which goes every 30 minutes, and you’re in the centre in 16 minutes (12 Euros for a single ticket). The station is a lovely 154 minute stroll through the park to the famous Ring Strasse (the Ring street which circles the inner city).
Getting around Vienna is also easy. I’d walk the majority of it as I still thinks it’s the best way of discovering a city. And Vienna’s wide boulevards are rarely heaving (apart from some of the narrower inner city cobbled streets which do get a bit congested with tourists). Citybike Wien (like Boris bikes, you’ll find them throughout the city, super cheap) are also recommended, and make the short distances from highlight to highlight even quicker but also mean you can explore areas further afield, like cycling along the Danube and wine tasting in Viennese vineyards (yes, they exist).
WHERE TO STAY
We stayed at the new-ish Grand Ferdinand, a hotel which embodies ‘contemporary’ Vienna. With the perfect location, right on the Ring and minutes’ walk from most sights, it’s a modern hotel with classical touches. The bedrooms have dark blue/grey walls and white, minimalist furniture, power showers and all the mod cons. The rooftop terrace with pool is it’s USP, very few Viennese hotels have outdoor space, let alone a swimming pool with views over the city. It’s worth booking the hotel just for this, as while the pool is small, the terrace is relaxing and the views sublime. The restaurant/bar up here (guest only) is also lovely, the flourless chocolate cake we had here was amazing. Their standard rooms are also remarkably affordable, from just £150 per night. They value for money here is incredible. The big downside I’d say was the service: slow, unresponsive and absolutely living up to the Austrian grumpy stereotype (dare I say it). But I’ll get over that.
If you want to splash out there is no other place to stay than Hotel Sacher, the iconic hotel of Vienna. Having had a big refurb, all the bedrooms are now lighter and with a more contemporary feel, but still embody that classical Viennese style. And if you can’t afford it (rooms from £400 a night) then it’s still worth grabbing a Melange coffee and their world famous Sacher Torte in their Café.
WHAT TO DO
Walk, walk, walk. Everywhere. The city really is picture perfect, everywhere you look. The inner city is heavenly to amble through, every building tells its own story, and end up at the iconic Stephansdom with its mosaic roof (if you have the energy, climb the 500+ steps to the top for a great view of the city). My highlight will always be the Belvedere Palace and its beautiful gardens. The museum houses one of the best Austrian art collections, with the famous ‘Kiss’ painting by Klimt, but also beautiful works of art of other Austrian painters, and a lovely Impressionist collection on the 2nd floor. My absolute favourite though are Messerschmidt’s ‘character heads’. The Kunsthistorisch Museum can also not be missed. The Hofburg is a must visit to explore Vienna’s imperial history and learn about the Hapsburg Empire. If you have time I highly recommend see the Lipizzaner horses perform, and booking an opera at the wonderful Opera house (Staatsoper). Also consider the (newer) Museum Quartier for mainly modern/contemporary art and a fun, younger vibe. The list is endless, you can easily fill three full days and still have so much more to do and see.
WHERE TO EAT
Austria – and Vienna – is not known for its food. Personally I am not a fan of schnitzels and strudels, but if you are then you’re in luck as they are top of their game here. Breakfast is recommended at one of the famous cafes (more on those later), Café Central is probably one of the most well known (Trotsky and Freud came here back in the day) and the setting very special (though inevitably quite touristy). The breakfast (below) which we had was actually remarkably good value and the bread incredibly fresh.
Brunch was also surprisingly good, we loved Ulrich (very popular amongst locals) or Erich – sister restaurants both in the same area and with a great menu and range (from juices to pancakes to vegan delights). Expect a small queue, but it is worth waiting. Ulrich is also recommended for dinner.
The Bakery (at Hotel Daniel) and the Brasserie & Bakery (at the Guesthouse Vienna) were also recommended for good brunches. For a peaceful terrace lunch in the park enjoy lunch at the Meierei im Stadtpark (they serve a good schnitzel and steak tartare here), or go to the very special Palmenhaus for a salad or a sandwich and enjoy the greenery and the Burggarten (park).
Dinner we went to O’Boufes, the sister restaurant to neighbouring Michelin star restaurant Konstantin Filippou. The menu was limited, a mixture of Greek/Viennese, a little hit and miss. The service was good but the restaurant didn’t rank top for us. More fun and upbeat, and more laid back was Heuer (the Tagliatta and Burrata are both excellent here). The photo below does not do it justice, they also have a huge terrace outside. If you want a chilled out burger (and gin), then head to said the butcher to the cow. And for a classic, sophisticated dinner try the Rote Bar at Hotel Sacher (ideal for a pre-Opera dinner as it’s just across from it). Just remember that Vienna is expensive and food not great value for money, and we preferred the brunches/lunches/cakes to our dinners here.
FOR COFFEE (AND CAKE)
Speaking of cake, one thing I do adore in Vienna are the torte (cakes), and here you are spoilt for choice. Apart from Café Central, other excellent cafes are Cafe Imperial, Sacher (of course), Demel and Landtmann. Coffee is not cheap here either but I guess you’re paying for the setting. I was recommended Das Kleines Cafe by many locals and it is very cute and worth visiting. Service horrendous though.
WHERE TO DRINK
The best rooftops bars are at the Grand Ferdinand (but sadly guests only, though I reckon this might change), the Ritz Carlton’s Atmosphere (gulp at the price, but that’s what you get at a five star hotel and the views are worth it) and Bloom Bar at the Lamee Hotel. Other bars with views worth going to are Onyx, which was one of my favourites. It has fantastic views of Stephansdom (photo below) and charming service (i.e the waiter looked like Leo Dicaprio). The Sofitel’s Das Loft bar (it’s on the Danube) and Dachboden Hotel 25 (edgier) were also both recommended. For summer days and nights the ‘beach’ bars along the Danube river are fun and full of locals enjoying the sun and a swim (in places) – like Hermann Strand bar and Tel Aviv Beach. And for nightclubs go to the Volksgarten for various clubs and outdoor music, or Prater Sauna for more heavy, gritty party vibes (and an outdoor pool).
Further, more detailed blog posts about Vienna will follow – watch this space.
Thank you Luise van Holk, Victoria van Tets and others for your tips.
Some of the included photos are by Rikki Salmond.