One of the best ways to get the most out of a visit to a new destination is to source some local advice and guidance on what’s good – where you should stay, what you should do, what are some of the hidden treats and experiences that only the locals seem to know about.
The Austrian capital of Vienna has long been one of our favorite European cities – with its solid grandeur, stunning buildings, and sense of history, together with a cafe culture and appreciation of the arts that is hard to match.
Here’s a quick guide to some of the essentials:
This city is obsessed with coffee. Not in an Italian, fussy-about-quality kind of way, but the Viennese pride themselves on offering all sorts of inventive ways of serving coffee — most seem to come with a huge dollop of cream and a slug of alcohol.
Our favourites were the Mozart Kaffee (a short, strong coffee, topped with some whipped cream and accompanied by a small bottle of Mozart chocolate liqueur that you pour on top); the Maria Christina Kaffee (pretty much the same except the alcohol is an apricot liqueur); and the Franz Landtmann Kaffee (a double espresso with brandy, coffee liqueur, whipped cream and cinnamon).
Of course, coffee is served in cafés, and Vienna has an extraordinary café culture. From the iconic but touristy Café Central (where Freud reportedly spent a lot of time); to the locals’ favourite Café Diglas which has the most amazing selection of cakes; to the more commercial Café de l’Europe, Café Mozart or Café Landtmann — you really can while away hours in Vienna’s cafés, eating, reading, and talking.
You do not want to hit this city on a diet. It seems almost churlish to be sitting in an amazing café drinking fantastic coffee and not to sample one of the ridiculously excessive cakes on offer.
Sacher Tort is what they’re famous for, but there are a huge range of options available. My favourite was the Gugelhupf cake from Café Diglas.
Traditional Viennese cuisine is pretty heavy going — lots of schnitzel and goulash, served with potato and bread. Who doesn’t love schnitzel! There’s plenty of places serving good solid food — one of my favourites was Café Savoy in the heart of the busy Naschmarkt food market.
We stumbled upon Café Savoy by accident, but it was nice to see the gay pride rainbow flag proudly on display — on the whole Vienna seems to be a relatively conservative city, but the Café Savoy was awash with confirmed bachelors.
Also serving traditional cuisine is the historic Zu Den 3 Hacken, a restaurant that is literally hundreds of years old but still delivering the goods. For something a little more modern there is Vestibul — a beautiful space at the rear of the famous Burgtheatre. Our young waiter explained helpfully that the Burgtheatre building used to be the home of Emperor Franz Joseph (Emperor of Austria 1848–1916) and that restaurant Vestibul occupies the rooms where the Emperor was driven in by his horse and carriage — effectively his garage. Spectacular — and the food at Vestibul was really impressive.
Vienna is a compact city and it’s easy to walk around most of the major sights. There’s a lot of impressive old buildings and you don’t need to be a connoisseur to appreciate that the Austrians clearly knew how to build with an eye for grandeur.
If you’re into churches there is the massive St Stephen’s cathedral and the nearby historic St Peter’s. You could easily spend a day wandering around the enormous Hofburg precinct, which also includes the famous Spanish Riding School with its striking white horses which you can see relaxing in their stables near Josefsplatz.
Keep walking and a short distance away is the spectacular Town Hall, the Parliament and the Museum Quarter which are all postcard worthy.
We spent an afternoon exploring the impressive summer palace at Schonbrunn — a short train ride from the centre of town. Schonbrunn is quite spectacular and worth the visit. Always busy, it is best to go on a sunny day when you can enjoy exploring the extensive gardens while waiting for your allocated time to wander through the extravagantly decorated rooms of the palace.
When it comes to culture, Vienna stacks up strongly against any city in the world. We spent a good few hours in the Albertina Museum where they had an extensive exhibition of the drawings of Gustav Klimt — the famous Austrian symbolist painter who specialised in the female body.
To continue our Klimt education we also ventured out to the beautiful Belvedere Museum which has a massive collection of his work.
Vienna also has an undeniable heritage in classical music. It was almost inevitable that we ended up at a concert where they were playing a selection of the best loved tunes from Mozart and Strauss. It was a pretty touristy affair, but all nicely done and we came away feeling a little high-brow.
The local schnapps was a total winner — our hotel barman introduced us to Pear Schnapps and Plum Schnapps, the perfect nightcap.
Small, cosy bars also seem to be a bit of a Viennese specialty, and one of the best is the iconic Loos’ American Bar which is the kind of boozer I could happily move into. Given its reputation, it’s no surprise that Loos’ does very good cocktails. I was feeling adventurous so went for a Danish Manhattan, which was excellent – just like a normal Manhattan really but with some kirsch and a maraschino cherry. I do love Denmark. And booze.