Rivaled in this respect by only Florence, Paris, London and Rome, Vienna served for centuries as a primary hub of Western Culture, its innumerable luminaries ranging from Mozart and Mahler to Freud and Falco. It’s inarguably every bit as magnificent as billed and doesn’t have many secrets left, so my effort here isn’t to inform you of attractions that any guidebook worth a dime should cover in much more informative depth; rather, it’s to give you a fairly efficient and somewhat thorough (yet by no means exhaustive) approach to seeing a satisfying array of downtown’s best. Whether this route takes you three hours or three weeks and leaves you satiated or starved depends on your pace and preferences, but I’m approaching this as providing a reasonable taste — figuratively and literally — of central Vienna in something between an extremely brisk half day and a more moderately-paced full day.
KARLSKIRCHE, MUSIKVEREIN, NASCHMARKT AND OPERNRING
As a teen living in Vienna’s southern suburbs, I loved to take the Lokalbahn (local light-rail) to its Endstazion at the Karlsplatz-Oper multi-modal interchange and begin my explorations from there, and it works nicely to begin yours there, as well. Karlsplatz (St. Charles’ Square) sits at about 5 o’clock just outside the Ringstraße (Ring Street), which delineates the city’s historic center and follows the footprint of the former medieval wall that warded off centuries of invaders, Suleiman and his Ottomans the most notable and most determined among them.
Karlsplatz takes its name from Karlskirche (product of prominent Viennese father-son architects the Fischer von Erlachs), which would probably be just another handsome Baroque church if not for the pair of distinctive, freestanding columns out front whose bas relief design is reminiscent of Trajan’s Column in Rome. An elevator inside takes you to the lower lip of the dome, and a few more stairs grant you a fine view of the neighborhood. The large plaza also features an important pair of ornate structures built at the turn of the 20th century to serve as the Karlsplatz station of Vienna’s street railway. Designed by Otto Wagner, foremost architect in the Secession style (Vienna’s take on the broader Jugendstil or Art Nouveau movement) and whose Kirche am Steinhof should be part of your Schönbrunn excursion, the buildings today house a small museum and a café that offers pleasant outdoor seating when the weather permits. Just across the street, due north of Karlskirche, are twin music Meccas that need no introduction for the interested and can be skipped by the uninterested: the Musikverein (whose interior is graced by the busts of famous composers lining the walls and by the busty caryatids who hold up the organ pipes) and, at Bösendorferstraße 12, Bösendorfer’s headquarters, which does allow visitors, although the factory itself is far south of town. (For those who haven’t skipped to the next paragraph: The Wiener Konzerthaus, Beethoven-Denkmal (Beethoven monument) and Johann-Strauß-Denkmal are all within a few blocks northeast of here.)
Just beyond the west end of Karlsplatz is the Wiener Secessionsgebäude (Viennese Secession Building), built at the time of the movement as exhibition space for the works of its emerging artists, including Gustav Klimt, whose monumental Beethoven Frieze here will have broader appeal than much of the avant-garde pieces now displayed under its watch. (At the risk of sounding provincial or prudish, I’ll note to those traveling with children that much of Klimt’s work, including the Frieze, is less G-rated than the pieces featured on that calendar you scored from the Barnes & Noble clearance rack.) Running for several blocks immediately southwest from the Secession Building is the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s biggest outdoor market. Open daily except Sunday, this lively assemblage will delight you with its endless barrels of sauerkraut and other regional staples, including two of my Styrian favorites: giant Käferbohnen (beetle beans), which taste like chestnuts and can exceed 4cm in length; and 10W-40 Kürbiskernöl (pumpkin seed oil), which tastes like nirvana and can’t exceed my appetite. If you’re here mid-spring and see stacks upon glorious stacks of alien-looking white asparagus, it’s Spargelzeit (asparagus time), so exploit your propitious timing by trying some of it in cream soup (Spargelcremesuppe) or fresh-cooked in light butter. On Saturdays, one of Europe’s largest flea markets is open at the Naschmarkt’s southwest end, and if you venture that far down, keep your eyes on the north side of Linke Wienzeile for two Otto Wagner residential buildings, at 38 and 40. On that same side of the street, just a block from the Secession Building, is Theater an der Wien, founded by Emanuel Schikaneder, who is best remembered as librettist for Mozart’s The Magic Flute (which premiered in Vienna, although at a different Schikaneder-backed theater) and as the original Papageno in the same.
By now, you’ve already beheld, and perhaps consumed, a wealth of Viennese richness, but we’re just getting started! From the Secession building, walk one block north until narrow Markartgasse opens up to Schillerplatz, at the center of which is a monument to, as you probably anticipated, Friedrich Schiller. Standing at Schiller’s feet and looking beyond the turf of Robert-Stolz Platz and the wide street beyond it, you’ll see a bronze figure relaxing atop a large, stone base. That’s Schiller’s friend and fellow titan of Germanic literature and thought, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe. Walk toward the Goethe-Denkmal until you reach the street — more specifically, the Ringstraße, this section called Opernring because it runs in front of the opera house, which you can sort of see from here through the trees to your right and will visit later. Proceed to your left, in a few paces passing (at Opernring 19) Burg Kino, a historically significant boutique cinema with at least three weekly showings of Orson Welles’ noir classic set in post-World War II Vienna, The Third Man. When you reach the end of this block, look across the street at the Mozart-Denkmal, whose graceful, white design overlooks a whimsical floral treble clef planted in the lawn. (At the next intersection, if desired, you can cross the street to see this and the Goethe Monument up close.) Continue a couple hundred yards until on your left hand is the large statue in the middle of the plaza and on your right, across the street, are the five archways of the Hofburg Palace’s Äußeres Burgtor (outer castle gate). Remember this spot.
MUSEUMS, PARLIAMENT, BURGTHEATER AND RATHAUS
Turn left in homage to mighty Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa, whose monument sits between the imposing twin buildings housing, now on your right, the Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum) and, on your left, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum). The former boasts millions of specimens and artifacts including extinct species, the Venus of Willendorf and the world’s largest collection of meteorites. The latter was built to showcase the Habsburgs’ art holdings and today constitutes one of the most important and extensive displays in Europe — including, once again, Benvenuto Cellini’s incomparably iconic Saliera (salt cellar), which was recovered a few years after its easier-than-you’d-have-hoped theft in 2003. Across the street from the southwest end of this plaza is the Museumsquartier (museums district), which is home to several museums of possible interest, and visible up the street to the northwest is the Volkstheater (People’s Theater), renowned for both its decor and its stage productions. If you’re hungry, I give Schnitzelwirt (known back in my starving-student days as Gasthaus Schmidt) my most giddily effusive endorsement possible. Just a few blocks behind the Museumsquartier at 52 Neubaugasse, this family-run eatery will feed you like a local among locals, and is worth the short deviation from the general flow of our itinerary.
Now back at your designated spot between Maria and the Hofburg gate, choose your path to our next stop, Parliament: The basic route goes a block and change due northwest along the Ring. The embellished variation is to enter the Hofburg gate then hang a hard left — don’t worry, we’ll be back — to meander across Heldenplatz (Heroes’ Plaza) until some verdant Weg (pathway) in the Volksgarten (People’s Garden) spits you back out on the Ring in front of what we impressionable and repressed adolescents called “The Lady With The Golden Bra,” known by well-adjusted people as Athena (Miss Pallas, if you’re nasty), the most distinctive element of Parliament’s Greek Revival design. Just up the road on the right is the stately and historically important Burgtheater (Palace Theater), which faces the Rathaus (city hall), whose Neo-Gothic design, like that of its contemporary cousin in Munich, shows clear influence from Brussels’ medieval town hall. Some of the fondest memories of my youth — right up there with the Golden Bra — are from the Rathaus plaza, which transforms each December into a Christkindlmarkt (Christmas market or, literally, Christ Child’s market) that overwhelms both the olfactory and the resolve with Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes), Lángos (Hungarian deep-fried flat bread), flaky Apfelbrezeln (apple pretzels), Glühmost (mulled cider) and the ubiquitous Heiße Maroni (roasted chestnuts), all wafting together with the immolations of handmade beeswax candles and Räuchermänner (incense-emitting wooden figurines) into a magical yuletide potpourri. Year-round, the restaurant in the basement (named, appropriately, the Rathauskeller) is worth considering not so much for its food as for its setting.
OPTIONAL LEG NORTHWARD: UNIVERSITÄT WIEN, BEETHOVEN APARTMENT, FREUD MUSEUM
Calculating strictly in footsteps and disregarding time or exertion associated with any attractions where you may have lingered, we’ve reached more or less our halfway mark. If blood-sugar is regulated, time is ample and you’re game, you can continue on an extra (i.e., not counted in approximate duration guidance I’ve provided) out-and-back extension northward to the Beethoven Pasqualatihaus (one of many apartments where Beethoven lived in and around Vienna), the Universität Wien (University of Vienna), the Votivkirche (Votive Church), and as far as the Sigmund Freud Museum and/or nearby Strauß Museum. Then turn back down Schlickgasse and Schlickplatz (past the imposing Roßauer Kaserne barracks), catching a glimpse toward the Donau (Danube) two blocks to your left up Türkenstraße, Maria-Theresien-Straße and Schottenring, and continuing past the historic Wiener Börsensäle (Viennese Stock Exchange) several blocks along Börsegasse, eventually to the museum and Holocaust memorial at Judenplatz (Jewish Square).
MICHAELERPLATZ AND HOFBURG
Whether you hoofed that little add-on or passed, our next destination is Michaelerplatz (St. Michael’s…round…Square), gateway to the Hofburg (Imperial Palace) which served as the Hapsburgs’ winter counterpart to their summer residence at Schönbrunn. If you’re at the Rathaus, make your way down Löwelstraße (behind the Burgtheater and along the northeast edge of the Volksgarten) and you’ll find it. If you’re at Judenplatz, pick whatever southwesterly path will get you to Herrengasse (I suggest cheating a bit north to Strauchgasse so you can duck into Café Central at Herrengasse 14), which will deposit you directly onto Michaelerplatz. Made it? Good. You could spend days within a three-minute radius of this spot and barely scratch the surface, so I’ll simply name a few candidates worthy of your attention and let you agonize. Shift your gaze right from the relatively modest Michaelskirche (St. Michael’s Church) to the display windows at Loden-Plankl, Vienna’s definitive purveyor of high-quality, traditional Austrian clothing, bearing in mind that you’ll probably never actually wear that adorable Dirndl or even the more practical-appearing Trachten Anzug, but a silk scarf or boiled-wool coat could serve you for years. And all those horse-drawn carriages, or Fiaker, lined up in front of the ornate grille in the palace’s archway are at your beck and call for a brief trot around the area, typically following some of the route left on our tour. Within the vast Hofburg, you can visit several museums, lavish imperial apartments, Europe’s largest baroque library (including its Prunksaal, or ceremonial room), and even a Schmetterlinghaus (butterfly house). If you have just one hour — well, 70 minutes — to spare in the Hofburg, I’d recommend the unforgettable dressage show at the Spanische Hofreitschule (Spanish Riding School), home of the famous Lipizzaner Stallions, which Patton helped to save at the end of World War II. If you have another half hour after that, spend it agape in the Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury).
GRABEN AND STEPHANSPLATZ
From Michaelerplatz, head northeast on Kohlmarkt, stopping after a few strides at 14 on your left, Café Demel. If you are doing the speed-round version of this walk and haven’t actually entered any of the sites yet, Demel is where you absolutely, positively break that pattern, and then you thank me (and my sister, who initiated me into Demel delirium many years ago) later. In another hundred yards, turn right onto Graben, which begins the heart of Vienna’s expansive pedestrian zone, noting Peterskirche (St. Peter’s Church, also known as “that other church” gracing the center city skyline) on your left as well as the Pestsäule (plague column), Vienna’s version of the Marian or Holy Trinity Columns that appear throughout central Europe and beyond, often erected as gestures of thanksgiving by survivors of calamities — in this case, the Great Plague of 1679. At the end of Graben, you’ll run into legendary (if overrated) Café Aida where, your Demel indulgences already settling nicely, you can enjoy a cup, some Keks (biscuits) and a pleasant view of Stephansplatz (St. Steven’s Square).
Vienna’s vibrant heart, Stephansplatz is named after its main tenant, Stephansdom (St. Steven’s Cathedral), whose present structure dates to the 14th century and which shares with another of Europe’s most important churches, Chartres Cathedral, the distinction of having towers conceived as twins but ending up otherwise. If our tour hasn’t yet depleted your reserves, climb the south tower for an excellent view from 200 feet. On your way out, consider that the Mozarts were married at this altar in 1782, nine short years before the cathedral would also host Wolfgang’s funeral. Just around the corner, at Domgasse 5, is the Figaro-Haus, the Mozarts’ apartment during their happier days of The Marriage of Figaro’s composition and premiere.
KÄRNTNER STRAßE, DOROTHEUM, ALBERTINA, SACHER HOTEL AND STAATSOPER
We enter the home stretch heading south on Kärntner Straße (Carinthian Street), turning right at Donnergasse to see the Donnerbrunnen (Thunder Fountain) on Neuer Markt (New Market), at the southwest corner of which is the Capuchin Church, final resting place of dozens of Hapsburgs in the Kaisergruft (Imperial Crypt). One block due west is the Dorotheum, Europe’s largest auction house, now beginning its fourth century of business. While it does deal in high-end, Sotheby’s-type auctions, it also sells both collectibles (stamps, weapons, etc.) and practicals (my mom once bought an eternally-chic, ankle-length black leather trench coat here, and my sister a vintage perambulator) to us commoners off the street.
Just south of the Dorotheum is the Albertina — technically part of the Hofburg complex, but fitting better within the flow of things here — which houses an astonishing collection of drawings, etchings and prints by Klimt, Dürer, Leonardo, Monet and others. The Albertina’s basement, a monastic cellar dating back to the 16th century, houses the Augustinerkeller, a restaurant whose fame owes perhaps more to its history and ambience than to its cuisine. Across the street to the east is the Sacher Hotel, where you’ll replenish all of today’s burned calories with a single slice of obligatory Sachertorte (the sinfully decadent chocolate cake John and Yoko were “eating…in a bag” during their infamous ‘69 Bagism press conference at the Sacher), which will refuel your energy just enough to survive Stehplätze (inexpensive standing-room admissions) this evening at the adjacent Staatsoper, one of the world’s leading opera houses. And for your après-show convenience, our old friend the Karlzplatz-Oper U-Bahn station is just outside the door, natürlich.