City Breaks – A Local’s Guide to Vienna

Having lived in Vienna for the good part of a year, I’d say it’s safe to say I’ve accrued a certain amount of local knowledge. I lived for eight months in the north of the city – that strange area that resembles a ghost town full of beautiful houses, rather than part of a capital city. The period of time I stayed meant that I was always somewhat in between a tourist and a local, which leaves me in the elevated position of being able to guide you, the reader, through the labyrinth of mesmerising Gassen (Viennese for lane or street) and hidden treasures of the city, without losing sight of the main tourist attractions, which are of course not to be missed!

Vienna is a great city for a weekend or mini-break and can be adapted to many budgets. It can be done on a shoestring, or you can go all-out. There is a sprawl of hotels and hostels throughout the city, ranging from the luxurious Hilton to the humble Jugendherbergen (youth hostels), which appear frequently in the outer districts.

Depending on your preference, the ‘main sights’ of the city can be done over one or two days. If you’re lucky – and you often are during the Viennese summer – you should be able to walk all the way around what the locals like to call ‘the Ring’. This is the large, uneven loop of streets that encircle the first district in the centre of the city.

It matters little which way you walk and where you start or finish, since at every point along the way there’s something to see. You will pass, among others, the University of Vienna, the Burggarten, the Rathaus (town hall), the Operahouse, the Volkstheater, the Natural History and Art History Museums, along with the Museums Quarter itself.

At any point, it’s just a few minutes walk into the town centre itself. The focal point of the city is St Stephen’s Cathedral, with its impressive gothic architecture. Those of you who are particularly interested in history can even take a trip down to its catacombs. The building you see today was completed in the early years of the sixteenth century. Two older churches occupied the present site and before there is evidence of an ancient cemetery dating back to Roman times.

From here, you can either head south-east towards the Naschmarkt, south towards the Palaces of Belvedere and Schönbrunn or south-west towards the Hundertwasser Haus or Prater Park, all of which are worth a visit. For those of you travelling with children, Schönbrunn boasts an impressive zoo and a hedge maze. Equine enthusiasts will also enjoy a trip to the Spanish Riding School, which stages performances daily.

The Naschmarkt and Prater and easily accessible (as most sights) by the Vienna U-Bahn, the underground system. Since they are a bit further off centre, it’s worth taking the underground to reach them – Schönbrunn too, unless you’re a keen walker. The Naschmarkt boasts a mouth-watering array of local and exotic delicacies, tiny, charming bistros, market stalls and bric-a-brac. This is a great place to stop and have a bite to eat, although I’ll expand more on eating out in Vienna in part two of this article.

Heading on from here, Prater Park is another great option if you have children. While it is, indeed, a large park, packed with locals and tourists on warm days, it also doubles as a theme park. The rides do tend to be rather expensive, so those on a budget may want to limit themselves, but there are often no queues, which is always a bonus.

For those of you more interested in art and architecture, don’t miss Friedensreich Hundertwasser’s Hundertwasserhaus, built an an entirely differerent architectural plane (literally – watch your step!). Mismatching, multicoloured panels form an extraordinary fassade that captures the collective imagination of thousands of visitors each day in Vienna. The Kunsthaus Wien on the Untere Weissgerberstrasse contains further designs from the eccentric artist. You may love it or hate it – most people have a strong reaction to it – just don’t miss it. Both of these sights are just a short walk away from the Prater Park, but are less easily accessible by U-Bahn.

Finally, the Viennese Palaces. It’s mostly based on personal taste, but I consider the Belvedere the most attractive of the two, although Schönbrunn is arguably far more impressive. Both Palaces house exhibits – the Belvedere focuses mainly on art, often by Art Nouveau painters or sculptors, with Gustav Klimt as a firm favourite and permanent exhibit. If you’re a history buff, take a guided tour through Schönbrunn and possibly take the longer, extended tour too, if you have time, as it is very informative.

So! While many of you might argue that there are other sights I’ve missed out, there are the main ones. If you have no interest in extended visits and tours, they can be easily done in one rather action-packed day. Still, by this point, you’ll probably be wanting a good meal, maybe a strong coffee, which leads me on to park two, where we will be looking at the lesser-seen side of the city…

(part 2: City Breaks: A Local’s Guide to Vienna Part 2)