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10 things to do in Vienna

No trip to Vienna would be complete without a stop or three for incredible sweets. The coffees are equally enticing.

JAMES L. STANFIELD | National Geographic | Getty Images

No trip to Vienna would be complete without a stop or three for incredible sweets. The coffees are equally enticing.

Vienna is a paradise of palaces and pastry shops — and a good city for the directionally challenged.

The grand Gothic St. Stephen's Cathedral sits in the middle of the Old Town, its soaring spire a landmark for the lost. Nearby are the main pedestrian shopping streets of Graben, Kohlmarkt, and Karntnerstrasse, readily recognizable because of the throngs of tourists.

Encircling what has been the heart of Vienna since the Romans founded the military camp Vindobona around 15 B.C. is the Ringstrasse, a series of wide boulevards begun in 1857. More than a dozen monumental public institutions are deployed along the Ring, and many of the major cultural attractions are inside or just outside.

The suggestions here are personal favorites and just scratch the surface. Omitted are several real biggies, including St. Stephen's, the MuseumsQuartier (one of the world's major museum complexes), the Museum of Fine Arts (the world's largest collection of paintings by Bruegel), as well as trendy neighborhoods and nightlife.

A bonus for classical music lovers: Although the opera and major halls are expensive, Sunday morning masses at several churches include free mini concerts. A 72-hour Vienna Card (18.5 euros, about $26) provides reduced-price admission to many museums and free public transportation. For details, contact the Vienna Tourist Board,

Ringstrasse tram

I Pick up a map (at the tourist office or your hotel) that has drawings of major attractions, then hop on Tram 1 or Tram 2 (they run in opposite directions), making note of the stop and matching what you see through the windows en route with the pictures. It's a great way to get oriented, but try to avoid the busiest times. Single tickets are sold at ticket machines, tobacconists and onboard, but no one ever checked to see if I had one.

Hofburg Imperial Palace, Albertina

II The Spanish Riding School, Imperial Treasury, and Hofburgkapelle (where the Vienna Boys Choir sings unseen during Sunday morning mass; tickets are hard to get) are among the main draws at the vast Baroque hodgepodge that was the Habsburg home, but I'm especially fond of the Albertina. Besides one of the world's finest collections of graphic arts (not on permanent display), it has captivating special exhibits, recently restored State Rooms glittering with gilt (occasionally closed for private functions), and a cinema screening films from the archives. On permanent loan since May, the Batliner Collection "Monet to Picasso" is a stellar show of classic modern art. A comprehensive Paul Klee retrospective runs through Aug. 10. Take a lunch break on the terrace of DO & CO; the menu is a mix of tapas and Viennese specialties, and the food is better than at most museums.


III Gustav Klimt's The Kiss is the most famous painting in the Upper Belvedere, the more beautiful of the pair of palaces built in the early 18th century for Prince Eugene of Savoy, the military leader who finally repelled the Turks. But everything is wonderful, from the other works by Klimt and his contemporaries, the collection of impressionists and the medieval gallery to rooms themselves, including a stunning marble hall and two-story chapel. Stroll downhill through the gardens — taking time to notice the views — to the Lower Belvedere, which is undergoing restoration, to tour more salons and special exhibits. And don't miss the show in the Orangerie.

Wiener Werkstatte Textile Museum

IV Around the corner from Cafe Schwarzenberg, in the basement of textile manufacturer Backhausen's interior design shop, this well-laid-out museum with bilingual descriptions brings together original fabrics, reproductions, ketches and a few pieces of furniture by Josef Hoffmann, Koloman Moser, Otto Prutscher and other members of the WW ("Vienna Workshop"), an Austrian applied arts movement that started in 1902 and encompassed all forms of design. If you like tiny museums as I do, also check out the Wiener Glasmuseum on the second floor of the J.&L. Lobmeyr store. It has fine WW pieces, though the labeling is spotty.


V Designed by Joseph Maria Olbrich and completed in 1898 as headquarters for the eponymous artists' association cofounded by Hoffmann and Moser (among others) to promote "art for art's sake," particularly Jungendstil (the German version of art nouveau), this fanciful building is richly adorned with animals, gorgons and foliage and crowned by a dome of gilded bronze laurel leaves dubbed the "golden cabbage" by locals. Be sure to see early Secession president Klimt's Beethoven Frieze in the basement. Blank sections make it look unfinished, but the frescos actually follow Richard Wagner's interpretation of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9 and the full panels are remarkable.


VI Near the Secession overlooking Karlsplatz (with Otto Wagner's delightful art nouveau pavilions) is Vienna's grandest Baroque church. Designed by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and completed by his son, Johann Michael, in 1737, it's dedicated to 16th century saint Carlo Borromeo and has an imposing Italianate dome. Johann Michael Rottmar's splendid ceiling frescos are devoted to Borromeo's apotheosis (complete with some Luther bashing). Scaffolding erected in 2000 to restore them has become a tourist attraction, thanks to an elevator allowing visitors to study them up close, and many flights of stairs leading from the platform to the dome's lantern with a panoramic city view. The admission charge funds the work. If you have time, check out the Wien Museum, also on Karlsplatz. Often overlooked, it displays works by Klimt and Schiele in the context of period furnishings, has a whole room designed by modernist architect Adolf Loos in 1903, and is full of interesting exhibits on Vienna's history.


The "nibble market," which follows the paved-over (in the 1890s) bed of the Vienna River, is "foodie" heaven with a mix of multicultural produce stands, cheese stalls, dried fruit and nut emporiums, and purveyors of other good stuff. The right side has become known as the "magnificent mile" of restaurants, many of them ethnic (Turkish, Arab, Slavic, etc.) A general rule of thumb is that the farther you get from the center of town, the lower the prices. On Saturdays, a flea market (starting opposite Otto Wagner's 1899 Secession apartment buildings on Linke Wienzeile) adds blocks of browsing pleasure.


VIII Founded in 1786 as the imperial confectioners and now on Kohlmarkt a block from the Hofburg, Demel dates to 1888 and is arguably Vienna's best-known coffee and pastry shop. Sit at the sidewalk cafe or head upstairs to a warren of little belle epoque rooms to relax over pastries (try the cream strudel or anything chocolate) and Viennese coffees, such as the cappuccino-like melange. You can also watch the pastry chefs at work in the glassed-in kitchen and visit the marzipan museum in the basement. Several other cafes worth trying offer live music, among them Diglas, a fave of those in the know, and the gorgeous Schwarzenberg, which opened in 1861.


IX Designed by Heinrich Ferstel in the neo-Renaissance style in 1872, the Austrian Museum of Applied Art was an arts and crafts school — and Secession stronghold — at the turn of the 20th century. Today, it's one of Vienna's quirkiest museums, with cleverly designed rooms devoted to objets d'art (furniture, carpets, ceramics, etc.) from various periods and styles. The mother lode is the Wiener Werkstatte room with more than 160 items: silver, vases, flatware, bookcovers, you name it. Don't miss the study collections in the basement, especially the flatware cases with travel silverware from as early as the 1400s, a joke rat spoon, and all sorts of cool cutlery. Stick around to eat at Osterreicher im MAK, star chef Helmut Osterreicher's casual new restaurant showcasing traditional and modern Viennese cuisine.


X The Habsburgs' grandiose summer place, painted mustard yellow, boasts close to 1,500 rooms. You can tour the Imperial Apartments (26 rooms) or take the "Grand Tour" (all 40 rooms that are open to the public), as well as wander in the verdant gardens and lovely Palm House. The Cafe Residenz and Hofbackstube stages hourly apple strudel-making shows (samples included in the ticket price), and the outdoor cafe is a relaxing place to try specialties like Wiener stuppentof, a meal-in-a-bowl soup with noodles, meat, vegetables and both liver and semolina dumplings. Nightly concerts in the Orangerie feature the Schonbrunn Orchestra performing "greatest hits" by Mozart and the Strauss family with the help of a soprano, baritone and pair of dancers.

Anne Spiselman is a freelance writer based in Chicago.


Visiting Vienna

Airfare is expensive almost everywhere right now but if you can wait until fall or later when the tourist season is over, you're likely to find better rates. A survey of finds rates dropping $500 from July to September.

A cab into town from the airport is 35 to 40 euros ($50 to $62); the City Airport Train costs 9 euros ($14) one way, 16 ($25) round trip.

Where to stay: Most hotels offer special promotions and generous buffet breakfasts (included in the price).

The superb location on Karntnerstrasse is a big plus for the four-star Hotel Astoria (, which is appealingly old-fashioned and impeccably maintained. The 118 rooms and suites vary in size and are decorated in traditional style. Rack rates start at 450 euros ($707).

Near the Secession, 72-room Das Triest (; is in a former coach station on the route from Vienna to Trieste, but you'd never know it from the spacious, mod interiors by Sir Terence Conran. Heated towel racks are among the British touches. Some rooms open onto a terrace. Rates start at 212 euros ($333).

The Levante Parliament (,, behind City Hall and Parliament, is a 1908 bauhaus building turned into an ultramodern, 74-room hotel with showers, flat-panel TVs and lots of art, including Ioan Nemtoi's glass works in the snazzy restaurant (where the buffet breakfast is served). Rates start at 220 euros ($346).

10 things to do in Vienna 07/04/08 [Last modified: Sunday, July 20, 2008 1:40pm]
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