With a population of over 1.8 million residents, the Austrian capital contains approximately one-fifth of the countries’ inhabitants. In June 2017, my wife Fern and I tremendously enjoyed our one day cruise stopover in Vienna. Shortly after returning from the cruise, we decided to return to more fully explore. Vibrant Vienna is once again one of Europe’s grandest cities. In this article, I provide thematic highlights for a great four day itinerary.
World class art museums: I highly recommend that a portion of each day be spent at an art museum, not only for the art, but also for the historical background and decor.
The largest of the former Habsburg residences, the charming Albertina combines masterworks of art with imperial pomp. The Batliner permanent art collection called Monet to Picasso contains one of Europe’s most outstanding collections of classical and modern paintings. We particularly enjoyed impressionist works including Monet, Renoir, Degas and Cezanne. Although there were no English language tours, the audio guide was informative and provided extensive details on the artists and their times.
In 1776, Maria Theresa’s son-in-law, Duke Albert Casimir, assembled an art collection in the Albertina. Twenty state apartment rooms are sumptuously decorated with valuable cloth wall coverings, gorgeous chandeliers, delicate inlaid works and exquisite furniture from the 100 year period when the Albertina was a place residence of the Habsburg arch dukes and arch duchesses. These rooms show off imperial splendor in shades of red or yellow or green, and have been authentically restored to show period furnishings.
We took a mid-day lunch break in the DO&CO restaurant within the museum, enjoying vegetarian Paninis, Viennese coffee and tasty apple strudel. Located at Albertina Platz 1, the cost of admission was 12.9 Euros. www.Albertina.at
The Art History Museum (Kunsthistorisches):
Located at Maria Theresien Platz in the museum quarter, experts consider this to be one of the world’s most important art museums. Inaugurated in 1891 and built by Emperor Franz Joseph to house the imperial collections, the building is grand and imposing. The architecture of the building really stands out!
Entering upon a magnificent staircase flanked by lions and statutes, we first ascended a raised platform (called the stairway to Klimt) to view the art works of Gustav Klimt up close. These paintings, symbolizing a series of past artistic styles, were adhered to the walls upon the completion of the building. The Klimt works are contained within a decorated stair case between columns and besides arches.
The art was collected by emperors and arch dukes of the Habsburg dynasty. The palatial building consists of large main rooms with large canvases and side halls featuring smaller paintings. The greatest collection of paintings in Vienna contains works from the middle ages and baroque art. On the first floor, the museum features antiquities from Greece, Rome and Egypt.
We joined a superb English language tour with one of the museum’s curators. This was an unforgettable experience, as he compared a series of masterworks from the permanent collection to art work on loan from important collections from all over the world. As an example from within “The Shape of Time” comparison, a series of three Rembrandt self-portraits were placed side-by-side with a modern Mark Rothko work. In addition, we purchased an audio guide.
At 15 Euros, the price of admission was a bargain. We took a break while and enjoyed a nice lunch in the elegant café and restaurant in the Cupola Hall on the main floor. www.kmh.at
The elegant summer country estate of Prince Eugene of Savoy consists of two grand buildings (upper and lower) with delightfully manicured gardens in between. The palace provides sweeping views of the Vienna skyline. We spent far less time in the lower Belvedere, where the primary attractions are state rooms, including a marble hall and a brightly colored golden room.
The upper Belvedere is a chronological journey of primarily Austrian art from the middle Ages to the present, with thematic rooms. In particular, the palace includes a great collection of 19th and 20th century art, especially including French impressionists like Monet, Renoir and Van Gogh, as well as Austrian Gustav Klimt, the Viennese master of modernism. Perhaps the most famous painting of the several thousand works in the collection is Klimt’s “The Kiss,” showing two lovers kissing wrapped in a gold and jeweled cloak.
We really enjoyed a lunch interlude in the lovely Café Menagerie in the upper Belvedere tucked behind the gift shop. Admission currently is 22 Euros for both buildings and the gardens are free. We recommend touring the upper Belvedere and gardens. The English language audio guide was worthwhile, focusing on the most important works of the collection. www.belvedere.at
Impressive Sights and Sounds of Vienna: After spending a portion of each day at an art museum, we picked out one or two attractions to fill the remainder of the day into the evening.
Austrian National Library:
Adjoining the Habsburg Palace, this is one of the world’s most important and beautiful historic libraries. The collection was first assembled by Emperor Karl VI for his court library. The library is 650 years old and it is the largest library in Austria. The interior continues to look like a eighteenth century library, with wood book cases, approximately 200,000 books and four huge splendid antique Venetian globes within the long baroque style state hall. Some of the books were published in the 16th century. We were particularly impressed with the elaborately decorated dome and ceiling frescoes, which remain vivid and provide an imperial flair. Josefsplatz 1. www.onb.ac.at
United Nations, Vienna International Center:
Vienna is one of the four official seats of the United Nations. The others are in New York, Geneva and Nairobi. Costing 10 Euros, the ninety minute English language tour was fascinating, providing extensive highlights of the UN activities in Vienna. The guide first explained which UN organizations are based in Vienna. Constructed in 1979, we walked through several of the buildings which are collectively referred to as UNO-City. Other highlights included viewing original works of art from some of the 193 member countries, a sample of a rock from the moon donated by NASA and a visit to the conference rooms where major decisions have been taken. Located at Wagramer Strasse 5, the International Center sits right at a subway stop. www.unis.unvienna.org/visit
Vienna is synonymous with music. Opened in 1867 by the Strauss brothers, the Kursalon is the hall where Johann Strauss Jr. directed concerts with many waltzes more than 100 years ago. Conveniently located by the city park (Stadtpark), the Italian Renaissance style building is splendid, with beautiful glass chandeliers and wonderful acoustics.
The very high quality concert was called the sound of Vienna. We had a fun evening listening primarily to Mozart and Strauss music performed by a twelve piece orchestra with English language narration as the pieces flew by over 1 ¾ hours. The evening included enchanting ballet dances and superb opera singers, as well as waltzes and arias. We picked Category B seats which cost 59 Euros and were situated in the seventh row. www.soundof Vienna.at
Created in 1897, Prater is the city’s largest park. Prater contains an iconic giant Ferris wheel, an amusement park and a three mile long tree-line boulevard perfect for biking or jogging or walking. For us, Prater Park provided a relaxing interlude between seeing various sites. There is no fee for admission into the park. www.prater.wien.info
Jewish Vienna: Once numbering over 200,000, the Jewish community was all but decimated during World War II. To discover what happened to the small Jewish community since 1945, we visited several sites. The Jewish population has been growing since the 1950s to about 8000 in Vienna, primarily due to immigration from Eastern Europe, Iran and the former Soviet Union.
Jewish Museum Vienna:
The first Jewish museum in Vienna was founded in 1895. The current museum was established thirty years ago. The permanent exhibition focuses on religion, cultural traditions and Jewish customs in Austria. The displays were well labeled in English. The exhibit called “Our city – Jewish Vienna then and now” tells the difficult history of Jewish Vienna from its beginnings to present day.
The museum is located in two buildings in separate locations. We only toured through the building located at Dorothoeergasse 11. The cost of admission for both buildings was 12 Euros. www.jmw.at
Vienna Synagogue (Stadttemple):
Established in 1826, this orthodox synagogue is the only Jewish temple to survive from the Jewish worship buildings that existed in Vienna from World War II. We especially enjoyed a one hour English language tour of what is now the main synagogue in Vienna. The tour included an extensive discussion of the Jewish community in Vienna, as well as an explanation of what is contained within the building. The synagogue is only open to the public for tours or services. Seitenstettengasse 4.
Sigmund Freud House and Museum:
In the house where Freud lived and practiced from 1859 to 1938, the museum (founded in 1971) presents a small exhibition documenting the life and work of the founder of psychoanalysis. Driven into exile by anti-Semitism, Freud was not popular during these years in Vienna. Most interesting to us was the film footage of the Freud family from the 1930s. Some of the displays were labelled in English and English language handouts were available to be viewed. The cost is 12 Euros for an adult.
With original furnishings in the waiting room including antiques, we could glimpse into the atmosphere of Freud with his patients as he developed a new discipline. There is an empty space where he had his famous couch. As we wandered through the small apartment and office that he spent 47 years in, we were able to view some of his numerous written works and imagine his treatment of troubled patients in the treatment room. Berggasse 19. www.freud-museum.at
Holocaust Memorial (The Nameless Library):
At Judenplatz, there is a monument to the 65,000 Austrian victims of the Holocaust. Built by the city of Vienna, the memorial was unveiled in 2000. Also engraved are the names of concentration camps where the victims were killed by the Nazis.
The outside surfaces of the memorial are library shelves turned inside out. The shelves of the memorial appear to hold endless copies of the same edition, which stand for the vast number of the victims, as well as the concept of Jews as “People of the Book.” The memorial also speaks of a cultural loss created by the genocide.
My Tips for an Enjoyable Stay in Vienna:
The Vienna Pass provides free admission to over 60 attractions, including the hop on hop off bus and a one hour walking tour of central Vienna. The pass is available for one, two, three or six consecutive days. Both the walking tour and the hop on hop off bus provided us with a great initial overview of the layout of Vienna and the location of key sites. With six routes and fifty stops and an audio guide, the Vienna hop on hop off bus provided a more extensive route system than similar buses in other cities. Although the pass normally costs 119 Euros for an adult pass for three days, the passes are frequently on sale through the pass web site. www.viennapass.com
The Public Transportation System:
The system is extensive, inexpensive and easy to use. The subway system (U bahn) contains six color coded lines. In addition, with one of the largest tram systems in the world, it was easy for us to travel to sites not located at subway stops. Both subway and tram stops were clearly announced and signage of the stops was easy to follow. The public transportation pass can be purchased along with a Vienna pass for an additional fee.
Rick Steves’ Pocket Vienna provided good guidance for prioritizing our time and determining which sites were more important to see. Although the book is over 200 pages, it is published in a very compact easy to carry around form. He provides maps and a good overview of hotels, restaurants and Vienna neighborhoods.
Right in the middle of Vienna (at Schottenring 11), the Hilton Vienna Plaza was exceptionally well located by both tram and subway stops. Designed in an art deco style, this hotel has an excellent fitness center, very nice sized rooms and fine food and drinks within their executive room. The hotel staff spoke English fluently, were extremely helpful when asked questions and were very attentive. www.hilton.de/wienplaza
Fern and I were extremely glad to have returned to this grand city. On our first trip we were able to explore the two imperial palaces – Schonbrunn, the summer palace, and Hofburg, within city center, pastries at Café Demel, an evening musical concert, but not much more. Vienna’s rich cultural heritage deserves multiple trips of discovery.