There’s much more to Austria’s capital than the grand remnants of the Habsburg Empire. Tour some of Vienna’s 23 Districts – numbered neighbourhoods laid out in a snail-shell pattern – and you’ll quickly learn that the city has as much of the modern and trendy as the classical. This is a city of the outdoors, from streetside cafés with Schanigärten (outdoor seating), canal-side beach bars and city vineyards in the warmer months to the famed Christmas markets in winter.
The cobble-stoned alleyways and time-worn streets of this UNESCO World Heritage site are an architectural melding of Roman ruins, remnants of the medieval period and the Baroque and Classical status symbols of Habsburg era pageantry. Such sites include the Hofburg Imperial Palace and The Spanish Riding School (come here to catch the world-renowned horse riding performance of the Lipizzaner), St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Imperial Crypt – the last resting place of the emperors and empresses. Short on time? Here’s how to see the best of Vienna in 12 hours.
Horse-drawn carriages wait outside the Hofburg on Michaelerplatz or at St. Stephan’s Cathedral to trot visitors through time. Music reverberates from street corners or large performance halls like the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper), echoing the legacy of classical musical legends like Schubert and Strauss, who were from Vienna, and Haydn, Beethoven and Mozart who lived here. The house at Domgasse 5 is the only one of Mozart’s many Vienna residences still intact and you can visit it as part of the Mozarthaus museum. Among the city’s alternative things to do are the popular Secret Vienna tours.
One of the best places to stay is the Hotel Bristol, a Luxury Collection Hotel, Vienna – an art deco gem and one of Vienna’s prime addresses since 1892. End the day with a cocktail on The Ritz-Carlton Vienna rooftop, whose placement on the Ringstrasse (ring road) offers an elegant vantage point over the old city.
Neighbouring the 1st District, Leopoldstadt was once the city's Jewish Quarter. Today it is Vienna’s alternative, edgy and multicultural neighbourhood. Leopoldstadt begins at the street-art dominated and buzzing, beach bar-lined Donau Canal (which separates the neighbourhood from the centre) and incorporates the Baroque Augarten grounds and one of the most fun things to do in modern Vienna – the Prater amusement park, with its Giant Ferris Wheel.
Join locals at the hip cluster of wine bars, restaurants and cafés at the Karmelitermarkt market area before checking in at the Courtyard Vienna Prater/Messe, which keeps you right at the heart of the Leopoldstadt action.
Head south from the 2nd District to reach the 3rd, Landstrasse, and one of Vienna’s truly unique things to do. Quirky architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser is known for the transformations he has made of residential buildings right across Austria. Just a short walk from Landstrasse station, Hundertwasser House is one of his principal works. A riot of colourful paint and mosaic tiling and misshaped patterns, this private home represents a rebellion against urban regulations. You can visit the nearby Museum Hundertwasser, which showcases similar architectural designs.
The 3rd District also boasts the 18th-century Baroque Belvedere Palace, commissioned by Prince Eugene of Savoy. Empress Maria Theresa later acquired the building, using it to display Imperial art collections. Today, it houses the world's largest collection of Gustav Klimt paintings. Close to Belvedere, you’ll find the Imperial Riding School Renaissance Vienna Hotel, which served as a military riding school in the mid-19th century.
Hugging the historical centre, on its western side, is a group of four residential districts, each with a unique vibe, from young and edgy, to more chic and upmarket. They are all accessible on foot in less than 30 minutes from the 1st District.
The 6th District (Mariahilf) includes the main shopping street of Mariahilferstrasse, but the main places to visit are the modern art museum and hang-out area of the MuseumsQuartier – once the imperial riding stables – and the Haus des Meeres aquarium, which occupies the interior of a concrete air-raid tower from WWII. From here, you can venture to the neighbouring fringes of the 5th (Margareten) for the Saturday flea market and foodie haven of Naschmarkt. It is Vienna’s largest inner-city market, with a dozen or so restaurants, including the popular modern Israeli cuisine at Neni.
North of Mariahilf is the young, creative and hipster 7th District (Neubau). It’s full of student hang-outs, including the rustically antiquated Das Käuzchen, cocktail bar Moby Dick, speciality coffee shops and independent shops.
Venture further and you’ll come to the 8th District (Josefstadt), the smallest district of Vienna and a quiet, upmarket and architecturally beautiful enclave with some great places to eat. Dishes to try include the Neapolitan-style pizza at Via Toledo (recipients of a ‘World Pizza Champions’ crown), Persian specialties like the pomegranate chicken at Arezu or the pad thai at Mamamon. Schelato scoops up some of the best ice cream in Vienna, while gin lovers should head to Torberg and choose from one of the 450 types of gin and 23 tonics on offer.
The northernmost of the cluster, 9th District (Alsergrund), is where you’ll find the apartment Sigmund Freud lived in for 47 years before fleeing the city in 1938. You can tour the apartment, which is now a museum dedicated to Freud’s life and work. A few minutes away lies quaint Servitengasse street, where you can hop between French cafés, craft stores and speciality cheese and coffee shops. If you’re in the mood for some nightlife, start off at Vienna’s favourite craft beer joint, Beaver Brewing Company before moving on to Krypt, located in a vaulted cellar, or WUK, the former factory turned arts and culture centre.
Far west of the historic centre lies the 13th District, Hietzing, where the star attraction is the Schönbrunn Palace complex and the Schönbrunn Zoo (the world’s oldest) on the same grounds. There’s free entry to the garden grounds, which annually becomes the stage for the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra’s open-air Summer Night Concert. One of the best things to do in this neighbourhood is to ascend the Gloriette monument for a jaw-dropping view of the palace and the city beyond. It’s a thirty-minute walk from here to the Klimt Villa, the last residence of the Viennese artist Gustav Klimt.
Ramblers will enjoy the Lainzer Tiergarten that embraces half of Hietzing’s total landmass. The former hunting ground of Ferdinand I of Austria is now a protected biosphere reserve filled with forest nature trails.
One way to tell what district you’re in is to look at street signs, which feature the district’s number followed by a full stop and comma. For example, 1.,Kärntner Strasse.
The historical centre (1st District) and its immediate neighbours (2nd through to 9th) are easily explored on foot, but Vienna’s extensive metro, bus and tram network is great for getting around. Download the city’s WienMobil app to plan and purchase tickets, or consider the Vienna Pass, which gives you fast-track entry and discount on attraction entries on top. Alternatively, join the locals switching sustainably to two wheels and utilising the city's growing network of bike lanes.
Published: July 26, 2022