Vienna was the first European city I ever visited over 30 years ago. My memories of that trip are a bit hazy, but I do remember that my luggage didn’t arrive with me so I spent the first day (or two?) walking around barefoot wearing my purple sweater dress while carrying my white pumps (really bad walking shoes). I walked through Volksgarten barefoot, marveling at the beauty surrounding me as I embraced my first European experience. So, when I recently accepted a house sit in beautiful Vienna, I jumped at the chance to retrace the steps of that first-ever European adventure. And then I spent a week in Vienna and realized I could easily have done the best of Vienna in a day. It’s funny how, 32 years later, my perceptions have changed.
Vienna really is a beauty and often makes the list as one of the most beautiful cities in Europe. She’s got a rich history dating back thousands of years and once was the power center of Europe. She’s got stunning monuments, incredible architecture, and beautiful museums telling the stories of her past. But she’s aware of her beauty and it makes her a bit arrogant, like the supermodel who is photogenic but lacks any real soul. After a day (or two) of admiring her beauty, it’s time to move on to her “sister cities” with more character, charm, and personality – Bratislava or Budapest.
And although she’s aloof and a bit cold, Vienna is not all bad and is worth getting to know for a day or two. Take her photo (she loves it!), listen to her stories, but don’t expect to get that warm fuzzy embrace that some cities offer. She’s a bit more distant.
Here’s how to see the best of Vienna in a day (or two)…the hits and the misses.
Vienna in a Day (or two) – The “Don’t Miss” List
Schoenbrunn Palace really needs to be on the top of every traveler’s “To Do” list when visiting Vienna in one day. Located on the edge of town, it’s easily reachable by bus and well worth spending half a day.
Schoenbrunn Palace began as a simple hunting lodge in 1569 and morphed into a massive palace sometime in the mid-1700s. Many years later, it was the birthplace of Austria’s Emperor Franz Joseph. He also died there in 1916 and during his long reign he and his beloved wife, Empress Elizabeth, spent a lot of time at Schoenbrunn.
Purchase the Grand Tour and you’ll see 44 rooms exquisitely recreated from that era. The tour comes with an audio guide who tells you stories of the palace and makes it come alive. If walls could talk, this is what they’d say!
The Great Gallery, one of the most amazing rooms on the tour, is where lavish balls were held and is also the room where US President John F. Kennedy met Russian leader Khrushchev for the Vienna Summit in 1961. France’s Napoleon Bonaparte also spent time at Schoenbrunn Palace after declaring war on Austria and now has a room named after him. History happened here!
The gardens surrounding the palace are stunning and worth spending some quiet time. One of my favorite memories of my week in Vienna is the day at Schoenbrunn Palace gardens when I found a patch of green grass with a perfect view of the palace. I laid down for a while, listened to music and stared at the wispy clouds floating through the blue sky.
Metro: Underground line 4 to Schoenbrunn stop
Tram: Lines 10 and 60 to Schoenbrunn stop
Bus: Take bus 10A to Schoenbrunn Schloss stop
This palace is also a “must see” although many of the stories you’ll hear on the audio guide are similar to the Schoenbrunn Palace guide since the same families inhabited both palaces. The Hofburg Palace dates back to the 13th century when it began as a medieval castle and expanded over the years to the current massive complex of 2,600 rooms. This is where the Austrians ruled much of Europe with the reign of the Habsburg dynasty from the 13th century until 1918.
The highlight of the Hofburg Palace is definitely the Sisi Museum which gives a glimpse into the life and struggles of their beloved (and somewhat mysterious) Empress Elizabeth, more commonly known as Sisi.
Her story reminds me a bit of Princess Diana; a young, beautiful woman is thrown into life in a palace and really struggles to fit in. Sisi marries her King Franz Joseph at age 16, becomes Empress of Austria and Queen of Hungary, and is widely considered one of the most beautiful women in Europe. She spends hours maintaining that legendary beauty by exercising in her home gym. The museum tour shows her private bedroom where pull-up rings still hang from the doorway and other exercise equipment stands just as she left it before heading on a trip to Geneva – her final trip.
Sadly, in another parallel to Princess Diana, Sisi meets an unexpected and tragic end when she’s fatally stabbed by a crazed stalker outside her hotel in Geneva. The King is devasted by her death and confides in a close friend “You have no idea how much I truly loved that woman.” The Austrian people agree and she’s now grown into quite a mythical figure who is loved and adored by all.
Located in a wing of the Hofburg Palace, this really is a museum within a palace. Famous for their extensive collection of over 100,000 photographs, they also have rotating collections of paintings by Monet, Picasso, and others. They’ve got modern art, graphic art, contemporary art, all kinds of art for art lovers. This museum is highly recommended if you’ve got more than one day in Vienna.
Photo Shoot in the historic center
Like the supermodel that she is, Vienna is incredibly photogenic. Spend some time wandering through her historic center and you’ll find beautiful architecture in buildings like The Rathaus, The Opera House, and St. Stephen’s Cathedral. Take a stroll through Volksgarten and admire the beauty of the roses. Grab a coffee (or order the local specialty, the Einspanner) at an outdoor cafe and people-watch as other people admire her incredible beauty. Sadly, I searched hard but was never able to find that “perfect” cafe with a relaxed vibe, comfortable chairs, and an amazing view. (I did, however, find one on a day trip to Bratislava!)
Vienna in a Day (or two) – The “Don’t Bother” List
The Prater amusement park was on my list of Top 5 Things to See in Vienna so I did it. I quickly checked it off my list and moved on. It’s easily reachable by metro and if you’re traveling to Vienna with kids it probably is a great alternative to the palaces and museums. But for a single, solo traveler, it’s a miss especially if you’re only got one day in Vienna.
The Prater Ferris wheel is the oldest in the world (or so they say) and is the highlight of any trip to the amusement park. The highlight of my brief trip to the park was indulging in more ice cream and people-watching.
Metro: Lines U1 and U2 to Praterstern
Tram: Lines 0 and 5
Bus: 5B, 80A, and 82A
This market was also on my “Must See” list but I wouldn’t recommend that you must really see it. I expected a much more “local” market feel but found a very “touristy” market feel. Most of the vendors were of Middle East or North African descent and were selling their olives and other delicacies at highly inflated prices. I got sucked into the scam when I stopped to taste an olive and the next thing I know, I’m walking away with a plastic container filled with 10 Euros worth of olives.
Small restaurants line one side of the market and they may be a good place to try some different ethnic foods, a better use of travel funds than buying the “stuff”.
If you’ve only got one day in Vienna, cross this off your list.
The metro system is an easy and convenient way to get around Vienna. The tram and bus systems are also quick and efficient, making it quite possible to check sites off your list in just one day in Vienna. I purchased a one-week pass for 17 EUR that includes unlimited use of all modes of transport. These passes are available at any Tabac shop or through the visitor information centers.
The City Airport Train is really amazing! The train costs 12 EUR takes only 16 minutes directly to the airport. They also offer check-in service where you can get your airline boarding passes and check your bags. When you get to the airport, you’re all set to go!
Flixbus offers low fares from Vienna to destinations all over Europe. They depart from the bus station at Erdberg metro stop on U3 line. I used Flixbus from Budapest to Vienna and also for a quick day trip to Bratislava. Great deals and great service!
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