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Classical and cultured: The best things to do in Vienna

The Austrian capital offers an intoxicating mix of history, art, food and wine. | By Chadner Navarro | March 23, 2023

Vienna is a small city, but what it lacks in size, it more than makes up for with cultural, culinary and natural delights. This central European city impresses with its unique mix of imperial history, artistic heritage and an easygoing lifestyle. Dubbed the City of Music, the city values a busy day of museum-hopping followed by a night of classical music as much as it does a sunny day with a picnic by the Danube River or in one of its many parks (just don’t forget the Sacher torte to share!).

To get the most out of a stay in this cultural capital you’ll want to commit to that same sense of balance:

  • Culture: From the Belvedere to the Albertina, Vienna’s arts institutions are grand and inspiring

  • Cuisine: From traditional Austrian fare to Michelin-starred tasting menus, you’ll want to savor every bite

  • History: Vienna is an imperial powerhouse built on centuries of tradition. Experience that opulence at Schönbrunn Palace and the Kunsthistorisches Museum

A cook sprinkles powdered sugar on an apple strudel.
A trip to Vienna isn't complete without sampling authentic Austrian fare like schnitzel, apple strudel and Sacher torte.

Wine and dine

The food scene in Vienna includes a delicious medley of traditional cooking and innovative modern cuisine. Some of the more time-honored regional dishes you’ll want to try include knödel (boiled dumplings), schnitzel (large, thin slices of meat, usually pork, breaded and deep-fried) and tafelspitz (veal or beef boiled in broth). These dishes tend to be heartier fare that will fortify you for a day of sightseeing. One of the most popular places to try some of Vienna’s traditional recipes is Plachutta, which has three locations around the city, including one just a short walk from St. Stephen’s Cathedral.

If it’s high-end dining you’re searching for, Vienna is full of Michelin-starred restaurants, too, where renowned chefs creatively push the boundaries of the national cuisine. In the city center is Konstantin Filippou’s eponymous two-Michelin-starred hot spot, serving delicately prepared marinated sea bream and barbecued eggplant with pumpkin and sesame. There’s an a la carte lunch menu, but the eight-course dinner tasting is a worthy splurge. If you’d prefer a more casual experience, O boufés next door is Filippou’s equally buzzy wine bistro concept.

If you want your wine tavern experience to come with celebrity history, the Mayer am Pfarrplatz Heuriger in the outskirts of Vienna is famous as the site where Ludwig van Beethoven lived briefly in the early 1800s.

What’s extra special about the Austrian capital is the fantastic winemaking happening within the borders of the city. There are approximately 630 wine producers in Vienna. Sign up for a bus or biking tour of some of the most popular wineries. But even if you don’t end up visiting the vineyards themselves, most menus in the city feature locally produced wine, making Vienna a true paradise for gourmands and oenophiles.

Dad with daughter looking at art in a museum
Renowned artwork is on display throughout the city’s multiple museums and palaces.

Get your art fix

When it comes to art, Vienna is nothing short of a powerhouse. Regardless of when you visit, there is sure to be an exhibition that will stop you in your tracks.

The Belvedere Museum, a stunning complex made up of two Baroque palaces, is home to some of Gustav Klimt’s most iconic works. “The Kiss,” perhaps his most famous piece, should top your list of things to see in Vienna. Also on display are works by other Viennese talents like Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.

The Albertina is known for its impressive collection of historic prints (about a million of them) and drawings (up to 65,000) by the likes of Cézanne, Rubens and Picasso. Its counterpart, the Albertina Modern, features world-class contemporary art by international and Austrian artists alike. Over at the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Art History Museum), the primary art collection was once owned by the Habsburg family, one of Europe’s most important royal dynasties. Here you can find some of Europe’s most prized artistic works by heavyweights like Diego Velazquez, Raffaello Sanzio da Urbino (Raphael) and Johannes Vermeer.

Symphony orchestra on stage, violins, cello and flute performing.
Once home to Beethoven and Mozart, Vienna still has an active classical music scene.

Soak in the culture

The city of Vienna was both the seat of the Holy Roman Empire and the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. A city rich with this much heritage is guaranteed to be a treasure trove for culture and history hounds. If you’re interested in grand palaces, Schönbrunn Palace — the former summer home of the Habsburg family — is located on the outskirts of town and will not disappoint. Ogle the opulence with a tour of the palace’s many stately rooms and the immaculately manicured grounds that surround them.

Back in the center of town you’ll find The Hofburg wasn’t just the Habsburg family’s winter residence, it was also the main palace. This Vienna landmark was originally built in the 13th century but has been expanded many times since, making it one of the largest palaces complexes in the world. The Hofburg palace is also where the Spanish Riding School stages dressage displays for its prized stallions and the world-renowned Vienna Boys’ Choir performs during weekly Sunday Mass in the Gothic Hofburg Chapel.

Classical music is a big deal in the city where both Ludwig van Beethoven and Wolfgang Mozart lived, worked and eventually died. You’re likely to see men dressed as the composers meandering around the Wiener Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera), which presents some of the best productions in the world. This is also where the Vienna State Ballet and the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra perform. After watching a performance, join the locals for a late-night snack at Bitzinger Sausage Stand in Albertinaplatz. The Bitzinger family has been in the sausage business for generations, and their brats, wursts and hot dogs are considered some of the best in the city.

No matter what your interests are, the abundance of culture, music, history and cuisine on offer in Vienna will make your next stay in the Austrian capital a whirlwind of discovery.

Manila-born now New Jersey-based journalist Chadner Navarro writes about travel, food, culture and design. His work has been published in both print and digital publications including Conde Nast Traveler, Travel + Leisure, Wine Enthusiast and Barron's.

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