Explore the charms of Central Europe’s most visited city with our detailed Vienna itinerary. Find the top rated tourist attractions in Ringstrasse and must things to do in the city along with suggestions for spending one day in Vienna, the capital of Austria.
Vienna is one of the top cultural destinations in the world owing to its vast Imperial history. Also known as Wien, the city is Austria’s capital and among Europe’s most visited ones. Located along the banks of the Danube, Vienna was the historic center of the Habsburg dynasty. You can still see the legacy in the many royal palaces, Baroque architecture, and cultural attractions including Opera House and museums. Vienna is also famous for its coffee houses, the food scene, wine taverns as well as an inspiring musical legacy.
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History of Vienna
A beautiful but troubled past!
Vienna’s long tryst with ambitions and imperialism has given the city a complex legacy. Even before the war times, Vienna had its share of fame and attracted some of Europe’s most influential figures. Few know that in 1913 – before the outbreak of World War I – Vienna was home not only to the Habsburg dynasty but also to Hitler and Stalin.
Imperial Vienna flourished under the Habsburg dynasty, especially under Ferdinand I, in the 16th century. During the Renaissance era, Vienna was the intellectual center for developments in science, humanities, arts, and music. Architecture flourished and Baroque style buildings and defense fortifications were built within the city. The Habsburg empire consisted of a large part of modern Europe with the major threat being the Ottoman Turks. The Habsburg and Ottomans jointly ruled modern-day Hungary. The 16th to the 18th century was dominated by Ottoman-Habsburg wars until the Turks were completely driven out of Hungary under Prince Eugene of Savoy in 1716. Since then, Vienna was the center of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
In the 19th century, foundations were laid down for the creation of Modern Vienna. The fortifications were taken down and the grand Ringstrasse built in its place. The most significant buildings in Innerstadt along the Ringstrasse were constructed during this time. Early 20th century Vienna was popular among immigrants looking for work or to better their learning. It was during this time that Hitler came to Vienna to become a student at the art institute and when rejected, became interested in Vienna politics.
The Habsburg monarchy collapsed during the first World War. During WWI, Vienna also suffered economically – inflation increased and savings depleted. The weak state left after the end of the war resulted in discontent and authoritarian governments, culminating in the annexation of Austria by Nazi Germany. The annexation was announced by Hitler at the famous speech in Heldenplatz. Under the Third Reich, Vienna’s Jewish population was tortured and executed. The city housed concentration camps during WWII.
At the end of WWII, Vienna was under bomb threats and Hitler had defense flak towers constructed. These towers can still be seen in the city. Compared to Berlin, Cologne or other German cities, Vienna wasn’t as damaged during WWII bombings. Post-WWII, economic activity, and rebuilding occurred. Vienna became one of the centers of the United Nations and its organizations. Modern Vienna continues to be the cultural, economic, and financial capital of Austria.
Best time to visit Vienna
The best time to visit Vienna is during the popular summer season in Europe. June, July, and August have very comfortable temperatures and the days are warm and sunny. Springs and fall both are shoulder seasons – expect mild weather with occasional cool nights and fewer tourists. Winter is not that popular to visit except for holiday season when Vienna has beautiful holiday lights displays and Christmas markets around the corners.
Vienna is one of the most expensive cities to visit in the world – accommodation, food, and drinks in the tourist areas are quite costly. The key to having a great time in Vienna while staying within your budget is to travel within the shoulder season.
Where to stay in Vienna
We recommend staying in the Innere Stadt area while you are in Vienna. Yes, the hotels are going to be expensive but you will be close to all the major tourist attractions and save a lot of time as compared to traveling to the city center from outside. There are fewer budget accommodations within the city but since you are spending a day or two, it can be worth the time saved.
Another good area to stay if you prefer not to stay inside the Ringstrasse is District 2 or Leopoldstadt. This is the area between the Danube river and the Danube canal. Vienna’s Prater amusement park with its Ferris wheel is situated here. You will be quiet close to the city center and its attractions plus Schwedenplatz and its nightlife.
One day in Vienna itinerary
Contrary to what many think, it is actually possible to visit Vienna in one day. You won’t be able to visit the famous museums but you can still explore the city center i.e. the Old Town or Altstadt and get a feel of the city’s architecture, coffee house culture, and it’s high brow vibe. We recommend starting the day early if you want to see Vienna in a day.
Visit Inner City Vienna in 1 Day
All of the places to visit in Vienna in 1 Day are located inside the Ring Road in the Old Town or Inner City area.
Heldenplatz or Heroes Square is the green space and city square located outside the Hofburg Palace Complex. It was here that Hitler announced the annexation of Austria to Nazi Germany in 1938. Heldenplatz was designed by the German architect, Gottfried Semper. The square contains equestrian statues of two of Austria’s war heroes: Prince Eugene of Savoy who defeated the Ottomans and Archduke Charles who led the defeat against Napoleon.
Several significant buildings and monuments surround the Heldenplatz including the residence of the Austrian President, the foreign ministry, the National Library, the Outer Castle Gate Burgtor, Volksgarten public park, the Natural History Museum of Vienna, and the Museum of Fine Arts. From Heldenplatz, you will also have great views of Ringstraße, the Austrian Parliament Building, the Rathaus (Townhall) and the Austrian National Theatre, Burgtheater.
Hofburg Palace Complex
Next visit the historic Hofburg Palace Complex. The Hofburg Palace was the seat and residence of the ruling House of Habsburg; consequently, it is the most famous of Vienna’s palaces. The complex has over 18 building groups and innumerable rooms, some of which have been turned into museums. The Hofburg Complex has a myriad of architectural styles including Gothic, Baroque, Classicism, and Renaissance as each successive ruler added elements during their rule.
Properly exploring the Hofburg Complex and its museums will take more than a day. To see the highlights within an hour or two, we recommend walking around the complex and observing the architecture, visiting the 13th century Royal Chapel, and checking out the main attractions of Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the stunning Silver Collection. All of these attractions can be visited with a single ticket.
The Imperial Apartments include the offices and residence of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, which are preserved mostly in their original condition and can be toured with a ticket. You can walk through 24 rooms in Rococo style of architecture including the dining room, bathroom, living rooms, and imperial staircase. The Sisi Museum is dedicated to Empress Elisabeth and includes personal artifacts owned by her as well as her many portraits. The Imperial Silver Collection is a magnificent collection of glasses, centerpieces, earthenware, kitchenware, and gold and silverware.
Lunch in a Viennese Coffeehouse
Vienna’s Cafe Culture is a UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage. Everyone in Vienna has had their favorite cafe right from Freud who was partial to Cafe Landtmann while Hitler, Stalin, and Trotsky frequented the historic Cafe Central. Both these cafes still exist and are located quite close to the Hofburg Palace: try an apple strudel and chai latte at the pricey Cafe Landtmann or enjoy the historic atmosphere and sachertorte at Cafe Central – while you wonder about the famous men who once sat at your table!
For other popular cafes in the area, try Cafe Demel or Cafe Hawelka. The cafes are all around the inner city – some frozen in time with traditional Viennese architecture and old-time decor while others with a modern, trendy vibe – all serving coffee, schnitzels, strudels, and happy times.
Coffee’s origins in Vienna have a unique history. In 1683, the city was under siege of the Ottoman Empire for two months. After the Battle of Vienna, the Habsburg Army and its Allies regained control and the Turks fled leaving behind all possessions including coffee! Since then, the Viennese have perfected coffee into an art form. You will find several different brews in each cafe.
Here’s what you need to understand about the Viennese coffee houses: they are about much more than having a drink. A cup of coffee is your ticket to lingering in these iconic institutions and enjoying the decor, people watching and eating delicious pastries and other food. And that’s why you should go here for lunch rather than breakfast. Sip a specially brewed coffee, try the traditional Viennese pastries and sausages, and enjoy your meal.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is Austria’s most famous church. The Cathedral was built in the 12th century and has witnessed the most popular events in Vienna’s history. The roof of the Cathedral was damaged in a fire when the Soviet Army entered Vienna post-WWII in 1945 but much of the structure has remained intact. The Cathedral is huge and built in the Gothic style of architecture with beautiful spires and a colorful tiled roof. Inside you will find high ceilings, simple stained glass windows, and an intricately carved pulpit. While the cathedral is free to visit, we recommend getting the tour which includes an audio guide, access to North and South bell towers, and a guided tour of the catacombs. From the towers, you will have a beautiful view of the tiled roof of the Cathedral as well as a gorgeous vantage point over Vienna.
Next, walk up to the Stadtpark and take a stroll around the gardens. Stadtpark has a large number of statues of famous Viennese including artists, composers, writers, etc. The most photographed monument in Vienna is that of Johann Strauss II, the Austrian music composer – it is located in the center of Stadtpark. The Kursalon building located in the park is the site for music concerts and festivals. Stadtpark is beautifully landscaped and looks vibrant in all seasons. The park has a kids play area and a small pond and makes for a great break on a Vienna one day trip. The Stadtpark U-Bahn station is designed by Otto Wagner, the famous Viennese architect.
Tram ride around Ringstraße
Vienna’s Ringstrasse is a majestic circular boulevard that surrounds the historic area of the inner town. Today’s Ringstrasse is constructed where 18th century Vienna’s city walls and fortifications once stood. The Ring Road was completed around 1860 and over the next 30-40 years, a large number of grand public buildings were built surrounding the Ring Road. You can see all of these buildings on a tram ride around the Ringstrasse. The Ring Road is Vienna’s UNESCO World Heritage Site and a must-see attraction even if you have only 1 day in Vienna.
There are two ways to go around the Ring Road. The first option is the public transport tram and the second option is the special tourist trams. If using public trams, you will need to take both Tram 1 and Tram 2 and purchase a 24-hour ticket to create your own hop on hop off tour. Lonely Planet has an excellent guide for this, which you can read here.
The vintage, yellow ‘Bim’ trams are the sightseeing trams and the only ones which complete an entire trip around the Ring Road. You cannot get down at any attraction if using the Bim but will be able to see the most important buildings from the tram while you listen to the included audio tour. The total trip time is about 30 mins and you can board the Bim from Schwedenplatz.
Here are the details of some of the buildings you will see. The Academy of Fine Arts is a famous Viennese art school. Apart from its notable alumni, the university is also famous for rejecting Adolf Hitler when he applied to be an art student. Also located along the Ring Road is the University of Vienna, one of the oldest and largest universities in the world. The university is associated with many Nobel prize winners, famous scholars, and prestigious alumni.
The Votivkirche or Votive Church is a beautiful church in the Gothic Revival style of architecture. Other significant buildings include the Vienna Stock Exchange, Urania Observatory, and Hotel Imperial – a 5-star luxury hotel. You will also see the Austrian Parliament Building and other buildings located on the Heldenplatz as well as the famous Vienna State Opera House. We recommend getting down at the Opera House.
Vienna State Opera
Vienna State Opera House was the first building to be completed on the grand Ringstrasse. Built-in 1869, the original building had the Renaissance Revival style of architecture. The first Opera was Mozart’s Don Giovanni and the premiere was attended by both Emperor Franz Josef and Empress Elisabeth. The building was heavily bombed and damaged during WWII and the Vienna State Opera House was rebuilt post-war. Today the Opera House is one of the busiest in the world and even produces many children’s operas.
We recommend watching an opera in this famous venue to end your 1 Day in Vienna. Here are a few tips: Online tickets are the cheapest. You can splurge and get front seats with gourmet dinner or basic standing places for a few euros – yes, you can see the Opera even on a budget! You will need to leave bags and jackets in lockers outside. Also dress up, especially for the night performances as that is the norm. You can also take an hour-long guided tour to see the Opera house without attending a show.
You can either end your day at the Opera House or get a taste of Vienna’s nightlife in Schwedenplatz. The area is famous for nightclubs, pubs, and cocktail bars. Jazzland is one of Vienna’s most famous nightclubs and located in this area. With so many bars, located nearby this area is also perfect for a pub crawl Le Loft located in Sofitel is a great rooftop bar and offers wine flights. Other places worth visiting for nightlife include Josef Cocktail Bar, First Floor, Spelunke, Dino’s American Bar, etc.
More places to visit in Vienna in 1 Day
If you have more time, you might be able to squeeze in a visit to Vienna’s other top attractions including Belvedere Palace, Prater Amusement Park, Schonbrunn Palace, or Museumsquartier.