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It’s difficult to believe that Sigmund Freud concocted his very cynical portrayal of the human psyche in a city as beautiful as Vienna. What must have gone through his mind as he passed through the cobblestone streets? As he gazed up at the creviced hollows of Stephansdom, whose majesty subtly suggests that there must be a God, did Freud find his super-ego? Did he hear the soft laughs of those imbibing in the wine fields north of Vienna and discover his id?
But surely, Herr Freud, Vienna was a city of dreams, too. Just look to the dreams of the opulent Hapsburgs, constructing castles and palaces as if they would be residing in them for millennia. See the dreams of Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele, brushing aside coffee and cigarettes while wildly sketching away. Then there are the dreams of Mozart, Strauss, and Beethoven that still play as whispers from the bodies of freshly-hewn violins. All these centuries of Vienna’s dreams are remembered, interpreted, and celebrated in the city’s dozens of museums devoted to this collective conscience of culture and art.
While it may be easy to dream in Vienna, it is much harder to sleep. Despite its devotion to a powerful past, the city has kept in step with the rest of Europe, which means the trademark combination of languorous, late-night dinners, later-nightclubs, and latest-night kebab stands. Even if your heart does not tend toward nostalgia, there will surely be enough to keep you occupied. However, if you do long for a taste of a place that has transcended the word “city” to instead embody an Old World Mecca, Vienna will subtly, completely, and utterly grab your knock-kneed heart.
The heart of Vienna is the Inner City, which includes everything encircled by the Ringstrasse and can be conflated with District I. In the center of the Inner City is the U-Bahn stop of all U-Bahn stops: Stephansplatz, which is overshadowed by the giant cathedral, Stephansdom. Around the bull’s eye of the Inner City lie the Core Districts (II-IX), which start with Leopoldstadt in the north and circling around to the hospital district, Alsergrund (here’s to hoping you don’t find yourself there!). The Outer Districts (X-XXIII), as one might surmise, border the Core Districts, starting at Favoriten in the south and generally circling clockwise to the Liesing.
Note: while other river-based cities, such as Budapest, can be navigated by plotting points against the location of the river, don’t be surprised if you never even see the Danube during your stay in Vienna. Plan instead on using Stephanspl. and the towering spires of Stephansdom as your major orientation points.
Vienna’s contrasting streets are by turns stately, residential, and decaying. Unlike nearby cities in Germany, Vienna was largely unaffected by the destruction of WWII, which means that visitors can enjoy the same buildings that Freud and Kafka wandered by. To wander on your own, grab a copy of “Vienna from A to Z,” a handy guide to the city.
Check out our shortlist of must-see attractions and top things to do. Click the links to reserve tickets or book local guides.
Traditional Austrian food is a cardiologist’s nightmare, which means it has to taste good. Most meals are hearty and focus on Schweinefleisch (pork), Kalbsfleisch (veal), Wurst (sausage), Eier (eggs), Käse (cheese), Brot (bread), and Karoffeln or Erdapfeln (potatoes). Most vegetarian options include mushrooms, like Steinpilze or Eierschwammerl. If you can’t stand fungi, Spätzle (homemade noodles often serve with melted cheese) is an available traditional dish. Breakfast options include yogurt and Müsli (soaked granola). Austrians are known for their desserts, like torte in various fruit flavors and dessert dumplings and pancakes, all of which can be paired with Austrian coffee, like a mélange (Viennese coffee with cream and cinnamon).
The most famous Austrian wine is probably Gumpoldskirchen from Lower Austria. Another good bet is the Klosterneuburger. If beer is your alcoholic beverage of choice, you’ll find fantastic choices like Ottakringer, Gold Fassl, and Zipfer.
First and foremost, Vienna is a city of the arts. After all, it seems that every classical music genius lived and worked in Vienna; Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Strauss, Brahms, and Haydn all came to Vienna at some point in their lives. Walk by an apartment building in the Inner Stadt, and you will probably hear a violin coming from within. Or just walk down a major street and lose track counting theaters with nightly music, theater, and dance performances. Famous thinkers like Sigmund Freud met to pore over controversial ideas, while artists like Hundertwasser, Klimt, and Schiele painted so many masterpieces that Vienna has enough museums to last a lifetime, and in just a few days you can barely scratch the surface.
For many visitors, seeing an opera in the gorgeous Staatsoper is a highlight of a trip to Vienna, as is the outstanding Vienna Philharmonic. Tickets for their annual New Year’s Eve concert performed in the Musikverein has to be lotteried due to such high demand, but they perform at many other venues and times throughout the city.
Vienna hosts more than 450 balls each year, most of them from November to February. The Opera Ball at the Vienna State Opera, the New Year’s Eve Ball, and the Hunters’ Ball are among the most legendary. Tickets for several of the balls may be purchased online. Attire is black tie — so plan accordingly!
Late 18th-century Vienna was a happening music scene. In fact, composers hung out in salons, making fun of each other and listening to themselves play music they wrote in the style now called “Viennese Classicism.” The first master composer of Viennese Classicism was Josef Haydn (1732-1890), who wrote 52 piano sonatas, 24 piano and organ concertos, 104 symphonies, and 83 string quartets. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (1756-1791) represents the pinnacle of this era. Born in Salzburg, Mozartleft his hometown for Vienna, where he produced his first mature concerti, his most famous Italian operas (like Le Nozze di Figaro), and the beloved string showpiece, Eine kleine Nachtmusik. Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) followed in Mozart’s footsteps as a transplant to Vienna and as one of the most famous musicians of the time. His music is often placed between Viennese Classicism and Romanticism.
The music of Franz Schubert (1797-1828) is the lifeblood of Romanticism, a movement characterized by swelling emotion, larger orchestras, interest in the natural world, and storytelling. Born in the suburb of Lichtenthal, Schubert began his career as a chorister in the imperial Hofkapelle and later made his living teaching music. Mainly self-taught, he composed the Unfinished Symphony and the Symphony in C Major, which are now considered masterpieces but were virtually unknown during his lifetime. His lyrical genius was more readily recognized in his Lieder, a musical setting of poems by Goethe, Schiller, and Heine. These song cycles were made famous during musical soirées called Schubertiaden, which spawned a new trend of social gatherings in Biedermeier Vienna, featuring chamber music, readings, and alcohol.
Like Beethoven, Johannes Brahms (1833-1897) straddled musical traditions. In his home near the Karlskirche in Vienna, Brahms composed his Hungarian Dances, piano concerti, and numerous symphonies, all of which were first performed by the Vienna Philharmonic. Despite his own Romantic compositions, Brahms is often regarded as a Classicist who used his status and position in the Viennese Musikverein to oppose Romanticism and the musical experiments of his archrival, Richard Wagner.
Orchestral music had mass appeal as well. Beginning with Johan Strauss the Elder (1804-1849), the Strauss family kept Vienna dancing for much of the 19th century. Largely responsible for the “Viennese Waltz,” Johann Strauss the Younger (1825-1899) wrote the Blue Danube and Tales of the Vienna Woods, the two most recognized waltzes of all time. Strauss also produced popular operas, like Die Fledermaus.
Gustav Mahler’s (1860-1911) music, as a direct precursor to the Second Viennese experiments of Arnold Schöneberg, incorporated fragments and deliberately inconclusive musical segments. Mahler employed unusual instrumentation and startling harmonic juxtaposition, and his music formed an integral part of the fin de siècle Viennese avant-garde.
While Mahler destabilized the conventions of composition, Arnold Schöneberg (1874-1951) broke away from traditional harmony altogether. Originally a devotee of Richard Wagner, Schöneberg rejected compositional rules that require music to be set in a tonal key and, with his 12-tone system, pursued what is generally called atonality. His students Anton von Webern and Alban Berg expanded and modified Schöneberg’s 12-tone system to create masterpieces of their own.
North American manners are considered acceptable in Austria. If you want to impress the locals at the dinner table, eat with your fork in your left hand and your knife in the right without switching. Also, remember to put your napkin on your lap as soon as you get to the table. Austrians are generally formal when meeting people, particularly for the the first time, and often shake hands in greeting.