One Day in Vienna – How to Explore Austria’s Capital When Time Is Short

    One Day in Vienna – How to Explore Austria’s Capital When Time Is Short
    Last updated: July, 2019
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    Is one day in Vienna enough to see the city? After spending almost two weeks there, I’ll have to say ‘no,’ but I’m sure you must have some good reason why you can’t spend more time in this great city. Maybe you are visiting Vienna as a day trip from Salzburg, or another European city. Or maybe you have a long lay-over, or a cruise ship stop. Ideally you should spend more time exploring Vienna, but one day is still better than nothing, so you can make it a perfect day in Vienna!

    How to Spend One Day in Vienna

    Vienna is packed with great historic sights, glittering palaces and magnificent museums. It’s impossible to see them all in just one visit. But with some good planning you’ll be able to squeeze in a lot of sightseeing into your day trip to Vienna. With that in mind, I’ve put together a one-day itinerary that will give you a taste of Vienna and allow you to see most of its attractions. I have also included some tips and recommendations to help you make the most of your day in Vienna.

    The Perfect One-Day Vienna Itinerary

    The best way to discover Vienna’s architectural wanders and historical sites is to walk through its city center (Innere Stadt). Vienna’s historic center is encircled by the Ring Road (Ringstraße), a grand boulevard constructed along the old city walls. The walls have been torn down in 1857, when Emperor Franz Joseph I ordered the erection of a grand boulevard in their place. 

    One Day in Vienna
    Vienna

    Admire the Hofburg Palace Complex

    The historic center of Vienna is jam-packed with grandiose structures and architectural masterpieces. The most impressive one of all is the Hofburg Palace. For centuries, Vienna’s Imperial Palace was the seat of the Habsburgs who ruled Austria until the end of the 1st World War.

    Hofburg Palace main gate
    Hofburg Palace Gate

    The palace complex, which is one of the largest in the world, displays many architectural styles, from Gothic to Renaissance, Baroque and Rococo. That is explained by the fact that almost every monarch who ever lived in this palace made changes or additions to it.

    Hofburg Palace
    Hofburg Palace

    Take your time and admire the grandiose building structures that make up the palace. Notice the intricate details of the windows, doorways and the multitude of statues that adorn the building roofs and terraces.

    Hofburg Palace detail
    Hofburg Palace details

    The palace houses many museums, among which are the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum, and The Silver and Tableware Collection. All three can be accessed with a single ticket and are worth visiting if you have more than one day in Vienna.

    Learn About the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule)

    Next to the Imperial Apartments, also in the Hofburg Palace, is the famous Spanish Riding School. You’ve probably heard of this equestrian school and its Lipizzaner stallions before. For over 450 years, the Spanish Riding School has kept alive classical equitation and the haute école movements of classical dressage.

    The Spanish Riding School / 1 Day in Vienna
    Entrance to the Spanish Riding School

    Watching the Lipizzaner stallions perform was one of the highlights of our trip to Vienna. Some of the movements presented in the show had a high degree of difficulty, yet they made it look so easy. There was an amazing connection between horse and rider, like they were one single body.

    Performance at the Spanish Riding School Vienna
    Performance at the Spanish Riding School

    Performances are a big deal and difficult to catch as they only take place on weekends, between May and September. However, you can see it all on a visit, so a tour is the best way to do it. You’ll learn about the history behind the beautiful Baroque structure of the Riding School and about the Lipizzaner horses. You also have the option to watch the 10am training session and see the horses do some of their tricks.

    The Spanish Riding School is located in the Hofburg Palace, between Michaelerplatz and Josefsplatz. To avoid the long lines, book your visit here:

    Visit Stephansplatz and St. Stephen’s Cathedral

    Stephanplatz is Vienna’s busiest square. Always full of people and street vendors! The Time Square of Europe, as some jokingly call it. The square is surrounded by shops and cafés and is a good place for people watching. From here you can easily navigate to the other parts of the city that you may wish to see.

    View of Stephenplatz
    Stephenplatz, Vienna

    In the middle of the Stephanplatz is St. Stephen’s Cathedral, which marks the very center of Vienna. The 700 years old cathedral is one of the most important and most beloved landmarks in the country.  

    st. Stephen's Cathedral
    St.Stephen’s Cathedral

    The cathedral is as beautiful inside as it is outside, decorated with Baroque altarpieces and tall marble columns. There are many treasures inside which you can see if you take a guided tour. Like the tomb of of Prince Eugene of Savoy, dating from 1754, or a red-marble sepulcher that took 46 years to sculpt. And if these vestiges are not enough to impress you, think about the fact that you are standing in the same church where Mozart was married in 1782 and Joseph Haydn sang as a choir boy.

    inside St. Stephen's Cathedral
    inside St. Stephen's cathedral in Vienna
    Inside St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna

    The most famous feature of the Cathedral is the Gothic South Tower, which took 65 years to build. If you are not claustrophobic (like me), you can climb the 343 steps of the tight spiral staircase to the lookout point. I was too scared to climb up there, but they say the view from the top is absolutely spectacular!

    Walk Along the Graben

    West of Stephansplatz is the Graben. Graben is a pedestrian street with upscale retailer stores, souvenir shops, cafés and restaurants. Most of the buildings in this area date back to the 17th and 18th century. Here you can find here some finest traditional shops in Austria, like the porcelain store Augarten, Heldwein Jewelry, or Nägele & Strubell perfumery.

    Graben Strasse
    Graben Strasse

    There is so much to see during this walk! Looking at all the beautiful old buildings really makes you appreciate all the history and beauty of this city.  This area is extremely crowded during the day, but the street is very wide and spacious. Walking down the Graben is an experience you shouldn’t miss if you are in Vienna.

    The Plague Column on Graben, in Vienna
    The Plague Column on Graben, in Vienna

    There are several beautiful landmarks to watch for on Graben, like the fountains Josefs and Leopoldsbrunnen. Look also for the Plague Column which was built in 1679, at the peak of the plague epidemic.

    Step Inside St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche)

    Just off the busy Graben, surrounded by 18th century buildings, is the beautiful St.Peter’s Church (Peterskirche). Peterskirche is the second-most significant Baroque church in Vienna, after Karlskirche. 

    St. Peter's Church in Vienna
    St. Peter’s Church (Peterskirche)

    The church is not big, but it’s unusually bright and beautiful. Everywhere you look inside you’ll see a rich, multicolored ornamental design. Just behind the main altar you’ll see the Baroque organ built in 1751. The sound of this organ is particularly beautiful. If you are in this area around 3 pm, make sure to step inside. The church offers free concerts every Monday to Friday at 3 pm. We were fortunate to hear Mozart’s Laudate Dominum here. Divine!

    Iside St.Stephen's Church in Vienna
    Inside St.Stephen’s Church in Vienna

    The central dome has a small windowed tower at its center, with a dove as the representation of the Holy Spirit/Trinity at the very top. 

    Interior view of St. Peter's Church cupola
    Interior view of St. Peter’s Church cupola

    Visit the Vienna Opera House

    Just a short walk from Stephansplatz is the famous State Opera House. Seeing an opera in Vienna may be on your bucket list, but since you only have a day in Vienna you’ll have to settle for a tour.

    Opera House in Vienna
    Vienna State Opera House

    The guided tour will take approximately 40 minutes. You will hear many interesting facts about the building’s history, its architecture and how an opera house runs. You will get to see the foyer, the grand staircase, the state rooms (Tea Salon, Marble Hall, Schwind Foyer, Gustav Mahler Hall) and the auditorium.

    One day in Vienna - Opera House
    Vienna Opera House

    Try Vienna’s Famous Sacher Cake (Sachertorte)

    No trip to Vienna would be complete without trying a slice of the famous sachertorte. The cake is available in many Vienna coffee houses, but you have to try it at Café Sacher, where it was first created in 1832. The café is located next to the State Opera House, in the grandiose building of Sacher Hotel.

    Cafe Sacher in Vienna
    Café Sacher in Vienna

    However, there’s more to this coffee house than just the chocolate cake. Café Sacher is a Vienna trademark. This was the imperial café and a meeting place for many famous artists and political figures of the time. As you sit in its plush salon lined with red damask, you’ll understand why this place has built such a fame. As for the dense and delectable chocolate cake made with apricot jam and a rich chocolate glaze, you are not likely to forget it soon!

    Sachertorte

    Stroll through Prater Amusement Park

    Close your day in Vienna with a visit to Prater, an amusement park located in Vienna’s 2nd district. The park was built on a piece of land that was donated to the public by Emperor Joseph II, in 1766. In the years that followed, swings, carousels and cafés began moving in and soon Prater became the favorite recreation area of the Viennese.

    The park has many attractions, but is especially known for the giant Ferris wheel built here in 1897. Many people argue that no visit to Vienna is complete without a ride in the giant Ferris wheel. The wheel itself is really impressive and offers some spectacular views of the city. However, if amusement parks are not your thing, you may skip this one and finish your day with a relaxing evening cruise through the Danube Canal.

    View of the Giant Ferris wheel in Prater, Vienna
    Giant Ferris wheel in Prater

    Prater is a little far from the historical city center, but it’s a nice place to visit in the late afternoon. The park stays open till midnight and is particularly attractive for families with children.

    To get to Prater take metro line U2 (Direction Seestadt). Or use the Hop-On Hop-Off Big Bus red line which stops at Prater. To skip the line, book your ticket to the Giant Ferris Wheel here:

    How to Make the Most of Your Day in Vienna

    Start Early

    If you only have a day in Vienna, you should get an early start. Vienna’s Inner Stadt is not very big, but it’s packed with attractions. Starting early will allow you to see more and beat the crowds. At 9 o’clock in the morning the city streets are still empty and quite enchanting to visit.

    Use the Hop-on Hop-Off Bus for Getting Around

    A great way to see Vienna when time is short is to use the Hop-on Hop-Off Big Bus. The Big Bus company has two main routes: the red and the blue. The red route will take you around the centre of the city and up to Danube Island. The blue route goes to the magnificent Schönbrunn Palace. However, I would skip Schönbrunn for this one day trip.

    View of the Big Bus in Vienna
    Big Bus Vienna

    The bus passes by many of the famous landmarks in Vienna. You can hop-off the buss to visit them and then hop back on, which is very practical. The tour has a very informative audioguide that tells you about each point of interest you pass by. The first tours starts at 9:30 am in front of Votive Church, at Rooseveltplatz. You can buy your Big Bus tour ticket online and save 10%.

    Sample Some of Vienna’s Culinary Highlights

    If you thought Vienna was all about crispy, golden Schnitzel, think again. The city’s food scene is varied and creative, so don’t leave without trying spaetzle, roasted chestnuts, venison and pumpkin, or the Viennese Goulash. Vienna is also famous for its wide variety of coffee specialties and scrumptious desserts.

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