Vienna - Hofsburg palace - Franz Jozef statue

Discovering Vienna – Best Sites to Visit in the City

Vienna is one of the true gems of Europe. Full of history, the city showcases some of the best architecture in Europe, throughout the buildings in the Innere Stadt and the palaces of the Habsburgs.

While it is possible to visit the center of Vienna in one day, that would rush it. If you want to visit any museums or Schönbrunn Palace, you need at least two full days.

The last time we visited the city, a few years ago, we spent three days there and felt we visited the most important sites from a historical and architectural perspective. I’m also sure we could return any time and stay for weeks and find something new to explore every day.

The Innere Stadt

The Inner Stadt, meaning “Inner City”, is the center of Vienna, the heart of the city. It had been since about 15 BC since the Romans founded the first city here, called Vindobona. An easy-to-reach place from almost anywhere in Vienna, it was just a few minutes from our apartment by metro.

Other than being the capital of Austria—and at one point, of the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire—Vienna is best known as the Imperial Residence of the Habsburgs, established here in 1533. Because the royal family lived here, the Innere Stadt, which was the whole city of Vienna then, became the main residence of the Austrian aristocracy during the Baroque period.

The focus of Innere Stadt, standing at its center, is the Stephansdome cathedral.


Construction on Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) as it is today began in 1359 by Rudolph IV by replacing an older church dating from 1137 that had partially burned down. If you’ve seen St Vitus Cathedral in Prague and you see a resemblance, you are not mistaken; Rudolph IV had Stephansdom modeled after the cathedral built by his rival, Charles IV.

Just like the cathedral in Prague, this one also took a few centuries to complete. They finished the highlight of the building, the South Tower, in 1433, which at 136 meters tall, is still the highest point of the Vienna skyline. However, construction of the cathedral stopped in 1511, before they completed the North Tower. This tower stood half-finished until 1578 when they changed its design and covered it with a Renaissance-style cupola.

The cathedral’s roof, covered with glazed, multicolored tiles, is spectacular.

Stephansdome with the tiled roof, and the highlight of Vienna’s skyline, the South Tower

The interior is worth visiting, though they still hold mass there. The organ is impressive, as are all the interior decorations.

Note:Walking through the cathedral is free, but there is a fee for going up into the tower, and for visiting the catacombs.

The Hofburg Palace

The Habsburgs had a palace in the center of the city. A huge complex, composed of multiple buildings, this palace is not uniform by any means. During the Habsburg’s reign, they had an unwritten rule that no monarch could use the same rooms as his predecessor. Because of this, they added new buildings often as an afterthought.

Vienna - Hofsburg Palace
Hofburg Palace

Today, the buildings house a few museums, state organizations, and even a conference center.

Two of the museums in the building complex are the Schatzkamer (or Imperial Treasury)—the home of the crown jewels—and the Kaiserappartments, though there are several others. If you’re interested, you can also visit the Burgkapelle, the palace chapel, where the famous Vienna Boys’ Choir performs.

We visited the Royal Apartments of Franz-Jozef and Elizabeth for a history lesson of the lives of the monarchs.

The Kaiserappartments

The ground floor of the Kaiserappartments museum houses a collection of the Court’s silver and porcelain collection, seven rooms we walked through fast. There were only so many pieces of silver and porcelain we could look at before getting bored.

To get to the royal apartments we climbed the Imperial Staircase, carved in white marble. This staircase was half the fun of the whole museum.

While we made our way through the rooms, the audio guide narrated the story of the royal couple. We walked through an audience room, a conference room, and Franz-Joseph’s study and personal rooms before we got to Sisi’s apartments, which are more spectacular. The rooms in the palace are all filled with paintings, portraits of Elizabeth (especially in the Emperor’s rooms), and other members of the royal family. I felt like I was in an art museum.

My head was spinning with so many riches and grand rooms. Beautiful, for sure. Still, I couldn’t help but feel a little sorry for these people. For all the things and power they had, they didn’t seem to have ever been happy.


Josephsplatz is the most spectacular part of the palace. The middle wing houses the Nationalbibliothek (the National Library). This is the country’s largest working library and houses millions of books.

Hofsburg palace - JosephsPlatz and the National Library
JosephsPlatz and the National Library

In the middle of the square stands a statue of Emperor Joseph II on horseback.


Ringstrasse was built in 1857 to replace the fortifications around the old town of Vienna. Over time, it became a horseshoe-shaped imperial boulevard, surrounding the Innere Stadt.

The boulevard today looks similar to the way it looked in the last days of the Habsburgs, with spectacular landmarks, like the Rathaus (City Hall) and the Parliament building, among many others, most of which are now museums.

Schönbrunn Palace

One of my favorite sites in Vienna, along with its surrounding garden, the palace sits in the outskirts of the city. We visited it a few times during our stay in the city on our last trip through Europe, a few years ago.

Vienna Schönbrunn palace
Schönbrunn palace – view from the Main Entrance

Far from the hustle-and-bustle of the center of Vienna, Schönbrunn Palace was a summer residence for the Habsburgs and I think it is much more spectacular than the Hofsburg in the center. It comprises hundreds of rooms, forty of which are open for visiting tours.

We only opted for the Imperial tour and walked through 20 of the rooms, but even that was enough to get a feel for the grand interior decorating that went into the place. The Grand Tour would’ve taken us through 40 rooms, but half of that was more than enough for me.

As grand and spectacular the interior of the palace is, I enjoyed the outside a lot more.


The large flower garden in the center is only one attraction ofSchlosspark, Schönbrunn Palace’s backyard. Miles of trails, through hedges, or open spaces, some of them flanked by statues of Roman Gods and Goddesses, water fountains with stunning statues, the largest of which is the Neptune Fountain, made the Gardens our favorite place in this city. It also seems to be a favorite of locals, a place for them to go jogging after work.

Schönbrunn palace - view from behind the Neptune fountain
View from behind the Neptune Fountain

One of the most rewarding aspects of our visit was climbing up the hill to the Gloriette, the edifice built to celebrate the victory of the Habsburgs over the Prussians in 1757. From the hill, we had a perfect view of the Palace, the garden and the city beyond.

The Gloriette - Schoobrunn Palace Schlosspark
The Gloriette at dusk

The Tiergarten – the First Zoo in Europe

Adjacent to the Schönnbrunn Palace Gardens, the Tiergarten is the first zoo ever established in Europe. While I prefer animals in the wild, we visited it anyway.

One of the zoo’s claims to fame is the six-year-old Mozart visiting it when he was giving a concert at the palace. Yes, it is that old. Established in 1752, it brought exotic animals to display in the imperial menagerie.

 In the Tiergarten
In the Tiergarten

Far from keeping animals for its original purpose, the zoo today acts as a conservation and education center and it is a UNESCO World Heritage site. They kept some of the original baroque buildings, like the central Pavilion, and added more modern enclosures.

If You Go – Getting There and Getting Around

On this trip, we opted to take the bus instead of renting a car which turned out to be a great decision. Bus service works great between most European cities. We took the bus to Vienna from Prague and it was comfortable and a lot easier than driving. We had to plan around the schedule, but it wasn’t a big issue. Arriving this way was also ideal as the bus station was right by a subway station, so getting to our accommodation was easy.

The subway system in Vienna is the best I’ve ever experienced. It is easy to navigate, clean, and goes anywhere within the city in no time at all. A board at each stop shows the subway map, what station is next, which side the doors would open on, and any advisories to know of.

You can find underground stations around the city by looking for the large signs with the letter U. Tickets are available from self-serve machines in the station, but if you don’t have change, there are booths where you can buy them. They also sell them at newspaper stands in and around the stations. After buying your ticket, you need to validate it by stamping it at a machine next to the entrance. Children under ten travel free. To understand more about the public transportation system, check out theirofficial sitein English.

If arriving by plane, the fastest and easiest way into the city is the local train. Maps are everywhere, and it is all clear.

You can rent a car and follow a map or a GPS, but I’ve found that driving a car is harder than using public transportation in most large European cities.

Vienna - best sites to visit


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