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Visitors come to Vienna with high expectations of lavish palaces, ornamental parks, cakes piled high with whipped cream and the strain of Strauss waltzes. They're rarely disappointed; this is a city that trades on its glorious past, reveling in its heyday, when Gustav Mahler was conducting the Vienna Philharmonic, Sigmund Freud was inventing psychoanalysis and the coffee houses were abuzz with the banter of middle-class intellectuals.
Yet, as much as it lives in the past, Vienna has hauled itself into the present with elegance and style. Visitors will discover a compact but diverse, multicultural city, with a thriving art and design scene, some truly fabulous shopping, superb contemporary art collections, and acres of gorgeous parks and gardens. Here, you'll find a happy devotion to the good life, whether it's sipping a cocktail at one of the hip bars on the Danube Canal or the gemutlichkeit (the Austrian term for "coziness") of tasting wines grown on the hills around the city in a traditional pub garden in the village of Grinzing.
Because most of the big attractions are around or inside the Ringstrasse, the circular boulevard that encloses the first district, or city center, Vienna is easy to explore. In fact, you could spend days in the first district alone, shopping on the elegant Karntnerstrasse, exploring St. Stephen's Cathedral and countless other Baroque churches, devoting time to galleries and museums and immersing yourself in the famous coffee culture.
The many river cruise lines that call on the city provide a mere snapshot of this thriving center of European culture with little deviation from the very well-trodden tourist trail. But Vienna caters to a diverse range of interests, and the good news is that if you come back for more, or want to explore it alone, the city is a snap to navigate independently.
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No competition: It's the Aperol Spritz, which is the cocktail to be seen sipping in Vienna. An import from Venice, this drink is a mix of white wine, soda water and the bitter, herbal aperitif Aperol, served over ice with a slice of orange. Everybody drinks it all summer long.
It's possible to buy all manner of tat in Vienna bearing likenesses of Strauss, Beethoven, Mozart or the giant Ferris wheel in the Prater amusement park. Practically every shop in the center sells Mozartkugel, chocolate-covered marzipan balls in a gold wrapper adorned by Mozart's face. Riedel glass, Augarten porcelain, Austrian wine and handmade Christmas decorations rang among the best quality items to buy in the advent markets. Or check out the museum shops for art deco vases, art books and classical music CDs. Money to burn? Head for Lena Hoschek shop.lenahoschek.com in Spittelberg for classical dirndl costumes with a twist (and designs for Katy Perry and Dita von Teese), or Nina Peter Hautnah, just off Karntnerstrasse (the main shopping street), whose exquisite gloves are worn by all manner of celebs, including Lady Gaga.
German is the official language of Austria, although Austrians speak with a particular accent. (This will not be distinguishable to a non-German speaker.) In tourist areas, everybody speaks English, but it's polite to say guten Morgen (good morning) or guten Tag (good day) when you walk into a shop or restaurant, and auf Wiedersehen (goodbye) when you leave.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
The currency is the Euro. For current currency conversion figures, visit www.oanda.com or www.xe.com. There are ATM's all over Vienna. Always check whether a credit card will be accepted when you visit a smaller shop or restaurant; some places are cash only.
Where You're Docked
Most river cruise ships tie up on the Danube at the Reichsbrucke terminal on Handelskai, a seven-minute ride by U-Bahn (underground railway) into the center. There is no actual city center mooring because the Danube was diverted years ago to the east of the city to avoid flooding.
Some ships dock at Nussdorf, a pretty wine-growing village to the north, at the foot of the vineyards. It's easy to travel into town by tram from there, although it's a longer ride than from the Reichsbrucke dock.
The big attractions are all in the city center, so there's not much to see around the Reichsbrucke area. The Prater amusement park is about seven blocks from the river, and the Danube Island (Donauinsel), a skinny, 21-kilometer strip of land running along the center of the river, is very close. The island serves as the city's recreational area in summer. It's used for jogging, walking, cycling and roller-blading and is lined with bars, restaurants and river beaches.
Public transport is so easy to master in Vienna, there's barely any need to take taxis. If you're planning to use public transport for more than a couple of journeys, buy a 24-hour ticket for unlimited rides. Tickets need to be validated in the machine onboard the trams or at the gate into the underground stations.
By Subway: There are five underground lines (the U-Bahn), and the service is fast and efficient. The nearest U-Bahn to the Reichsbrucke, where most ships dock, is Vorgartenstrasse, served by the U1, which takes you straight into Stephansplatz and St. Stephen's Cathedral.
By Tram/Streetcar: Above ground, the trams are fun and offer the best views; tram line No. 1 goes right round the Ringstrasse for a bargain-priced sightseeing tour of all the main Baroque buildings. Or for a circuit of the Ring by tram with commentary and a multimedia presentation for tourists, a special, yellow Vienna Ring Tram departs every half hour from Schwedenplatz (although you can get on or off at any of the stops around the Ring).
By Horse-Drawn Carriage: You can also tour Vienna by Fiaker, the shiny, horse-drawn carriages that carry romantics around old town, day and night. You can book in advance online at fiaker.co.at.
By Bicycle: Citybike Wien is a free bike system with more than 100 stations around the city center at which you can pick up and drop off bikes. The first hour is free, and it's only 1 euro for the second hour and 2 euros for the third.
On Foot: The city center is compact and a real treat to explore on foot, especially the tangle of narrow streets around St. Stephen's Cathedral. Pick up a free map from the tourist information booths around the city.
Watch Out For
Vienna is a very safe, clean city, although pickpockets inevitably operate in the most crowded tourist areas, such as around St. Stephen's Cathedral.
Keep an eye on shop opening hours; stores are closed on Sundays, and some shut for lunch every day.
Pay attention to good manners; it's customary to greet shopkeepers when you walk in and to say goodbye when you leave. In a coffee house, never, ever ask for a take-out cup. Viennese like to take their time, and coffee drinking is considered sacrosanct, unless you're in Starbucks.
The gothic St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) stephanskirche.at defines the skyline of Vienna, with its huge bulk and colorful tiled roof, bearing the Habsburg coat of arms. Visit the catacombs, or climb 343 steps to the top of the south tower to enjoy 360 degree views of the city to the Vienna Woods beyond. (Stephansplatz 1; open 8:30 a.m. to 8 p.m.)
The Museumsquartier (Museumsplatz 1), a redevelopment of the 18th-century imperial stables, is a collection of superb museums. The cultural district features the Leopold museum leopoldmuseum.org/en (open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Thursday 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., closed on Tuesday), the Museum of Modern Art mumok.at/English (open Monday 2 p.m. to 7 p.m., Tuesday to Sunday 10 a.m. to 7 p.m., Thursday to 9 p.m.) and the Kunsthalle kuntshallewien.at/en (open daily 10 a.m. to 7 p.m.), an exhibition center. The whole complex contains bars, restaurants and grassy areas, and during the summer, hosts live events, from bands to fashion shows.
The Haus der Musik is one of the finest interactive museums in Europe, exploring the history of Vienna in the context of classical music. There are scientific rooms to demonstrate the physics of sound; rooms where you can compose your own melody and have it played by an orchestra; rooms dedicated to the most famous composers (including a poignant exhibit where you can experience Beethoven's decline into deafness); and the highlight, a chance to "conduct" the Vienna Philharmonic. Warning: If you're not up to snuff as a conductor, you could be booed off by the virtual orchestra.
The Spanish Riding School, one of the world's most famous schools of equestrian art, is closed in July when the renowned Lipizzaner stallions go out to grass, but you can get tickets online for training sessions and performances at other times of year. (Michaelerplatz 1; open Tuesday to Sunday 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., Fridays when there is a performance 9 a.m. to 7 p.m.)
Hear the Vienna Boys' Choir sing every Sunday at the Hofburgkapelle (Hofmusikkapelle, Hofburg) apart from in July and August, when they're on summer break. Tickets are in great demand; visit viennaticket.com for details.
Vienna State Opera
In April, May, June and September, anybody can watch one of the approximately 150 performances at the Vienna State Opera for free on a giant screen outside the opera house on Herberg-von-Karajan-Platz. Attendants even provide rugs for spectators to sit on.
Been There, Done That
Take a trip out of town to the Zentralfriedhof, one of Europe's biggest cemeteries, with more “residents” than Vienna itself. This is not as macabre as it seems. The cemetery is exceptionally tranquil and beautiful, with impressive Art Nouveau architecture, and all the graves of the city's famous musicians are clustered together: Beethoven, Schubert, a memorial to Mozart (who was buried in a pauper's grave) and the entire Strauss family. (Opening hours vary by season; summer hours are 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. daily.)
Check out the Naschmarkt, the city's most colorful food market, with all kinds of artisan products. Try a balsamic tasting or munch on Vietnamese spring rolls. In summer, buy giant peaches and bunches of plump cherries for snacks. (located just outside the Ring; open early daily.) There are some great, quirky shops nearby; designer vintage at Flo Vintage on Schleifmuhlgasse, or handmade herbal remedies at Saint Charles Pharmacy on Gumpendorferstrasse.
Visit the Prater, the world's oldest amusement park. The park is a huge green space used by the Viennese for recreation outdoor activities, such as picnics and cycling, as well as for the many rides. It's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, year-round. Individual attractions have their own opening hours, and you pay for each ride individually with fees starting around 1.50 euros. The biggest attraction is the giant Ferris wheel, the Riesenrad for spectacular views across the city. It's open in summer from 9 a.m. to 11.45 p.m. The Prater is easily accessible by subway (U-Bahn), with Praterstern on the U1 line the closest stop.
Stroll the streets of Spittelberg, the up-and-coming district just beyond the Museumsquartier. The neighborhood features beautiful Biedermeier houses and hidden squares. This is one of the city's main art and design districts, with trendy cafes and small, one-off boutiques. Plan your visit on 7tm.at, which lists all the hippest shops.
Take a Third Man tour, following the locations of the famous 1949 Orson Welles' film, including the city sewers and the famous Riesenrad (Ferris wheel) in the Prater.
Vienna is all about the food, whether it's the exquisite pastries beckoning from glass display cabinets in every cafe, or a giant platter of Wiener schnitzel, the city's trademark dish of lightly breaded veal served with parsley potatoes and a twist of lemon. In recent decades, the city also has seen an explosion of alternatives, with Michelin-starred restaurants, Indian, Thai and Turkish outlets and gourmet vegetarian venues.
Locals queue up outside Trzesniewski, a Polish sandwich shop on Dorotheergasse. You buy bite-sized open sandwiches on black bread, each one packing a punch thanks to liberal doses of paprika and pickle, washed down with a tiny glass of beer. The place is a city institution. (Dorotheergasse 1; open Monday to Friday 8:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., Saturday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.)
Sample the perfect Wiener schnitzel at Plachutta zur Oper, near the opera house. As well as being famous for its schnitzels, this elegant spot is a favorite for power-lunching locals. (Walfischgasse 5-7; open daily from 11 a.m. to 12:30 a.m.)
Don't miss the experience of a traditional Viennese coffee house. They're everywhere, and each one has its own following. Every coffee house serves coffee from an extensive menu and cakes from a mouth-watering display, but many have wider menus for lunch or dinner. Some are rich in history; Café Leopold Hawelka is a tiny, dark, crowded room, the walls plastered with sketches and drawings offered by artists too poor to pay for their coffee. (Dorotheergasse 6; open Monday to Sunday 8 a.m. to 2 p.m., holidays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.) Cafe Frauenhuber claims to be the city's oldest, where Mozart made his final appearance as a pianist on March 4, 1791. (Himmelpfortgasse 6; open Monday to Saturday 8 a.m. to midnight, Sundays and holidays 10 a.m. to 10 p.m.) Walk to the rear of Demel and gaze through the glass wall at the show kitchen, a mesmerizing and mouthwatering experience for the baking enthusiast. (Kohlmarkt 14; open 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.)
Resort in the City: The Hilton Vienna Danube is located on Handelskai, across the Danube from where most ships moor, and features an outdoor pool and waterfront restaurant as well as the usual Hilton facilities. Although it's away from the center, there's a fast underground link to Stephansdom -- and sometimes, in the searing heat of July and August, it's pleasant to be on the Danube, where there's more of a breeze.
Boutique: Hotel Altstadt, a 10-minute walk from the Museumsquartier, in the hip Spittelberg district, is wonderfully quirky, with 42 individually designed rooms, some of them especially romantic and all featuring works from the owner's art collection. Think bold colors, giant paintings, double-height ceilings and free-standing bathtubs.
Casual Luxury: The Ring, right on the Ringstrasse at Karntner Ring, embodies modern urban chic, with its minimalist interiors, cafe-au-lait color scheme and popular day spa. The location is ideal for anybody wanting to pack in some sightseeing and shopping in the center before joining a cruise.
Staying in Touch
There's free Wi-Fi all over the city; almost all coffee houses offer the service, and you'll see locals tapping away on their laptops for hours while sipping a foamy coffee.
There's little variety in the tours of Vienna offered by most river cruise lines, which is a shame, as the city has so much to offer. The majority of lines include all the tours, so there's no additional cost. Typically, a day and overnight in Vienna will include a panoramic sightseeing tour, one concert by night and sometimes, optional extra tours like Schonbrunn Palace.
Best Overview: The standard half-day city panoramic tour offered by most river cruise operators is useful for orientation and would typically include the Ringstrasse, lined with gorgeous Baroque palaces, including the Hofburg (home of the Spanish Riding School), the Staatsoper (opera house) and the pretty Stadtpark, where the famous gilded statue of Johann Strauss resides. There's usually a visit to St. Stephen's Cathedral, too, with options to climb to the top, or on more detailed tours, visit the catacombs.
Best for History Buffs: Many lines offer a half-day tour of the magnificent Baroque Schonbrunn Palace and gardens. It's the former summer home of the Habsburgs and is reminiscent of Versailles in architectural style and scale.
Best for Music Lovers: Take a tour of the Musikverein, one of Vienna's most famous concert halls, with a collection of priceless Bosendorfer pianos.
Best for Art Fans: Numerous cruise feature art-centered excursions. Spend half a day taking in the Belvedere Palace and the Museum of Fine Arts, where you're shown around by an art historian.
Best for Jewish Heritage: Some tours in Vienna include a visit to the Jewish Museum, Judenplatz and Old Synagogue, Sigmund Freud House (outside), the Jewish Cemetery and the Jewish Quarter.
For More Information
On the Web: Vienna Tourism:
Cruise Critic Message Boards: River Cruise Ports in Europe
IndependentTraveler.com: Europe Travel Guide
-- By Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic contributing editor