Austria, Belvedere Museum, Hofburg Palace, Kunsthistoriches Museum, recommendations, Schonbrunn Palace, Sisi Museum, things to do in Vienna, travel, travel to Austria, travel to Vienna, Vienna, Vienna Ubahn
Let’s be honest, as one of the great capitals of Europe, there are tons of things to do in Vienna. Clearly I can’t cover them all in a blog post, so I’ll just hit the highlights, and there are so many highlights, I can’t even fit them all into one post. So stay tuned for Part 2 next week! While researching our trip, I purchased Top Ten Vienna to help me decide which sites to focus on. I really like the Top Ten series—I used it for our London trip in 2014 as well.
Because we visited Vienna in December, we focused more on indoor activities. Vienna has a number of palaces and museums, and that’s right up my alley. Also right up my alley, meticulously planning the details of our itinerary. Before we left the States, I knew which attractions we wanted to visit on which days, and in which order. I spent a lot of time with the map of Vienna, determining the most efficient approach to site-seeing. (Pro tip: choose a centrally located hotel. We stayed at the Intercontinental Vienna, and it was perfectly situated. We were within walking distance of almost everything we wanted to see, and across the street from a Ubahn station.)
A note about getting around in Vienna. It’s an extremely walkable city. Most things are not more than a mile from each other. We only used the Ubahn (the underground subway system) a couple of times: to get to Schönbrunn Palace, which is on the outskirts of the city, to get to the Ferris Wheel, and to get to the Westbahnhof train station for our train to Innsbruck. I recommend downloading a Ubahn app before you go. It makes trip-planning much easier.
I like to hit the ground running when we travel to Europe, and I knew we would only have a few hours available between checking into our hotel and sunset/closing time for most museums. (Pro tip: All good itineraries list the opening and closing times of the places you want to go.) We decided to start with the Kunsthistoriches Museum (KHM for short, thankfully) because it was reasonably close to our hotel and there was also a Christmas market there. Two birds, one stone.
We managed to see most of KHM in about 2 1/2 hours, but we did not get the audio-guide, which costs extra.
Audio-guides do tend to slow you down because it takes them longer to talk about a painting than it takes you to look at one. KHM has an excellent collection of Dutch Masters, a small French/Spanish/Italian collection, and very nice Egyptian/Greek/Roman collections. One of its claims to fame is that it has an outstanding Caravaggio collection. When we were there, they had a special exhibition of gold, bronzes, clocks, and elaborate cabinets that had been collected by the Habsburgs. The one major section we skipped was the coin collection. Admission is €14, plus €4 for the audio-guide. For €20 you can buy a combined ticket for admission to KHM and the Imperial Treasury, which is what we did.
The Imperial Treasury (or Kaiserliche Schatzkammer) is in a completely different part of Vienna, near Hofburg Palace, but you don’t have to visit both KHM and the Treasury on the same day. We didn’t make it to the Treasury until our very last day in Vienna, after we had already been to Innsbruck and Salzburg and then back to Vienna. The Crown Jewels of the Holy Roman Empire are housed at the Imperial Treasury, along with a lot of ecclesiastical (religious) and secular (not religious) objects. Once again, there’s an audio-guide available for €4, but we skipped it and just read the informational plaques that are posted by every item. Almost everything is in English in addition to German. If you like sparkly things, the Imperial Treasury is definitely worth a visit!
One of Vienna’s more famous museums is the Belvedere, which is actually multiple museums separated by elaborate gardens. The Lower Belvedere/Orangery/Stables are the smaller portion, while the Upper Belvedere is quite large. The Belvedere buildings were originally palaces of Prince Eugene of Savoy. The most famous painting in the Upper Belvedere is Gustav Klimt‘s The Kiss. You’re not allowed to take photos of (or with) the painting, but weirdly, they have a replica of the painting set up in an adjacent room for selfie-taking. (What the hell is the world coming to?)
We started at the Lower Belvedere, then walked up the hill through the gardens to the Upper Belvedere. (Pro tip: if you visit during cold weather, do not check your coat at the Lower Belvedere unless you either want to pay for a second coat check at the Upper Belvedere or walk through the gardens without your coat.) The gardens are obviously much prettier during the summer. The Lower Belvedere has only a few exhibits; the Orangery had a nice collection of medieval art; and the Stables contained Modern Art. (Sadly, no horses.) The Upper Belvedere is much larger, but the Klimt is really the highlight. Unless you’re a huge Klimt fan, I would say that Belvedere is skippable if you’re short on time (or funds). Admission to the Upper Belvedere alone is €14; just the Lower Belvedere/Orangery/Stables is €11. Or you can buy a combo ticket for all of them for €20. (There are also combo tickets available that include the Winter Palace, which is in the City Center. We skipped it in the interest of time.)
Also in the City Center is Hofburg Palace. This is where the Vienna Boys’ Choir sings and the famous Lipizzaner horses perform, at the Spanish Riding School (more on that next week). The Hofburg itself is very extensive. The admission price of €12.50 includes the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Silver Collection. That last one is exactly what it sounds like: hundreds and hundreds of pieces crafted in silver. You’ve never seen so many serving plates, candelabras, ewers, flatware, dinner dishes, mirrors, serving bowls. My eyes started to glaze over after a while.
The Sisi Museum is dedicated to Empress Elisabeth, wife of Emperor Franz Josef, who was nicknamed Sisi and was one of the Holy Roman Empire’s most beloved Empresses. The Hofburg admission price includes the audio-guide, and it was full of interesting facts and anecdotes about Sisi. She was a little eccentric, and very devoted to health and fitness (which was highly unusual in that time) as well as her personal beauty.
The Imperial Apartments are what you think they are, namely, rooms arranged with furniture and accessories as they appeared during the time of the Emperor and Empress’s residence there. The entire Hofburg Palace tour, including all three components, is about two hours long, which in my opinion was about an hour longer than it needed to be. The Silver Collection drags on and could be considerably shorter. Also, the anecdotes about Sisi, while certainly interesting, do tend to be a bit long-winded.
If you’re not going to Schönbrunn Palace, I would definitely recommend Hofburg. However, among the Belvedere, Hofburg, and Schönbrunn, my favorite was Schönbrunn. It’s not in the City Center, so it’s not walkable, but it’s only a handful of stops on the Ubahn. Schönbrunn is majestic, much like Buckingham Palace in London. You can choose the Imperial Tour for €13.30 or the Grand Tour for €16.40, both of which include the audio-guide. The Imperial Tour includes 22 rooms and takes 30-40 minutes; the Grand Tour includes 40 rooms and takes about an hour. We did the Grand Tour, and it was fascinating. Having not studied much Eastern European history, I was unfamiliar with most of the royal personnages who inhabited the palace, which made the audio-guide that much more useful. If you’re a fan of history, monarchy, elegant furniture, or decadence, I highly recommend Schönbrunn Palace.
Next week I’ll write about the cathedrals and non-palace attractions of Vienna!