Anthony Pearce profiles the Austrian capital, which boasts an abundance of culture and classic architecture.
With its plentiful art and culture, manicured parks, efficient public transport and mix of old and new architecture, Vienna is a one of Europe’s most remarkable cities: grand, elegant, clean and easy-going. Although Budapest, with its iconic Chain Bridge and elevated palace, is perhaps the highlight of any Danube cruise, the Austrian capital is a special place, home to monumental baroque masterpieces and striking examples of new architecture.
Either preceding or following Austria’s remarkable, sun-kissed Wachau Valley, depending on the direction of travel, Vienna is a city worth exploring in depth. As itineraries don’t tend to include overnights, many will plan to return – on eastbound itineraries it’s very easy to head back from Budapest, just two hours 40 minutes on the train, and clients can fly home from the well-connected Vienna International Airport, which is served by a number of direct flights from the UK and just 16 minutes from Wien Mitte (the city centre) by train.
Vienna is a manageable size with an excellent public transport network, made up of the U-Bahn (subway), S-Bahn (local train), Straßenbahn (tram) and Autobus (bus).
Most cruise ships dock at Reichsbrücke. On a recent visit, rather than take a daytime excursion, we opted to explore the city alone and took the U-Bahn from here to Stephansplatz, next to St Stephen’s Cathedral, a towering Gothic wonder. The city still feels like the political and cultural centre of a mighty empire, a position it held for centuries. It is dominated by grand imperial palaces, strictly maintained royal gardens and statues of serious-looking men on horses.
The historic centre, a Unesco World Heritage site, covers three square kilometres, of which 82,000 square metres is pedestrianised, so it’s best enjoyed on foot: most cruise lines will include a walking tour of the city, which takes in most of its famous architecture. There are more than 50 preserved Baroque palaces, churches and landmarks in the city, such as the Schönbrunn and Belvedere palaces (two more popular excursions). The latter is breathtaking and houses one of Austria’s most valuable art collections, with works by Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka.
Perhaps even more impressive are the beautifully arranged Baroque gardens. There are many splendid parks in the city, such as the immaculate Volksgarten, in the Innere Stadt or first district of Vienna and part of the Hofburg Palace. In fact, more than half of Vienna’s metropolitan area is made up of green space; there are 120 square metres of green space per resident.
As Vienna is the spiritual home of classical music, many cruise lines will treat guests to a special concert – included in the price by the luxury lines or added extra from others. On a trip with Scenic, we enjoyed a private concert of Viennese classical music at the opulent Palais Lichenstein. In front of just a few hundred guests, a small ensemble expertly made their way through compositions by Mozart, Strauss and Beethoven, at one point accompanied by majestic ballet dancers.
Culturally, it’s not just classical music for which Vienna is famous, of course. With more than 100 museums and more than 140 art galleries, Vienna is one of Europe’s cultural powerhouses: an entire district, the MuseumsQuartier, is dedicated to culture and contains no fewer than nine institutions. Among these are the mumok – the Museum of Modern Art, containing works by Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Yoko Ono and Gerhard Richter; Leopold Museum, which houses 42 paintings and 187 original graphics by Schiele; and the Kunsthalle Wien, which is known for its temporary exhibitions.
The Vienna Pass includes free admission to more than 60 of Vienna’s most popular attractions, unlimited rides on the Vienna Sightseeing hop-on/hop-off buses, and a free guidebook to all attractions and bus routes, also available for download and as an app, and is well worth seeking out.