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How to Spend a Day in Vienna

  • Cruise specialist Jeannine walks us through the main sights of Vienna
  • History of the Sachertorte, Austria’s famed desert
  • Insider tips for visiting the Spanish Riding School
  • Explore the MuseumsQuatier and Vienna’s House of Music

by Jeannine Williamson

Polishing off the last forkful of the wickedly rich chocolate cake I breathe a contented sigh and sit back to take in my surroundings. A couple of elegant ladies lean towards each other, and I imagine them catching up on the latest gossip, while a businessmen reads his paper, seemingly impervious to their conversation. Waiters in starched white aprons move effortlessly between tables that are set against a backdrop of rich wood-panelled walls and high ceilings lit by chandeliers.

Welcome to Vienna, where having a coffee has been elevated to an art form and is a world away from an on-the-go takeaway slurped from a disposable mug with your name scribbled on the side. A visit to a Viennese coffee house is a must in the Austrian capital where the atmospheric traditional cafes are described as the city’s “public sitting rooms”.

And forget things like biscuits or muffins, as here the sweet treat of choice is either a generous wedge of apple strudel or chocolate cake, be it the original Sachertorte lined with apricot jam or the plethora of lookalike glazed cakes sold throughout the city. The former, served in the cafe at the namesake Hotel Sacher, has an interesting history. It was created in 1832 by Franz Sacher, an apprentice chef at the court of eminent politician and diplomat Prince Metternich. When the head chef was suddenly taken ill, young Franz was charged with the task of conjuring up a dessert for the evening dinner and the result has become a slice of edible history.

Viennese Whirl

Viennese Whirl biscuits

Although breakfast was only a relatively distant memory, I felt no guilt tucking into the cake that I’d ordered with a melange – the creamy coffee that’s the Viennese equivalent of a cappuccino.  I’d just scaled the 343 steps of the south tower at St Stephen’s Cathedral, and it’s well worth the effort and €4.50 entry fee for panoramic views over the cityscape. Alternatively, you can take a lift up the north tower which houses the giant Pummerin Bell, the biggest free-swinging chimed church bell in Austria and second largest in Europe. But you won’t need to worry about covering your ears as it’s only rung at New Year and on a handful of other occasions during the year.

I was lucky enough to be back in Vienna, one of my favourite cities, for the christening of the Riviera Travel ship, the MS Robert Burns. Bringing the fleet to 13, the 167-passenger vessel with three categories of boutique-style accommodation, sails on five itineraries on the Rhine, Main and Danube, the most popular waterways in Europe for river cruising.

One of the highlights of a Danube cruise is a trip to Vienna, and Riviera’s included guided excursion provides an overview of all the main sights including a look at the imposing exterior of the cathedral that has been the symbol of Vienna for eight centuries and is one of Austria’s finest Gothic buildings with 18 alters and an interior filled with art treasures.

Afterwards there’s plenty of time to explore on your own before the ship sails or if, like me, you’ve visited the city in the past you’re free to skip the tour and head off under your own steam.

Vienna is famous for its Spanish Riding School and grand gala dressage performances by the snowy white Lipizzaner stallions which are actually born black. Did you know that you can also watch the magnificent horses being put through the paces at the daily morning exercise sessions, with music playing in the background, in the same ornate indoor riding arena that hosts the main displays? It costs €15 to go in, a fraction of what you’d pay to see a show, and you can combine the exercise session with a guided tour of the stables for €31, with a discounted rate for concessions.

Spanish Riding School, Vienna

Spanish Riding School, Vienna

Vienna echoes to the strains of Schubert, members of the Strauss dynasty and Mozart; who were variously born or lived in the city. And of course the Danube inspired Johann Strauss to compose one the world’s most famous waltzes. You’ll enjoy a recital back on the ship so you don’t need to buy tickets for one of the many concerts in town. Instead, music lovers can head for Vienna’s House of Music, a fantastic interactive sound museum spread over five floors in a former palace. I particularly loved the musical staircase and the chance to ‘conduct’ the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. I picked up the virtual baton and took my place in front of a video projection of the musicians and an audience of fellow museum visitors. You can select a piece of music – in my case it had to be The Blue Danube – and as you raise the baton they start to play. But be warned, they respond to a poor sense of rhythm and after slowing down and speeding up too many times as a result of my rookie conducting the orchestra downed their instruments and walked off stage!

The MuseumsQuartier, known as MQ for short, is among the ten largest cultural complexes in the world and another of my favourite spots in the city. A contrast of historic and modern architecture, including the old imperial stables and riding school, its galleries, museums and theatres provide a changing programme of arts and entertainment to suit all tastes, plus there are shops and places to eat and drink.

Another literal high spot is Vienna’s 200ft giant Ferris wheel which was among the many locations featured in the cult 1949 film adaptation of Graham Greene’s novel The Third Man. Situated in the Prater amusement park, which is within walking distance of the ship’s mooring spot, it was erected in 1896 by the English engineer Walter Basset.

The Wiener Riesenrad

The Wiener Riesenrad, Vienna

Finally, if you want a tasty memory of the city you can buy Sachertorte in various sizes. They make great presents as they last for two weeks and you can pop one in the minibar in your cabin until you disembark.  But if, like me, you easily give in to temptation then maybe buy some Viennese coffee instead. It might be a safer bet if you want to get it home intact!

Vienna is one a fascinating city with so much to do. We hope this has inspired you to see Vienna for yourself. We also have quite a few cruises along the Danube, where a visit to Vienna is a must! These include:

The Blue Danube River Cruise

The Blue Danube River Cruise for Solo Travellers

Cruise the Heart of Europe

The Danube’s Imperial Cities & Yuletide Markets

If you have any questions, please do not hesitate to contact us.

Jeannine Williamson

Award-winning travel writer and cruise specialist Jeannine Williamson is known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’ and has clocked up thousands of nautical miles on well-known and remote rivers around the world.