Walking through Vienna is a bit like walking into the pages of a fairytale, as a horse and carriage trots past one ornate palace after another. The Austrian capital is bursting with Imperial history and Baroque architecture, with a musical accompaniment by Mozart and Strauss. But there’s also a more modern side, with Art Nouveau and modernist art, and a darker side to the city as depicted in The Third Man. Like in many famous European capitals, the sheer number of visitors here each year can push up the prices. But it is possible to fill yourself up on the city’s history, culture and sachertorte without having to spend big. So here are my top tips for experiencing all that Vienna has to offer without blowing your budget.
More budget city guides: London, Edinburgh, Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Copenhagen, Madrid, New York, Las Vegas
Things to see and do
Take a walk around the Ringstrasse, the ring road that runs around the centre of Vienna, past some of the city’s most famous buildings. The Ringstrasse celebrates its 150th birthday in 2015 so there will be a series of special events and exhibitions. Along the route you can see the Vienna State Opera, Imperial Palace, Parliament and City Hall. You can also take a free guided tour around the City Hall, or Rathaus, every Monday, Wednesday and Friday at 1pm. In the winter there is a Christmas market and skating rink in front of the Rathaus, and during July and August there is a free open-air cinema, with a big screen showing operas and concerts each night after sunset, as well as food and drink stalls.
It’s also free to visit the city’s parks, like the Burggarten and Stadtpark. Entrance to the Schönbrunn Palace gardens is also free (though you have to pay a couple of euros to go into the maze or Gloriette viewing terrace). If you’re in the city during summer, you can escape the heat by heading down to the banks of the Danube. Danube Island has 42km of beaches as well as boat and bike hire, playgrounds and cafés.
If you’re planning to visit a lot of the city’s attractions, it will probably be worth investing in a Vienna Card. They cost €18,90 for 24 hours or €21,90 for 72 hours and give you free unlimited travel by public transport as well as discounts on 210 museums, sights, shops and restaurants. You can buy the cards at the Tourist Information Centre in Albertinaplatz, at the airport or online.
Museums and galleries
Vienna has a great selection of museums, but with many entry fees around €15 per person the costs can add up. But there are ways to save – most museums have reduced-price tickets for students and seniors, and discounts with the Vienna Card range from 5% to 50%. You can also buy joint tickets for various combinations of museums that save on the full entry fees – a combined ticket for the House of Music and Mozarthaus saves you €5, or a combined ticket for the Leopold Museum and Kunsthistorisches Museum saves you €4. There are also combined passes available for the MuseumsQuartier or Belvedere.
Several of the city’s museums have discounted entry on certain days and times. The Wien Museum is free for under 19s all the time and for everyone else on the first Sunday of the month. There’s also an ‘Art in the Evening’ programme, where many museums stay open late on certain evenings and some have discounted entry to go with it – the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) has free entry on Tuesdays from 6pm–10pm, the MUMOK modernist art museum has half-price entry for €5 on Thursdays from 6pm–9pm, and the House of Music has half-price entry for €6.50 from 8pm–9.30pm every day.
Top city views
One of the best views in the city centre is from the South Tower of St Stephen’s Cathedral, 137 metres up. Entry to the cathedral itself is free but if you want to climb the 343 steps to the top of the tower, it costs €4 (open daily from 9am–5.30pm). If you prefer your views with a cocktail, try the Sky Bar Restaurant on nearby Kärntnerstraße Road, on the top floor of a department store with a great view of the cathedral.
A bit further away from the city centre on the northern banks of the Dabube is the Danube Tower, or Donauturm, the tallest structure in Austria at 252 metres high. At the top there is an expensive rotating restaurant, but a cheaper option is the viewing platform for €7,40 (€5,90 for seniors and €5,20 for under 14s). But some of the best views over Vienna are probably from the hills around the city – you can reach Mount Leopoldsberg and Mount Kahlenberg by bus from the city centre.
Vienna is a city of music, but tickets to its famous opera sell out months in advance and can set you back €150 plus. But you can get a bargain if you don’t mind standing up for the performance. Standing tickets for the State Opera House, the Staatsoper, go on sale about 80 minutes before the performance and cost €4 (in the parterre on the ground floor) or €3 (in the balcony or gallery higher up). Tickets are only available at the special ticket office on Operngasse. Get there early, be prepared to queue, and you can only buy one ticket per person so if you’re in a group you’ll all need to line up. You can also get standing tickets for the Volksoper and Burgtheater for a similar price, but you can book these online in advance.
Another popular but pricey attraction is the Spanish Riding School. Seats for the main performances cost from €50 to €175, but there are a few options to see the Lipizzaner horses for less. There are standing room tickets for the main performances costing under €30 (which you can book online in advance) or you can watch the horses’ morning exercise to music from 10am–12pm for €14. Over the summer months the performing horses aren’t in Vienna, but there is a special ‘Piber Meets Vienna’ show, where young horses from the stud are brought to the school, with tickets from €10–€40.
Eating and drinking
Restaurants in the busy central area of Vienna can be expensive, but you can save on eating out by having your main meal at lunchtime. Many restaurants offer a cheaper mittagsmenü, where you can get a two- or three- course meal from a set menu for under €10. Other ways to save on food are to eat in the cheaper studenty areas like Neubau or Josefstadt. You can also head to the Naschmarkt which has over 120 market stalls selling food and drink (open Monday–Friday from 6am–7.30pm and Saturday from 6am–6pm). And if you’re self-catering there are also several Spar supermarkets in the city centre.
You can’t leave Vienna without visiting a traditional café for a coffee and sachertorte. The most famous cafés can be expensive but there’s no hurry so you can sit there and watch the world go by afterwards. Some concert cafés also have free music performances, like Café Schwarzenberg (Thursdays and Fridays 7.30pm–11 pm, Saturdays and Sundays 5pm–8.30pm), Café Weimar (Monday–Saturday until 7.30pm and Sunday afternoons) and 1950s-style Café Prückel (Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays 7pm–10pm).
To get into the city from the airport, there are discounts on the City Airport Train and Airport Lines bus with a Vienna Card. But the cheapest way into the centre is on the S-Bahn train. It costs €4,40 and takes around 25 minutes from the airport to Wien Mitte station, which has underground connections across the city. For travel within the city, the Vienna Card gives unlimited free travel on the underground, trams and buses – and each pass also covers one child up to the age of 15 travelling with you. Other options are a weekly travel pass for €16.20 (which is valid Monday–Sunday rather than for the next seven days).
Lots of companies in Vienna run boat trips along the Danube, but if you are travelling on to Slovakia or Hungary you can take the boat rather than the bus or train and get a cruise included. The Twin City Liner takes 1 hour 15 minutes to travel between Vienna and Bratislava and costs €30 one way. And the Mahart Passnave hydrofoil connects Vienna with Budapest, taking 6 hours 30 minutes and costing around €100.
So those are my tips for seeing Vienna on a budget – do you know of any more Vienna bargains or have any money-saving tips?