Wintertime in Vienna, Austria – What to Do and What to Avoid

Wintertime in Vienna, Austria – What to Do and What to Avoid

Vienna is the capital of Austria. It’s nearly always included on a backpacker’s trip through Europe. It has a glamorous image due to its Viennese coffee houses, Mozart, and large state opera house. During winter, tourists flock to Vienna for its Christmas Markets, gluhwein, strudel and beautiful lit up buildings.

There’s lots to do in Vienna and I ran out of time to do everything I wanted. So plan your trip well. Below I’ve given a list of what to do and what to avoid, to give you an Instagram-worthy, non-bank-account-breaking, trip to Austria’s classy capital.

 

Avoid – The expensive airport train

If you arrive via Vienna International Airport you’ll have several options to get to the city centre. For example, if you’re staying in Karlsplatz:

  1. Catch an intercity train (CAT) to Wien Hauptbahnhof (Main Station) followed by the metro U1 to Karlsplatz. The CAT comes every half hour and takes 16 minutes. Cost = €19.00, plus €2.40 for the U-Bahn.

  2. Take the regional train S7 to Wien Mitte, transfer to U-Bahn U4 to Karlsplatz. The S7 runs every half an hour and takes 25 minutes. Cost = €4.20.

  3. Taxi/Uber. The Uber meeting point is on Terminal 3 (2nd floor), Departures (one floor above Arrivals). Uber has a set price of €30.50 to your destination in the centre. You can use this price as a guide if you get a taxi.

The CAT is a lot nicer and easier to find as it’s well sign posted and written on the train. I took it on my first trip to Vienna. But it’s significantly more expensive than the regional train. Plus, if there’s more than two of you, it’s more economical and convenient to get a taxi/Uber straight to your hotel than the CAT. For a solo budget traveller, the regional train is the best option.

 

Avoid – Skipping U-Bahn fares

Vienna’s U-Bahn is simple to navigate and it also offers discount fares to senior citizens over 62. It still operates with paper tickets, which you time-stamp in the little machines before getting on the U-Bahn. There are no barriers and because of this, it can be tempting to skip fares.

Little time-stamp machine
Little time-stamp machine

However, I saw transport police checking tickets at Karlsplatz. They were picking certain people out. So if you look like a backpacker and you’re still in yesterday’s clothes, you might get pulled aside instead of the well dressed Viennese.

Or, don’t worry about stamping your ticket every time, and get a 24, 48 or 72 hour travel pass. Alternatively, get a Vienna Card. This will enable you to travel on public transport for free and get discounts to tourist sites and the theatre, concerts etc. If you’re going to several museums or sites, it’s worth getting.

 

Do – Visit Stephansplatz and St Stephen’s Cathedral

Stephansplatz is my favourite square in Vienna. During the wintertime they have market stalls selling gluhwien.

Gluhwein at Stephanplatz
Gluhwein at Stephanplatz

It’s also home to St Stephen’s Cathedral, which is free to enter. Inside is a huge gothic style cathedral with a Notre Dame feel. In 1945, near the end of WW2, Hitler ordered the whole square to be bombed. However, the commanding officer went against his wishes and instead set fire to the cathedral. As a result the building remained intact but the timbered roof was destroyed. The roof was re-built with colourful mosaic tiles, to form the Royal and Imperial double-headed eagle and the coat of arms of the city of Vienna. It’s a must see.

St Stephen's Cathedral with its mosaic roof
St Stephen’s Cathedral with its mosaic roof

You can climb St Stephen’s Cathedral towers. The south tower leads to the panoramic views of the city. Make sure you’re fit as there are over 300 steps! The catacombs can also be accessed if you purchase an audio guide.

Inside St Stephen's Cathedral
Inside St Stephen’s Cathedral

People dressed in medieval costumes accost you upon exiting the cathedral. They’re just selling concert tickets. Next to the cathedral are horse drawn carriages. Their price depends on the route you want to take, the cheapest route is €55.

 

Do – Coffee and Cake

Vienna is known for its Viennese coffee house culture. They usually have marble table tops, a selection of newspapers, long coffee lists and a wide selection of cakes and pastries. I often find the awkward part of solo travelling is eating and drinking on my own, but in Vienna it’s common to see individuals relaxing in a coffee house.

Irish coffee because I'm on holiday
Irish coffee because I’m on holiday

Heads up – you can still smoke inside in Austria so make sure you sit in a non-smoking section if you don’t like smoke.

 

Avoid – The famous cafes (unless you don’t mind a 45 minute wait outside)

Top of my Vienna plan was to eat the famous chocolate Sacher-Torte at Hotel Sacher and get some instaworthy pics in Central Café. Along with Café Mozart, these three cafes were the places to be seen and frequented by Freud, Mozart and Trotsky. Now they’re tourist magnets, but that doesn’t make them bad. What does is the 45 minute to an 1 hour line outside in the freezing cold to get in.

Queue at Cafe Sacher at 10am
Queue at Cafe Sacher at 10am

Central Café doesn’t take reservations during the pre-Christmas season. I believe Café Sacher also doesn’t take reservations. 

Line at Cafe Central
Line at Cafe Central

 

Do – Hundertwasser House

Even if you haven’t heard of Hundertwasser House, you’ve probably seen it in pictures. It was named after the man who designed it, Friedensreich Hundertwasser. This multi-coloured house has over 200 trees and shrubs on the balconies. People live here so you can’t go inside, only look from the outside.

Hundertwasser House
Hundertwasser House

In the coffee house on the ground floor, you can view a free film, where Friedensreich Hundertwasser leads viewers through “his” house. Opposite Hundertwasser House is a cute shopping centre where you can pick up souvenirs.

FYI – the pictures on Instagram have the saturation turned up. In real life it’s nowhere near as colourful. But it’s still worth a visit.

 

Avoid – Cutting costs on the walking tours

I usually suggest taking a free walking tour on your first day in a city as it’s a great way to become familiar with it. However, the Christmas season in Vienna isn’t the time.

I booked a free walking tour, which said you must book in advance and it’s limited to 40 places. When I arrived it seemed closer to 60 people. 

Free walking tour Vienna
Free walking tour

Reykjavik, Iceland is the only tour I’ve been on with an enforced 40 people limit. I guess other tours run off the logic that the more people they have, the more people to tip, but it doesn’t work this way – people feel it was a bad tour as they can’t hear the guide and can then slip away at the end without tipping. So avoid wasting your time.

Vienna isn’t a city you should try and cut costs in. There are plenty of paid walking tours on particular topics. For example:

  • Old City Walking Tour
  • Food, Coffee and Market Walking Tour
  • Historical Hitler Walking Tour 
  • Jewish Vienna Walking Tour
  • Mozart and Music Tour

I booked the tour “Experiences by Third Man Walk – In the Footsteps of a Film Classic” for €19 at the tour centre in Karlsplatz U-Bahn station. I highly recommend it to fans of Orson Welles and the film “The Third Man”.

River from the film "The Third Man" known for its famous sewer scenes
River from the film “The Third Man” known for its famous sewer scenes

If international relations are your thing, then you can take tours of the UN in Vienna. I noticed there were tours available when I went to meet a friend for lunch there. 

Tours of the UN in Vienna are available
Tours of the UN in Vienna are available

 

Do – Vienna’s State Hall

The State Hall is in the National Library of Austria. There are maps of the museum quarter where it is located but I still found the entrance hard to find. At first I thought €8 was expensive to see a hall but I was totally wrong. The State Hall is amazing and a must see.

The State Hall with its baroque style decorations
The State Hall with its baroque style decorations

Built in the 18th century as part of the former Court Library, it’s massive at 80 metres long and 20 metres high. The highlights include four one-metre diameter globes and baroque style decorations. You can take photos as long are you don’t use flash.

One of the four magnificent baroque globes by Vincenzo Coronelli
One of the four magnificent baroque globes by Vincenzo Coronelli

 

Do – Visit Naschmarkt

Naschmarkt is worth a stroll through, especially on a Saturday. It’s bustling with people and stalls selling fruit, spices, oils, baklava, cheese, weed and tea.

Stalls of dry fruit
Stalls of dry fruit

Vendors offer free samples, but if you take them be prepared for hassle if you don’t buy. The prices are high here, it’s not a bargain market.

Cheese shop in Naschmarkt
Cheese shop in Naschmarkt

I wouldn’t call it a flea market, even on a Saturday, but more somewhere to grab a quick drink or lunch. There’s enough restaurants to choose from and I even managed to have some good Thai food.

Oil by the jug
Oil by the jug

 

Avoid – Booking the wrong accommodation 

I’ve been to Vienna twice and both times the hotels have had problems. If you know a good hotel in Vienna please comment below!

Expensive – DAS Triest, A Design Hotel

Parties and noise. This hotel is promoted on the internet as a 5* but it’s far from it. “Design Hotels” don’t have ratings. DAS Triest holds very loud parties on the top floor so anyone staying underneath is subjected to loud music until the early hours.

Mid-range – Hotel ibis budget Wien Messe

Bat in my room. The location is further out than I like but it’s very near a U-Bahn station and well priced, but given I spent 4 nights with a bat in my room, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Budget – Popular well known hostel chain

Bed bugs. I’ve met two backpackers in different countries who have stayed in this hostel and both encountered bed bugs here. I’ve not stayed there so can’t 100% confirm this but it’s enough to put me off.

 

Do – The Christmas Markets

Entrance to Rathausplatz Christmas Market
Entrance to Rathausplatz Christmas Market

If you visit Vienna in December then the Christmas Markets will be top of your to-do list. They’re scattered throughout the city and you won’t get far without passing a stall selling gluhwien or hot alcoholic punch.

Hot raspberry punch
Hot raspberry punch

The main market is at Rathausplatz. Before going I was warned it was too touristy but I thought it was great! The paths between the stalls were nice and wide so I could move through the crowds without bumping into people and spilling my punch on them.

I also stopped by the one in Freyung for more punch. The markets close at 9pm so if you want the deposit for your mug back, make sure you drink up before then.

Christmas decoration stalls
Christmas decoration stalls

 

Avoid – Sigmund Freud’s House (unless you’re a big fan)

Because it’s expensive. If money isn’t too tight and you’re a fan of Sigmund, then check it out. But if you’re on a budget, you can skip it. Adult entrance is €12.00 and you don’t even get a headset, you have to use your own smart phone to listen to the audio guide. There’s no deep insight into Freud here, it is just the house where he lived and worked.

Entrance to Sigmund Freud's House
Entrance to Sigmund Freud’s House

Note – they don’t let you carry coats or large bags so you have to leave them in a cupboard and there’s no ticket system or anyone always watching it. So leave them at your own risk or don’t take a large bag. 

Inside the museum
Inside the museum

Hi Sigmund, I’ll be right in. The mirror above me used to hang on Freud's desk and was donated to the museum by his daughter.
Hi Sigmund, I’ll be right in. The mirror above me used to hang on Freud’s desk and was donated to the museum by his daughter.

 

Do – Third Man Museum

This one is subjective because if you’ve not seen the film (and you really should) then this museum won’t mean much to you.

Entrance to the Third Man Museum
Entrance to the Third Man Museum

It’s only open between 2pm and 6pm on Saturdays and entrance is €8.90 for adults. It’s full of information and memorabilia from the film, and for anyone interested in The Third Man or that period of film making, it’s very worthwhile.

Inside the Third Man Museum
Inside the Third Man Museum

 

Do – Watch out for Sunday closing

On Saturday, many shops close at 7pm and don’t re-open until Monday morning. Which means there’s nowhere to buy food or supplies during this time. If you get stuck in this situation, small stores and cafes (including Starbucks) are open at major train stations and Karlsplatz U-Bahn station, but that’s it. 

 

Schonbrunn Palace, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Prater amusement park, Vienna Zoo

I’ve been to Vienna twice and both times I’ve missed Schonbrunn Palace. Given it’s the number one site in Vienna I feel I’ve missed out on something.

I also missed Kunsthistorisches Museum. This is Austria’s largest art museum and is a must for any art history fans.

Prater amusement park is where the giant ferris wheel (Wiener Riesenrad) is (also seen in The Third Man movie). On my first trip to Vienna I went on the ferris wheel for €10. The carriages get pretty full so make sure you claim your space by the window when you get on. Since my visit all the original carriages have been replaced. The park has some daring rides if that’s your thing. But overall, it’s a generic amusement park.

Also on my first visit, I went to Vienna’s Zoo to see the Giant Panda. This is more of a summer thing as it’s outside. It’s the oldest continually operating zoo in the world (founded in 1752) and still has some of the original wooden walkways.

Wiener Riesenrad at the entrance of the Prater
Wiener Riesenrad at the entrance of the Prater

3 Replies to “Wintertime in Vienna, Austria – What to Do and What to Avoid”

  1. What a great blog with so many helpful suggestions. I went to Vienna a few years back and did not even know about many of the attractions you talked about.

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