Although Vienna now rules over a country only slightly larger than South Carolina, it still feels like the capital of an empire. The city offers an inexhaustible wealth of architectural grandeur, a rich artistic legacy and some of the finest museums in the world. Today, it has just 1.8 million inhabitants, but the immense Hofburg Palace, seat of the Habsburg imperial dynasty, recalls Vienna’s past as capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Most places are within easy reach, and if your legs become weary, there are always the spotless red-and-white trams that constantly trundle around the Ringstrasse, the great circular boulevard that defines the Innere Stadt, or old city. And perhaps only Paris can boast as many delightful cafés.
Vienna’s café scene is justifiably world-renowned, but certain famous institutions, such as Café Central, are now geared entirely for tourists. When we unwind with a glass of wine or a slice of torte and a mélange (cappuccino), we prefer a place where you have at least a chance of seeing residents relaxing with friends or reading a newspaper.
One of my favorites is the wonderfully Old World Café Sperl (Gumpendorferstrasse 11), with stuccoed ceilings and appealingly worn velvet banquettes, even though its torte selection is limited. I also love the 1950s time capsule of Café Prückel (Stubenring 24) for its “Third Man” ambiance and the soaring, barrel-vaulted conservatory of the Palmenhaus (Burggarten 1), which originally served as a Victorian-style palm house for the adjacent Hofburg palace.
Blissfully Quiet Museum
Many visitors don’t realize that the Hofburg (Michaelerkuppel) opens at 9 a.m., an hour before most other museums in Vienna. If you arrive at the Imperial Apartments or the Imperial Silver Collection first thing in the morning, you’re likely to find the exhibits blissfully quiet. Our favorite part of the palace, the Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury), also opens at 9 a.m. but requires a separate ticket.
One of Vienna’s most charming and unusual museums is the Kunst Haus Wien (Untere Weissgerberstrasse 13), designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser. The building itself, with its mosaic tiles and undulating floors, would be worth a visit even if it didn’t house a magnificent collection of Hundertwasser’s joyous, radiant watercolors, embellished with gold and silver leaf. Also look for world-class special exhibitions.