Since classical music is a huge part of Viennese culture, here’s a mix of tourist hotspots and symphonic gems.
I grew up playing the piano and the violin. On top of it, I became a piano teacher when I was 16, and grew it into a legit business with thirty students in my neighborhood. But I still wouldn’t know everything about classical music, I just know that it makes my heart sing (literally!) and I kick butt at Listz’s Liebestraum. But that’s pretty much it.
When I first came to Vienna a quarter of a century ago, the sight of Levi Struass’ golden statue made the hair on my teenage back stand like saluting soldiers paying homage to the man who popularized waltz. Strolling through Haydn’s apartment museum calmed me, for some odd reason. Within the walls of a charming house, Papa Haydn composed The Seasons. He never had any children but left his belongings and money to his staff and servants, this was a life lesson. Everyone has a different version of a family, even during 18th century’s classical period.
Of course, Vienna is far more than composers and musicians, though it’s a huge part of its local culture. With a mix of touristic landmarks and a few hidden gem, here’s a list of must-do’s in the capital of Austria. Prost!
Johann Strauss Wohnung / Strauss Apartment Museum
A small yet beautiful museum showcasing where Johann Strauss lived when he composed the famous waltz: The Blue Danube, aka: Austria’s unofficial national anthem. When he lived in this apartment, the neighborhood was fashionable and quite trendy. Johann Strauss Wohnung Apartment Museum presents the original sheet music of several compositions, paintings, furniture, and instruments he used. The museum allows us to understand Strauss as a musician/conductor, and a private man who was married three times while constantly chasing the approval of his father.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
Also known as Stephansdom, St. Stephen’s Cathedral was originally constructed in 1147 and is arguably the most significant religious building in Vienna. One must enter inside to view 18 altars, tombs, catacombs, and organs that have witnessed several major historical and religious events. In 2019, contemporary artist Peter Baldinger transformed the vault of the cathedral into a beautiful installation of Sky Full of Stones to celebrate Lent. There are 1332 stones made of paper attached to the ceiling to last for 40 days. If you can, try to catch a musical performance inside St. Stephen’s, it would be a lifelong unforgettable experience.
Stadtpark, or City Park, is famous for various statues of Viennese artists, including: Johann Strauss II, Franz Schubert, Hans Canon, Emil Jakob Schindler…and many more. Here, you can picnic along the waters or attend a waltz concert. Designed in the style of an English park, Stadtpark was the first public park in Vienna in 1862. Another major building you’ll see is a spa pavilion where healing mineral water was served and where Johann Strauss II gave his very first concert. The Italian renaissance-style water glacis is a popular place for dancing and concerts. Today, it’s used for balls, and night club events.
Mozarthaus is where the famous composer lived from 1784 to 1787, today it has been transformed into a popular museum. Situated in Vienna’s Old Town, the apartment museum features stories behind some of Mozart’s famous operas and other works, including: The Marriage of Figaro, and Requiem. Dedicated to his life and work, the museum highlights Mozart’s rooms inside his lavish lifestyle (did you know that Mozart loved to gamble?) Getting the audio guide can help in understanding his thought process. You should visit the museum on the same day as St. Stephen’s Cathedral since they’re located quite close to each other.
For a quick snap of funky architecture in Vienna, you’ll need to stop by Hundertwasser House, which is an apartment building designed by the famous Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser. In 1977, Hundertwasser was asked to build a housing project that showcased his ideas on forested roofs, tree tenants, and window right (in which tenants can adorn the frames of their windows.) When the project was finally completed in the mid-80s, it featured 53 apartments, 4 offices, 16 private patios, and 3 communal terraces, with a total of 250 trees and bushes. The roof is covered in earth and grass with big trees growing inside the rooms and branches extending from windows.
A stroll down Vienna’s most popular outdoor market, you’ve gotta stop by Naschmarkt. Stretching along the Wien River, Naschmarkt has been around since the 16th century. Here’s where you can find numerous stalls selling fresh vegetables, fruits, spices, herbs, cheese, pastries, olive oil, vinegar, seafood, meats, bread, clothing…and much more. Find a cafe or restaurant serving your favorite dish and have lunch or grab a pint of crafted beer.
Just a bit outside of Vienna’s city center is the imperial Habsburg dynasty’s summer residence: Schönbrunn Palace. Similar to France’s Versailles, Schönbrunn Palace is a must-see due to its 1,441 rooms and enormous gardens. The Baroque palace bears stories of empress Maria Theresa and her children including: Marie Antoinette. The longest reigning emperor of Austria, Franz Joseph, was born here and also passed away inside the palace. Get the audioguide for an inside look through various rooms and halls.
PS. Here is also where a six-year-old Mozart performed then embraced empress Maria Theresa, which began the child prodigy’s longstanding musical relationship with the imperial family.
A major landmark in Vienna is Hofburg – essentially the White House of Austria. Hofburg was the winter imperial palace of the Habsburg dynasty, now serves as the office and residence of Austria’s President. Hofburg means “Castle of the Court,” and was constructed during the Middle Ages but kept expanding as Austria became more powerful over centuries. Throughout the 15th and 16th centuries, it was the seat of the Habsburg kings and the Roman Empire emperors. Today, Hofburg’s convention center is the location for balls and trade shows throughout the year. The massive Albertina art museum is also attached to it, where you’ll find incredible Impressionist art collection as well as the world’s largest print rooms.
Sightseeing can be tiring, why not rest your feet at Burggarten while gazing at the marble statue of Mozart. When Napoleon’s troops left Vienna in 1809, the city needed to redesign the area surrounding Hofburg Palace, which included building Kaisergarten for the Imperial family. In 1919, however, Kaisergarten changed to Burggarten after Austria’s political transit from monarchy to republic. Today, the park is most famous for the white Mozart statue in Art Nouveau, adorned with wreaths and ornaments symbolizing the power of Mozart’s music.
An off-the-beaten path jewel for classical music fans, Haydnhaus is a hidden gem not to be missed. At age 61, Haydn bought this house as a quiet escape from Vienna. This became his final residence, during a time when he was the most celebrated by the world. The exhibition is tiny but absolutely delightful as it takes you through Haydn’s life and famous works including: The Creation, The Seasons, and canons. Such a tranquil little spot, this is where I spent the most hours alone reflecting upon my teenage self, in sheer awestruck.