If you are planning to spend three days in Vienna (a long weekend or a mid-week trip), here are suggestions on where to stay, what to do, and where to eat. I spent three days in Vienna last week and loved it! The city exudes Old World charm and grandeur but it’s not a fusty old-fashioned place. On the contrary, the mix of antique jewelry shops, high fashion boutiques, edgy art galleries, baroque churches and 18th century palaces makes Vienna a fascinating place to wander around for hours.
Where to stay in Vienna
I recommend The Ring Hotel, a 68-room hotel in a renovated 19th century building only one block from the Vienna State Opera. Rooms are spacious and have high ceilings; windows are double-glazed so you don’t hear noise from the street. I had a room facing the side street (Akademistrasse) on the 4th floor so I also had a lot of light. Other amenities: free Wi-Fi, large safe for storing laptops and iPads, and excellent personal service. I stayed at The Ring for two nights (Friday and Saturday) and I would stay there again.
Because The Ring did not have any vacancy on Thursday, I spent Thursday night at the Hotel Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom, a new luxury hotel designed by Jean Nouvel on the banks of one of the Danube’s tributaries. The Sofitel has a gym, hammam, spa, rooftop bar and restaurant on the 18th floor. I did not enjoy my stay at the Sofitel as much as I did at The Ring for the following reasons:
(1) The Sofitel was so much more expensive than The Ring and my room at the Sofitel, although on the 15th floor with views of the famous ferris wheel (featured in the film “The Third Man”), was very small and narrow.
(2) Form did not follow function in the Sofitel room: the all-white bathroom sinks look modern and chic but when you turn on the tap, water splashes everywhere. The toilet was tiny. The bed was much smaller than the one at The Ring. The all-white floors (matching the all white walls) highlighted my shoe prints and bits of hair so I found myself obsessively cleaning all the time.
(3) Wi-Fi was very slow at the Sofitel and it kept dropping the connection. Wi-Fi at The Ring was much faster and consistent.
(4) The Sofitel hotel has this empty, cold feel, especially in the lobby. By contrast, The Ring feels warm and cozy, well designed and classic.
(5) Poor location: The name “Sofitel Vienna Stephansdom” leads one to believe that it is located on the same square as Vienna’s grand cathedral, the Stephansdom. However, the hotel is located across the small river and it takes about 15 minutes to walk to the Stephansdom. Worse, most of the places I wanted to see (the Leopold Museum, Hofburg, Karlskirche, Peterskirche, and just about all of the main sights as well as shopping) are on the other side of the Viennese innenstadt, close to The Ring Hotel. The neighborhood where the Sofitel is located is not at all interesting and is actually quite depressing because of the presence of so many ugly concrete postwar buildings. I get the impression that the Sofitel caters primarily to male business travelers (I had to call the hotel’s housekeeping to ask for body lotion, a female traveler necessity) on an expense account.
The one good thing about the Sofitel is the rooftop bar (just have drinks, don’t bother with dinner as it is very expensive and not as good as other restaurants in town).
Where to eat in Vienna
I don’t like breaded, fried things so, despite the ubiquitous presence of Wiener Schnitzel (fried breaded thin slices of veal), I did not eat it. Fortunately, Vienna has a lot of restaurants that serve excellent Italian, French and Asian food. The Asian food in Vienna is surprisingly good. I say “surprisingly” because I always had this image of Vienna as a place where one can get only fatty, greasy traditional Austrian fare (schnitzel, potatoes, pork knuckles, dumplings, goulash) and westernized Chinese food.
In the past few years, a number of small Asian restaurants have popped up and the ones I tried were on the Naschmarkt, a wide center divider strip close to Karlsplatz, which is lined with small food stalls, restaurants, vegetable and fruit stands, and other gourmet shops.
Naschmarkt: outdoor market with food stalls and restaurants
Here’s where to eat at the Naschmarkt: when you walk from the Karlsplatz to the beginning of the Naschmarkt, you will find that most of the food stalls are patronized by tourists. Walk further and avoid the restaurants whose personnel aggressively try to get you inside the restaurant. In this first portion of the Naschmarkt, there is a tiny, narrow Vietnamese restaurant that serves real pho (don’t confuse it with the big Vietnamese restaurant with aggressive touters) and delicious fresh spring rolls. The second part of the Naschmarkt has two restaurants that I recommend highly:
(1) Kim Kocht (translation: Kim cooks), a small restaurant that serves traditional Korean food such as bibimbap, but also fresh innovative takes on Korean food. Sohyi Kim, a Korean chef, runs the restaurant together with her Austrian husband. She is quite famous in Austria and has published a number of beautifully photographed cook books. If you prefer to have dinner in a less hectic environment (her Naschmarkt restaurant is quite crowded and noisy, but really good), you can go to Kim’s other restaurant on Lustkandlgasse 4, but you must make reservations. I ate twice at Kim Kocht on the Naschmarkt because it was just so good!
(2) Neni: If you are craving fresh, savoury Mediterranean food and Israeli classics like shakshuka, kibbeh and hummus, Neni is the place to go. It opens for breakfast at 8:00 am on Saturday and at 9:00 am on weekdays (closed Sunday). I went for breakfast and had shakshuka that tastes just like shakshuka in Tel Aviv. The Israeli breakfast — Israeli salad, labane, olives, tomatoes, and pita — was also very authentic. It is always packed at lunch and dinner, but you can reserve a table.
French bistrot in a 19th century palace: Beaulieu
If you are looking for a quiet place to have a drink and a light snack (say, a cheese plate) in a more atmospheric environment, I recommend Beaulieu, a French bistrot (also an epicerie and fromagerie) located in the beautiful Ferstelpassage (also known as the Freyungpassage), a marble-clad 19th century shopping arcade with vaulted ceilings. This arcade is part of the Ferstel Palace which was constructed between 1856 and 1860. They also serve lunch and dinner, and if your French is better than your German, this is the place to speak it. I recommend the Chèvre and Brebis cheese plate. They have a good wine selection, too.
Cafe Konditorei Diglas: traditional Viennese cafe
You can’t spend a weekend in Vienna and not enjoy a proper Viennese torte (cake) with coffee. I went to Cafe Konditorei Diglas located on Fleischmarkt 16, a narrow street that can be a bit difficult to find. The first thing you notice and appreciate about these Viennese coffee houses is that they serve your coffee in a lovely cup and saucer, set on a shiny little tray, with a glass of water, a spoon and sugar, and perhaps a small piece of dark bitter chocolate. The cake selection at Diglas was quite impressive and it was difficult to choose, but in the end I went for the Diglas Torte which was utterly delicious (not too sweet, not heavy, just heavenly). Diglas also serves lunch and dinner (try the grilled salmon – very fresh and delicious) and it is not expensive.
Other recommendations for Vienna restaurants and cafes
(1) Cafe Sperl (see photo below) on Gumpendorfer Strasse 11: traditional Viennese coffee house
(2) Skopik und Lohn: recommended by my Italian-Viennese friend as an excellent place to try modernized versions of classic Austrian dishes.
(3) Hollman Salon: a gem of a restaurant tucked away in one of Vienna’s most secluded courtyards, the Heiligenkreuzerhof, serving seasonal food using ingredients drawn from the region. Reservations are necessary.
What to do in Vienna
(1) Classical music and the Opera: There are so many classical music concerts and opera performances in Vienna at any time of the year. You can often reserve and buy tickets online, too.
I went to see a performance of Mozart’s Requiem on Saturday evening at the Karlskirche (see above), a magnificent Baroque-Rococo church completed in 1737. Every Saturday evening between March and December, Mozart’s Requiem is performed by the Choir and Soloists of the Salzburg Concert Society and the Orchestra 1756 (on period instruments). You can book tickets online. There is no heating so if it’s chilly outside, make sure you bring a jacket and scarf, or a shawl/wrap.
(2) Schönbrunn Palace: Called the Versailles of Austria, this palace with its immense public gardens is a must-see if you want to get a feel for the lost grandeur and wealth of the Habsburg dynasty. Unfortunately, every tourist in Vienna has the same idea and you should reserve tickets in advance otherwise when you get there, you will have to wait 45 minutes to an hour before being allowed into the palace. They only allow in a certain number of people. I didn’t bother with the palace. I wandered around the beautiful gardens and the belvedere instead, all of which are free of charge. You can spend two or more hours walking in the gardens, marveling at the fountains and precision-trimmed trees and shrubbery. You can reach the palace easily via the underground metro (U4) that takes you directly from the center of Vienna.
(3) Hundertwasser House and Kunsthaus Wien
The Hundertwasser House (above) is an apartment house built between 1983 and 1985. It was designed by Friedensreich Hundertwasser, an Austrian artist known for his colorful, whimsical designs. You cannot go inside the building because it still functions today as an apartment house but you can stand outside and marvel at the strangeness of it all. You will also notice hordes of tourists milling around in front but if you go to the KunstHaus Wien, only 10 minutes away, you will not only see Hundertwasser’s collected works, but you’ll also get to go inside one of the buildings that he renovated. Best of all, if you go early, you won’t be besieged by tour groups.
(4) Other places to visit: Peterskirche (baroque church finished in 1733 – see photo below), Leopold Museum (exhibits of Klimt, Kokoschka, et al.), Hofburg (magnificent palace complex across the Leopold Museum).
What I love about Vienna is that you can spend entire days just walking around, peeking into the churches and little shops nestled in the narrow winding streets.
I had a very strange experience with taxi drivers in Vienna. The first taxi I took from the airport to the Sofitel did not seem to know where it was. I had to repeat the address — in German — and only then did he finally have some inkling about where it was located. We’re talking about the Sofitel, a large building and major hotel right on the main avenue along the river, not an obscure pensione in an alley. The second cab I took in the late evening going back to the Sofitel after dinner had a driver who really had no idea where it was. I spoke to him in German, gave him the address and either he did not know or pretended not to know, but he gave me the run-around, went past the ferris wheel, turned back, and finally, when we reached the banks of the tributary, I had to instruct him where to go.
Having learned from two unfortunate experiences with cab drivers in Vienna in less than 24 hours, I was determined not to repeat the experience the next day when I had to take a taxi from the Sofitel to The Ring Hotel. I came prepared. I looked up the hotel’s location on Google maps, and noted the cross-street as well. It was raining and I had luggage so I did not take the metro, which, if the weather had been good, would have been a far better option. The Ring Hotel is almost across the Vienna State Opera. It is located on one of the main boulevards, the Kaerntnerring. Not only did I give this cab driver the address of the hotel, again in German, but I also made sure I told him the cross-street (Akademiestrasse). Guess what? He got lost, too. I ordered him to just let me off across the street from the hotel. After settling the bill, I also noticed he had given me the wrong change, politely pointed this out to him, got the right change and finally made my way to the hotel in the light drizzle.
I have no idea what possesses the taxi drivers of Vienna or if I am simply extraordinarily unlucky. On Sunday, going back to the airport, I decided not to take any chances and used one of the hotel’s private cars.
Getting around Vienna is easy. Most of the time you walk, sometimes you take the underground which is clean, safe and fast.