When you think of Vienna, you think of palaces, Orson Welles and sharp architecture, accompanied by apfelstrudel. You perhaps don’t put Vienna in the same price bracket as Reykjavik or Copenhagen, which draw as many worried glances as jealous stares when you tell people you’re going there.
Brace yourselves, kids, because Vienna is more expensive and demanding than you think – I found Reykjavik and Copenhagen much cheaper and friendlier for city breaks overall, and with more food choices, despite their pricier reputations. This makes it difficult when you’re a solo traveller in Vienna, or you’re a first-time visitor trying to see the city minus a hefty credit card bill.
However, there are some free or cheap things to do, and loads of options for solo travellers, without missing the city’s highlights.
Basic tips for first-time visitors and solo travellers in Vienna
- From the airport, catch the CAT (City Airport Train) for fast access to the city centre, with Wi-Fi on board. You don’t need to pre-book tickets; a return is €19, valid for a month.
- Taxis are very expensive, so walk if possible. Plus, you get to see the cute pedestrian crossing lights, installed in 2015, which are LGBT-friendly and an internet sensation. If not, the Metro system is easy to navigate and cheap to use; just make sure you leave larger stations at the right exit.
- Pocket city maps (£3.99, WHSmith) are essential, as the street layout can be disorientating. Don’t open them in the middle of the pavement, or you’ll look like the world’s most obvious (and annoying) tourist. The Viennese speak excellent English should you need directions.
- Souvenirs are expensive, even in cheap-looking gift shops where the quality is poor. You might want to trim your souvenir buying list before you travel! As for shopping, there’s no middle ground between everyday fashion stores you have at home (Zara, Forever21, H&M) and overpriced designer boutiques and department stores. Vienna just isn’t a unique shopping destination unless you’re splashing the cash.
- Supermarkets and corner shops are readily available, saving you the expense of hotel minibars or pricy bottled water when you’re out for the day. Many food shops have decent bakery sections, too.
- Wear sensible shoes for the cobbled city streets, or live to regret your decision…
- You can pay by card in most restaurants and cafes, but small change is useful for tipping or just getting a takeaway coffee, especially if you’re a solo traveller.
- Bizarrely, Viennese adults love riding scooters – and I don’t mean Vespas. Office workers will scoot past you at all hours, looking nonchalant. Yes, they do look ridiculous, but they don’t care.
- Avoid the horse-drawn carriage rides being offered around the city centre. The horses don’t look happy, and I get the feeling they’re not treated too well. Horsey types should head to the Spanish Riding School, where the Lipizzaner horses are based, and the rest of us can cut to other attractions.
- Sundays are very quiet in Vienna: loads of shops, restaurants and museums are shut (and the Jewish Museums are shut on Saturdays, the Sabbath). If you’re here for a long weekend, try to arrive on Friday.
- Vienna airport has a very unusual security system, with security scanners close to the flight gates. You can buy small bottles of water (nothing over 500ml) from the tiny Duty-Free shop, to be sealed in a bag by the cashier, then open them once you get through security to board the plane, or take your chances with vending machines in the equally cramped departure lounge. It’s illogical and annoying, plus the airport’s selection of shops and restaurants is poor. God knows what you do if you’re delayed here. Cry, mostly.
Try a Viennese food cliché… or go Italian
Food is a major stumbling block for budget travellers in Vienna, as you can easily end up paying €15-20 for Wiener Schnitzel (the local delicacy – basically pork in breadcrumbs) in a restaurant.
Cafes are more affordable and casual: for snacks, pop into a branch of Aida, a chain of powder pink Viennese coffee and pastry cafes, or go all moody and intellectual (braving painfully slow service) at Café Hawelka (Dorotheergasse 6) dating back to the 1930s. Otherwise, head onto the side streets and scout around for lunch deals of the day. I grabbed a burger at Rinderwahn (Weihburggasse 3), where the portions are huge. Arrive for a late lunch mid-afternoon to beat the crowds.
Call me controversial, but the best value food tends to be Italian. Vienna has seven branches of Vapiano, recommended by TripAdvisor as a great budget Italian chain. You collect a smartcard, order your food at the counter and watch it being made fresh (so you can be picky about the amount of cheese or chilli involved), log your choices on the smartcard and pay as you leave. Another great shout is Zanoni & Zanoni, which serves a huge range of gelato, coffee and cakes, including the famous apfelstrudel (apple strudel).
I believe you shouldn’t be ashamed to stray from a country’s national dishes when travelling – the best Austrian restaurant I’ve found is in Lisbon (Kaffeehaus, Rua Anchieta 3), where the apfelstrudel is the size of a small rugby ball. Likewise, my favourite Indian restaurant – and the world’s most northerly curry house – is in Reykjavik, as is the best hot dog van.
Roam the parks and gardens
Like any major city, Vienna has plenty of green spaces in amidst the urban sprawl. One of the best areas is the Belvedere Gardens, which has several different sections. Though the Belvedere includes two museums, you can access the gardens for free, and Upper Belvedere is peppered with joggers getting their exercise with a view.
The Stadtpark is much smaller but more central, and it’s a favourite with locals. I spent time here before heading to the meeting point for The Third Man Walking Tour, which was one of the highlights of my trip.
You might also want to check out the Prater Park, another Third Man location (known for its iconic Ferris wheel), but bear in mind it’s a lot further out than it looks on a map, so allow plenty of time for the walk. I’d encourage solo travellers to choose the earlier options as there are loads of other people on their own, so you won’t feel like a novelty.
Trace the impact of Nazism on the city
The D.O.W. Exhibition isn’t well known by tourists, but I highly recommend it, as the displays are thoroughly researched and can be heart-breaking. This site, hidden in the Altes Rathaus (Old Town Hall), puts the Holocaust and Nazism in context, scrutinising the perpetrators and dealing with the aftermath, including Denazification, and compensation for survivors. As the D.O.W is free to visit, I recommend using the donation box as you leave, to keep this place open to everyone.
Also look out for film director Billy Wilder’s plaque, on Fleischmarkt street, where he lived as a young man before fleeing Antisemitic Austria for France in 1933, then America in 1934.
The Monument Against War and Fascism, on Albertinaplatz, is unmissable, and comes recommended by legendary travel writer Rick Steves. It’s made from huge chunks of bronze and marble, with granite blocks taken from the barbaric Mauthausen concentration camp, and hewn into shapes connected to the war: a mother and child, a gas mask, a slave labourer, and more. They’re accompanied by a much smaller figure on the ground: a persecuted Jew, being made to sweep the streets at the height of Nazism, surrounded by barbed wire. This site is poignant because it’s where 300 locals lost their lives in a bombing raid.
See Vienna’s Gold Plaques: Stolpersteine
As you walk around the city, you might notice small gold plaques on the ground, in front of otherwise nondescript buildings. Each one is a stolperstein, or stumbling block, placed in memory of Jewish former residents who lost their lives in the Holocaust. Stolpersteine (plural) were first laid by artist Gunter Demnig, in Germany, in 1996, and his project has since spread across Europe’s former Jewish communities.
Demnig’s website has a timetable of upcoming plaque laying ceremonies, showing that the work continues, with over 50,000 laid so far. The plaques usually tell you where the victims were deported, with information usually traced from Yad Vashem; the effect is truly haunting and it literally stops you in your tracks, hence the name. But Demnig knows the project will always be representative, not physically able to mark every one of the six million victims.
Make time to see the Judenplatz, what was once the centre of the Jewish community, and its stark memorial to Austria’s Holocaust victims, sculpted by Rachael Whiteread, representing books turned inwards on bookshelves (its official title is The Nameless Library). It’s a literal interpretation of Jews being known as ‘people of the book’; it’s also a sign of the individual lives, but also the overall cultural output, lost in the Holocaust. Concentration and extermination camps where Austrians were taken have been named and engraved around the base.
Visit the Jewish Museum
The Judenplatz also holds a branch of the Jewish Museum Vienna, with its sister branch in Dorotheergasse. I only visited the latter, but your ticket gives you entry to both within four days (€12 for adults), and they’re open on Sundays, when many other museums are closed.
The Dorotheergasse branch contains the brilliant Memory Map art piece by Nikolaus Gansterer, plus murals by Nancy Spero, and a wealth of exhibits. I was shocked to see how many Austrians had targeted the Jews over the centuries. Empress Maria Theresa was being celebrated throughout Vienna during my stay, as she’s a big draw for tourists, but the Jewish Museum revealed how she’d openly oppressed them, calling the Jews a ‘troublesome plague’ in 1777.
Monarchs before and after her seemingly took it in turns to use Jews to grow their economy and then banish them from the city. It’s horrifying to read about the mistreatment, but people need to know this went on, and that 20th century Antisemitism was part of a larger history of intolerance. What’s more, Jews returning to Vienna in 1945 received no help, and faced renewed prejudice.
Take a walking tour of Vienna
In the Footsteps of The Third Man Walking Tour, bookable through Viator, is a must for any self-respecting Graham Greene fan (at least it was for me). £17 gets you 2.5 hours of gripping history focused during and after WWII, plus insider film facts, with a friendly guide who knows his stuff. If you’re not intrigued by the escapades of Harry Lime and Holly Martins, there are other options.
Free walking tours with Good Vienna start every day, at 10:00 and 14:00, outside the Albertina. They last 2.5 hours and should be booked in advance. Arrived late or can’t guarantee your plans? Welcome Tour Vienna starts at 10:30 and 14:30, from Helmut Zilk Platz/Albertinaplatz (no booking required), lasting 2-2.5 hours. For a weekend break, and especially for solo travellers in Vienna, see Anna Loves Vienna: all tours begin at 18:00 and last 2 hours. All free tours make their money from tips alone, so pay what you think they’re worth.
If you have mobility issues and can’t walk far, please avoid the tourist tram, known as the Ringstrasse, which involves an overpriced whistle-stop tour of Vienna’s tram loop. Though advertised as 25 minutes long, you’re unceremoniously chucked out at the 20-minute mark, having sped around too quickly to take decent photos, and coughed up €9.50 for your trouble. Instead, look at public tram routes, and don’t lose your dignity by joining the eejits on the Segway tours.
Browse the bookshops and markets
The cleverly hidden Shakespeare & Company bookshop is the little sister to the famous Shakespeare & Company store in Paris. It takes some tracking down in Vienna (Sterngasse 2 is slightly off the beaten track), but the shopping experience is heaven for bookworms: floor to ceiling reads, including plenty in English, and loads of specialist choices. Perfect if you’re a solo traveller with time to spare.
Also try A.L. Hasbach (Wollzeile 29) for antiquarian and rare books. The company was founded by Ludwig Bloch and August Ludwig Hasbach in 1876, with Hasbach later becoming sole owner. It then passed to the Director of Antiquarian Books, Carl Borufka. Having moved around the city a few times, the Wollzeile 29 store opened in 1934 but was badly damaged in a 1944 bombing raid.
For cheap second-hand books and loads of other bargains, head to the Naschmarkt on a Saturday, when the flea market takes over. The Naschmarkt is also known for food, with plenty of stalls and restaurants; street food is a great option to save money during your trip.
Explore the Stephansdom
The Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral) is the city’s number one tourist attraction. Mozart was married and buried here, and two of his children were baptised here, but its history stretches back much further, to 1147.
Guided daytime tours, for €17.50, cover the two towers, the treasury and the crypt, or you can choose one individual area for just €5.50 (or €1 less for the South Tower); Saturday evening tours run from July-September and cost €10. I skipped the tours and just wandered round, soaking up the atmosphere and people watching.
A church or temple is always a good place to get your bearings, understand how local people lived, and escape the outside world for a bit. Vienna’s people really are in the very fabric of this building, as they donated the brightly coloured roof tiles to restore the cathedral roof after it was damaged in WWII.
Of course, this isn’t a complete list of things to do in Vienna, but these are the basics you should experience on a budget, especially if you’re a solo traveller or it’s your first visit. If you’re looking to pop to Bratislava for the day as an affordable add-on, I’ll cover that in a separate post, because there’s a lot to tempt you with. In the meantime, I hope you enjoyed this primer on the highlights of Vienna.