Austria’s capital, Vienna is famous for imperial architecture, classical music, its high quality of life and tourist swarms from all over the world. The main attractions like St. Stephan’s Cathedral, the imperial residences Hofburg and Schönbrunn and the imposing buildings along the road Ringstraße aside, Vienna has many highlights to offer. Escaping the tourist crowds is hardly possible, but with these insider tips you will at least be able to blend in with the local bohemian population.
Vienna is structured in 23 districts which are allocated circularly around the city centre. District 1 to 9 and 20 are called Inner Districts, while number 10 to 23 make up the Outer ones. The historical city centre lies in the geographical middle and is surrounded by the road Ringstraße. Here used to stand the old city wall, but it was torn down around 1900 to give way to an assembly of imposing buildings. City Hall, main University, Parliament, National Theatre, National Opera, the imperial residence Hofburg, beautiful parks and gardens, the National Museums of art and nature – they all line this road. This makes it easy to wander about, see “everything” in one day and move on to the trendy neighbourhoods around.
Outside the centre the city quickly turns to residential areas, although there are great gems hidden away among them. The Inner Districts specifically hold the coolest neighbourhoods in town, while the Outer Districts are home to Vienna’s traditional working class (nr. 10 & 11), numerous students and immigrants (nr. 14 – 17), the rich and wealthy (nr. 13 & 19) and those who long to combine urban with rural life (nr. 22 & 23). Of course the city can not be simplified that easily and these lines are often blurry. Every corner of Vienna is diverse and special, but hopefully the following description will assist you to get the best out of the city.
1. Donaukanal – An Urban Oasis
What? The Donaukanal, or Danube Channel is a side arm of the river Danube which flows through the city. It was first regulated around 1600 and has since then been expanded in order to relieve the main river in case of a possible flooding and lies right by the city centre.
Why? The area is for anyone who does not want to renounce feeling the sand between their toes while inhaling the urban atmosphere. Numerous beach bars offer exactly that, comfy beach chairs and cold drinks. Its banks are seamed with café and bars, many of them on boats or inside the arches of the Vienna underground. The walls setting it apart from the busy roads on top are covered in beautiful graffiti. The channel walkway is a popular area for leisurely bike rides and Sunday afternoon strolls. At night the Donaukanal turns into a club hotspot. Flex on top if the inner city channel stretch has been running since early 1990 and is a real Viennese institution. Party people can sit outside on the deck, enjoy the open café, check out a gig or dance the night away at the daily club nights. The music ranges from rock to electro and the crowd is a mix of locals and international students. Further up the channel and a little off the beaten track lies Grelle Forelle – an underground club which opened just 3 years ago. With its ‘no guest list’ policy it tries to break with the Viennese exclusivity of the schickeria (the in-crowd) that many inner-city clubs still uphold. Here everybody is the same, as long as they make it past the bouncer! Come here for the finest electro tunes in town.
Who? This area is for you if you breathe urban culture with your entire body but want to do this in a traffic-free environment.
2. Mariahilf and Neubau – Where the Cool Kids are
Where? The districts 6 and 7 lie in the North-West of the centre and around the city’s biggest shopping street Mariahilfer Straße, which connects the Ringstraße with the city’s secondary train station Westbahnhof. The surrounding streets bustle with trendy boutiques, pop-up venues and welcoming cafés. This is where the local hipster crowd found their home.
Why? These neighbourhoods offer an eclectic mix of shopping, food and lifestyle. Some of the best boutiques offering Austrian and international labels can be found here and it is also a great spot to hunt for street art and graffiti. Sooner or later you will find yourself at Museumsquartier – the locals simply call it MQ. It used to serve several imperial purposes, it was for example home to the emperor’s guard’s stables. Now it houses cool modern museums, cultural institutions, shops, cafés and clubs. The yard is a big open space, cut off from the busy traffic outside. On a sunny day the colourful Enzis (public furniture) fill up quicker than you can get there, but it is still worth a visit for people watching, beer drinking and sun bathing. A breakfast at Cafe Leopold should not be missed.
Who? Shopaholics, art fans and people watchers alike will fall in love with these neighbourhoods.
Do not miss: Drinks and films at the lovely Topkino which is situated in a side street at the bottom of Mariahilfer Straße. On a rainy day check out ‘Haus des Meeres’, an aquarium located in an old WW2 flak tower. Surrounding Esterhazy park is a graffiti and climbing hotspot – you can even climb the flak tower.
3. Prater and Praterstern – Up-and-Coming
Where? The neighbourhood surrounding Vienna’s inner-city amusement park Prater used to be infamous for the city’s red light district, but intense regeneration and new laws concerning legal prostitution have changed this in the recent years. You can easily reach the central Praterstern by underground lines U1 and U2 and start your adventure there.
Why? Whether you look for traditional farmer’s markets, pleasant green parks, cool electronic clubs or up-and-coming areas Leopoldstadt, district 2 is the right place to be. It is home to the amusement Prater, which is cheesy as hell, but probably my number one pick for a date day. Get a ticket for the giant chairoplane, which is the highest one in the world (117m). From the top you get a fantastic and thrilling view over the city. The neighbouring Green Prater is a massive park where people meet to play football, take bike rides or simply enjoy the nature. The surrounding residential area draws young people and students, especially since the University of Economics opened its new campus earlier this year. Its library was designed by the renowned architect Zaha Hadid and is a new architectural gem of Vienna. One of the best things about this area is the café Das Campus which is already a favourite among brunchers.
Who? Brunch and leisure aside, this is the hottest neighbourhood for party people. Some of the city’s most popular clubs reside around the underground stations Praterstern and Messe Wien, for example the cozy Fluc Café and Wanne. ‘Wanne’ literally means bath tub, but describes the former pedestrian underpass which was turned into the venue’s space for concerts and clubs.
Do not miss: Pratersauna is Vienna’s most famous electronic club. Situated in a former brothel it is particularly interesting for its labyrinthine architecture, the sauna (on some club nights it is even still in use) and the outside pool area. The venue hosts pool parties in the weekends, often with BBQ and special drink prizes.
4. Donau & Donauinsel – An Urban Paradise
Where? The Donauinsel is an artificial island in the river Danube which was, like the Donaukanal, built to minimise the risk of city flooding. It is a recreational area and serves, together with the Nationalpark Donau-Auen just south of it, as the green lungs of the city. You can reach the island with the underground lines U1 and U6, but to enjoy it and the national park to the fullest rent a city bike and set out to explore.
Why? This island is probably one of the reasons why Vienna keeps scoring so high on quality of life rankings. Biking, inline skating, swimming, beach volley ball, BBQs, outdoor parties, sunbathing – there is almost nothing that you could not do here and it is so close to the city centre. It is also the location of the annual Donauinselfest, an outdoor music festival with free admission which is the biggest of its kind in Europe. Head there in the end of June! The banks of the river are also home to several traditional open air pools and beaches. This is specifically great for anybody who prefers to bathe in natural water. One side arm of the river in particular is popular among the Viennese: the Old Danube. Here you can swim, rent paddle boats or simply lie in the sun all day long.
Who? Come here for a break of urban life and soak up the summer sun. You will find an eclectic mix of Viennese archetypes and young folk enjoying life.
Do not miss: My favourite open air pool and beach is the public Gänselhäufel Bad. It offers both traditional swimming pools and beach access to the Old Danube and generous meadows and fields. Make sure to stop by Naish SUP Centre where you can rent stand-up paddle boards from 8€ per hour. Another highlight is a bike tour in Lobau, an area of the Nationalpark Donau-Auen, which is easily accessible for a day trip on your city bike.
5. Ottakring and Hernals – Suburban Melting Pot
Where? These two districts are the beating heart of Vienna’s north. Traditionally enriched by the multicultural background of its inhabitants this area was regenerated in the recent years – now offering cultural institutions, bars, clubs and great recreational areas.
Why? Both districts start at the Gürtel, a main traffic route which encloses the Inner Districts like a belt – ‘Gürtel’ means belt in German. This road is characterised by the overground train line U6 and the subsequent arches which are mostly occupied by bars, clubs and music venues. Check out places like Chelsea, rhiz or The Loft, and if you happen to be in Vienna in the end of August do not miss the Gürtel Nightwalk, a one day and night festival with free concerts in and around the local venues. From there the districts stretch towards the city edge and the forest Wienerwald west of Vienna. The hills out there are welcoming to mountainbikers, star-gazers and relaxed evenings spent in the vineyards. A local highlight is the brewery Ottakringer Brauerei which is home to several event spaces and hosts everything from club nights to design markets.
Who? This is a place where many students and young creatives have moved to. There are places to party, to relax and to shop – just choose, these districts are for everyone.
Do not miss: The area’s highlight is the market Brunnenmarkt with its oriental influences. Many of the locals are Turkish, so prepare for some serious coffee drinking and Turkish delight. The outdoor market runs daily, but on Saturday and Sunday there is an additional farmer’s market where you can buy local produce. The central square Brunnenplatz is bursting with graffiti, playing children and excellent restaurants. The best breakfast is served at Café An-Do. One to visit for their traditional kebab is the Turkish restaurant Oase. For more traditional food, cool drinks and a relaxed atmosphere head to the bar Jetzt in Hernals. It is a local favourite.
6. Margareten – La Boheme
Where? Margareten is Vienna’s district nr. 5 and lies west of the city centre. Its local population is often referred to as ‘Bobos’ – a mix ox Bohemians and middle class people, but many students are drawn there as well.
Why? If you ever heard about Jugendstil this is where you should come. The beautiful buildings make every architect’s heart beat faster. But culture and food are not to be missed either. Margareten is home to Vienna’s oldest market, Naschmarkt where you can either buy fresh ingredients, browse the flea market on Saturdays or enjoy a sunny brunch in one of the restaurants. In between here and the city’s central train station lie innumerable bars, cafés and cinemas, like the beautiful Filmcasino.
Who? Come here if you love good food, well-sorted markets and eye-catching architecture.
Do not miss: The perfect combination of drinks and film is offered at Schikaneder, a bar and cinema in one. Their screenings are infamous for their interactive audience – feel free to bring your beer inside and shout at the screen!
Of course Vienna is much more than that – there are numerous highlights all over the city, for example the cinema Breitenseer Lichtspiele which is one of the oldest still active cinemas in the world; the Polaroid photography walking tours with PolaWalk; the cultural event location Brotfabrik, a former bread factory, which houses the gallery OstLicht for modern photography; the traditional wine taverns on the city edge (secret tip: the wine cellar of Buschenschank zum Dornbacher Pfarrer which only opens every couple of weeks); outdoor film screenings on top of the main library during summer and so much more. Also take a look at our guide to summer in Vienna. Vienna is a city bursting with life and culture – it will never get boring!