Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

Feel Like Royalty Without Spending a Penny: Free Attractions in Vienna, Austria

One reason I avoid traveling Europe is because of the price tags. I arrived in Vienna, Austria and stopped at a souvenir shop pretty early on as I tried to do my daughterly duty by picking out a magnet for my father’s collection. Seeing that it cost 5 euros confirmed all of my intentions to avoid Western Europe like the plague. However, luckily for me, I had two knowledgeable locals to give me a blitz tour of the city, and beyond the 7.60 euros I paid for a 24-hour transportation pass, I was pleased to find most of the attractions didn’t cost anything at all! Entrance to most of the city’s churches, markets, gardens, parks and galleries are free.
You don’t need to spend money like royalty to feel like it in Austria, just visit these free attractions in Vienna.  From nature to classic architecture to more modern buildings, there’s something for everyone especially if you time your visit to coincide with free concerts and events.

Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace, with view of Vienna

Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace, with view of Vienna

1) Schonbrunn Gardens and Palace (Free open-air concert in June!)
You will have to hop on the metro to get here but make sure you visit this sunshine yellow palace, Austria’s most visited site. Colossal, cheery and picturesque, I was surprised to learn these are only the summer residences of the Austrian royal family, including empress Sisi, whose beauty started wars. While you need to pay to tour the inside of the palace, you can easily spend a day exploring its vast gardens which are so big that people go jogging here! If you zig-zag up the hill, you will also find a beautiful view of the city. If you’re lucky enough to be in Vienna in June, the palace hosts a free concert by the world famous Vienna Philharmonic. Although I couldn’t experience it myself, I can’t imagine a more beautiful setting to listen to a symphony than surrounded by roses, pruned bushes and fishponds.

St. Stephen's Cathedral, trademark of Vienna, Austria

St. Stephen’s Cathedral, trademark of Vienna, Austria

2) St. Stephan’s Cathedral & Surrounding Downtown
St. Stephan’s is the symbol of Austria’s capital city and is located in the heart of the downtown. Its towers soar high over the city and it contains one of the biggest free-swinging church bells in Europe. I found the interior to be a little dark and dreary but I loved the building’s colorful roof tiles, which were laid to depict the royal coat of arms of the city. I also enjoyed the costumed interpreters in knee socks, wigs and velvet jackets who try to invite you to the Opera. Nearby, explore Vienna’s famous shopping streets that emanate out from the cathedral and Hofburg, the imperial palace. You can peek at some old ruins and walk under its impressive entrance… just don’t get run over by the horse-drawn stage coaches that regularly pass through!

Sachertorte at Demel bakery, Vienna, Austria

Sachertorte at Demel bakery, Vienna, Austria

While you’re here, stop at Demel, one of Vienna’s oldest bakeries, and splurge on a slice of sachertorte. Desserts are a highlight of Austrian cuisine and this chocolate cake with apricot jam is its crown jewel. You’ll feel like royalty especially when you enjoy it in this elegant setting.

Fountain on side of Vienna's Opera House

Fountain on side of Vienna’s Opera House

3) Opera
Vienna is a city with a rich musical heritage that works hard to maintain its reputation. Partly by housing one of the most famous and busiest opera houses in the world, with shows changing almost weekly. The building is massive and something to marvel at from the outside. However, with 3 or 4 euros and a little extra time, you can actually see an opera for yourself! If you show up 90 minutes before the show, you can buy standing room tickets, high in the balcony but the acoustics are good everywhere.

Parliament!  Isn't it grand?

Parliament! Isn’t it grand?

4) Parliament & Rathaus (City Hall)
Walk through City Hall park and find yourself in front of the mammoth, neo-Greek style Parliament building. I’ve seen many parliaments and I’m not sure why Austria’s needs over 100 rooms but it sure is impressive.

Circus in front of Rathaus, Vienna City Hall, Austria

Circus in front of Rathaus, Vienna City Hall, Austria

Speaking of grand buildings, just down the road is Rathaus, the most extravagant City Hall you ever will see. It has gothic towers that make it look like a cathedral and outside, you will find rotating exhibits. When I was there, there was a miniature circus (and even one of the nearby statues wore a red nose for the occasion) but I hear it has excellent places to get Gluhwein, mulled spiced wine, in the winter.  Because of these rotating attractions, it’s even fun to visit after dark (I never thought I’d say that about a City Hall)!  According to my host, the hall has also hosted free Playstation 4 video-game-a-thons but if you aren’t in town to catch something like that, you can go on a free City Hall tour  on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays at 1:00 PM.

Belvere Gardens, Vienna, Austria

Belvere Gardens, Vienna, Austria

5) Belvedere Gardens
This palace is walkable from city center and a worthwhile place to wander. It may look like you need to pay but the gardens can also be accessed for free, so just ask at the ticket booth. This exquisite palace has a green roof to highlight the grassy lawns, punctuated by entertaining fountains and lounging sexy female feline sphinxes.

Hundertwasser House, Vienna, Austria

Hundertwasser House, Vienna, Austria

6) Hundertwasser House
If the hoity toity European buildings start to get repetitive, definitely check out the crazy colorful, wiggly wobbly Hundertwasser House. Start at the coffeehouse “Kunst und Café” on the ground floor for a free film in which Friedensreich Hundertwasser personally leads you through “his” house (which is helpful since visitors can only view it from the exterior). This architect was primarily a painter and he truly created a vibrant explosion of color. The current residents are allowed to decorate the exterior façade around their living spaces to their liking and scrubs on balaconies and roof terraces make it even more lively. It’s a little out of the city center but while you’re here, walk around the Danube and see people hanging out riverside, drinking beer by graffitied walls.

Stadtpark, Vienna, Austria

Stadtpark, Vienna, Austria

7) Stadtpark

The gardens are one of my favorite parts about Vienna and they don’t skimp on their city garden.  Happy ducks fight over breadcrumbs, kids play tug-of-war and I sip a gourmet, creamy Vienna-style coffee (only in Austria do you have a fancy, bean grinding espresso machine portable coffee stand in the middle of a park!).  Before you leave, make sure to find the strange penguin statue then take the obligatory picture of playing an invisible violin near the slightly gaudy, gold Johann Strauss monument.

Laubau National Park, Austria: "Vienna's Jungle"

Lobau National Park, Austria: “Vienna’s Jungle”

8) Lobau National Park

If you have a few hours to extend your time in nature, a public metro and bus can take you to Lobau National Park, known as “Vienna’s jungle”.  While it wasn’t quite as wild as the nickname suggests and I didn’t spot any lions, the park has flat, non-strenous walking trails snaking around ponds and through fields of marshy grasses.  The ponds are a great place for a refreshing dip… even in mid-October, several dozen gutsy skinny dippers were sunning themselves by the water.

Song of the Moment: Rivers in Your Mouth– Ben Howard (Vienna may not have rivers in its mouth but it does have a pretty river)

If YOU want to go to Austria: Most of the downtown attractions are within walking distance in the center but most of my favorite attractions required a metro and/or bus ride.  The daily metro passes are a good idea if you plan to ride public transportation three or more times per day.  One nice thing about Vienna transportation is you don’t have to constantly swipe or punch tickets- you just need to keep it in your pocket in case someone checks.  A devoted sightseer with the right tour guide can probably take in all of these sights in a day (I did it in approximately 24 hours but it was action-packed and you might prefer to stop and smell the roses). Despite being in all the main touristy areas, I never found an information booth with maps and brochures for the city. Maybe they exist but they are rather hidden. Thus, it may be beneficial to download maps and information before you arrive in the city. It’s possible to find wifi in some cafes and some tourist places but it isn’t widespread.

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