Planning a family trip to Vienna, Austria? Read on to learn more about the city and the best things to do when you visit Vienna with kids. For my full list of family travel guides, click/tap here.
Vienna and I go way back. I studied abroad in this incredible city as a nervous but starry-eyed nineteen-year-old. It was the first time I traveled outside North America, and I quickly fell in love with the city’s beauty, culture, and history. Years later, I returned with my family and showed them all my favorite places.
Vienna stopped being an imperial city almost a hundred years ago, but much of its elegance and grandeur remains. The Viennese may be the original culture vultures–they love music, museums, and cafés. I’m pretty sure you’ll love those things in Vienna, too.
Ringstrasse (Ring Road)
In the 19th century, the medieval walls surrounding Vienna’s historic Inner City were knocked down to create a grand boulevard that’s now called the Ringstrasse. It’s lined with public buildings that were built to impress, including the neo-classical Parliament Building and the neo-Gothic Town Hall. To acclimate yourself to the city and see many of its most famous sites, take a tram ride around the Ringstrasse. You can go with the dedicated Vienna Ring Tram or DIY it on the city’s public trams (my preference). For the latter option, take the #2 tram counterclockwise from the Opera House and then switch to the #1 tram at Schwedenplatz.
Hofburg was the Habsburg dynasty’s imperial palace for over 600 years (until the Austro-Hungarian Empire collapsed in 1918). Now it’s a vast complex that includes the Austrian President’s residence, government offices, museums, chapels, and more. It’s conveniently located along the southern part of the Ringstrasse. Here’s what you can visit there (depending on your interest and your ability to manage it with kids):
Imperial Apartments — Visitors can tour the apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph (1830-1916) and his wife, Elisabeth (known as “Sisi”–think the Princess Diana of Austria). There’s also a Sisi Museum as well as the court’s silver collection.
Imperial Treasury–Stop here to gape at 21 rooms of dazzling royal objects, from imperial crowns and priceless jewels to Charlemagne’s saber and a giant narwhal tooth (once thought to be a unicorn’s horn!).
New Palace Museums and the National Library — If you really love museums, the Hofburg’s New Palace (built between 1881-1913) houses the Imperial Armoury, the Collection of Ancient Musical Instruments, and the Ephesos Museum (classical statuary). Hofburg is also home to the Austrian National Library, and visitors can see its amazing State Hall as well as its fabulous globe collection.
Spanish Riding School — Vienna’s world-famous Lipizzaner horses perform classical dressage to music, which makes them appear to be dancing. You can watch a live performance in the school’s 18th-century riding hall, view a (much cheaper) morning practice session, or take a guided tour of the facility. I took my son to a morning practice, and while I’m sure the performances are more impressive, it was still exciting to see the horses in action. Keep in mind that children under 3 are not admitted.
Hofburg Music Chapel — On most Sunday mornings at 9:15, you can hear the Vienna Boys’ Choir sing Mass in this historic chapel (though you won’t actually be able to see them). If you don’t want to buy tickets or wonder if your kids will stay quiet, you can also stop in the chapel’s lobby and watch the mass on a television screen.
Augustinian Church — Once the parish church of the imperial court, this 14th-century church has a popular 11:00 Sunday High Mass that’s performed with a choir and orchestra. You’ll also find urns that hold the hearts of Habsburg emperors (really).
Stephansdom (St. Stephen’s Cathedral)
Vienna’s iconic cathedral is a 14-century Gothic masterpiece, complete with gargoyles, a colorfully tiled roof, and a south tower that rises high above the city. It was heavily damaged by bombs during World War II but it’s been restored to its former glory. Don’t leave Vienna without stopping to look around inside and climb the south tower (343 steps!) for panoramic views of the city. You can also take a guided tour, visit the catacombs, view the treasury (where art and relics are displayed), and attend a mass or concert.
The Inner City
Inside the Ringstrasse is Vienna’s beautiful and historic Inner City. The best way to appreciate it is by simply wandering through it. I love exploring the old and highly atmospheric streets east and northeast of the cathedral–including Domgasse, where Mozart lived.
The city’s fanciest street is Kohlmarkt, which leads directly to the Hofburg’s Michaelerplatz entrance. Many of the stores (including Demel’s, a famous patisserie) bear a sign proclaiming they were once patronized by the imperial family. Some other visit-worthy streets include Kärntnerstrasse, a pedestrianized shopping street known for its street performers, and the upscale Graben, where a monument from 1679 commemorates the end of the city’s Great Plague.
Finally, Vienna’s Inner City’s is packed with churches, including the Baroque Peterskirche, known for its organ concerts; St. Michael’s, known for its crypt; and Kaisergruft, where the Habsburg emperors’ bodies are buried.
Built to rival Versailles, this 18th-century summer palace (painted Empress Maria Theresa’s favorite shade of yellow) has 1,441 rooms and vast grounds–it’s also far more kid friendly than the Hofburg. It’s an easy, 10-minute subway ride from the city center. Here are the highlights:
The Palace — Visitors can tour up to 40 of the palace’s historic rooms (or 22 rooms if you don’t want to pay extra to see Maria Theresa’s living quarters).
Beyond the palace tour, families won’t want to miss the fun Children’s Museum, where kids can learn about imperial family life (this includes dressing up in cool costumes and wigs as well as playing with toys). At the Coach Museum Wagenburg, you can view 50 royal carriages and sleighs, including the ornate carriage used for the coronation of Holy Roman Emperors.
Palace Grounds — The palace grounds include formal gardens, fountains, Roman ruins, and–most importantly for families–a playground and an awesome 18th-century hedge maze. You can also walk to the Gloriette building at the top of a hill for an excellent view of the palace and beyond. Finally, consider attending a kid-friendly opera performance at Schönbrunn’s Marionette Theater.
[Note: Schönbrunn can be very crowded at peak tourist times–it’s best to buy your tickets online to avoid long lines.]
Vienna has a dizzying array of museums–so many that you won’t need to feel guilty for not visiting them all (especially with kids in tow). Phew!
Kunsthistoriches Museum (Art History Museum)
Vienna’s main art museum, housed in a grand, neo-Renaissance building on the Ringstrasse, focuses on European masters from around 1450-1650. You’ll find many works from artists such as Raphael, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, Velazquez, and Bruegel. The museum is also known for its Kunstkammer, which displays valuable objects collected by various Habsburgs.
Naturhistorisches Museum (Natural History Museum)
The Natural History Museum, which faces the Art Museum across a square (the buildings are nearly identical), is a wonderful place to explore with kids–it contains around 30 million objects, from dinosaur bones and many (many) taxidermied animals to precious stones, fossils, and meteorites. The museum also displays artifacts from prehistory, including the Venus of Willendorf figurine, one of the world’s oldest works of art.
Haus der Musik — This playful and highly interactive museum allows visitors to explore music and sound, from learning about famous composers to virtually conducting the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra and composing a waltz by throwing dice.
Museumsquartier — The Museumsquartier is actually a complex of museums housed in the Hofburg’s former stables and carriage houses. The most famous museum is the Museum of Modern Art (MUMOK), but families may be most interested in the ZOOM Children’s Museum. My son and I enjoyed visiting this hands-on museum, but I probably wouldn’t go again unless I needed to kill time indoors during the day.
I’m not kidding. There are a ton of museums in Vienna. You might also enjoy the Museum for Applied Arts (MAK), the Museum of Military History, and the Museum of Technology, which offers a lot of great exhibits and activities for kids.
Tiergarten Schönbrunn (Vienna Zoo)
Vienna’s zoo, the oldest in the world, is actually located on the grounds of Schönbrunn Palace (so if you have enough energy, it makes sense to combine your visit with a trip to the palace). Once an imperial menagerie, it’s now the most beautiful zoo I’ve ever seen. And it’s got some great animals–my son and I were thrilled to see pandas, hippos, a koala, a panther, a cheetah, and more.
Once imperial hunting grounds, the Prater is now a popular park and recreation destination. Located north of the Inner City, it has a small amusement park called the Wurstelprater that’s best known for its 19th-century Ferris wheel, or “Riesenrad.” It was featured in the classic movie The Third Man. Families may also enjoy the Hauptallee, a three-mile-long boulevard that’s great for walks and bike rides (rentals are available).
Haus des Meeres (Aqua Terra Zoo)
Vienna’s aquarium is uniquely housed in a World War II flak tower just south of the Inner City. It contains over 10,000 animals, mostly water creatures (including sharks and piranhas) but also some reptiles, amphibians, birds, and monkeys.
Families can relax in the Inner City’s two major parks, the Burggarten and the Volksgarten. The Volksgarten is more formal (it’s mostly a rose garden), but the Burggarten is relatively casual. You can picnic on the grass (or at least sit down and rest) before visiting the park’s Mozart statue and the nearby Butterfly House. When I was a student in Vienna, we used to play ultimate frisbee at the Heldenplatz, an open, grassy area between the Burggarten and the Hofburg’s New Palace.
For more relaxation, head to the east side of the Ringstrasse to visit the Stadtpark, or City Park. Besides lots of memorials to artists, writers, and musicians (including a golden statue of Strauss with his violin), you’ll find gardens, open spaces, walking paths, ponds, and playgrounds.
To learn about playgrounds scattered throughout the city, visit here.
Don’t leave Vienna without trying Wiener schnitzel, a tasty breaded veal. I ate my Wiener schnitzel at Schnitzelwirt, but you’ll find it at restaurants throughout the city, including Griechenbeisl, the oldest restaurant in Vienna. Other Viennese specialties include Tafelspitz (boiled beef or veal served with apples and horseradish) and Gulasch (a paprika-laced beef stew that originated in Hungary). If you like sausage, you’ll also want to eat some Austrian sausages, called Würstel, from one of the many Würstelstands.
For dessert, try Kaiserschmarrn (shredded pancakes fried in butter and powdered sugar–my family LOVES it) or Palatschinken (Austrian crepes). The city also has a love for pastries, from the famous Sachertorte (which many people–including me–find too dry) to apple strudel and gugelhupf (a marble cake made in a Bundt pan).
Many of Vienna’s major attractions have popular and convenient restaurants or cafés. Consider eating at the palace’s Café Hofburg, the Prater’s Schweizerhaus, Schönbrunn’s Café Residenz, or the Cafe Restaurant Palmenhaus near the Burggarten.
If you still have a sweet tooth after all those desserts I mentioned, stop in at Zanoni’s, a wonderful gelateria, or the Manner Shop, where you can buy the popular Manner wafers from its hometown store. Both are located near the cathedral (personally, I stopped at both the last time I was in Vienna).
Cafés are an important part of Viennese culture, and you’ll find them throughout the city. The Vienna Blog has a great post about the city center’s best coffeehouses (and the famous people who frequented them), found here.
Attending concerts can be difficult with children, but if it’s possible, then it’s definitely worth your while to see Vienna’s music scene in action. You can watch the Vienna Philharmonic play at the Musikverein or simply attend one of the concerts hawked by the classically-costumed men who hang out near the cathedral (when I was a student in Vienna, we called them the “Mozarts”). For more information about Vienna’s concerts as well as other events (including theater performances), visit www.events.wien.info.
Vienna’s so full of history that joining a city tour is a particularly great idea. Besides taking a walking, bus, or bike tour, you can also tour the city by horse-drawn carriages called Fiakers (definitely the most expensive option).
The Vienna State Opera is located at the south end of the Ringstrasse. Depending on your interest in opera, you can stop by to take a look at the neo-Renaissance building, take a 45-minute tour that includes the Opera Museum, or attend an opera performance (tip: if you buy the cheap standing room tickets, it’s easy to leave early if needed/desired). The Vienna State Opera also offers hour-long operas for children.
Shoppers will enjoy visiting the Naschmarkt, or food market, and Flohmarkt, or flea market, located south of the city center.
If you haven’t had your fill of palaces, you can also visit Belvedere Palace, the former home of Prince Eugene of Savoy. The palace’s biggest draw is its art museum, which has paintings from artists such as Renoir, Van Gogh, and Monet, as well as the world’s largest collection of paintings by renowned Austrian artist Gustav Klimt–including the Kiss (Lovers) and Judith.
And if you haven’t had your fill of churches, head just a little ways south of the Ringstrasse to the lovely, baroque Karlskirche (St. Charles’ Church). After taking an elevator up to the church’s cupola, you can relax in the Karlsplatz (St. Charles’ Square), which has a playground and a famous art deco (or Jugendstil) subway entrance.
Vienna is busiest in the summer, so the ideal time to visit is the spring or fall. I also love Vienna at Christmastime, when picturesque Christmas markets are set up throughout the city.
All children (under 18) are free in state-run museums. Many museums are closed on Monday, so be sure to check opening days and times.
Public transportation is free for kids up to age 6. If you have a stroller, be aware that the older streetcars require you to climb a few stairs to enter.
Most of the city’s grocery stores are closed on Sundays and they close around 8:00 pm on weekdays. If you need to shop, plan ahead!