One Day in Vienna: A River Cruise Stop

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Oh. My. Goodness. Can you say Go-Go-Go? We might have started out with a leisurely breakfast but by 9:00 we were out the door! When you only have one day in Vienna, it’s important to make the most of every moment. After all, this is the #1 city on any Austria itinerary. There are so many things to do in Vienna that you’d need eons for it all.

Anyway, this morning’s itinerary included a choice of three tours showcasing the best things to see in Vienna. One tour would focus on its Art Nouveau scene, while the other two featured the historic city center.

The plaza in front of Hofburg Palace. Must be on your itinerary if you have one day in Vienna

While the difference between the two city tours was minimal, it’s an important one to mention. One group took a tour bus into town and the other used U-Bahn, the city’s subway system.

Dan and I think that taking public transportation is a fun way to pretend you’re a local, so we chose the U-Bahn tour. I think we made a good choice, because our group was smaller than a busload (only 19 people). Plus, we got extra exercise, which leaves more room for pastry calories. Pity our poor bus-tour friends, who later complained about all the traffic getting into the city. They lost valuable sightseeing time.

(We could’ve told them that.)

Using the Metro in Vienna

Places to stay in Vienna

Getting around Vienna underground

Anyway, off we went with our little group, down the escalator into the bowels of the city. No worries though, because navigating Vienna’s U-Bahn is easy.

  1. You just buy a ticket at a machine (there’s an English language option).
  2. Then you insert it into the date stamper when you want to use it.

It’s pretty difficult to get very lost:

  • Vienna has only 5 subway lines
  • each one is color coded
  • maps are everywhere in sight
  • overhead signs tell you where the next train is headed and when the next train will arrive.

See? Easy peasy.

Easiest way to get around Vienna: Subway
Vienna’s subway system is clean and safe.

A creative solution to an ongoing problem

Our tour guide grew up in Vienna and had an obvious love for the city. She was full of all sorts of interesting anecdotes, such as the story about how Vienna handled its incessant problem with pigeons “baptizing” their numerous statues with droppings.

The authorites tried a number of solutions, including birth control pills, removing nests, and even replacing their eggs with clay eggs. Finally, they shielded their many statues with fine mesh netting. It’s so fine that you can barely detect it, but it prevents bird access.

Nowadays, Vienna has far fewer birds than other cities do.

Vienna uses mesh netting to protect its statues from birds.
Look closely … you’ll see the mesh netting Vienna uses to keep birds off the statues.

What to see in Vienna

Vienna’s center is chock full of classic sights, and we saw so many that it would be hard to list them all. Even with only one day in Vienna, Dan took a whole lot of photos of a whole lot of places, and there are many names I can’t recall.

But I’ll be honest with you: a single day just isn’t enough time. You’d need at least 3 days in Vienna to even begin to cover the basic attractions. Especially with that incredible Viennese coffee culture.

Spanish Riding School, home of the famous Lipizzaner stallions

Heading towards the square in front of Hofburg Palace

Wiener Staatsoper

When we say wiener, we aren’t talking about a hot dog or a sausage. Wiener is a German word, and it means Viennese. (The Austrians call their city Wien. Vee-en. Just so you know.)

Well, it’s not the prettiest thing, but still. We love that the facade of the Vienna State Opera has a huge screen to broadcast performances so passersby can watch it. Standing room only, lol.

Arcade building in Vienna city center

Hotel Sacher

Sacher is one of the world’s great luxury hotels. That said, it’s probably better known as the place where the Sacher Torte pastry was created.

Hotel Sacher Vienna is one of the world's great luxury hotels and where Sacher Torte was created.

St. Stephen’s Cathedral

The Gothic St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the symbol of Vienna. It was begun in the 12th century. Make a point to enter because the interior is beautiful.

St. Stephen's Cathedral in Vienna


Judenplatz means Jewish Square. Vienna had one of the largest and most important Jewish communities in Europe back in the Middle Ages. Today, there is a museum and monument to honor their contributions to the city. The memorial has an inscription at its base: “In commemoration of more than 65,000 Austrian Jews who were killed by the Nazis between 1938 and 1945. May their names be obliterated.”

Judenplatz with the Holocaust Memorial and Museum

And the Hofburg Palace

Hofburg Palace was the home of the Habsburg dynasty and it’s absolutely beautiful. We didn’t go inside, but I wonder if perhaps it is even more ornate than Schonbrunn, their summer palace.

Vienna River Cruise tour

Experiencing Viennese café culture, firsthand … bucket list: check!

After our tour we stopped at a café, which was on our Must-Do List. The Viennese have a very strong coffee culture and their cafés are central to it. (You can read about the best traditional cafes here.)

Although we had missed yesterday’s briefing on Viennese coffee house etiquette, we knew that that Viennese cafes are intended to be a leisurely experience, one meant to be savored.

No one will rush you to finish your cup to make room for another customer. You can sit there for hours if you want … and many do.

Tip: Don’t make the mistake of overpaying. Some restaurants already include a small “service charge” on your bill … so check before you leave a gratuity. If it hasn’t been added, round up the total owed, and tip about 10%.

Our guide highly recommended a nearby place called Cafe Gerstner. One look at their pastry case and we saw why. We lingered at one of their outdoor tables until it was time to return to the ship.

Pedestrian street lined with cafe's and outdoor seating in the middle.

That display case had so many delectable pastries and sweets that it was hard to choose from among them. Dan chose to enjoy an éclair, while I finally settled on a chocolate-covered strawberry. I try to eat healthy.

The bad news: We have more drool-worthy photos of Viennese pastries in our Vienna photo gallery.

The good news: Photos don’t have calories.

Pastries at Café Gerstner in Vienna

Dan and I each ordered an iced coffee to accompany, Viennese style. Believe me, a Viennese iced coffee is nothing like the sweet, milky, brew-over-ice thing you might find at Starbucks. Rather, it is a luscious combination of ice cream and coffee. It also has the luxury price tag to accompany it – 7 euros!

We still remember the experience, so it was worth it.

Viennese iced coffee and eclair pastry on an outdoor cafe table in Vienna

Schönbrunn Palace

I can certainly understand why many passengers preferred to forgo the optional tour to Schonbrunn Palace in order to spend their time in town. Vienna is definitely one city that could take weeks to explore, and I’ll list a few more best things to see in Vienna after this section.

Still, Dan and I wanted to squeeze this site into our day. We always make an effort to visit UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

Schonbrunn Palace was once the spectacular summer residence of the Hapsburgs. Think Versailles with an Austrian flair. It’s huuuuge!

Panorama of the courtyard at Schonbrunn Palace

If you’re visiting Vienna on your own, it’s easy to take the U-Bahn there and buy a ticket at the Palace’s ticket office.

Tip: Ticket lines can be long at certain times. Consider buying skip-the-line tickets and booking a private tour before you go. FIND SOME OPTIONS HERE.

Schonbrunn Palace front gate with the front of the palace in the background

Touring the palace and learning about the history of the Habsburgs was fascinating. Seeing the inside was well worth the entrance fee, even though there is precious little furniture in the place.

No photos are allowed in the Palace’s massive interior – don’t ask me why – but the guards didn’t seem to care about all the people using their cameras. Dan shot a few so I could share them here. I wish they would change their policy; I think seeing a few photos make people want to visit all the more.

Think about it: Most people want to visit the Sistine Chapel because they’ve seen photos of God reaching out to Adam on the ceiling!

Reception room inside Schonbrunn Palace
Some of the many beautiful panels Inside Schonbrunn Palace, Austria

Schonbrunn Palace gardens

Here’s another useful tip: If your budget won’t allow you to visit Schonbrunn, you can visit the palace’s extensive gardens without a ticket.

Schonbrunn Palace gardens

Other top things to see in Vienna

When we returned to the ship, we chatted with those who hadn’t visited Schönbrunn. They had spent the afternoon visiting sites such as Hofburg Palace (aka Vienna’s Imperial Palace) and assorted museums. Some passengers were amusement park fans, so they made a beeline to the city’s ferris wheel.

Free time on a cruise is perfect for things like that.

Evening concert

Vienna is one of the world’s music capitals, so after dinner aboard, we went off for a classical concert at Palais Auersperg, a small performance hall in the city. A chamber group played well-known pieces by Viennese composers Strauss and Mozart, sometimes accompanied by vocalists and/or dancers. (This is an optional tour, at extra cost.)

We all enjoyed the break midway through the concert. They served flutes of champagne.

It was a memorable evening.

Vienna classical concert excursion on Viking cruise lines

We returned to the ship a little after 10. Since the ship wasn’t scheduled to sail until 12:30 am, some went off to spend a bit more time in Vienna.

We didn’t. After running all day we needed some down time, so we chatted with our new friends in the Lounge.

Next stop: Melk Abbey, the Danube jewel of Austria.

Tip: Security can be an issue when you’re using public or hotel WiFi. We recommend using a VPN for added security while traveling and using public WiFi. Check out this link to do some research.

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Collage of Viennese pastry and iced coffee on top, St. Stephens cathedral on bottom. Text overlay says what to do with one day in Vienna

Note: As is common in the travel industry, Dan and Linda were provided with a complimentary cruise package for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced coverage, AWSI believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest. For more information, see the Disclosure page.

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Written by Linda

Linda is multilingual and has been to around 60 countries. Her insatiable love of travel, cuisine, and foreign languages inspired her to create As We Saw It with her husband Dan, a professional photographer. Her goal is to make travel easier for others and to offer a brief escape to another land.

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2 thoughts on “One Day in Vienna: A River Cruise Stop”

  1. Hi Linda and Dan,
    We’ll be taking this tour from May 26 to June 9 from Budapest to Amsterdam, with two extra days at the end. Your info is supremely helpful. We’re booking all the free tours but doing some research on what others to book. I have two questions: 1) When Viking’s descriptions of the free tours say “view” and “admire,” does that just mean looking at the place rather than going inside? I’m thinking St. Stephen’s Cathedral as an example. 2) I learned what a UNESCO site is, but you said you try to visit as many of those as possible. What distinguishes them and is there anything we should know about them?

    • Hi Penni,

      Thanks for your comment, we’re so pleased you found our articles helpful! What are the odds, we’re updating our Amsterdam itinerary article right now, lol.

      You’re going to have a fantastic time on your cruise, we just know it. You’re lucky because they’ve changed the itinerary and now you’ll be in Vienna for two days. (We only had one; Bratislava was dropped.)

      To answer your questions: 1) No, tours can let you “view” and “admire” from the inside too. Our tour guide took us inside St. Stephen’s and pointed out some of the things we shouldn’t miss. Same in Cologne’s cathedral, if you’re wondering. And if you want more time to explore, you’ll have free time after the tour to spend as you like.

      2) We visit UNESCO sites because … well, you have to start somewhere when you’re planning a trip. It’s a safe bet that we will enjoy the location either for its cultural, historical or physical value. We like seeing something in person that we’ve only read about in books (like the Tower of London, which helped to bring King Henry VIII’s era alive). Knowing that the Balinese water management system is a world heritage, we added Bali’s Jatiluwih rice terraces to our itinerary. Sounds boring, but it was fascinating to see how they developed such an efficient low-tech irrigation system and manage to share water resources with neighboring communities. Plus, some of these places are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, like those rice terraces and Hallstatt (in Austria’s Salzkammergut region).

      So far, we’ve never been disappointed. Especially with the photos we come home with. 🙂

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