Vienna is a cultural hub of Central Europe with profound music and art development, it has a wonderful list of museums, and the exciting part, they are all located in a compact, beautiful city filled with historic buildings and gardens. Some of my favorite things to do in Vienna, of course, is to have a sip of a classic Viennese coffee in a Viennese coffee house, or explore the Christmas market… and the museums!
However, it could be a bit overwhelming and time-consuming to visit all of these attractions in only a few days. Like what I have shared earlier about 10 Best Museums that You Need to Go with Copenhagen Card for Free, this is the same series about how to make full use of your travel pass and see as many places as you can. How? Well, one thing that’s for sure is that a travel pass allows you to skip the queue with priority access. Besides, the travel guide offers you an overview of all the major sights with maps and an introduction, helping you make the best decision; and finally, it saves a lot of money if you do the calculation right – my strategy here is to have a taste of all these museums and you could always go back and take a deep dive into the museum that you like the most. So here, I am giving a review of some of the most popular and the best museums, so you can decide and plan your itinerary. You may not agree with me, and you are welcome to leave a comment at the bottom to share with us your favorites, and which museum you recommend!
This article focuses on museums, but there are so many other things to see and do in Vienna! If you want to find out, visit: Vienna Must-sees: Food, Activities, Attractions & Landmarks.
- The pass covers free and fast-track access to 60 popular attractions and museums, including the Imperial Palace, Schönbrunn Zoo, and the Natural History Museum.
- The list has great diversity with music, walking, guided tours, castles and palaces visits, and art museums and galleries. So, it does cater to different types of travelers. For families, visit the zoos and science museums; for active travelers, take a walking tour; for nature lovers, venture to a palace or a garden in the suburbs.
- The pass could be in a form of a physical card or a digital card in your app. Once you purchase your card, it is installed in your smartphone app, and you can scan the QR code at the entrance. I reckon this is a better option simply because everyone has a phone these days, and users don’t have to keep an extra card or carry around spare change for admission tickets. More, the app lists out all the attractions with maps, opening hours, and an introduction.
- For transportation, the pass offers unlimited use of the Hop-On-Hop-Off Vienna sightseeing tour buses for the duration. To make the trip even more effective, there’s an option to add a travel card for Vienna’s public transportation network, which includes the tram, tube, and bus networks. My advice? Don’t just rely on Hop On Hop Off buses for your travel; Public transportation systems are more frequent with wider coverage to visit different parts of the city.
24 hours: Adult €79 Children €39.5
48 hours: Adult €109 Children €54.5
72 hours: Adult €139 Children €69.5
120 hours: Adult €169 Children €84.5
Getting a Vienna Pass here.
Is the Vienna Pass worth it?
The prices of the pass are a bit higher than some of the others that I have used. In general, you would probably save money if you are planning on visiting a number of museums and places within a few days while you are in Vienna. I think it’s worth buying the card with just the benefit of fast-track entries, given that Vienna is a popular travel destination and hot museums could get really crowded – don’t be surprised to see a long queue outside the Albertina or Sisi Museum! For Schönbrunn Palace, you will have to get a time ticket and come back even though you have a pass, just because the palace is so popular.
Typically, I recommend staying in Vienna for at least 4 to 5 days for your first visit, and you would still leave wanting more; therefore, the most popular option is the 72-hour card, and I purchase a 120-hour pass because the “cost per day” is significantly reduced from €79 to merely €33.8. You will be saving a lot of money just visiting a few main sites per day (again, if you are planning on visiting a number of places).
What should I cover? While I am giving a review of the museums that are included in the past, there are so many city classics that should not be ignored or skipped! The Schönbrunn Palace, obviously, is a number one choice, being the former summer residence of the Habsburgs impressed with imperial ceremonial rooms and magnificent gardens. It is one of the few Baroque palaces that are worthy to be compared with Versailles!
Other than the palace, I love Saint Stephen’s Cathedral. It is the symbol of Vienna, located in the city center with four towers, the tallest tower stands at 136.33 meters, and it has the second-biggest free-swinging chimed church bell in Europe. What strikes me the most, though, is the beautiful and colorful roof tile, which was laid to create the Royal and Imperial double-headed eagle and the coat of arms of the city of Vienna.
Lastly, hop on the Giant Ferris Wheel! The wheel is 65 meters tall, and it was erected in 1897 to mark the 50th year of Emperor Franz Joseph’s accession to the throne, making it one of the oldest Ferris Wheel that is still functioning in the world. Unlike the other modern wheels that I featured in The Ferris Wheels in the World, this one has traditional cabins with a view of Vienna’s old city from afar. The wheel could be seen in a number of Hollywood blockbusters: “The Third Man” and “The Living Daylights”.
Another wonderful place that should be on your itinerary (even if that’s not included in the Vienna Pass) is the Vienna State Opera! I always wanted to see it with my own eyes ever since I saw the building featured in “MI5” when Benji won a free ticket to a performance of “Turandot”. In real life, though, it is a prestigious opera venue, not only in Europe but in the world! It hosts first-class productions of the very highest caliber and a different program every day.
Getting around Vienna is quite easy but Vienna Pass only covers a couple of sightseeing tours, including the City Cruise Vienna that runs along the Danube Canal, which was the main branch of the Danube in the Middle Ages; A round trip on the Danube Park Miniature Railway through the expansive parkland; The Hop On Hop Off Bus Tour that covers different places in the city center; The Ring Tram runs along the 5.3-kilometer-long Ringstrasse.
Having said that, these are mainly for sightseeing and these are not the best way to get around the city effectively. Luckily, Vienna has a well-established subway and tram system that basically cover all the highlights in the city. For locations within the Ring Road and Hundertwasser Village, take a tram; Line U4 takes you to Schönbrunn Palace, and Line U1 passes through River Danube to the other side where you will get to see Donauturm, Vienna International Centre, and Wiener Riesenrad in Prater Vienna.
If you are active, and the weather is nice, consider taking a bike – it is generally quite safe and easy to navigate and travel around the city on a bike. It would be a great experience during spring or summer. Lastly, I have a suggestion, start your walking at the Stephansdom, walk through the Graben, visit Hofburg, the Kunsthistorisches and Naturhistorisches Museum, the MuseumsQuartier (MQ), then the Secession, explore the Naschmarkt, head to the Karlskirche, and then cross the road to Musikverein, and end the walking tour at the State Opera and enjoy a cup of coffee at the Café Sacher Wien or Café Sacher Wien.
Römermuseum (Roman Museum) is located in an area of inner Vienna, where, nearly 2,000 years ago, the legionary fortress of Vindobona once stood. On the lower ground floor of the museum, you can see the remains of two officers’ houses, Vienna’s best-preserved excavation. On the ground floor and first floor, the legionary fortress, the large urban settlement outside the fortress, and the civilian town are presented. What did Roman Vienna look like? How did people live then? I appreciate this museum because it is built in a historic location and so it presents something from ancient times.
The Romans were in Vienna’s area for about 350 years. In 97 A.D., one of the 30 legionary fortresses of the Imperium Romanum developed here. Vindobona served as a means to secure the northern frontier. Beyond the Danube lay the Germanic region.
Vindobona experienced an economic and cultural period of prosperity from the late 2nd to the middle of the 3rd century A.D. The exhibition concentrates on this era when more than 30,000 people lived here. Around the legionary fortress, there were civil settlements with a colorful mix of people: Romans, Romanised Celts, and migrants from all corners of the empire. Since the late 19th century, remains of Vienna’s Roman past have been unearthed during construction works. Nearly all shown exhibits come from the collection of the Vienna Museum.
Vienna Museum Karlsplatz
Talking about the Vienna Museum is a group of museums with a focus on the history of Vienna. The main buildings are located in Karlsplatz and the Hermesvilla, the group also includes a number of museums and archaeological excavations, like the Römermuseum that I mentioned previously. In addition, the museum includes a list of musician’s residences, all of which are, seriously, world-renowned, from Mozart’s residence, Beethoven’s residence, Haydn House, Schubert’s death place, Johann Strauss’s residence, to the birthplace of Franz Schubert.
Here, the Wien Museum Karlsplatz was originally the Historical Museum of the City of Vienna. The site was then renovated to honor Austrian president and former mayor Theodor Körner, on the occasion of his 80th birthday. The projects received an overwhelming amount of bids, and the contemporary modern design of Oswald Haerdtl was realized eventually. It reopened in 1959 with regular themed exhibitions. The Jugendstil exhibition (an artistic movement in the decorative arts), welcomed 600,000 visitors, making it one of the most successful exhibitions ever held in Vienna. Other exhibitions include the Joseph Olbrich exhibition, the exhibition of Vienna Coffeehouse, and exhibitions that feature many musicians and artists.
It has a reputation for hosting many prestigious themed exhibitions, so just stop by the museum with your Vienna Pass; or if you are interested to know what’s showing before going check out their website for more information.
Museum of Natural History Vienna
There are two very similar buildings right outside the Museumsquartier, both of them are museums – and one of them is the Museum of Natural History (NHM). With a historic building as a backdrop, the museum is an esteemed location with an impressive collection of over 30 million species and artifacts. It’s a huge museum with a coverage of 8,460 sq. meters and 39 themed rooms starting from the prehistoric era, the dinosaur room, to the history of human evolution.
To be honest, the focus of the museum is a little bit “typical” as compared with many other museums of natural history all over the world – however, it is a great location for family visitors, as I am sure children will learn so much for a day at the museum. I appreciate that the museum also showcases valuable historic items, in particular, it has the largest meteorite collection in the world! Check out Hall 5 which shows aesthetic and scientifically valuable minerals, ores, gemstones, rocks, meteorites, and impactites collected over more than 500 years. They are presented in an organized manner and the collection is growing by the year.
Museum of Ethnology
There are so many museums in Vienna’s old town center along the Ringstrasse that they are literally one next to the other. Weltmuseum Wien (Museum of Ethnology), is an ethnographic museum and houses some of the most important collections of non-European cultures. It is part of Hofburg Imperial Palace and it’s a world-leading venue for a diverse cultural showcase. It’s Austria’s largest anthropological museum and the collection does not disappoint visitors with different tastes and interests.
The museum has a collection of over 400,000 ethnographical and archaeological items that came from all over the world. After its renovation and reopening in 2017, these exhibits are presented in a systematic way that you could either visit a very target section (if your time is limited) or embark on a journey that takes you across the continents. The departments are separated by regions like Sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia, Himalayans, to the Americas.
One of the most interesting exhibits to me (and I spent most of my time there) is their musical instrument collection for being the City of Music: While some of you may not remember that the colors of the piano keys are reversed in the 18th century – the seven “natural notes” of each octave are in black. The real reason for the switch of color was not clearly defined, but most believed that the pianos gained popularity in the following years and white keys are simply preferred. Other than the pianos, I saw so many other types of instruments (from the harp, strings, and pipes, to a metronome) that have such great historic value, because many of them were owned or used by iconic composers, musicians, of performers, who have shared their talent and passion on a world stage of music. They are organized in different eras and musicians and themed with a brief introduction of history and photos. It was fascinating to see what people in the past used to play.
Moving slightly away from the Ringstrasse, Belvedere 21 is a bit farther but not that far away. The museum is located next to Belvedere Palace in the Schweizer Garden, on the opposite side of Vienna’s Central Train Station, which can be reached by both tram and subway easily.
Named House 21, the museum was established in the 1960s and reopened in 2011. The remodeling had it become a modernist-style building, designed by Austrian architect Karl Schwanzer. In fact, the building was originally the design of the Austrian Pavilion for the 1958 World Expo in Brussels., and it was adopted 4 years later for this museum, and the architect won the Grand Prix d’Architecture for this forward-looking design in 1958. Shaped like a box with some striking red lines and patterns on the glasses, it is a striking sight with a spacious exhibition space for an innovative art showcase. Having said that, this is a place to showcase art in various forms, with a focus on the 20th and 21st centuries.
The museum hosts temporary exhibitions regularly, still, it has a permanent collection that could be seen in the basement, ranging from drawings, prints, oil paintings, and sculptures.
If it’s completely a personal pick I would usually put a contemporary art museum in a higher rank, simply because it’s my interest. Besides, there are some more unique and “interesting” places (yes, there still are!) in the city that I ultimately put higher in the ranks. But don’t get me wrong, I still enjoyed Albertina very much and it is an important gallery of modern art.
Albertina has established in the year 1805 so it has a long history of showcasing art. It houses one of the largest and most important print rooms in the world with 65,000 drawings, 1 million old master prints, and many more. Today, the museum has a number of exhibition rooms that host art exhibitions on many topics, periods, and themes, most notably its significant collections of Impressionist and early 20th-century art. Its permanent collection includes big names from Leonardo da Vinci, Albrecht Dürer, Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Claude Monet to Picasso. Dürer’s Young Hare is one of the most important works in its collection.
However, don’t limit yourself to the permanent showcase because temporary art exhibitions are sometimes even more popular. From the poster’s wall, I learned that the museum featured artists like Vincent van Gogh, Matisse, Der Blaue Reiter, Oskar Kokoschka, Paul Klee, Peter Paul Rubens, Chagall – the list goes on, basically all the big names that you could think of since Renaissance. While I was there, I saw a contemporary art round-up with works from Walter Schmögner, Kenton Nelson, Gottfried Helnwein, Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Franz Gertsch, Yoshitomo Nara, Anselm Kiefer, and more; I have also enjoyed the great impressionist collection of Claude Monet, Cezanne, Degas, Sisley, and many other artists which I have learned about the light strokes and pastel colors; Moving on, Expressionist artists like Edvard Munch, Matisse, and Franz Sedlacek; and eventually, Surrealists like Joan Miró.
I guess I would love for Albertina to have an iconic piece of work that’s a definite “must-see”, like the Mona Lisa in Le Louvre, or the Sunflower in London’s National Gallery – and it would have been ranked higher in my very own selection. 🙂 For these notable works and art galleries, check out my pick of the top 10 European classical art museums in the world!
Here, it’s an area of 90,000 square meters of space in the 7th district and a cluster of Baroque buildings and modern architecture designed by Laurids and Manfred Ortner that opens in 2001. In short term, MQ, is a 150 Million Euro project aimed to introduce modern large-scale installation art in two spaces: the Leopold Museum and the MUMOK (Museum of Modern Art Ludwig Foundation Vienna). In addition, it has contemporary exhibition spaces, namely the Kunsthalle Wien, for various types of events; The Architekturzentrum is a high-tech center for dance and performing art. This innovative location has given local up-and-coming artists and art groups a new platform to show, interact and explore art in diverse forms and media. In other words, art is not limited to paintings or sculptures.
Some of the venues and buildings are mainly for education, private events, or functions; and with the Vienna Pass, you have access to the three locations in MQ:
I may be biased because I just love the name Leopold. The museum is dedicated to Austrian modern art with the largest collection of modern Austrian art, including works created by Secession founder Gustav Klimt, Josef Hoffman, Koloman Moser, Oskar Kokoschka, and Richard Gertl. The museum also houses the largest collection of Egon Schiele in the world, collected by Elisabeth and Rudolf Leopold, an Austrian art collector. The museum features a large loft-like exhibition space in the basement with large size installation art; and bright galleries that are comfortable to walk in. I always appreciate the intimate setting and the museum’s scale is just right for me to focus on the highlights without being completely overwhelmed. On a separate note, visit Cafe Leopold which serves cuisines around the world from sushi rolls, pasta, to curry.
Here, the museum explores a diverse range of works from classical modernity, Cubism, Futurism, and Surrealism up to the art movements of the 1960s and 70s, Pop Art, Fluxus, and Nouveau Realisme. It has a focus on presenting large-scale exhibitions, Pop arts, and avant-gardes.
The striking building was designed by Austrian architects Ortner & Ortner – Starting with only 90 artworks in 1962, it has now a collection of over 10,000 – including big names, but not limited to, Andy Warhol, Pablo Picasso, Joseph Beuys, Nam June Paik, Wolf Vostell, Gerhard Richter, Jasper Johns, and Roy Lichtenstein.
For highlights? The museum is known for its large collection of art related to Viennese Actionism. Four key artists responded to cultural and societal changes in the same way but they never officially formed a group.
Vienna Pass offers free access to this exhibition space, which again, is dedicated to contemporary art and discourse. The venue displays experimental works which challenge societal issues through personal reflection. I think this is a place for something different and something new; It was exciting to visit here just wondering what’s next in the modern art scene.
Standing on the opposite side of NHM, the Kunsthistorisches Museum (which I never spell it right, so it’s the KHM), was built by Emperor Franz Joseph to house the Imperial collections. Oh yes, the Imperial collection of arts! So without a doubt that I put it very high on the list because their collection is truly impressive. Not only that, the museum is constantly shaping its position in supporting and showing art that it’s not just about its permanent collection, but also featured contemporary art projects and invited showcases.
It is an important museum to the world, thanks to the Habsburg emperors’ and archdukes’ passion and efforts for collecting art – which spans more than five millennia, from ancient Egypt to Greece. Apart from the works of big names that I have already mentioned (Dürer, Raphael, Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian, Velázquez, and Vermeer), the museum has the world’s largest collection of Pieter Bruegel the Elder’s works.
The painter was born around 1526 in a village in Brabant, spent his life in Holland and Italy, and returned to Antwerp for creating drawings and prints, earning acclaim with a series of large landscapes. Somehow I have seen The (Little) Tower of Babel in Osaka a few years back (but that was a collaboration with Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen in Rotterdam), and so it was cool to see the other one The (Great) Tower of Babel, here in Vienna.
The Picture Gallery offers a comprehensive collection of Venetian paintings in the world, with pictures from all of Titian’s creative periods and notable works of artists like Bellini, Giorgione, Tintoretto, Veronese, and Canaletto. Don’t miss out on the painting at the ceiling of the hall, as well as the giant sculpture, Theseus Defeats the Centaur, on the staircase; lastly, the main atrium and dining area at the museum is a beautiful area that should be listed as one of the “must-see” spots in the building.
Hofburg Imperial Palace
Hofburg Imperial Palace, among all the museums and historic places, is a classic and must-see in Vienna. It retains a wealth of rich culture and history of the Habsburg emperors. They built an imperial forum into one of the most lavish locations and now it stands as the official seat of the Austrian President. Back in the 13th century, it was a fortified castle and later turned into the residence of the imperial family for centuries. With 18 wings and over 2,600 rooms, it was a “city within a city”, and you can imagine it may take some time to walk through the entire ground.
To me, it’s an “Austria 101” location for first-timers in Vienna to learn and appreciate the history and culture of the country; but note that the Sisi apartment is a popular attraction, with long queues and family crowds at the museums. The palace itself is a masterpiece, and the massive complex has a wide range of museums such as the Imperial Treasury Vienna, art galleries, and prestigious collections. Vienna Pass offers access to the palace, the Imperial Apartments, Sisi Museum, and Imperial Silver Collection – the Collection features 7,000 items and it is the museum’s highlight. From the Court Kitchen, Old Silver, tableware, porcelain, china, and candle holders. napkin foldings to extravagant Table centerpieces – the Silver Collection is a stand-alone showcase that gives the audience a glimpse of the lifestyle of the once-powerful empire in Central Europe.
The Imperial Apartments, on the other hand, are furnished and decorated to the highest standards of historical authenticity. The Sisi Museum is dedicated to Empress Elisabeth. However, the corridors and rooms are a little bit narrow for the crowd.
Museum Hundertwasser (Kunst Haus Wien)
Here it is, my favorite pick of the list – the Museum Hundertwasser, one of the most iconic contemporary art galleries both for what’s within and for its architecture. It was dedicated to artist and architect, Friedensreich Hundertwasser, who was famous for his whimsical and wicked paintings, graphics, art, and architectural designs. He was deeply inspired by Antoni Gaudí, and like his muse, whose work could be found and seen all over Barcelona, Hundertwasser’s design could be seen all over the country in Austria. The village and museum in Vienna, though, are definitely a great place to start. The village is free to the public, and the Vienna Pass offers free access to the museum. The museum was established in 1991 with information about the artist’s design principles and philosophies, which is not difficult to identify: the strong colors, bold shapes, and curvy lines are Hundertwasser’s signature. One thing that makes him different from Gaudí, is that the mosaic on the facade of the house is carefully arranged in a symmetrical pattern, and stones of the same size. Yet the pattern was kept wavy and uneven; Once you enter the house you would see that there were no straight lines or flat surfaces. Ever the floor and the staircases were shaped organically like waves and nowhere else in the world. The upper floors also host art exhibitions by other artists regularly but don’t forget to check out the garden in the backyard for more cool fixtures and dramatic designs.