This post is exactly what the title would lead you to believe. I’m currently in my favorite European city, hanging out in my hostel’s rooftop bar, thinking about Vienna. This is my seventh time here, and I come up with new things to do every single time. Even though it is, by any standard, quite an expensive city, there are so many amazing things you can do for really cheap/free. So if you’re an au pair, studying abroad, backpacking (or just appreciate a good deal) this post is for you.
1. Get a glass of wine (or two) at a Heuriger. Vienna is one of the only cities in the world in which families can make and sell their own wine within city limits. Heurigen are charming places to drink as-local-as-possible wine, usually in lovely courtyards or gardens, and often with a buffet of traditional foods. There are several areas of the city full of Heurigen, usually a little out of the center (Grinzing is a good example!).
2. Can’t afford a ride on the iconic Riesenrad (ferris wheel) at the Prater? For five euro, you can ride the Prater Turm, the world’s highest swing carousel. You go higher, get a better view of the city, and a nice breeze on a hot day. Win, win, win.
3. Get a Wiener melange at Cafe Central, where Vienna’s intelligentsia hung out at the turn of the century. Leon Trotsky played chess here regularly, and you can sit and linger over your coffee for as long as you want, admiring the beautiful cakes, decor, and the tuxedoed waiters.
4. You can go inside Vienna’s landmark cathedral, the Stephansdom for free! But for only a couple of euro, you can climb up the 430 steps of the spire for a lovely view of the inner city.
5. For the cost of a tram ticket (currently €2.10, I think!), you can ride the tram around Franz Joseph’s Ringstraße, the wide circular road that passes many of Vienna’s main sights–Parlament, the Rathaus, the National Theater, the Opera, and of course, the Hofburg (Imperial palace complex). Start at Schwedenplatz and take the number 1 or 2 tram in either direction.
6. Speaking of the opera, you can get a standing place for one of the best performances you will ever see for only €3 (balcony) or €4 (floor level). Just line up at the back entrance a couple of hours early. You will be taken inside to claim your spot (they have a basket of scarves and neckties you can tie to the rail where you want to stand) and then come back when the show starts! It’s amazing. They even have subtitle screens in the standing area so you don’t miss anything.
7. If you’re into Austrian history, you have to go to the Imperial Crypt (Kaisergruft) in the Capuchin Church. It only costs €5, and you see the tombs of all the Habsburgs, from medieval times to 2011. I would download a guide online before going, so you can get a sense of who everyone is. I found it especially fascinating to see who still gets flowers on a regular basis.
8. Picnic on Donauinsel, the long skinny island between the Danube and the Danube canal. There’s a Billa grocery store in the Praterstern station, so you can put together a cheap meal and take it just one more stop to the island. Donauinsel is a green oasis, full of people bicycling, roller blading, and even swimming on hot summer days.
9. Go to the Naschmarkt on a Saturday morning. This food market might be my favorite place in Vienna. You can eat virtually any cuisine you can imagine (but you should get a pierogi from the Russian stand). There are also candied fruits, nuts, stuffed dates…all the good things. Plus, the neighborhood is beautiful, surrounded by Otto Wagner architecture, and steps from the gorgeous Secession Haus. It’s open every day, but I suggest going on a Saturday to witness the massive flea market that appears in the wee hours of the morning.
10. Visit the gardens at Schönbrunn Palace. It’s totally worth it, even without paying to enter the building. You can see the Gloriette, a monument to Austrian military prowess, up high on the hill, gorgeous tree lined avenues, and, my favorite, the fake Roman ruins.
11. This is seasonal, but if you’re in Vienna in December, you have to check out some Christmas markets. Buy a mug of Glühwein, hot spiced wine, and absorb the different atmosphere’s, from the cozy, old fashioned Spittelberg market, to the glitzy carnival-esque market in front of the Rathaus.
12. Also seasonal, but Vienna in the summer is a treasure trove of free concerts, festivals, film screenings, and all kinds of fun. The Film Festival outside the Rathaus is especially fun, with relatively inexpensive food options from some of Vienna’s nicest restaurants.
13. Finally, if you’re here on the first Sunday of the month, you can do what I’m doing tomorrow–see how many of the Wien Museums you can visit for FREE. This consortium of museums related to the city’s history includes many famous composers’ residences, a clock museum, a museum about Jugenstil architect, Otto Wagner, a museum of Roman excavations and artifacts, Empress Sissi’s personal retreat, the Hermes Villa, and more. All offer free admission on the first Sunday of the month!
So, no excuses, go have a uniquely Viennese experience in this magical city of history and culture!