Vienna is a misunderstood city. It’s easy to write it off as bland; it does not share the grit and hedonism of nearby Budapest or the dramatic Gothic cityscapes of Prague. If you limit your visit inside the Ringstrasse, it’s easy to reduce Vienna to a twee cliche of Habsburgs, cakes, Mozart, Klimt, and Waltzes.
I admit I shared this view and had little interest in visiting from Budapest (I made an exception to visit a friend for his birthday). Last year that changed, and I decided to pay a couple of visits to Vienna and a book proposal on Budapest spiraled to include Vienna. So earlier this year I took a break from Perceptive Travel to work on the book. As I got to know the city, I had the chance to peel back the layers.
I discovered the Austrian capital is a complex city with a fascinating character: it’s the city where psychoanalysis was born, where the “Beautiful Corpse” became part of the Viennese death culture, where modernity in Europe took a hold with gilded Stadtbahns and avant-garde art. Since then, I fell in love with Vienna, and even though I have visited 12 times this year alone, each visit unveiled something new. Here are 10 of my favorite offbeat things to do in the Austrian capital to inspire you to go beyond the Hofburg, Schönbrunn and all those Klimts.
Visit an Art Nouveau Church in a Psychiatric Institute
One of my favorite spots in Vienna is the Kirche am Steinhof, a masterpiece by Secessionist architect Otto Wagner. The church sits high up on a hill on the fringes of the Vienna Woods. You need to take the paths running through the Spital Otto Wagner, an art nouveau psychiatric institute built around the same time as the church. Just follow the signs leading up to the golden-domed church to get there. Even if you don’t go inside (the church has odd opening times, like 4pm on a Saturday), you could easily spend an hour lost in the details, like the golden angels perched above the door and the simple geometric details of the dome. It’s really worth the trek out the city center.
Sunbathe Under the Shadow of the Nazi Flak Towers in the Augarten
In the summer, Augarten fills up with picnicking locals lounging in on blankets or reading books in hammocks tied to chestnut trees. This baroque walled park carries all the elements of baroque grandeur, like it’s carefully manicured hedges and the ornate porcelain factory, has a reminder of Austria’s dark 20th century past. Rising inside the park, two imposing Flak towers break the sentimentality of the park. The towers were built by the Nazis as a form of defense against aircraft attacks. After the war, attempts were made to destroy the towers, but they were so solidly built it would have caused irreparable damage to the surroundings. Today, the towers have become a part of the Augarten, and yoga groups assemble under its shadows to do Asanas at sundown.
Sail Down the Danube Canal to a Primeval Waterforest
You can take a boat tour from Schwedenplatz to the Lobau, an ancient water forest on the outskirts of the city surrounding the natural canals branching off from the Danube. An hour on the boat will bring you to the Lobau, where patches of marshland, verdant forests and natural channels with clear river water comes with an under water ecosystem of plants, reeds, and lilies, visited by small schools of fish.
Tour a Pathology Museum in a Former Asylum
The Narrenturm, meaning the Fool’s Tower, is one of Europe’s oldest asylums. Today this circular, austere building lies on the fringes of the Wien University campus (once the site of the Vienna General Hospital) is home to the museum of pathology. A tour through the museum with a guide reveals a grotesque collection of waxworks depicting various diseases alongside a collection of deformed skulls and drawings of anatomical curiosities. This is not for the feint hearted or anyone easily disturbed. However, for those of you who like the macabre, don’t miss this quirky museum.
Find Your Inner Peace in a Japanese Garden
Setagaya Park is a small sanctuary about 10 minutes walk from the Heiligenstadt U-bahn. Built by Ken Nakajima in 1992, this garden perfectly emulates the Japanese landscape with several ponds and stream, rusty Japanese maples and cherry blossom trees that burst into candy-pink confetti in the spring. Keep an eye out for the friendly, resident ginger cat who is incredibly friendly and loves belly rubs.
Explore a Surreal Villa in the Vienna Woods
Otto Wagner’s first villa lies on the edge of the city, backing onto the Vienna Woods. The highlight is his former studio decked out with stunning stained glass windows and gold-pained stucco elements. The villa was bought up by artist Ernst Fuchs who remodeled the house. Now the entire villa is filled with his surreal, intense paintings and sculptures of voluptuous women.
Descend into the Sewers on the Third Man Tour
The Third Man was shot entirely on site in the city, and the dramatic climax in the sewers is no exception. Explore a different side of Vienna on this subterranean tour. Sewer workers will take you down into the sewers (which don’t smell as bad as you’d expect), where you’re treated to a surreal film screening on the underground walls of the Third Man finale before descending to the Wien River, which has been driven underground here.
Pay Your Respects to the Nameless Dead Pulled from the Danube
The Viennese take their death seriously – and if you’re interested in learning more about the “Beautiful Corpse” head over to the Zentral Friedhof for the Funeral Museum. But for something different, head further along the Danube right into the outskirts of the city to the moving Cemetery of the Nameless. Some 100 graves here have been dug and are still maintained for the anonymous dead who have been pulled from the Danube in the 19th century and the early 20th century.
Make a Pilgrimage to the Home of Psychoanalysis
Love him or hate him, you can’t deny that Freud has had an impact on art, culture, and society. Pay a visit to his apartment on Berggasse 19, on the first floor. Part of the museum replicates Freud’s original rooms, where you’ll find his cabinet of antique curiosities, along with an exhibition on his life and work. Its worth the visit if you’re in the neighborhood.
Take a Walk in a Viennese Vineyard and Drink in a Heuriger