While you’ll want to spend money on coffee and sachertorte in the elegant old high-ceilinged cafes scattered across Vienna, there’s tons to do here that won’t cost you a (coffee) bean. Here are the most awesome things to do in the Austrian capital for free.
Austria’s capital is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe – rich in centuries-old architecture, from Medieval, ornately baroque and whimsically art nouveau to Cubic and millennial. Read on to find out how to get access to free live music, mouthfuls of delicious food, picture-perfect gardens and public buildings.
MAK (Museum of Applied Arts)
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Here’s a visual feast for lovers of interior design. Each room at the Museum of Applied Arts (MAK) examines a different historic style, notably Renaissance, baroque, orientalist and art deco. You’ll admire myriad textures and materials, from lace and glassware to metal and wood. Even the restaurant, Salonplafond, is a visual treat, with its ochre-velvet corner banquettes and its ornate carved ceiling bearing wine-glass chandeliers. Settle in for playful seasonal starters, say, sheep’s cheese with kohlrabi, blueberries and hazelnut.
Known as the Donauinsel, this slip of an island serves chiefly to reinforce Vienna’s flood protection system; but it also has an impressive host of accessible sports and leisure facilities. You can sunbathe on urban beaches and walk, run, roller skate or cycle the extensive network of paths before a hearty barbecue or a picnic in a designated area. Better still, there are sailing facilities and natural meadows (the island is purpose-built). Every year, the (free) Danube Island Festival attracts partygoers for alfresco shenanigans. This year, it’s from 17 to 19 September, with a roster of mainly local artists.
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You get a lot of greenery at these sweeping 18th-century palace gardens. Essentially, the layout comprises an Upper and a Lower Belvedere, linked by baroque gardens laid out in a classical French style by a pupil of Versailles landscape architect André le Nôtre. Three tiers of planting, topiary and garden wizardry feature promenades and landscaped areas set with water nymphs, elegant pools, fountains, sculptures, steps and cascades. Stroll at your leisure, and enjoy a coffee at the Schlosscafe, part of the gallery at the top.
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You can’t miss the Hundertwasserhaus as you approach: the façade of this residential apartment block, an easy walk from the lush green parklands of Prater, is pure psychedelic fantasy. It was built between 1983 and 1986 by Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser, part Gaudíesque, part child’s drawing, and painted multiple colours in a careless, splashy style. Parts just look wonky, and green foliage sprouts out of some apartments. Nearby, the Hundertwasser Museum reveals more of the artist’s work, and you can grab a beer at the cafe.
Summer Night Concert at Schönbrunn Palace
The Summer Night Concert is a special occasion indeed, performed annually – for free – at the Unesco World Heritage site Schönbrunn Palace. Classical music played by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra (VPO) fills the air, livening up the tranquillity of this stately baroque park, with its tidy lawns and flower beds. This year, Daniel Harding will conduct for the first time as the brilliantly talented musicians of the VPO perform works by Bernstein, Verdi, Rachmaninov, Sibelius, Elgar, Debussy and Holst. As usual, you can expect fireworks and atmospheric lighting to make things go with a bang.
If you fancy spending a balmy evening al fresco, under clear skies, as strains of Puccini fill the air, get the Rathaus Film Festival in your diary. In 2021, it runs from July 3 to September 4. It’s called a film festival, but it’s all about music – all kinds of operas, classical-music performances and rock concerts will be screened in the evenings in front of Vienna’s Rathaus (or City Hall). It’s free – you only need to pay for food and drinks, dispensed from stalls all around. Top tip: don’t leave it until an hour before you arrive. This thing gets busy.
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Here for a Christmassy weekend? Karlsplatz, one of the most important squares in Vienna, puts on one of the best Yuletide markets in the city. This year, it’s from November 19 to December 23. Of course, you’ll have to pay if you want to buy things, but it costs nothing – and is superbly atmospheric – to wander the stalls, inhaling the spicy aromas of mulled wine. You can listen to music performed on a central stage, and, for kids, there are piles of straw to play in, as well as farm animals to coo over. Top tip: don’t miss the frilly, ornate U-Bahn (underground) station by the square. It’s one of the finest examples of Viennese art nouveau architecture.
St Stephen’s Cathedral
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This is a stunner, from its magnificently tiled roof – a dizzy mosaic of black, white, yellow and green chevrons in neat rows – to the gigantic gothic stone pulpit carved as intricately as lace. So, St Stephen’s Cathedral needs to be on the top of your sightseeing list. From far and wide, you can locate this key landmark on Stephansplatz, thanks to its four towers – the tallest rising a head-spinning 136 meters (446ft) into the sky (you can climb it). Its construction began back in the 12th century, but the cathedral has only gained impact over the ages and is one of the most important gothic structures in Austria today. If you’re here in December, hit the Stephansplatz Christmas Market for a mug of warming glühwein (mulled wine).
Burn off those buttery Viennese pastries with a morning (or more) of sightseeing on two wheels. The public bike rental service in Vienna is a municipal sharing scheme that is very easy to use. Register online, and you can rent a bike from about 110 stations across the city. In order to register (and hire), you need a credit card (Visa or Mastercard; one bicycle per credit card). The first hour is always free, so, if you’re keeping an eye on the time, you can return your trusty steed to one of the designated stations for 15 minutes and release it for another 60 minutes without paying a cent.
Free samples at the Naschmarkt
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Nosing around a food market is always a pleasure, especially if you’re going to be treated to free and delicious nosh. At the Naschmarkt, Vienna’s most famous outdoor food market, there are more than 120 stalls dispensing wines, meats, cheese, pastries and spices. Get a free taste of Vienna before you commit to your favourite bite. And don’t think it’s all wiener schnitzel (Viennese schnitzel) and sachertorte (chocolate cake) either. You’ll also find spicy shakshuka (eggs with vegetables) and fresh, herby tabbouleh (Lebanese salad). When your stomach’s full, note there’s also a flea market every Saturday – something of a cult day out for the young, urban crowd who frequent it.