How to be a responsible traveller in Vienna.

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This is a guest post from Natasha from the Mindful feet travel blog, who’s sharing her insights into being a responsible traveller in Vienna.

Natasha is a “serial expat”, moving countries every couple of years or so with her partner. She writes about zero waste travel, slow and sustainable travel options, and finding authenticity abroad.

You can connect with Natasha on:

Vienna isn’t really known as a sustainable destination, at least not how we would normally imagine a sustainable destination to look like. I’ve been living in Vienna for about a year and a half now and I was shocked to see how wasteful life here really is, at least on the surface.

Much has changed since then and I can definitely point you in the right direction if you want to visit Vienna, learn about the local culture, give your tourist money back to small businesses and protect the environment.

Along the Danube River, Vienna. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com
Along the Danube River, Vienna. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com

What’s unique about Vienna?

Vienna is an amazing place to visit for the history of central Europe. You can find remnants of the Roman Empire, the brilliance of various artisans of the middle ages from all over Europe and the works of artists, chefs, and thought leaders from what we now call Czech Republic, Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Poland, and of course Austria.

Vienna benefited greatly from its geographical position, attracting people from all over to build the wealth of the city. In addition to that, the ruling family married into all other royal families in Europe and even had a short-lived connection with South America, bringing in influences from France, Britain, Russia and Spain.

St. Stephen's Cathedral from the Graben street, in the centre of the 
historical city. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com
St. Stephen’s Cathedral from the Graben street, in the centre of the 
historical city. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com

When’s the best time to visit Vienna?

The busiest tourist season in Vienna is in December when over three million people come to visit the numerous pre-Christmas or Advent markets. For a bit of context, there are two million inhabitants in the greater Vienna area with Christmas markets happening in the historical city centre. The place is packed.

There is also a gigantic ice-skating rink and the whole city center is decorated with lights. It is really beautiful to visit, but if you want to avoid the crowds, the end of November is much better. The markets start around the 20th of November so you won’t miss the Christmas cheer.

Alternatively, you can come and visit before Easter when the crowds are smaller, but the markets reappear in almost the same number and size. Easter is a really big holiday in Austria, though celebrated mostly privately.

Some of Vienna's Easter markets. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com
Some of Vienna’s Easter markets. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com

The summer is also a good time to visit. Many locals do leave for holidays elsewhere, but unlike many other European cities, there is something happening all the time. Think open-air concerts, shows, fairs and they have many events for children (since kids are out of school).

To visit the opera, come any time, except the summer, and maybe December. The season ends in June and they reopen in September. They also have several operas for children and teens. For December shows, book well in advance for any performance.

How to get around sustainably?

There is actually no reason to use a car or taxi in Vienna. The public transport is really efficient (often faster than cars), cheap and runs all night. If you are coming from the airport, the train is right there and a 20 min ride (car takes about 30 min, depending of traffic).

My next favorite means of transport is getting around by bike. You can rent bicycles through several companies and the city of Vienna has some for hire, also.

The city core is mainly a pedestrian zone with very little in terms of public transport since it’s relatively small. You can walk from one side to the other in about 15 minutes.

When you want to get out of the city, say to visit the Schonbrunn, trams and subway are readily available. I would recommend getting a pass, depending on how long you are staying.

A tram passing Wiener Ringstrausse and the Burgtheatre, Vienna.
A tram passing Wiener Ringstrausse and the Burgtheatre, Vienna.

Another great thing about Vienna is that they have regional trains connecting every corner of the country. So if you are visiting other cities in Austria like Innsbruck or Graz, the train is your fastest, cheapest option. You can check all your options and buy tickets via OBB page (they provide e-tickets as well).

Sustainable food suggestions

One of my favorites places to eat in Vienna is Vollpension: a generational café where you can get cakes and meals cooked by real Viennese grandmas and served by youngsters. Another one is Miznon, just behind the cathedral, featuring modern Israeli-inspired cuisine.

Coffee and cakes at Vollpension. Image credit: Natasha at mindfulfeet.com

I want to mention another local favorite: ice cream parlors. The cafe culture is much written about, but it’s ice cream with the family and weekend brunches that are a lot more common nowadays. You will see ice cream shops everywhere.

Veganista is a really nice, locally owned, and successful vegan ice-cream place that tops any traditional ice cream I’ve tasted. Another suggestion is the fresh and vibrant Schelato.

Check out this post to learn how to say “I am vegan” in 100 different languages, including German!

Vegan ice-cream from Veganista. Image credit: Natasha at mindfulfeet.com
Vegan ice-cream from Veganista. Image credit: Natasha at mindfulfeet.com

Places to visit in Vienna

Famous attractions

The most famous locations in Vienna are:

All three royal palaces: The Hofburg – city palace, Schönbrunn– winter palace, Belvedere (palace of prince Eugene, now a museum).

People also come to see the gothic cathedral, the Spanish riding school with Slovenian white studs, Vienna Zoo, and the Prater amusement park. Some are well worth seeing and some over-hyped.

The Hofburg Palace. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com
The Hofburg Palace. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com

The Hofburg Palace is actually a huge complex covering around half of the historic center. Because it is not all one unit, most people do not know it’s actually still the palace. Most museums and galleries in Vienna are really great and worth visiting with Albertina and Belvedere as the busiest.

The Spanish riding school and Vienna Zoo are quite popular (and heavily promoted), especially for children. I don’t support the zoo despite their advertising as a friendly conservation project, for several reasons.

From my research, I know that the zoo is privately owned (for profit) and actually a part of the Schönbrunn gardens, so it’s not very spacious. They have many species in a small area, like a very clever minimalist apartment, and they do not only keep endangered or injured animals like a sanctuary does.

I also choose not to participate in horse carriage rides or Spanish riding school offerings. To my knowledge, they have updated some animal rights laws a couple of years ago to bring animal practices up to the 20th century, but some organizations say the laws aren’t strict enough (you can read more about it at 4 paws).

The Giant Ferris Wheel in Prater at night.
The Giant Ferris Wheel in Prater at night.

About the Prater amusement park: entry is free, but you pay for individual experiences, which can amount to a decent sum, especially for a family. It has over 250 rides, some old-fashioned and many state-of-the-art. There’s also Madame Tussauds, a chocolate museum, a planetarium, miniature railway, and many food vendors to sample.

It’s closed in the winter, but the giant ferris wheel and the ‘green pratar’ city park, home to the famous chestnut blossom display and which has paths for hikers, runners and cyclists, remains open.

Most people visit baroque palaces in Vienna, but if you’re willing to go on some side streets, you can walk pass roman walls, on paved streets from middle ages, walk under renaissance arches, or modern squares. These streets also house small restaurants with fresh yummy food that takes you way beyond schnitzel.

A street in the city centre, not on the usual tourist path. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com
A street in the city centre, not on the usual tourist path. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com

Lesser known attractions

Some off-the-beaten-track soulful sites I really enjoy are:

  • Jewish Museum and café
  • Red Vienna Exposition in Wien (MUSA) Museum (currently closed, but you can still join a Red Vienna Tour)
  • Hiking trails at the outskirts of the city – all accessible via public transport
  • Hermesvilla
  • Farmers markets
  • Stargazing at the observatory (two locations, some options in English as well)
  • Volksoper: less touristy opera house, with better acoustics, authenticity and shows the Viennese modern side.
  • Hundertwasser museum/gallery about the renowned artist and environmentalist.
  • Viktor Frankl Museum: holocaust survivor and psychiatrist, his theories are still in use today.
  • Vienna Coffeehouse Conversations in Café Ministerium
  • Cycling by the Danube Canal or Danube River.
Natasha inside the Volksoper Opera House. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com
Natasha inside the Volksoper Opera House. Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com

Recommended tours for responsible travellers

  • Shades tours offer four different tours guided by homeless people, refugees, and addicts.
  • Vienna Ugly Tours: showing you the side of the city tourists normally do not get to see or are easily missed.

Shopping in Vienna

The city center (namely Graben Street) and Mariahilfer Strasse are the main shopping areas with international chain stores. There aren’t a lot of traditional markets in Vienna left, only a handful on Saturdays.

There is the Brunnenmarkt, with a section of organic produce, Kutschkermarkt farmers market, and possibly the most picturesque Karmelitermarkt. All of them have locally produced food, sometimes even grown in the Viennese suburbs.

My favorite zero waste store is called Lunzer’s Massgreißlerei (close to Prater park) and possibly Die Warenhandlung. There are some smaller ones as well, scattered throughout the city.

At a Kutschker markt (farmers market). Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com
At a Kutschker markt (farmers market). Image credit: Natasha from mindfulfeet.com

General responsible travel tips

  • Most shops close after 7 p.m. on weekdays and closed on Sundays (gas stations and only a handful of grocery stores are open on a Sunday)
  • Book in advance for restaurants and cafes, Vienna is the only city I have been to that requires booking for casual places as well
  • Vienna has drinking fountains all over the city through most of the year (removed in the winter) and the water comes from the mountains
  • Austria has its own eco-label, valid for museums, shops, hotels, and restaurants.
  • Recycling is color-coded: red for (clean) paper, blue+yellow for metal, tetra pack and plastic bottles (only high-quality bottles/hard plastic are recycled in Vienna, all other plastic is garbage), brown for compostables (only raw food) and special containers for clear and colored glass. Garbage and paper are normally in-house, whereas all else is in waste islands in a walking distance.
  • The glass deposit system is poorly regulated, but they do have it in some grocery stores, including Denn’s (organic food store) – you can buy some great made in Austria beer and drinks there

I guess as an expat, I have this unique opportunity to see the city as a tourist, but after a short while, I look for different deeper experiences and see the world from different sides with all its complexity.

Vienna is especially weirdly relevant because my great grandfather fought on the side of the empire in WWI. Much of my family’s history was directly impacted by the grace and greed of whoever happened to be in power in Vienna (something unimaginable for me). Vienna’s history is really complex and there is so much to unpack, see and do.

For any questions or specific guidance, you can email me at natasha@mindfulfeet.com or on any of my socials.

Final thoughts

Thanks for sharing your insights into Vienna, Natasha! It’s great to know things are changing quite rapidly there and that many sustainable, ethical and supportive experiences are available.

Have you been to Vienna, or do you plan to one day?

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Make your next visit to Vienna a responsible and ethical trip with these tips, from an expert expat who's been living there for 1.5 years.
Make your next visit to Vienna a responsible and ethical trip with these tips, from an expert expat who's been living there for 1.5 years.
Make your next visit to Vienna a responsible and ethical trip with these tips!

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