48 Hours: Vienna

This handsome city is looking its festive best and preparing to celebrate 150 years since Gustav Klimt's birth.

Click here for 48 Hours In...Vienna map

Travel essentials

Why go now?

The Austrian capital is aglow with festive cheer. Christmas markets fill nearly every corner of the city with huts selling food and gluhwein (austria.info/uk). The major markets are outside the City Hall, Schonbrunn Castle and, most authentically, in the Spittelberg district.

Meanwhile, over 200 of the angry young Austrian expressionist Egon Schiele's intense paintings are displayed until 30 January 2012 at the Leopold Museum (1) (00 43 1 525 70; leopoldmuseum.org), open Weds-Mon 10am-6pm. The 150th anniversary of Gustav Klimt's birth in 2012 is also being marked by exhibitions in the city where he spent most of his life (vienna.info).

Touch down

Flights from Heathrow are operated by BMI (0844 848488; flybmi.com), BA (0844 493 0787; ba.com) and Austrian Airlines (0870 1 24 26 25; austrian.com), while easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com) flies from Gatwick. The rail option from London St Pancras entails changes in Paris and Munich or Cologne (0844 848 4070; raileurope.co.uk).

The airport is on S-Bahn line S7 which delivers you to Landstrasse/ Wien Mitte (2) for €3.60. The 16-minute City Airport Train to the same station costs €9 and operates at half-hourly intervals between 6.05am and 11.35pm. The airport is 10 miles south east of the city; taxis cost around €30.

Get your bearings

The former Habsburg capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire retains the architectural grandeur of its powerful rulers. Their legacy forms most of Vienna's tourist attractions, from palaces to museums, complemented by an overlay of outstanding Secessionist buildings and a still-dynamic cultural scene.

The historic Inner City (Innere Stadt) is held within the Ringstrasse, which was built on the line of the old city fortifications, demolished in the mid-19th century. To the north-west lie wine villages, while to the east of the Inner City, the Danube Canal meanders through the urban fabric.

The efficient underground (U-Bahn), S-Bahn, tram and bus network is the best way to get around, though there is also a London-style bike-hire scheme. The 72-hour Vienna Card costs €18.50 and includes use of city transport as well as attraction discounts. It is available at the Tourist Information Office (3) behind the State Opera House at Albertinaplatz. Open daily 9am-7pm (00 43 1 24 555; vienna.info).

Check in

Among Vienna's many five-star hotels, Hotel Palais Coburg (4) at Coburgbastei 4 (00 43 1 51818 0; coburg.at) is perhaps the most stunning. It was built in the 1840s as the palace of the House of Coburg-Gotha and its conversion to an all-suite hotel skilfully blends modern with old. Doubles from €670, B&B.

Part of a small and quirky chain, the 25 Hours Hotel (5), Lerchenfelderstrasse 1-3 (00 43 152 1510; 25hours-hotels.com) takes as its theme the circus and incorporates memorabilia from the city's three permanent circus buildings. Doubles from €130, room only. Meanwhile, Pension Residenz (6) is a traditionally furnished hotel at Ebendorferstrasse 10 (00 43 1 406 47 86 0; residenz.cc). Doubles from €90, B&B.

Day one

Take a hike

Starting at the Tourist Information Office (3) on Albertinaplatz, walk along Augustinerstrasse past the Albertina (7). With 21 state rooms and the world's largest collection of drawings and graphics (00 43 1 534 83 0; albertina.at; open daily 10am-6pm; €11), it is one end of the vast complex of Habsburg buildings known as the Hofburg (8), which contains enough museums and sights, including the Spanish Riding School, to absorb days (00 43 1 533 7570; hofburg-wien.at; €10.50).

Take Kohlmarkt to reach Petersplatz and the baroque Peterskirche (9) (peterskirche.at), consecrated in 1733 and built on the site of Vienna's first church, erected as part of the Roman camp of Vindobona. Unusually, the painted decoration of the oval cupola has been married with plasterwork to enhance the illusion of three dimensions.

Join the pedestrianised streets around the cathedral, Stephansdom (10), which is regarded as the finest gothic building in Austria and still has Turkish cannonballs embedded in it, as well as iconic diamond-patterned roof tiles (00 43 1 515 523 540; stephanskirche.at).

Continue along Rotenturmstrasse to reach Schwedenplatz and a good place for coffee or a drink: Motto am Flus (11) (00 43 1 25 25512; motto.at/mottoamfluss) is in a stylish modern structure on stilts overlooking the Danube Canal.

Window shopping

There is a concentration of small antique and curio shops in the streets between Peterskirche (9) and the cathedral (10) and a delightful period shop selling superb chocolates: Leschanz (12) is at Freisingergasse 1 (00 43 1 533 3219; schokoladekoenig.at).

Lunch on the run

Close to Stephansplatz at Weihburggasse 17 is Gasthaus Poschl (13) (00 43 1 513 5288), where beneath a vaulted ceiling you can enjoy a lunch of pumpkin soup (€3.90), schnitzel with potato salad (€17.50) and apple and poppy seed strudel with vanilla sauce (€5.50).

Cultural afternoon

Prince Eugene of Savoy acquired such wealth from his victories over the Turks that he created the opulent palace and garden of the Belvedere (14) in the early 18th century "without undue burdening of his purse". The Upper Belvedere now houses an art collection that spans over four centuries and has the world's largest collection of paintings by Gustav Klimt, including The Kiss. The building and grounds alone are worth a visit (00 43 1 79 557 0; belvedere.at; daily 10am-6pm; €14 combined entry).

An aperitif

The new Sofitel Stephansdom (15), designed by Jean Nouvel at Praterstrasse 1 (00 43 1 906 160; sofitel.com) boasts the 18th-floor Le Loft bar and restaurant with spectacular westerly views over the city. Order a glass of wine for €4.90 and sip beneath a ceiling decorated with a colourful autumn leaf scene by the Swiss artist Pipilotti Rist.

Dining in style

Near the Museums Quarter at Sigmundsgasse 1/1 is Kulinarium 7 (16), a wine merchant with a restaurant attached (00 43 1 522 33 77; kulinarium7.at). Dishes such as avocado and tomato tart with olive foam (€9), pan-fried duck breast with pak choy and mushroom schupf noodles (€23) and Baileys parfait with coffee sauce (€8) can be enjoyed either at the counter or conventional tables.

The wine selection by bottle or glass is excellent; especially the Gruner Veltliner Reserve Barrique 2007 by Peter Uhler for €36 a bottle.

Day two

Sunday morning: go to church

The Karlskirche (17) is Vienna's most celebrated baroque building, designed by Fischer von Erlach after winning a competition set up by Charles VI. The church is dedicated to the carer of plague victims, St Charles Borromeo of Milan, following the death of 8,000 people here in 1713.

Start your visit by exploring its surroundings, including a tranquil expanse of water and central sculpture by Henry Moore. You can enter the church at noon, to gaze upwards at the huge oval copper dome flanked by tall columns carrying the story of St Charles carved in a spiral frieze (00 43 1 504 61 87; www.karlskirche.at; Sun noon-5.45pm; €6).

Take a view...

...from the top of the south tower of the Stephansdom (10). You reach a height of over 60 metres up a narrow spiral staircase, having paid €3.50 at the entrance. There is only one resting place going up or down the 343 steps – the bench used by Count Ernst Rudiger von Starhemberg as a look-out when commanding the forces defending the city against the Turks in 1683. The tower is open from 9am-5.30pm. The north tower viewing platform is considerably lower but has a lift.

Out to brunch

The music of Johann Strauss accompanies an Art Brunch under wood panelled ceilings and 19th-century frescos by Carl Rahl at Palais Todesco (18) at Karntnerstrasse 51 (00 43 1 743 4422 7861; gerstner.at). Reservations for the €43 brunch are recommended.

Take a ride

A ride around the Ringstrasse on tram D takes you around the circle of civic buildings and bourgeois villas created after the order of 1857 to demolish the city's fortifications. It runs daily from 10am-6pm and costs €7. The first trip of the day starts at Opera (3); the end station is Schwedenplatz (19), where the tram arrives every 15 and 45 minutes past the hour; you can get on and off at any tram stop en route.

A walk in the park

Vienna has the highest ratio of green space in any European city. Families head for the vast Prater (20) with its playgrounds, miniature railway and observation wheel, reached from Messe-Prater station. Meanwhile, the Augarten (21), close to Taborstrasse, has within its 52 hectares the oldest baroque garden in Vienna.

The icing on the cake

Vienna is synonymous with the Secessionists, and their emblematic building at Friedrichstrasse 12 remains one of the city's most extraordinary structures, with its cupola of golden laurel leaves and art nouveau façade.

Called simply the Secession Building (22), it was designed by Joseph Maria Olbricht as an exhibition hall. The Beethoven Frieze painted by Klimt in 1902 in homage to the composer can still be admired. It can be reached from Karlsplatz station and is open daily except Monday, 10am-6pm, admission €8.50 (00 43 1 5875 307; secession.at).

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