Vienna – winter top 5
Vienna is a place of superlatives and the city with the best quality of life in the world – having recently topped the city ranking in the Mercer Quality of Living Survey for the ninth consecutive year. The Austrian capital has 20 large museums and galleries, as many as 280 parks and gardens and, despite its population of 1.7 million, a spacious, fresh and relaxed feel.
1. Imperial experience – Schönbrunn
A visit to Vienna begins at Schönbrunn, Austria's most visited attraction and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This remarkable baroque ensemble of art and architecture, comprising the enormous palace and stunning gardens, was for centuries the property of the Habsburgs. Visitors can choose from among several guided tours of different lengths through the private parts of the palace, including the private apartments of Emperor Franz Joseph and his wife the Empress Elisabeth ("Sissi"), and the magnificent state rooms. Outside, you can stroll along the paths in the gardens, find your way through the maze and visit the children's museum or the world's oldest zoo, home to approximately 8,500 animals.
2. Longest shopping street – Mariahilfer Straße
After visiting Schönbrunn, take the tram (line 60) to "Mahü" or Mariahilfer Straße, the longest shopping street in Austria. The journey will take around 20 minutes. The area was planted with vineyards in the Middle Ages but today's street boasts a vast range of shops. We recommend a visit to some of the specialist establishments such as SPIELE, a board games shop near the top end of the street – on the right-hand side if you are heading in the MuseumsQuartier direction. If you don't feel like walking all that way, you can always take the underground tram or take a seat in one of the many cafés and enjoy watching the bustle of urban life. For a more exclusive selection of shops, make your way to the Graben in Vienna's first district (city centre), where the city's most famous pedestrian shopping zone offers everything and more.
3. Museums and galleries – MuseumsQuartier
Once the shopping frenzy has passed and you reach the end of Mariahilfer Straße, you will find yourself in the modern, urban and architecturally superlative courtyard of the MuseumsQuartier, a place that in 1713 represented the splendour of the Austrian Empire. The MuseumsQuartier is an ideal place to visit in company, since it offers something for everyone. The complex of 60,000 square metres of exhibition spaces in the former imperial stables includes the Leopold Museum, MUMOK (museum of modern art), the Kunsthalle, the Architecturzentrum Wien (Austria's national architecture museum), ZOOM (children's museum) and several cafés and restaurants.
4. Culinary experience – Naschmarkt and Sachertorte
To make your experience of Vienna as complete as possible, we suggest visiting the Naschmarkt, which stands above the dry bed of a former channel of the Wien River. The history of this Vienna market dates back to the sixteenth century. Originally a place where milk was sold, it became a fruit and vegetable market in 1793. Every day the market's more than 400 stallholders conjure up an experience full of rich flavours and aromas. Everyone can find their ideal breakfast among the stalls filled with Austrian produce and a vast variety of Balkan and Asian specialities, thus allowing the market to live up to its name (naschen is a German word meaning "to nibble"). Conclude your culinary experience at the Sacher Eck on Kärntner Straße with a slice of Sachertorte made to the original 1832 recipe, a strictly guarded secret.
5. Festive atmosphere – Christmas markets
Christmas markets are the icing on the cake of a visit to Vienna in December and greatly heighten the joyful expectation of the year's loveliest celebration. Enjoy the relaxed atmosphere and festively decorated streets, filled with the smell of Christmas pastries, gingerbread and punch, in the weeks leading up to Christmas.
The tradition of Christmas markets dates all the way back to 1294, when Albert I of Habsburg, Duke of Austria and Styria, restored Vienna's town privileges, which included the right to hold fairs lasting two weeks. At least 20 different Christmas markets take place in various parts of central Vienna, among them the Viennese Dream Christmas Market, which offers an unforgettable experience in the fairy-tale setting of the Rathausplatz, the air filled with the delicious smells of local specialities and the sound of Christmas carols sung by an international choir. For a cosier, friendlier atmosphere, we suggest visiting the smaller Christmas market in the Spittelberg district. The market stalls and the little shops in the small lanes lined with charming Biedermeier buildings are full of ceramics, brass and silverware and other attractive gift ideas.