Touring Vienna in 1 day, with its sprawling metropolis filled with some of the world's greatest art and baroque palaces, can be done if you get an early start and have a certain stamina. This "greatest hits" itinerary focuses on the Altstadt or Old Town, the inner core of ancient Vienna. Start: U-Bahn to Stephansplatz.
1. Domkirche St. Stephan
Dating from the 12th century, St. Stephan's Cathedral is the grandest such edifice in Austria. The basilica is filled with such treasures as the carved wooden Wiener Neustadt altarpiece and the tomb of Emperor Frederick III. To cap your visit, climb its south tower with its 343 spiral steps for the most panoramic view in all of Vienna. If you're not up to that, you can take an elevator to the top of the north tower, which was never completed. The view isn't quite as spectacular, but you'll save your legs.
After a tour of the cathedral, you can stroll up the pedestrian-only:
This is the main shopping street of Vienna, comparable to Fifth Avenue in New York City. Its shops display some of the world's most glittering merchandise. But with the high value of the euro today and the weak U.S. dollar, you may want only to window shop.
Kärntnerstrasse will lead you to the imposing:
With its elegant arcades, this is Austria's leading opera house. Some of the world's greatest music -- often from fabled Austrian composers of yesterday -- is presented here in this French Renaissance-style building, one of the first of the great public buildings to be erected along the Ringstrasse . The main façade was all that was left when the building burned in the closing months of World War II in 1945. But everything has been handsomely restored. If you're an opera lover, you may want to devote your evening to attending a performance here.
With the time remaining in your day, you can head for the:
4. Hofburg Palace Complex
Depending on where you are in the city, the U-Bahn to Stephansplatz can take you here, as well as the U-Bahn to Herrengasse or Mariahilferstrasse.
This was the winter palace of the Habsburgs, who ruled over much of Europe from here. There is so much to see and do that you can't take it all in in 1 day. But the main attractions are Albertina, Augustinerkirche, Kaiserappartments (Imperial Apartments), and the magnificent Schatzkammer (Imperial Treasury).
It's a matter of timing (and needs to be planned carefully), but the lucky hundreds can often see a performance at the Spanische Reitschule (Spanish Riding School) and perhaps a performance at Burgkapelle, home of the Vienna Boys' Choir.
Within the complex, try to visit the:
Originally part of an Augustinian monastery, this 18th-century palace houses Austria's celebrated Collection of Graphic Arts. More than a million sheets -- old masters' drawings, engravings, and architectural designs -- illustrate this development of graphic arts since the 1300s. The highlight of the collection is a series of drawings and engravings by Dürer.
The 14th century Church of the Augustinians, built within the Hofburg complex, was the parish church for the imperial Habsburgs. In 1748 the baroque interior decoration and all the original Gothic architectural details were removed. The highlight of the church today is the elaborate tomb of the Archduchess Maria Christina, favorite daughter of Maria Theresa. The Italian sculptor, Canova, slaved over the white marble mausoleum from 1805 to 1809.
The Imperial Apartments are on the first floor of the Chancellery Wing. Actually, there are 2,600 rooms in the Hofburg, but only 20 are open to visitors. The emperors, along with their wives and children, lived here; mistresses were stashed elsewhere. The apartments are richly decorated, the highlight being the Imperial Silver and Porcelain collections. Six rooms are devoted to the tragic empress known as "Sissi."
Take a Break -- Since the Hofburg complex is so vast, you may want to head for the Café Tirolerhof for coffee and snacks. One specialty that will get you going again is a coffee known as Maria Theresia. This is a large cup of mocha flavored with apricot liqueur and topped with whipped cream.
The grandest attraction at the Hofburg is the:
The Imperial Treasury contains all those glittering Habsburg jewels, the loot of a once-great empire, including the crowns of the Holy Roman and Austrian empires. The greatest treasure is the Imperial Crown, dating from 962.
9. Spanische Reitschule
The Spanish Riding school is where the famed Lipizzaner stallions strut their stuff, a show that has been going on for 4 centuries (but not with the same horses, of course). The equine performers are viewed as the finest in the world, their feats of dressage unequaled. The tails and manes of the stallions are plaited with gold ribbons, and they dance the polka, the gavotte, the quadrille, and the slow waltz (we kid you not).
The home of the Vienna Boys' Choir is in the Hofmusikkapelle, part of the Burgkapelle, a Gothic chapel dating from 1447. Seeing a performance can be a bit tricky. The singing boys are often touring the world. The voices of the Wiener Sängerknaben (their German name) have been called "heavenly," but there is no truth to the long-standing rumor that they are castrati.
As night falls over Vienna, take a streetcar ride around the entire Ringstrasse or circle of boulevards that enclose the old city of Vienna. The tram follows the route of the medieval fortifications.