Traveling in the off-season has its perks; the low airfares and discounted accommodation enables you to travel abroad without spending a fortune and sights are often less crowded. Also, workers can sometimes be nicer and more helpful because they aren’t dealing with the craziness and large amounts of people that accompany the tourist season (okay, this isn’t guaranteed either way, but I definitely noticed a difference). But it can also mean that activities that are normally available in the touristy season are not offered in the low season, sights are closed, and tours are not operating. So, if you choose to travel in the off-season, you need to be cautious about where you go and ensure that it has plenty to do during the less-visited time of year.
I began my backpacking trip in December, so most of my travels so far have been during the low season. When planning my route around Europe, I did my best to choose cities that would have plenty to offer even during the winter months. Vienna, the vibrant capital of Austria, sticks out in my mind as one of those cities. The large capital has a vast royal history, gorgeous architecture, more than enough museums, and a variety of restaurants and cafes to choose from. It reminded me of Paris, with its wide streets, big parks, grand buildings with styles from different time periods, and a river flowing through it. Except, it felt a bit more laid back and undiscovered. I was there with my parents for two weeks, and we were busy sightseeing each day despite it being the middle of January (so busy that I needed to take a few rest days!).
Here are all of the reasons Vienna makes the perfect destination for travel in the off-season:
It’s Easy to Get Around
During the winter months, you don’t want to be outside walking for very long in the cold weather. Luckily, the Vienna public transport system is advanced and includes trains, buses, and trams that can get you anywhere need to go. Though I stayed in an apartment outside the city center (money saving tip), it was no problem because the closest metro stop was a 5 minute walk and could get me downtown in 10 minutes. There are a variety of different travel passes that can help you save money and are valid on all forms of local transport, such as a weekly pass or 72 hour pass depending on your needs. This site does a great job explaining the various options. I was there for two weeks, so I opted for the weekly pass which made travel easy as I didn’t have to buy a ticket each time. I could just hop on and go.
The City’s Main Sights Offer an Escape from the Cold Weather
Because of its complex history associated with the powerful Habsburg monarchy who ruled from the city for more than six centuries, Vienna has grand palaces, exemplary churches, and high-quality museums to explore that are all open during the low season. Here are just a few of the many places you can visit to avoid cold, snowy, or rainy weather in the city:
Imperial Apartments at the Hofburg
The Habsburgs were one of the most prominent royal dynasties in Europe. Known for increasing their power across countries through marriage rather than war, the Habsburg’s influence spread from Eastern Europe into Germany and Spain and even as far as Mexico. They were connected to the French royal empire as well, as Marie Antoinette, the wife of Louis XVI who was famously beheaded during the French Revolution, was a Habsburg.
The Habsburg’s palace in the city center reflects the grandeur of their reign. Visiting the Imperial Apartments gives you a glimpse into the massive wealth and way of life of the Austrian monarchy. And visiting the apartments during the off-season is even more enjoyable. I’d imagine touring the apartments in the summertime can get as crowded as the famous Palace of Versailles in Paris. However, when my family and I visited the apartments, there were so few people there that the guided tour we decided to join ended up being a private tour with our own personal guide! We could take our time, ask as many questions as we liked, and gain a deeper understanding of the Habsburg’s complicated royal lineage.
The Schönbrunn Palace was the Habsburg’s summer residence and like the Imperial Apartments, its splendor is not to be missed. Again, we were able to stroll through each room of the palace with few crowds, which made the experience much more pleasant. I’ve visited many popular tourist destinations in the summer like Versailles and the Vatican, and each time it’s been so packed that we were literally shuffled from room to room like herds of cattle. It’s so much better when you don’t feel rushed and you have the time to really take in all of the gorgeous decor around you.
Of course, the only downside to visiting in the off-season is that the gardens are not blooming. However, instead of roaming the gardens we had coffee and cakes at the palace’s café, Café Restaurant Residenz, which was one of our favorite cafés in Vienna!
As one of the longest ruling monarchies in Europe, it’s no surprise that the Habsburg’s have one of the most impressive treasuries in the world open to visit in the low season. You can see ornate crowns dating back to the 10th century, intricate relics, swords made of “unicorn” (narwhal tusk), and glittering jewels collected by the Habsburgs over centuries.
The Habsburgs were great admirers of art and their vast collection of masterpieces can be seen in the Kunsthistorisches Museum. The museum exhibits paintings by artists such as Raphael, Titian, Rubens (one of my favorites), Rembrandt, and Vermeer. In addition to the splendid works of art, the museum building itself mimics a royal palace with a gorgeous grand hall and massive staircase. You can spend hours here escaping the chilly winter temperatures.
St. Stephen’s Cathedral
The famous cathedral towers over the city’s main pedestrian street, Graben. You can marvel at its stunning mix of Gothic and Romanesque architecture and pop inside to see where Mozart was married. Rick Steve’s offers a self-guided tour on his app, Rick Steves Audio Europe, that I recommend downloading before your visit to give you a better understanding of the historic cathedral.
You can listen to music at year-round performances in one of Vienna’s many music venues
Known as the City of Music, Vienna has a renowned musical history and many famous composers such as Mozart and Beethoven once lived in the city. It’s reputation for being the center of music has only increased with time and has led to the construction of beautiful concert halls where you can watch a variety of performances.
My family and I had a wonderful time seeing Cinderella at the famous opera house, the Staatsoper. There are performances happening year-round and the opera is even translated on a screen in front of your seat so you can easily follow along. I recommend looking into the various performances happening not only at the opera house, but across all of the venues Vienna has to offer and booking your ticket ahead of time, as they might sell out even in the low season.
You can warm up with a cup of coffee and delicious pastry in a Viennese coffee house
Coffee is a big part of Viennese culture, and a trip to Vienna is not complete without visiting a Viennese kaffeehaus. It’s very common and encouraged to order a coffee drink, read a newspaper, and sit for hours enjoying the slower side of life. The Viennese take their coffee culture very seriously, and the waiters even wear full black and white suits— it feels as if you’ve stepped back in time to the 1930s! The cafes also serve extravagant pastries. You can try the classic sachertorte (though not my personal favorite as I’m not a big fan of chocolate), a fruity apfelstrudel, or one of the many other delicious creations on the menu.
If you want a typical traditional experience in a café whose interior looks like it hasn’t changed in decades, try Café Bräunerhof. For a bit more modern take on the tradition, (and my favorite) try Café Diglas. Of course, coffee houses are open year-round, and it’s the perfect way to warm up during the colder months that will leave you feeling like a true Viennese!
During my two weeks in Vienna in January, there was only one activity I was interested in that I wasn’t able to do, and that was see the Lipizzaner horses in action at the Spanish Riding School. This was because they were taking a short break from shows the two weeks I was there (not the whole winter, don’t worry). But, like my mom says, you always need to have a reason to come back to any place you’ve visited (smart woman, my mother)!
Overall, traveling in the low season has some awesome benefits like saving money and less crowds. But, you shouldn’t have to compromise anything when planning your vacation, either. Vienna is a city that offers beautiful sights, significant history, delicious cuisine and plenty of activities regardless of the time of year you visit, which makes it a great choice for travel in the off-season.