Voted the most liveable city in the world for nine years in a row, the former imperial capital also known as the ‘Paris of the Danube’ has it all: culture, history, parks, grand hotels, fine food, great shopping, famous music, jovial people, a beautiful setting and lots of fantastic spots to discover.

It’s official: Vienna is the most liveable city in the world, and if results of the annual survey conducted by Mercer surprise you, chances are you haven’t spent any length of time in this absorbing city. Vienna is elegant, regal and impressive, yes, but also earthy, vibrant and interesting, so besides for living, it’s also one of Europe’s best places to visit. And, as a deal-sweetener, let’s throw in hearty cuisine and a café tradition that comes with some of the best confectionary on the planet.

Monumental Vienna

Today’s Vienna is the capital of a prosperous but relatively small country, so it might surprise some to find it such an imposing place full of grand edifices, monuments, parks, palaces and museums. That is, until you realise that for much of its history Vienna was a blue-blooded imperial capital from where large parts of Europe were governed. Throughout the Middle Ages and the classical period it was the leading city of the German-speaking world, and remained one of Europe’s finest capitals even after Austria stopped being a leading monarchy and powerbroker at the beginning of the 20th century.

The result is centuries’ worth of beautiful palaces, parks and architectural splendour in a relatively compact city whose historic centre is a wonder of charming streets, squares, archways, galleries and pedestrian areas, which make it easy to discover the city on foot or by rented bicycle. Visiting Baroque monuments such as the Hofburg, the Kunsthistorisches Museum, the Naturhistorisches Museum or the myriad of other erstwhile Hapsburg palaces, the sense of grandeur and history that pervades Vienna makes you realise just how imperial a capital it was.

The Belvedere Palace is like a little Versailles surrounded by expansive landscaped gardens, and its views back across the city are almost as priceless as the art collection it houses. Venture a little further out and you come to the complex that personifies the Hapsburg dynasty, which for so long formed the backbone of political life in Austria and far beyond. Designed to rival France’s Versailles palace, the Schönbrunn is almost as famous and almost as imposing, with 1,441 rooms set within paradisiacal manicured grounds.

Using the Stephansplatz as your reference, it’s best to simply follow your nose around the elegant shopping streets and the charming little alleyways that tempt you away to discover quaint cafés, traditional eateries, art galleries and churches along the way. There is even a Greek Orthodox church situated in a particularly delightful spot right in the heart of the city, but it is the soaring spires of the Stephansdom Cathedral that will guide you back into the centre if you stray too far. The other unmistakable reference of this city is the Ringstrasse, which acts as the periphery of the inner town.

Having visited the Spanish Riding School or succession of museums housed in beautiful buildings set within equally impressive parks, you may well chance upon the Ringstrasse. Built in the place of the old town walls in the mid-19th century, it’s the circular version of Paris’ Champs-Élysées – and every bit as imposing as it is lined with grand mansions, baroque churches and classical hotels. Take a traditional tram ride from the Schwedenplatz along the Ringstrasse and you’ll be able to see an impressive number of monuments within the 20-minute trip.

A City of Music and Good Living

Among the sights visible from such a tour are the many concert halls and theatres, topped in importance by the grandest of them all, the opera house known here as the Wiener Staatsoper. This beautiful edifice represents the city’s proud tradition as a domain of music, art and culture, most notably of the classical variety. Lovers of opera and classical music will have found their haven in Vienna, for this is the spiritual home of Strauss, Mozart, Beethoven and many of the other names that embody the refinement of classical music.

Even if you’re not an aficionado, going to a concert is an enriching experience, and one that is so very Viennese, like participating in its café society and sweet delicacies, tucking into its hearty cuisine and topping it off with a visit to a charming local bar to sample Austrian wine, beer and spirits. European café culture began in the aftermath of the Siege and subsequent Battle of Vienna, when the besieging Ottoman Turks were driven out by a Christian alliance led by King Sobieski of Poland. The latter found bags of coffee beans left behind, and once they’d figured out what to do with them, Europe’s coffee craze was born.

It’s an enduring love affair, and when taken together with delectable cakes, biscuits and chocolates, forms one of the lasting impressions of Vienna that you will take with you. Marzipan is a big thing here, but you’ll find almost every kind of confectionary creation, and while there is no end of wonderful cafés and tearooms in which to satisfy your sweet tooth in suitably elegant style, there are two places that visitors to Vienna should experience. Try Sacher cake at the hotel of the same name and visit the Café Central for its beautiful décor and ambience – as well as a hearty or sweet snack.

There are many eateries of every kind in a sophisticated city like Vienna, but you really should try traditional Austrian food in a wonderfully ambient setting such as one of the Plachutta restaurants or similarly intimate settings. By all means indulge in some classic Wiener Schnitzel, but also try the Wollzeile, potato soups, stews, meat dishes and, when on the road, the delicious sausages, French fries and for that matter also kebabs and noodles that are on offer at street-side Imbiss snack bars. They offer an economical way of sampling local cuisine while on the move.

Alternative Vienna

The city also boasts some attractions that drive home the point that Vienna isn’t all about classical elegance and regal pomp and ceremony. You may want to visit the Sigmund Freud Museum, bearing in mind that the man who founded modern psychology spent much of his career here, or head over to the otherworldly forms of the Vienna Secession building (Künstlerhaus), so named after the association of architects and artists who led the Austrian design movement during the Art Nouveau period. Prominent among them were famous names such as Gustav Klimt – whose museum is one of the city’s top cultural attractions – Joseph Maria Olbrich and Koloman Moser.

The building looks like a Babylonian UFO landed in the middle of the city and forms a must-see opportunity for anyone who loves art and design, but it meets its equal in the almost Gaudi-esque Hundertwasser house designed by the architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser. True to his colourful name – which was actually Friedrich Stowasser – his creations convert even social housing into a wonderful Lord of the Rings type discovery. For an excursion of a more earthly nature there is also the expansive Prater Park, which houses a permanent amusement park capped by a planetarium and the famous Ferris wheel (Wiener Riesenrad) which, besides being a Vienna icon from which you can enjoy fantastic views across the city, has also been widely featured in popular culture – notably the Bond movie, The Living Daylights.

For another, even more romantic perspective of this most enchanting of cities, take a cruise on the Danube River or, if you are there at that time of year, visit what are described as the best Christmas markets in the world. Either way, you will come away understanding just why Vienna is considered to be the most liveable city in the world.