Vienna Travel Guide


The Hofburg Palace, or Imperial Palace, was the home of the Austrian Hapsburgs for 600 years. The first fortifications were erected by King Ottakar Premyst in the 13th century and were added to by every generation until it became the monumental structure it is today. As well as housing the president's offices, the palace now encompasses 22 separate museums, the National Library, a 14th-century Augustinian church, the famous Spanish Riding School and the Royal Chapel, where every Sunday the Vienna Boy's Choir sing Mass (they have performed for the Royal Court since 1498). It will be impossible to even catch a glimpse of everything on display at the Hofburg, so visitors should be selective. The most popular of the museums is the Kaiserappartements, which takes visitors on a tour of the Kaiser's imperial apartments. Also worth visiting is The Treasury, which houses the magnificent crown jewels, including St Stephen's Crown which dates back to the 12th century and was used to crown all Hungarian and subsequently Austrian Kaisers. The silver and Porcelain Treasury contains exquisite hand painted porcelain from all over the world.

Kunsthistorisches Museum
Across from Hofburg Palace, this huge building houses many of the fabulous art collections gathered by the Habsburgs as they added new territories to their empire. One highlight is the fine collection of ancient Egyptian and Greek art. The museum also has works by many of the great European masters, such as Velásquez and Titian.

On display here are Roger van der Weyden's Crucifixion triptych, a Memling altarpiece, and Jan van Eyck's portrait of Cardinal Albergati. The museum is renowned for the works of Pieter Brueghel the Elder. The 16th-century Flemish master is known for his sensitive yet vigorous landscapes. He did many lively studies of peasant life, and his art today seems almost an ethnographic study of his time. Don't leave without a glimpse of Brueghel's Children's Games and his Hunters in the Snow, one of his most celebrated works.

Schloss Schönbrunn
This sumptuous baroque palace (1700) is one of Vienna's most popular attractions. It has 2000-rooms-worth of imperial splendour (of which 40 can be visited), complete with a classically landscaped garden. Additional attractions (with separate entrance fees) include a maze and the world's oldest zoo. The pinnacle of finery is reached in the Great Gallery. Gilded scrolls, ceiling frescoes, chandeliers and huge crystal mirrors create the effect. Numerous sumptuous balls were held here, including one for the delegates at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). The Mirror Room is where Mozart (then six) played his first royal concert in the presence of Maria Theresa and the royal family in 1762. His father revealed in a letter that afterwards young Wolfgang leapt onto the lap of the empress and kissed her.

Spanish Riding School
The Spanish Riding School of Vienna is the oldest and last riding school in the world where classic dressage is still practised in its purest form. This Institute was founded in 1572 and named for the Lipizzaner horses, which are of Spanish origin. The Imperial Court Stud was originally situated near the village of Lipizza (hence the name of the horses) but since the collapse of the Danube Monarchy in 1920 have been bred at the Federal Stud in Styria. The horses perform their tricks in the Winter Riding School, which was commissioned by Emperor Karl VI. Performances take place between February and June, September and December but are in high demand and booked up months in advance (details on their website). The easiest way to see the horses is during their training sessions. Tickets are only available at the door, and cannot be booked in advance. Situated in the stables is the Lipizzana Museum, which displays the history of the school.

The dominating feature of the church is the skeletal 136m (446ft) Südturm, or south tower; nicknamed 'Steffl', it has a cramped viewing platform but is worth an elbow or two to get a glimpse of the enchanting postcard views of Vienna. The church was re-created in Gothic style at the behest of Habsburg Duke Rudolf IV in 1359, who laid the foundation stone and earned himself the epithet of 'The Founder' in the process. Südturm took 75 years to build and was to be matched by a companion tower on the north side, but the imperial purse withered and the Gothic style went out of fashion, so the half-completed tower was topped off with a Renaissance cupola in 1579. Austria's largest bell, the Pummerin ('boomer bell'), was installed here in 1952.

Giant Wheel
One of Vienna's most recognisable attractions, the Giant Wheel is located in a large wooded park and playground known as the Prater. It was built in 1897 by an English engineering firm and is the only one of its era still standing (the ferris wheels in Chicago, London, Blackpool and Paris have long since been destroyed). The wheel with its 15 gondolas takes twenty minutes to manoeuvre around and offers magnificent panoramic views of the city.

St. Stephan's Cathedral
A basilica built on the site of a Romanesque sanctuary, this cathedral was founded in the 12th century in what was, even in the Middle Ages, the town's center. A 1258 fire that swept through Vienna virtually destroyed Stephansdom, and toward the dawn of the 14th century a Gothic building replaced the basilica's ruins. The cathedral suffered terribly during the Turkish siege of 1683, then experienced peace until Russian bombardments in 1945. Destruction continued when the Germans fired on Vienna as they fled the city at the close of World War II. Restored and reopened in 1948, the cathedral is one of the greatest Gothic structures in Europe, rich in woodcarvings, altars, sculptures, and paintings. The 450-foot steeple has come to symbolize the spirit of Vienna. The 352-foot-long cathedral is inextricably entwined with Viennese and Austrian history. It was here that mourners attended Mozart's "pauper's funeral" in 1791, and it was on the cathedral door that Napoléon posted his farewell edict in 1805.

Belvedere Palace
The Belvedere consists of two splendid rococo mansions, designed in the early 18th century, which face each other across formal, sloping grounds which offers excellent views over the city. From the outside it is Vienna's finest palace complex, built by Prince Eugène of Savoy (1680-1735), the famous general who saved Vienna from the advance of the Ottoman Empire. The museums in the two palaces house some of Vienna's most renowned art galleries, offering excellent examples of Austrian art from the middle ages to present day. Their displays include an unrivalled collection of paintings by Klimt as well as famous works by Schiele and Kokoschka, Renoir and Monet. The Medieval and Baroque works are presented in the Lower Palace where many rooms have been preserved in their original state.

Imperial Treasury
The Schatzkammer is the greatest treasury in the world. It consists of two sections: the Imperial Profane and the Sacerdotal Treasuries. The first displays the crown jewels and an assortment of imperial riches; the other contains ecclesiastical treasures. The most outstanding exhibit in the Schatzkammer is the imperial crown of the Holy Roman Empire, which dates from 962. It's so big that, although it's padded, it probably slipped down over the ears of the imperial incumbents. Studded with emeralds, sapphires, diamonds, and rubies, the symbol of sovereignty is a priceless treasure, a fact recognized by Adolf Hitler, who had it taken to Nürnberg in 1938 (the American army returned it to Vienna after World War II). Also on display is the imperial crown of Austria, worn by the Habsburg rulers from 1804 to the end of the empire. Be sure to have a look at the coronation robes, some of which date from the 12th century.

The spa town of Baden bei Wien washes the eastern edge of the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), and has been soothing furrowed brows since Roman times. Beethoven came here in search of a cure for his deafness, and returned many times despite his lack of improved hearing. The town really took off in the 19th century, embraced by Biedermeier types and the Habsburgs.

Some of the best day trips out of Vienna take in the small towns and villages that line the Danube. Such a town is peaceful Krems, which reclines along the river's northern banks, surrounded by the terraced vineyards that for centuries have been its mainstay. There's not a heap to do in Krems other than take a quiet wander by the cobbled streets, empty courtyards, baroque churches and atmospheric city walls.

Lake Neusiedl
Birdwatchers flock to Neusiedler See, hoping to spot some of the 300 bird species that call the wetland area of reed beds home. The town of Rust, on the lake's eastern shore, is inundated with storks from March to August, and countless roofs are topped with the nests of the storybook birds. The town is also famous for its wine, and is dotted with atmospheric wine taverns. Nearby Mörbisch has a Hungarian accent, because of its proximity to the border.

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