A stroll around Vienna is like a journey back in time to the city’s imperial past. Examples of the capital’s rich cultural heritage and reminders of bygone imperial splendor await you around every corner.
For 640 years the Habsburgs ruled their empire from Vienna. Many of the city’s landmarks go back to the Baroque era, and the reign of Empress Maria Theresa. In 1857 Emperor Franz Joseph gave the order to raze the city walls and construct the Ringstrasse in their place. A stroll along the city’s showpiece boulevard is a sightseeing experience to remember as the Ring is lined with grand buildings and beautiful parks on both sides. The Hofburg in the heart of the old town served as the residence of the Habsburg emperors and empresses, and was the epicenter of a great power from 1278 to 1918. Today the extensive complex is home to a number of leading museums and official staterooms.
The Habsburgs’ former summer residence is Vienna’s top tourist attraction. The imperial family had the run of 1,441 rooms at Schönbrunn Palace, and today the original state rooms are open to the public. The grounds of the palace are home to architectural gems such as the Palm House and the zoo. Built in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa in 1752, Schönbrunn is the oldest zoo in the world. Although it has been thoroughly modernized in recent years, great care has been taken to preserve the original Baroque buildings. Empress Maria Theresa was so attached to her husband Franz I Stephan of Lorraine that she shares her last resting place with him in a double tomb in the Habsburg burial crypt, the Kapuzinergruft. St. Stephen’s Cathedral is the religious and geographical heart of the city, and the giant Pummerin bell in its tower features on television as it rings in the New Year each year.
The celebrations don’t end there. Throughout the ball season the words “Alles Walzer” signal to the assembled guests that it is time to join the dance at the Festsaal in the Hofburg or one of the city’s many other palaces. The Viennese are also true to the good old days of empire in their daily lives, enjoying delicious Kaisersemmel bread rolls, and treating themselves to a Kaiserschmarrn shredded pancake.
Between the thirteenth century and the fall of the empire in 1918 the Hofburg served as the Habsburg dynasty’s primary residence, with new wings added in several major construction phases over the years. The original Gothic buildings around what is now the Schweizerhof were steadily extended, with building activity reaching its peak in the Baroque era and the nineteenth century. A sprawling complex comprising several wings grew up, forming a major architectural focal point inVienna’s historic city center. Today the Hofburg is home to the Austrian National Library (Nationalbibliothek, www.onb.ac.at), the Museum of Ethnology and the Imperial Treasuries (Schatzkammer, www.khm.at), the Court Silver Collection (Silberkammer), the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum (www.hofburg-wien.at) and the Spanish Riding School (www.srs.at).
SchönbrunnPalace, located in Hietzing, in the west of the Austrian capital, is one of the world’s largest palace complexes. Following the destruction of the original buildings on the site during the 1683 siege of Vienna, Fischer von Erlach’s grandiose designs for Schönbrunn became a mirror of the Habsburgs’ far-reaching political ambitions. The palace and formal gardens were completed in 1696, and were completely remodeled under Maria Theresa after 1743. The neo-Baroque adaptations of the nineteenth century took their cue from the era of Maria Theresa’s rule, which was widely regarded as the heyday of the Habsburg Empire. After 1918 ownership of Schönbrunn Palace passed to the state, and today it is the city’s most visited cultural monument and an important recreation area.
The Imperial Burial Vault, part of the Church of the Capuchin Friars on Neuer Markt in the old town, is the main burial site of the Habsburgs and deeply symbolic of the history of the dynasty. It is the final resting place of almost all of the Habsburg emperors since the start of the seventeenth century (except for Rudolf II, Ferdinand II and Karl I), containing the remains of some 150 members of the ruling family. The crypt goes back to a Habsburg foundation, and was extended several times over a period of several centuries. The sarcophaguses and tombs are decorated with religious motifs and symbols of the transience of worldly power. The Habsburg crypt is under the stewardship of the Catholic order of the Capuchin Friars, and is open to the public.
The parish church of St. Augustin was the scene of numerous imperial weddings. It witnessed the marriages of Empress Maria Therese and Franz Stefan of Lorraine, Emperor Franz Joseph and Elisabeth, Crown Prince Rudolf and Princess Stephanie. It was also the scene of the proxy wedding (a common practice concluded before the bride traveled to her husband for the actual wedding ceremony) of Napoleon and Habsburg Archduchess Marie Louise. The Augustinian Church is also home to the Herzgruft where 54 Habsburg hearts are contained in silver urns ( Guided tours on Sundays after mass at around 12.15 and by prior arrangement).
St. Stephen’s Cathedral is both Austria’s most important Gothic building and the best-known symbol of Vienna. Dedicated to St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, the church was declared the seat of the Bishop of Vienna in 1469 and that of the Archbishop of Vienna in 1722. The cathedral largely owes its current appearance to elements built between the twelfth and the early sixteenth centuries. The Habsburgs had a significant hand in its design, and Duke Rudolf IV’s played a particularly crucial role when he commissioned the large-scale expansion of what was then St. Stephen’s Church. Until the sixteenth century, the Herzogsgruft crypt in the cathedral was the most important burial chamber of the ruling Habsburgs. The Cenotaph of Rudolf IV and the tomb of Emperor Friedrich III are of particular artistic interest.
The Karlskirche (St. Charles of Borromeo) church in Vienna’s fourth district is one of Europe’s leading examples of Baroque architecture. Its symbolism and the use of antique architectural elements tell of the Habsburgs’ aspirations to a universal empire. Work began on the building in 1714 according to plans by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. After his death, his son Joseph Emanuel completed the church in 1739.
In 1857 the city walls were razed to the ground, and the space they left behind became one of the largest building sites in Europe. Over the coming years the showpiece boulevard encircling Vienna’s city center saw the emergence of a glittering array of Historicist public buildings, private mansions, parks and memorials. Highlights include Otto Wagner’s Postsparkasse, the Museum of Applied Art, Stadtpark, State Opera, Hofburg, Kunsthistorisches Museum and Natural History Museum, the parliament building, the Burgtheater, the university and the former stock exchange.
During the construction of the Ringstrasse two museums – the Kunsthistorisches Museum and the Natural History Museum– were built to showcase the collections of the ruling dynasty. Finished in 1891 and 1889 in the Historicist style, the twin museums were originally designed as part of the ultimately uncompleted Kaiserforum. The buildings introduced the rich collection of imperial art and natural history exhibits that had previously been held in the Hofburg to a broader public. In March 2013 the Kunstkammer at the Kunshistorisches Museum reopened to the public in a new format after a decade long refurbishment project. The collection of curiosities is based on the treasures accumulated for the imperial cabinets of wonder by the ruling Habsburgs during the late Middle Ages, Renaissance and Baroque eras. Highlights of the 2,200 item collection include the Saliera salt cellar by Benvenuto Cellini, the Krumlov Madonna, intricate ivory pieces, scientific instruments, timepieces, automatons and a host of magical and curious exhibits.
The Augarten park in the former Danube wetlands in Vienna’s second district dates back to a seventeenth century complex which over subsequent years was continually adapted by the ruling imperial family. The eighteenth century garden pavilion, an important classical music venue in its day, today houses the factory of the Augarten Porcelain Manufactory, a museum on the history of porcelain making and a restaurant. Now the boarding house and home of the Vienna boys’ choir, the Augarten Palace dates back to a stately home which was acquired by Emperor Joseph II in 1780. The Josephstöckl, Joseph II’s private summer residence, is named after this popular Emperor who loved the Augarten and opened the grounds to the public in 1775. In late 2012 the Vienna Boys’ Choir’s new concert hall MuTh opened in the Augarten. The Baroque buildings combines with state-of-the-art modern architecture to create excellent acoustics, giving the Boys‘ Choir – as well as other youth groups – the perfect venue for concerts, theater and stage performances.
The Prater in Vienna’s second district started life as an imperial hunting ground in the Donauaen wetlands. The name Prater stems from pratum – the Latin word for meadow or hay-field (prado in Spanish, and prato in Italian). The meadows and the tree-lined boulevards give the park, referred to locally as the Green Prater, its distinctive character. The Prater Hauptallee was laid out as a horse-chestnut lined promenade in the sixteenth century. The system of pathways was expanded under Emperor Joseph II who also added the Praterstern (Prater star) intersection and the Lusthaus pavilion as a focal point. After Emperor Joseph II opened the park to the public in 1766 the Prater soon became one of the city’s best-loved recreation areas.
Any pieces of furniture that could not be accommodated in any of the Habsburg palaces and residences – or had fallen out of favour – were transferred to the Hofmobiliendepot which is located roughly half way between Schönbrunn Palace and the Hofburg. Today the depot is home to the Imperial Furniture collection, a modern, light-filled museum where visitors from all over the world can see selected items from the enormous imperial inventory. The Sis(s)i trail gives fans of the legendary Empress Elisabeth a fascinating insight into the monarch’s personality. A permanent exhibition entitled Sissi in Film features original furnishings from the popular Sissi trilogy starring Romy Schneider. Clips from the movies and background information on the making of the films breathe fresh life into the story. A changing line up of special exhibitions on the Habsburg dynasty and design complete the experience.
Tips for Researching Vienna Features:
www.habsburger.net (German and English) is an excellent source of information on the history and lives and times of the Habsburgs. A team of historians from the University of Vienna have converted huge volumes of archive data into user-friendly material on this easy to navigate multimedia website
More than 210 discounts and unlimited free travel by underground, bus and tram for 72 hours. Available in hotels and at the tourist information centre on Albertinaplatz (open daily from 9.00 am to 7.00 pm) and the tourist information point at the airport (open daily from 6.00 am to 11.00 pm), at sales and information points of the Vienna Lines (e.g. Stephansplatz, Karlsplatz, Westbahnhof, Landstraße/Wien Mitte) or by credit card on tel. +43-1-798 44 00-148.
The information, and photos, on our Vienna pages has been compiled with the help of Wien Tourismus – http://www.wien.info/en– to ensure quality, up-to-date information on the beautiful city of Vienna, Austria.
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