Vienna remains one of Europe’s most attractive destinations and is a city that has been near or at the core of much of Europe’s history.
Although the modern country of Austria dates only from 1955, Vienna and the Austrian people have a history dating back millennia. Known for its high quality of life, association with music and as the center of the Habsburg Empire for over six-hundred years, Vienna offers a delightful range of attractions that reveal the city’s unique history intertwined with its cultural traditions.
With Austria’s joining the EU in 1995 and the “opening” of Eastern Europe earlier in the decade, multicultural Vienna is now, more than ever, an important portal between Eastern and Western Europe.
Traces of first human occupation have been found dating as far back as the Paleolithic Period (Old Stone Age). The area was subsequently inhabited by the Illyrians and then the Celts. In 16–15 BCE the Romans, under the future emperor Tiberius, occupied the foothills of the Alps, and in the next century the Roman Empire established the settlement of Vindobona on the banks of the Danube, approximately at the location of modern Vienna’s Old Town, in the 1st century CE. Vindobona was an important center of commerce for approximately four hundred years, but it declined as the Roman Empire decayed.
A small settlement grew at this location and became known as Wien. The modest village survived the fall of the Roman Empire and prospered over the next several centuries. It, too, declined, but was provided a new lease on life in the 12th century, when the Babenbergs established a fortification in the area. The Habsburgs conquered the Babenbergs in the early 13th century and it was the Habsburgs who established Vienna as an important European capital. In addition, the Habsburg monarchs were responsible for constructing the city’s stunning collection of palaces and grand buildings.
The existence of Habsburg Vienna was threatened when it was besieged by the Ottoman Turks in 1529 and again in 1683. While both invasions were repulsed, the Turks were a constant threat to the city during this period.In the 18th century many of Vienna’s finest building and churches were constructed. In addition, this was, also, the period when the then suburban palaces of Schönbrunn and Belvedere were constructed. Unfortunately, in the early 19th Century Wien was twice captured by Napoleon and his second siege damaged large sections of the city.
Vienna and the Habsburg Empire reached its peak under the Empress Maria Theresa. Maria Theresa and her aides arranged marriages for her 16 children helping to spread the influence of the Habsburgs across a wide swath of Europe from Austria through Spain. Unfortunately, power often begets animosity and the Habsburg rulers and Austria suffered from wars, assassinations and the weight of history.
The second half of the 19th century appeared to be a time of growth and promise for the Habsburg Empire, but this promising path eventually turned into a troubled future. For example, Emperor Franz Joseph dedicated his life and almost every waking moment to ensuring the success and longevity of the empire. He ordered the creation of the Ringstrasse and the construction projects that populated the Ring with many of its grand building.
However, the world was changing and the Habsburgs were having a difficult time retaining their relevance and power base. The Emperor survived an assassination attempt, his son and heir committed suicide, and, then, his wife (Sisi) was assassinated by an Italian Anarchist. A few years later, Franz Joseph’s nephew and heir Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo in 1914 by the anarchist Princeps, in what became a factor leading to World War I. Franz Joseph died in 1916 after a reign of 68 years and was succeeded by a distant relative, but after the war, the monarchy was dissolved.
Once the center of power for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Austria was reduced to a small republic after its defeat in World War I.
Following annexation by Germany in 1938, the country was aligned with the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) during World War II. The Republic was occupied by the victorious Allied forces in 1945 and ruled by France, the United Kingdom, the Soviet Union and the United States. For example, at the Schwartzenplatz you will find a monument to the Soviet Armies that took part in the liberation of Vienna near the end of World War II.
A State Treaty signed in 1955 ended the occupation, recognized Austria’s independence, and forbade the country’s unification with Germany. A constitutional law adopted that same year declared the country’s “perpetual neutrality” as a condition for Soviet military withdrawal. This neutrality, once ingrained as part of the Austrian cultural identity, has been called into question since the Soviet collapse of 1991 and Austria’s entry into the European Union in 1995. Present day Austria is a prosperous country, and entered the European Monetary Union in 1999.
Many of Vienna’s most important buildings were damaged during the last half of World War II. Over the following 50 years the buildings and antiquities were restored and today’s Vienna bears few hints of its turbulent past.
Capital of the Republic of Austria and one of Europe's most visited cities, Vienna (Wien) owes much of its charm and rich history to its splendid location on the banks of the Danube River. For centuries the gateway between West and East Europe, it was the natural nucleus of the once sprawling Habsburg Empire, and to this day remains Austria's most important commercial and cultural hub. Vienna continues to attract visitors with its many great historical sightseeing opportunities, its fabled collections of art, glittering palaces, and exceptional musical heritage that is still carried on in concert halls and one of the world's great opera houses.
With an unmistakably cosmopolitan atmosphere, Vienna retains a distinctive charm and flair, accentuated by its fine old architecture, its famous horse cabs (Fiaker), as well as its splendid coffee houses with their Viennese cakes and pastries.
1. The Hofburg
For more than six centuries the Hofburg has been the seat of the Habsburgs and the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275. The Hofburg is perhaps the most historically significant of Vienna's palaces. The official seat of the Austrian President, this sprawling complex consists of numerous buildings reflecting various periods, including architectural flourishes from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo movements. This vast complex covers 59 acres with 18 groups of buildings, including 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms.
Its main features are the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Silver Collection, while other notable sites within the complex include the Imperial Chapel (Burgkapelle) and the Hofburg Treasury with its large collection of Imperial regalia and relics of the Holy Roman Empire. Informative guided tours are available in English.
2. Schönbrunn Palace & Gardens
The spectacular 18th century Schönbrunn Palace is worth visiting not only for its magnificent architecture, but also for its beautiful park like setting. This beautiful Baroque palace contains more than 1,441 rooms and apartments, including those once used by Empress Maria Theresa (Maria Theresa Walburga Amalia Christina was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the last of the House of Habsburg. She was the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands, and Parmathe).
Tour highlights include a chance to see the Imperial Apartments, including Emperor Franz Joseph's Walnut Room, Maria Theresa's rooms, which highlights include her richly furnished and decorated garden apartments, along with her Breakfast Room with its floral artwork created by her daughters.
Schönbrunn Park and Gardens is another highlight and is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The park, with its sweeping vistas and sumptuous Baroque gardens, is one of several free things to do in Vienna, although you will have to pay to enter the maze and some of the adjoining buildings, such as the 1883 Palm House.
Vienna Historical City Tours, is a good way to get to the palace and avoid the wait by skipping the line. They arrange pickup from your central hotel or the Opera House. After a narrated drive along the famed Ringstrasse, past major attractions like the Hofburg Palace, City Hall, and the Vienna State Opera, you will tour Schönbrunn Palace without having to wait in line. The tour continues to Belvedere Palace, where you can see Gustav Klimt's The Kiss and other famous Austrian art with a discounted admission.
The Kiss by Gustav Klimt
3. St. Stephen's Cathedral
Vienna's most important Gothic building and the cathedral church of the archbishopric since 1722, St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) sits in the historic center of Vienna. The original 12th century Romanesque church was replaced by a Late Romanesque one in the 13th century, the remains of which are the massive gate and the Heathen Towers.
Next came reconstruction in the Gothic style in the 14th century, along with the addition of the choir and the chapels of St. Eligius, St. Tirna, and St. Catherine, while the famous 137 meter (450 feet) high South Tower (Steffl) belongs to the 15th century. Improvements and further construction followed from the 17th to 19th centuries, and the whole structure was rebuilt after World War II.
Highlights include climbing the 343 steps to the Steffl's Watch Room for the spectacular views, and the North Tower, home to the massive Pummerin Bell (a fast lift takes visitors to a viewing platform). Other features of importance are the 14th century catacombs and the Cathedral Treasure, containing many of the cathedral's most important artifacts.
St. Stephen's Cathedral
4. Belvedere Palace
Among Vienna's most popular attractions, Belvedere Palace is really two splendid Baroque buildings: the Lower (Unteres) Belvedere and the Upper (Oberes) Belvedere. Highlights of the Upper Palace include the Ground Floor Hall with its statues, and the Ceremonial Staircase with its rich stucco relief and frescoes. Also worth seeing is the Marble Hall, a stunning two story hall with numerous period sculptures, paintings, and ceiling frescoes. The Lower Palace also boasts a Marble Hall, this one prominent for its oval plaster medallions and rich ceiling fresco, as well as a Marble Gallery built to house a collection of historic statues. Other distinguished buildings include the Winter Palace (a Baroque building that once housed the Court Treasury), the Orangery, the Palace Stables (home to the Medieval Treasury), and the Belvedere Gardens and Fountains linking the two palaces.
The Österreichische Galerie Belvedere is an art museum in the Belvedere Palace, known for its extensive collections, including a rich array of sculptures and panel paintings from the 12th to the 16th centuries. But it is perhaps best known for Austrian Symbolist artist Gustav Klimt's The Kiss, a masterpiece of early modern art.
5. The Vienna State Opera House
One of the world's largest and most splendid theaters, the Vienna State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) has hosted many of the world's most prominent composers, conductors, soloists, and dancers. Operatic and ballet performances are staged at least 300 times a year, fuelled by an obsession with music that goes as far back as 1625 when the first Viennese Court Opera was performed. The current massive Opera House was built in 1869 and is significant for its French Early Renaissance style, while interior highlights include a grand staircase leading to the first floor, the Schwind Foyer (named after its paintings of famous opera scenes), and the exquisite Tea Room with its valuable tapestries. Capable of accommodating an audience of 2,211 along with 110 musicians, the Opera House is also home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
English language guided tours are available.
State Opera House
6. Kunsthistorisches Museum & Maria-Theresien-Platz
Vienna's Kunsthistorisches Museum is housed in a magnificent building created expressly to show off the tremendous art collections of the Hapsburg royal family. The superb collection of Dutch art features the world's largest collection of works by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, including his masterpiece Tower of Babel. The museum's specialties are late Italian Renaissance, Baroque, and Flemish painting, but the collections go far beyond those with classical Greek and Roman art and Egyptian collections.
Guided tours are available.
Worth a visit is the museum café, especially for its atrium setting and tall, elegantly decorated walls and ceiling. The museum overlooks Maria-Theresien-Platz, the focal point of which is the grand monument to Empress Maria Theresa. The statue was commissioned by Franz Joseph I and was unveiled in 1887. This massive monument depicts the Empress on her throne while surrounded by major personages of her day, including a number of generals on horseback. The high reliefs depict illustrious figures from the fields of politics, economics and the arts.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder's, Tower of Babel
7. Vienna City Hall
Vienna's City Hall (Weiner Rathaus) is an impressive Neo-Gothic building that serves as the city's administrative center. Remarkable for its size, it occupies nearly 14,000 square meters of the former Parade Ground. This attractive building was completed in 1883 and is significant for the famous Rathausmann on top of its 98 meter (321 feet) high tower, a banner carrying iron figure presented to the city as a gift from its master locksmith.
The arcaded courtyard in the center of the building is the largest of seven courtyards and is used for popular summer concerts. Highlights of a guided tour of the building include the Schmidt Halle, the large entrance into which carriages would once drive to deposit their passengers, and the two Grand Staircases leading to the Assembly Hall. Other sights included in the tour are the Heraldic Rooms, the City Senate Chamber (important for its coffered ceiling decorated with gold leaf and its huge Art Nouveau chandelier), and the Mayor's reception room.
8. The Albertina Museum
All the great names in modern art are represented, often by multiple works, in the magnificent Albertina museum. Representative examples from all the various schools and movements; French impressionists, Vienna secessionists, the Russian avant-garde, the expressionists, and fauvists-are to be found here, represented by their greatest artists. Chagall, Picasso, Cezanne, Degas, Magritte, Vlaminck, Modigliani, Klimt, Munch, Kandinsky, Münter, Miró, Brach, and Ernst are there to compare and admire.
This must visit art museum is home to over a million works of art plus in excess of 65,000 drawings. Many of these masterpieces hang in a splendid 17th century palace where the Habsburg archdukes lived for a century, and their sumptuous State Rooms have been restored to their original glory.
English language guided tours are available, along with informative audioguides.
The Albertina Museum
The Albertina Museum
Vienna's "nature and human-friendly" apartment block, the decidedly odd, yet fascinating Hundertwasserhaus is well worth a visit. Designed by painter Friedensreich Hundertwasser, this brightly colored landmark on the corner of Löwengasse and Kegelstrasse was completed in 1985, and the occupants of its 53 units perhaps unsurprisingly, consist mostly of artists, intellectuals, and creative types, much like the architect himself.
Dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, a saint invoked during times of plague, Karlskirche (St. Charles Church) was built in 1737 and remains Vienna's most important Baroque religious building. This vast building is crowned by a magnificent 72 meter (236 feet) dome and is famous for its twin 33 meter (108 feet) Triumphal Pillars, based on Trajan's Column in Rome, with their spiraling bands depicting scenes from the life of St. Charles.
Interior highlights include the fabulous frescoes of St. Cecilia.
Modeled on St. Peter's in Rome, Peterskirche, the Collegial and Parish Church of St. Peter, is built on a site originally occupied by a Roman church and later by one founded by Charlemagne in 792 CE. The present structure was built in the 18th century and boasts a massive dome with a superb fresco and many artistic treasures. Other highlights include the Barbara Chapel with its magnificent portal, and in which Franz Karl Remp's Decollation of St. Barbara is found, and the choir with its High Altar and painting of the Immaculate Conception.
The church is also noteworthy for its frequent organ recitals. Also of significance is the nearby Plague Pillar, a 21 meter (69 feet) tall Baroque pillar built to commemorate the end of the devastating plague of 1679 that cost almost 75,000 Viennese their lives.
12. The Austrian Parliament Building
Home of Austria's National and Federal Parliament since 1918, the Parliament Building impresses with its vast dimensions. Completed in 1883 for use by the Imperial and Provincial delegations, it boasts many Greek influences, from its Corinthian columns to its rich decoration. Of particular significance are the exterior carvings depicting the granting of the Constitution by Franz Joseph I to the 17 peoples of Austria, along with numerous marble statues and reliefs. Another highlight is the splendid Pallas Athene Fountain with its four meter (13 feet) high statue adorned with a gilded helmet and lance, along with figures symbolizing the Rivers Danube, Inn, Elbe, and Moldau.
English language guided tours are available from the Visitor Center where you can also enjoy displays and multimedia presentations about the history of the building and Parliament itself.
13. Kärntner Strasse & the Donner Fountain
Looking to do a little window shopping after all that museum and gallery hopping? Then head to Vienna's most elegant street, Kärntner Strasse. Linking Stephansplatz to the Staatsoper on the Ring and ending at Karlsplatz, this mostly pedestrian-friendly area is fun to wander around, thanks to its lime trees, pavement cafés, fashionable shops, elegant boutiques, and busy shopping arcades.
Although most of the buildings you see today are 18th century, the Maltese Church still has a few features dating from the 13th century when the street served as an important trade route (take a peek inside for its coats of arms of the Knights of Malta). Other significant buildings are Palais Esterházy, built in 1698 and now home to an upscale restaurant, while nearby buildings house high end clothing stores. Also of significance is the exquisite Donner Fountain, built in 1739 by Georg Raphael Donner to reflect the "caring and wise" city government; it was, of course, commissioned by those who ran Vienna at the time.
The Donner Fountain
14. The Danube Tower
Few European capital cities in the 50s and 60s were left without that definitive mid 20th century landmark, the telecommunications tower, and Vienna is certainly no exception. Standing taller than any other building in the city, and in fact the tallest structure in Austria, the 252 meter (826 feet) tall Danube Tower, the Donauturm, opened to great fanfare in 1964 and continues to attract visitors for its spectacular view over the Danube River.
Highlights of a visit include the speedy elevator ride to the observation deck at 150 meters (492 feet), from which you can also pick out many of Vienna's most important attractions. The other big draw here actually combines two of a traveler's favorite things to do: enjoying incredible views and partaking in world class dining experiences. The Danube Tower is in fact home to two restaurants, one fine dining and the other a casual café style establishment.
The Danube Tower
15. The Imperial Crypt & the Capuchin Church
Dedicated to Our Lady of the Angels, Vienna's Capuchin Church (Kapuzinerkirche) is best known for its spectacular Imperial Vault (Kapuzinergruft), home to the Habsburg family vault containing the remains of 145 members of the family (almost all Austrian Emperors since 1633 are buried here).
A highlight includes the Founder's Vault, the final resting place of Emperor Matthias who died in 1619, and Empress Anna, who died in 1618. Also of interest is the Maria Theresa Vault, a domed chamber dominated by a double sarcophagus in the Rococo style and built for the Empress, who died in 1780. The sarcophagus takes the form of a bed of state, at the head of which is the Imperial couple with an angel and a crown of stars, while along the sides are numerous reliefs depicting scenes from Maria Theresa's life.
16. Burgtheater: Austria's National Theater
The Burgtheater, Vienna's superb National Theater, has long been famous for its productions of German language plays and performances. Many famous names have acted on its four stages since its founding by Emperor Joseph II in 1776 as the Court Theater. After devastation by bombing and fire in 1945, the theater eventually reopened in 1955 and has since grown in stature as the country's most important theater. In addition to its size and the caliber of its performances, the building's exterior is impressive on account of its numerous decorative figures, scenes, and busts. Equally as impressive is its interior consisting of rich decoration in the French Baroque style, and a staircase with frescoes by Gustav and Ernst Klimt.
Behind the scenes, guided tours are available in English and are well worth the cost.
17. The Famous Demel:
Vienna's Ultimate Café. Founded in 1786, the famous Demel is not only the oldest café and bakery in Vienna, it is perhaps the most memorable food experience you will have in this wonderful city. Officially known as Hofzuckerbäckerei Demel, shortened to Demel by those in the know, this exquisite café serves dishes and cakes carefully prepared by hand to traditional centuries-old recipes, some of them once used to satisfy the cravings of Emperor Franz Joseph who secretly had Demel cakes and pralines served when spending time with his wife Sisi.
A highlight of a visit is the Demelinerinnen, the modestly dressed waitresses wearing black dresses with lace collars who still address customers with the formal, "Haben schon gewählt ?" ("Has Madam/Sir already made her/his choice?"). The other highlight, of course, is drooling over the mouthwatering displays of cakes and pastries, including special creations resembling characters or creatures from history and mythology, each a work of art.