Marking the boundary of the First District, where the old city walls once stood, the series of boulevards that make up the Ringstrasse trace a 5km scenic loop around the historic center of Vienna. Created in the late 19th century to replace the fortification walls demolished under Emperor Franz Joseph, the Ringstrasse was designed to accommodate some of the city’s most spectacular works of architecture.
For visitors to Vienna, following the route of the Ringstrasse is a popular way to take in the sights, starting with the dramatic neo-Gothic Rathaus, or City Hall, set in the landscaped Rathauspark and the neighboring Parliament buildings. The magnificent Burgtheater and Volksgarten park stand opposite, and heading south, the ring road passes Maria Theresa Square and Franz Joseph’s elaborate Kaiserforum, now home to the Kunsthistorisches Museum (Museum of Fine Arts) and the Naturhistorisches Museum (Museum of Natural History).
A colossal piazza right at the heart of Imperial Vienna, Heldenplatz stretches out in front of the sweeping arcs of the Hofburg Palace, which was commissioned for the Habsburg Imperial Family in 1881. Constructed under the orders of Emperor Franz Joseph II as part of the city’s elegant Ringstrasse thoroughfare in the late 19th century, the square is dominated by two vast equestrian statues of Archduke Charles of Austria and Prince Eugene of Savoy, and completely surrounded by the Baroque beauty of Vienna’s most important landmarks.
The Habsburg dynasty, rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, lived on this spot in various palaces from the 13th century until its demise in 1918; now the palace is home to several sublime Imperial collections in the Neue Burg, Sisi and art museums; the Imperial Apartments; the office of the Austrian President; the National Library; the Hofburgs’ private chapel; and the Augustinian Church, parish church of Vienna’s aristocracy.
Designed in 1818, the Burggarten park served as a private royal garden for the Habsburg family until the end of the empire in 1918. It has an English layout and is a popular place to relax. Many locals come here for a break during or after their workday. There are many statues and monuments in the park, including the Mozart Memorial in the southwest section of the garden. The memorial uses plants that form a musical clef in front of the statue of Mozart. Monuments honoring Goethe and Emperor Franz Joseph I can also be found in the park.
There is also a fountain with a statue depicting Hercules fighting with a lion. In the northeast section of Burggarten is the Palm House. It is an elegant glass building that contains a tropical environment with waterfalls and exotic plants, and it is home to hundreds of free-flying tropical butterflies. There is also a cafe inside the Palm House.
An outpost of Vienna’s fabulous Kunsthistorisches Museum, Neue Burg forms a semi-circular wing of the Hofburg Palace complex, which was commissioned for the Habsburg Imperial Family in 1881. True to the Habsburg motto that bigger is better, the palace is of spectacular Baroque design inside and out; it originally contained the personal memorabilia of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, whose assassination in 1914 sparked off World War. Today the Neue Burg holds three important Imperial collections, including the Imperial Collection of Arms and Armor (Hofjägd und Rüstkammer), which moved into its palatial new home in 1935 and whisks through centuries of battle armor worn by both man and beast, displayed to stunning effect in long, marble-floored corridors. The Habsburg musical instruments (Sammlung Alter Musik Instrumente) arrived at Neue Burg post-war in 1945; highlights include archaic wind instruments, mandolines and priceless violins.
With an extensive collection, large exhibition halls, themed special exhibits, and a rich program of events, Vienna’s Museum of Applied Arts (commonly called MAK) is a great place to spend an afternoon. The museum is located in the ‘Innere Stadt’ (Vienna’s First District), and combines the applied arts, contemporary art, design, and architecture under one roof. The MAK boasts a unique collection of applied arts and is known worldwide as a first class destination for contemporary art. The museum’s spacious halls in the impressive Ringstraße building have been redesigned by contemporary artists to best showcase the MAK’s permanent collection, keeping the artistic heritage of the building as part of the viewing experience. The windows of the MAK are distinctively illuminated by James Turrell’s light sculpture, which was permanently installed in 2004.
Vienna’s Augarten is a public park in Leopoldstadt, home to a former Imperial palace of the same name and several other buildings of note. The grounds themselves cover 52.2 hectares and are Baroque in design, remodeled from previous gardens in the early 18th century for the ever-acquisitive Habsburg Emperor Joseph II. The court architect Isidore Canevale was responsible for planting hundreds of trees that now provide the shady pathways as well as the layout out the formal flowerbeds. Facilities for visiting families in the gardens today include paddling pools, sports fields and a couple of restaurants, including Décor, rather fabulously sited in a former Nazi anti-aircraft bunker.
Other attractions in Augarten include the spectacular Baroque palace, now the winter home of the world-famous Vienna Boys Choir; a contemporary art gallery that is an outpost of the Belvedere; a film archive; and a Jewish study center.
The Academy of Fine Arts, or Akademie der Bildende Kunst, may not be one of Vienna's best known galleries, but the collection of paintings is nonetheless impressive and worth a visit. It concentrates on Flemish, Dutch and German painters including the disturbing Hieronymus Bosch, Rembrandt, van Dyck and Rubens. The highlight is Bosch's altarpiece Triptych of the Last Judgment from 1504 to 1508.
The Academy of Fine Arts still functions as an art school, so don't be surprised if you smell fresh paint. It has the distinction of being the school that rejected Adolf Hitler twice.
A Jewish community existed in Vienna from medieval times, centered around Judenplatz where the city’s first synagogue was built. That was burnt down during an uprising in 1420, by which time the Jews controlled much of the city’s wealth. A second Jewish enclave grew up in Leopoldstadt in the 15th century and flourished until the 1930s; there were synagogues all over the city and the Jews were part of wealthy Viennese society. All that came to an abrupt end in 1938 with the Nazis marching in to the city, and many thousands of Jews fled Austria following the burning of their businesses and houses on Kristallnacht, November 9, 1938.
Altogether 65,000 Viennese Jews died during World War II and the city’s Holocaust Memorial stands in Judenplatz, a controversial and austere white marble box that contrasts sharply with the ornate Baroque architecture that surrounds it. Designed in 2000 by British artist Rachel Whiteread, it is made of concrete and steel.
Hoher Markt is Vienna’s oldest town square, dating way back to Roman times; soon after World War II, sections of the Roman military camp of Vindobona were found below the cobbles and artifacts from these remains are now displayed in the Museum of Rome at No. 3. In the middle of the square stands the marble Baroque Vermählungsbrunnen (Wedding Fountain), designed by Baroque master-craftsman Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach in 1706 to commemorate the marriage of the Habsburg Empress Maria Theresa to Franz Stephan of Lorraine; it sits under an ornate bronze baldacchino.
The Austrian Theater Museum is found in the delightfully Baroque Lobkowitz Palace, steps away from the Schloss Schönbrunn, and is part of the Kunsthistorischen museums complex. Dating from the late 1690s, the Lobkowitz was one of the first urban palaces built in Vienna after the Imperial Family made the city its main home. It was here that Beethoven premiered his ‘Third Symphony’ and here that many glittering society balls were held over the years.
During its Imperial years, Vienna was packed with theaters, many of which – such as the Burgtheater and the Volkstheater – are still going strong. Being avid collectors of just about anything, the Habsburg emperors began to hoard theater artifacts back in the 18th century. Today these are artfully brought together among the gilt, stucco and delicate ceiling frescoes of the Lobkowitz Palace.
The number-one destination of beer lovers, Austria’s most popular brewing exhibition is found Salzburg’s oldest brewery, which was built in 1863, although Stiegl has actually been brewing ever since 1492 and the company remains independent to this day. In medieval times the production of beer was as vital to the growth of Salzburg’ wealth as the mining of salt in the region; a visit to the Stiegl Brauwelt encompasses a whistle-stop tour of the brewing process and the bottling plant as well as highlighting the social impact of brewing on the city. Although guided tours are currently only available in German, all the exhibits in the museum are clearly labeled in other languages, including English, so it is easy to understand the displays.
Tastings following the brewery tour give the chance to sample three of the ales produced here, and soft options are offered for non-drinkers. Time your visit correctly and stay on in the restaurant for lunch or supper.
The pastel-hued façade of Vienna’s Old Town Hall (Altes Rathaus) may pale in comparison to the dramatic neo-gothic towers of the modern City Hall, but the former administrative center is still a charming reminder of medieval Vienna. Although first built in the 13th century, the majority of the present-day building stems from its 18th-century baroque redesign, featuring details like the striking Renaissance portico and the monumental Andromeda Fountain by Georg Raphael Donners.
The Old Town Hall housed the magistrate of Vienna until 1885, but today is home to the Museum of the Austrian Resistance Movement, a museum devoted to the Austrian resistance against the Nazis. One of the city’s most intriguing museums, the fascinating exhibitions include photographs, original documents and personal reports, detailing the work of Austrian resistance fighters and the victims of the Nazi regime.
Serving a triple role, the Third Man Museum shines a light on post-war Vienna at the start of the Cold War, looks at movie making in the 1940s and 50s, and features artifacts from the famous movie of the same name. The Third Man was a British film shot in Vienna and released in 1949, featuring the spy Harry Lime; it was a worldwide smash hit and made the careers of both Orson Welles – who played the lead part – and the composer of the famous theme tune, Anton Karas. The privately owned museum is the brainwave of Karin and Gerhard Strassgschwandtner, who have collected more than 2,500 relics of the film, including posters, screenplays, cameras used on set, the original zither that Karas played for the film, and stark black-and-white images depicting life in divided Austria during the Cold War. They often lead tours around the museum themselves, and regular zither concerts are held there as well.
The focal point of the Volksgarten in Vienna is the Theseus Temple. It is a Greek-style temple that was built in 1820-1823 as a replica of the Temple of Hephaestus (Theseion) in the ancient Agora of Athens. It was originally built to house one piece of art, the “Theseus and the Minotaur” sculpture. The sculpture is now located in the Art History Museum. The temple was recently renovated, and as part of the Art History Museum's Modern and Contemporary Art Program, it showcases exceptional works of art one piece at a time.
Volksgarten is an elegant park in Vienna that was once a favorite gathering place for the aristocracy. It was designed in a formal French style with geometric flowerbeds and rose gardens. Along with the Theseus Temple, there are several fountains and other interesting monuments, such as the Kaiserin Elisabeth-Denkmal and the Grillparzer Monument. The park is a popular place for relaxing or taking a leisurely stroll.
One of a string of Imperial palaces and mansions built across Vienna in the 17th and 18th centuries, Palais Auersperg is Vienna’s oldest Baroque palace, built between 1706 and 1710. Its white, lacy façade bears the unmistakable stamp of Baroque master architect Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and his sidekick Lukas von Hildebrandt, and it was designed to be a center of European culture, music and politics. Stalwarts of the Vienna musical scene such as Mozart, Haydn and Gluck all wrote music here and the palace played host to lavish balls and weddings frequented by European royalty. When Austria was under German occupation during World War II, Vienna resistance members met in Auersperg to lay the foundations of post-war Austria; the palace was later seized and became the HQ of the German police.
Close to the Baroque masterpiece Schönbrunn Palace and the Rathuis (City Hall), Palais Auersperg is today one of the most luxurious concert venues in Vienna.
The Wachau Valley is a stretch of the Danube River between Melk and Krems in Lower Austria. It has been peopled since prehistoric times. How do we know this? Because its surrounding mountains contains traces of millennia of civilization, from agricultural use to architecture including villages, castles and monasteries, particularly dating from medieval times. Melk Abbey is rich in art and history and is a good place to start. Another way to see the area is by boat cruise down the Danube, seeing the many villages unfold as you round each bend in the river.
In 2002, UNESCO listed it as a World Heritage Cultural Landscape so it must be good.