Things to Do in Vienna
The St Stephen's Cathedral, or Stephansdom, is the heart of Vienna both geographically and emotionally. It is a magnificent dark Gothic church, beloved and unmissable in Vienna.
A church has stood on this site since the 12th century, but little remains of the original structure aside from the Riesentor (Giant's Gate) and the Heidentürme (Towers of the Heathens). Both features are Romanesque in style. The Riesentor (rumor has it that the gate was named because a mammoth's tibia, mistaken for a giant's shin, once hung here) is the main western entrance, topped by a tympanum of lattice patterns and statues. Stephansdom's Gothic makeover began in 1359 at the behest of Habsburg Duke Rudolf IV, who earned the epithet of 'The Founder' by laying the foundation stone.
The church's dominating feature is the skeletal Südturm (south tower). Standing 450 ft (136.7m) high, it was completed in 1433 after 75 years of hard labor.
If you’re looking to sample authentic Viennese cuisine or soak up some local culture, pay a visit to the Naschmarkt, the oldest and most beloved of Vienna’s many markets. Dating back to the 16th century, the Naschmarkt has occupied its present location since 1793, stretching for more than a kilometer along the Wienzeile, just south of Vienna’s historic center. Over 170 stalls take over the vibrant market hall each day between 6am and 6.30pm, selling an array of food produce from around the world.
Visiting foodies will be in heaven here, with stalls heaped with fresh meats, seafood, fruits and vegetables, international wines and artisan cheeses. Most notable is the variety of ethnic cuisines, from an Indian and Middle Eastern section dotted with kebab and falafel huts, to a spread of stalls devoted to Oriental cuisine and a colorful array of exotic spices.
Schonbrunn Palace, or Schloss Schonbrunn, means 'beautiful spring' and was a royal hunting park when plans were made to build a sumptuous palace to rival Versailles. Queen Maria Theresa's architect, Nicholas Pacassi, is responsible for the eventual design of a long, symmetrical palace full of gilding and crimson displays drawing on Japanese, Italian, Persian and Indian works of art. There are ceiling frescoes celebrating the Habsburgs and 18th century furnishings. It was finally finished in 1749.
The gardens are huge and beautiful. There is a spectacular iron and glass palm house, a maze and labyrinth, and a viewing terrace. Since the end of the monarchy the Viennese people have flocked to these gardens for recreation. The palace is on UNESCO's list of World Heritage Sites.
Schönbrunn Palace in Vienna is the former summer residence of the royal family. The gardens at Schönbrunn Palace were opened to the public at the end of the 1700s and since then have been a popular recreational area, both with the Viennese population and international visitors alike.
The palace and its immaculate grounds made it onto the UNESCO list of World Heritage sites in 1996. Spanning some 1.2 kilometers from east to west and approximately one kilometre from north to south, these are no ordinary gardens; they house a spectacular iron and glass palm house, a maze, and a viewing terrace. The original Baroque-style layout, along with the additions made during the last decade of Queen Maria Theresa’s life, has more or less been retained.
Vienna’s most beautiful concert hall was completed in 1867 on the edge of the Stadtpark (City Park), close to the gilded statue of composer Johann Strauss, whose music is enjoyed there nightly. The Kursalon was designed by Austrian architect Johann Garben in Neo-Renaissance style and its original use was as a spa; just a year after it opened it was given over to music and became the meeting place of choice for Viennese high society.
Recently given a facelift, the Kursalon is now returned to its gleaming, romantic best and its halls once more drip with chandeliers and elegant stucco decoration. It is known for its nightly repertoire of favorites from Strauss, Schubert, Mozart and other Baroque musicians, played by the Salonorchestra Alt Wien, which was founded in 1994.
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.
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).
More Things to Do in Vienna
One of the largest squares in Vienna, Karlsplatz is dominated by the huge, baroque Karlskirche church, which was built between 1716 and 1737 with designs influenced by the architect's visit to Rome. The square is also well known for a pair of pavilions that were created in 1898 and 1899 by Otto Wagner and contain marble slabs and green-painted, wrought-iron frames that are decorated with gold-colored sunflowers and gilded trim.
The western side of the square contains the Secession Building, which is an art museum, and the Naschmarkt, which is Vienna's most popular market. The eastern side of the park is bordered by a park called Resselpark where you can find several statues of famous Austrians. Also near the square are several cultural institutions including the Musikverein, a concert hall that is home to the Vienna Philharmonic, and the Kunstlerhaus, an art gallery and exposition hall. The History Museum of Vienna is located on the eastern side of the square as well.
Staatsopera, the Vienna Opera, began in the early 18th century. Since then it has continuously produced performances every year. The building was opened in 1869, part of Franz Joseph's expansion of Vienna which has left such a magnificent legacy of grand buildings in the city. There are guided tours, or, better still, attend one of the 300 performances held every year in an every changing program.
A visit to the new Viennese State Opera Museum can be combined with a guided tour of the Opera House. The museum has photos, costumes, playbills, models of stage sets and information on every performance of the last fifty years.
For sheer grandness, the Neo-Gothic Rathaus, or Vienna City Hall, steals the Ringstrasse show. Completed in 1883 by Friedrich von Schmidt, it was modeled on Flemish city halls. Its main spire soars to 335 ft (102m) if you include the pennant held by the knight at the top. You're free to wander through the seven inner courtyards but must join a guided tour to see the interior, with its red carpets, gigantic mirrors, and frescoes.
Between the Rathaus and the Ringstrasse is the Rathauspark, with fountains, benches and several statues. It is split in two by Rathausplatz, which is lined with statues of notable people from Vienna's past. Rathausplatz is the sight of some of the city's most frequented events, including the Christkindlmarkt (Christmas Market), Musikfilm Festival and the Wiener Eistraum.
Hemmed in by the famous Ringstrasse, which marks the route of the former city walls, and encompassing the majority of the capital’s top attractions, the historic center of Vienna is renowned as one of the most beautiful in Europe. Known as the First District, or Inner City, and inscribed on the UNESCO World Cultural Heritage list, a walk through historic Vienna reveals enough landmark sights to keep your camera snapping all day long.
The central district is characterized by its breathtaking architecture, from medieval hangovers like St. Stephen's Cathedral through the golden age of the Habsburg Empire, represented by the grand Imperial Palace. The 19th-century Ringstrasse is also lined with iconic buildings, with the Vienna City Hall, the Parliament buildings and the Kaiserforum all within close proximity, and the lively Museum Quarter adding a modernist flavor.
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.
The Vienna Prater is both a huge outdoor area and an amusement park. Once the Emperor Maximilian II's hunting ground in the 16th century, in 1766 Emperor Joseph II declared it open parkland for everyone. Coffee-houses and cafes sprang up and nobody seemed worried that it continued to be used for hunting until 1920! It was also around the 18th century that the Wurstelprater began - an amusement park which continues to this day and includes the giant ferris wheel, the Riesenrad, one of Vienna's famous sights. There are also bumper cars, a roller-coaster, and carousels.
The Prater also houses a planetarium and the Prater Museum, a little disappointing as museums go although the antique slot machines are worthwhile.
Standing in stark contrast to the baroque palaces and grand plazas of historic Vienna, the colorful facade of the Hundertwasserhaus is one of the city’s most unique works of architecture. Unconventional and somewhat eccentric, the apartment complex is the masterpiece of 20th century Austrian architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser, one of the country’s most imaginative and controversial contemporary artists. Mimicking elements of Gaudí’s Art Nouveau style, Hundertwasser’s designs marry whimsical shapes and curved lines with a bold color palette, resulting in some of Austria’s most recognizable and most visited landmarks.
The Hundertwasserhaus was finished in 1986 and features a playful mix of painted mosaics and different sized windows, spread over the 52 apartment buildings. The organic theme even goes one step further, with a grass-covered rooftop sprouting with trees that appear to be grown from within.
Founded in 1768 by its namesake, Duke Albert of Saxe-Teschen, son-in-law of Empress Maria Theresa, Vienna’s Albertina museum is renowned for housing the world’s most prominent collection of graphic art. Displayed in a former residential palace on the tip of the vast Hofburg Imperial Palace complex, the grand Albertina is among the city’s most notable attractions, home to an incredible 1.5 million prints and over 50,000 drawings.
The Albertina’s gigantic permanent collection is broken into 4 principal departments, most notably the aforementioned Graphic Art Collection, of which highlights include the world’s largest collection of Dürer drawings (totaling around 145) and a large number of works by Raphael, Rembrandt and Schiele.
The Church of St Charles Borromeo, or Karlskirche, is the finest baroque church in Vienna and was built between 1716 and 1739, after a vow by Karl VI at the end of the 1713 plague. It was designed and commenced by Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach and completed by his son Joseph. Although predominantly baroque, it combines several architectural styles.
The twin columns are modeled on Trajan's Column in Rome and show scenes from the life of St Charles Borromeo (who helped plague victims in Italy), to whom the church is dedicated. The huge oval dome reaches 236 ft (72m); in combination with the church's large windows, the dome's height creates a bright, open nave. There is a small museum with a handful of religious art and clothing purportedly from the saint, but the highlight is the lift to the dome for a close-up view of the detailed frescoes by Johann Michael Rottmayr. The altar panel is by Sebastiano Ricci and shows the Assumption of the Virgin.
The Austrian Parliament Building, a Greek-revival style building completed in 1883, is where the two Houses of the Parliament of Austria conduct their sittings. It is located in Vienna’s city center, close to the Hofburg Imperial Palace and the Palace of Justice. Despite sustaining heavy damages during WWII, most of the building’s interior has been restored to its original impressive appearance.
The parliament building is one of the largest structures on the Ringstraße. It was originally built to house the two chambers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire’s Reichsrat (Austrian legislature). Today, it is the seat of both the Nationalrat (National Council) and the Bundesrat (Federal Council). The building contains over 100 rooms, including the chambers of the national and federal councils, the former imperial House of Representatives, committee rooms, libraries, lobbies, dining-rooms, bars, and gymnasiums.
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.
With a history dating back to 1889 and a permanent collection made up of over 20 million objects, the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum) is one of the largest and most renowned natural history museums in the world. The counterpart to the Museum of Art History (Kunsthistorisches Museum), both museums are located on Maria Theresien Platz in central Vienna and rank among the city’s top attractions.
Based on the collected works of Emperor Franz Stefan, husband of Empress Maria Theresia, Rudolph II and Prince Eugène of Savoy, exhibits include a vast assemblage of minerals, rocks, fossils, meteors and flora specimens; a zoological display featuring a series of rare stuffed animals and extinct species; and a Dinosaur Hall, which houses the skeleton of a Diplodocus.
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