Baroque streetscapes and imperial palaces set the stage for Vienna's artistic and musical masterpieces alongside its coffee-house culture and vibrant epicurean and design scenes.
Vienna's imperial grandeur is the legacy of the powerful Habsburg monarchy. Their home for more than six centuries, the Hofburg palace complex, incorporates the Burgkapelle (Imperial Chapel), where the Vienna Boys' Choir sings Sunday Mass, and the famed Spanish Riding School, where Lipizzaner stallions perform elegant equine ballet, along with a trove of museums, including in the chandeliered Kaiserappartements (Imperial Apartments). Other immense palaces include the baroque Schloss Belvedere and the Habsburgs' 1441-room summer residence, Schloss Schönbrunn, while 19th-century splendours such as the neo-Gothic Rathaus (City Hall) line the magnificent Ringstrasse encircling the Innere Stadt (inner city).
One of the Habsburgs' most dazzling Rinsgstrasse palaces, the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, houses the imperial art collection. It's packed with priceless works by Old Masters, and treasures including one of the world's richest coin collections. Behind the Hofburg, the former imperial stables have been transformed into the innovative MuseumsQuartier, with a diverse ensemble of museums, showcasing 19th- and 20th-century Austrian art at the Leopold Museum to often-shocking avant-garde works at the contemporary MUMOK. Meteorites, fossils and prehistoric finds fill the Naturhistorisches Museum, while exquisite furnishings at the applied-arts Museum für Angewandte Kunst are also among the artistic feasts in store.
With a musical heritage that includes composers Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, Joseph Haydn, Ludwig van Beethoven, Franz Schubert, Johann Strauss (father and son), Johannes Brahms and Gustav Mahler, among countless others, Vienna is known as the City of Music. Its cache of incredible venues where you can catch performances today include the acoustically renowned Musikverein, used by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, the gold-and-crystal main opera house, the Staatsoper, and the multistage Konzerthaus, as well as the dedicated home of the Vienna Boys' Choir, MuTh. Music comes to life through interactive exhibits at the captivating Haus der Musik museum.
Renowned Drinking & Dining
The Viennese appreciation of the finer things in life extends to its opulent coffee-house 'living rooms' serving spectacular cakes; its beloved pub-like Beisln dishing up hearty portions of Wiener schnitzel, Tafelspitz (prime boiled beef) and goulash; elegant restaurants; and its fine Austrian wines served in vaulted Vinothek (wine bar) cellars, and in rustic vine-draped Heurigen (wine taverns) in the vineyards fringing the city. Local and international delicacies fill the heady Naschmarkt stalls, and creative chefs are experimenting with local produce and fresh new flavour combinations in innovative, often repurposed venues.
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Vienna's foremost opera and ballet venue, the neo-Renaissance Staatsoper, is one of the finest concert halls in the world. Even if you can't get tickets to see a tenor hitting the high notes, you can discover its architectural brilliance and musical genius on a 40-minute guided tour. Tours (in English and German) generally depart on the hour between 10am and 4pm.
Vienna’s Gothic masterpiece Stephansdom – or Steffl (Little Stephan), as it’s ironically nicknamed – is Vienna's pride and joy. A church has stood here since the 12th century, and reminders of this are the Romanesque Riesentor (Giant Gate) and Heidentürme (Towers of the Heathens). From outside, the first thing that will strike you is the glorious tiled roof, with its dazzling row of chevrons and Austrian eagle. Inside, the magnificent Gothic stone pulpit presides over the main nave, fashioned in 1515 by Anton Pilgrim.
The MuseumsQuartier is a remarkable ensemble of museums, cafes, restaurants and bars inside former imperial stables designed by Fischer von Erlach. This breeding ground of Viennese cultural life is the perfect place to hang out and watch or meet people on warm evenings. With over 90,000 sq metres of exhibition space – including the Leopold Museum, MUMOK, Kunsthalle Wien, Architekturzentrum and Zoom – the complex is one of the world’s most ambitious cultural hubs.
The Hofburg's Kaiserliche Schatzkammer contains secular and ecclesiastical treasures (including devotional images and altars, particularly from the baroque era) of priceless value and splendour – the sheer wealth of this collection of crown jewels is staggering. As you walk through the rooms you'll see magnificent treasures such as a golden rose, diamond-studded Turkish sabres, a 2680-carat Colombian emerald and, the highlight of the treasury, the imperial crown.
A masterpiece of total art, Schloss Belvedere is one of the world’s finest baroque palaces. Designed by Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt (1668–1745), it was built for the brilliant military strategist Prince Eugene of Savoy, conqueror of the Turks in 1718. What giddy romance is evoked in its sumptuously frescoed halls, replete with artworks by Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka; what stories are conjured in its landscaped gardens, which drop like the fall of a theatre curtain to reveal Vienna's skyline.
Nothing symbolises Austria's resplendent cultural heritage more than its Hofburg, home base of the Habsburgs from 1273 to 1918. The oldest section is the 13th-century Schweizerhof (Swiss Courtyard), named after the Swiss guards who protected its precincts. The Renaissance Swiss Gate dates from 1553. The courtyard adjoins a larger courtyard, In der Burg, with a monument to Emperor Franz II adorning its centre. The palace now houses the Austrian president's offices, the preserved Kaiserappartements and a raft of museums.
The Habsburgs' opulent summer palace is now a Unesco World Heritage site. Of its 1441 rooms, 40 are open to the public; the Imperial Tour takes you into 22 of these, including the private apartments of Franz Joseph and Sisi. The Grand Tour continues to the other 18 rooms and includes the 18th-century interiors from the time of Maria Theresia. These mandatory tours are done with a free audio guide (or app); the Grand Tour can also be done with a tour guide.
A highlight of any trip to Vienna is a visit to the Kunsthistorisches Museum Vienna, brimming with works by Europe’s finest painters, sculptors and artisans. Set within a neoclassical building that rivals the art it contains, the museum's collections span Classical Rome to Egypt and the Renaissance. With limited time, be sure to dedicate at least an hour or two to the old masters in the Gemäldegalerie (Picture Gallery).
Within the sprawling, partially forested Schlosspark, the beautifully tended formal gardens of the palace, arranged in the French style, are a symphony of colour in summer and a combination of greys and browns in winter; all seasons are appealing in their own right. The grounds, which were opened to the public by Joseph II in 1779, hide a number of attractions in the tree-lined avenues (arranged according to a grid and star-shaped system between 1750 and 1755).