The huge Hofburg (Imperial Palace) is an awesome repository of culture
and heritage. The Habsburgs set up house here for more than six centuries,
periodically adding new sections to create the current jumble of styles
and massive dimensions.
The oldest part is the Schweizerhof (Swiss Courtyard), dating from the
13th century and named after the Swiss guards who used to protect its
precincts. The most active phase of building was carried out from the
second half of the 19th century to WWI. The curvaceous Neue Burg, from
which Hitler addressed a rally during his triumphant 1938 visit to Vienna,
dates from this time.
The 22 rooms in the Kaiserappartements (Imperial Apartments) are packed
with all the fine furniture, tapestries and bulbous crystal chandeliers
you'd expect. The sheer wealth exhibited in the Schatzkammer (Imperial
Treasury) collection of crown jewels is staggering: one room contains
a 2860-carat Colombian emerald, a 416-carat balas ruby and a 492-carat
aquamarine. The religious relics include supposed fragments of the Cross,
a nail from the Crucifixion and a thorn from Christ's crown.
The complex is rich in museums: the Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente (Collection
of Ancient Musical Instruments), exhibiting instruments of all shapes
and sizes; the Museum für Völkerkunde (Ethnological Museum),
with displays on non-European cultures; and the Albertina, a famous and
extensive collection of graphic arts. The Gothic Burgkapelle (Royal Chapel)
is where the Vienna Boys' Choir sings at Sunday Mass.
If you're an art buff don't miss the Kunsthistorisches Museum, one of
the finest in Europe. The Habsburgs loved to collect, and many goodies
found their way back to Vienna from their extensive territories. It's
impossible to see the whole museum in one visit, so plan ahead or expect
to indulge in repeat excursions.
Rubens was appointed to the service of a Habsburg governor in Brussels,
so it is not surprising that the museum has one of the best collections
of his works. The collection of paintings by Pieter Bruegel the Elder
is also unrivalled.
The works by Canova, Vermeer, Dürer, Rembrandt, Raphael, Van Dyck,
Cranach, Caravaggio, Canaletto and Titian aren't bad and there are extensive
collections of Egyptian, Greek and Roman artefacts, and sculpture and
decorative arts covering the Austrian high baroque, Renaissance, mannerist
and medieval periods, including Cellini's famously over-the-top salt cellar.
The building itself has some delightful features. The murals between
the arches above the stairs were created by three artists, including a
young Klimt (northern wall), painted before he broke with classical tradition.
This sumptuous baroque palace (1700) is one of Vienna's most popular attractions.
It has 2000-rooms-worth of imperial splendour (of which 40 can be visited),
complete with a classically landscaped garden. Additional attractions
(with separate entrance fees) include a maze and the world's oldest zoo.
The pinnacle of finery is reached in the Great Gallery. Gilded scrolls,
ceiling frescoes, chandeliers and huge crystal mirrors create the effect.
Numerous sumptuous balls were held here, including one for the delegates
at the Congress of Vienna (1814-15).
The Mirror Room is where Mozart (then six) played his first royal concert
in the presence of Maria Theresa and the royal family in 1762. His father
revealed in a letter that afterwards young Wolfgang leapt onto the lap
of the empress and kissed her.
The Round Chinese Room is over the top but rather ingenious too. Maria
Theresa held secret consultations here: a hidden doorway led to her adviser's
apartments and a fully laden table could be drawn up through the floor
so the dignitaries could dine without being disturbed by servants.
Spanish Riding School
The prancing Lipizzaner stallions strut their stuff in the opulent surrounds
of the Hofburg's Winter Riding School. The stallions perform an equine
ballet to a program of classical music, part of a long-established Viennese
institution that's truly reminiscent of the old Habsburg era. Pricy, but
worth it for horse lovers.
The breed was first imported from Spain (hence 'Spanish') by Maximilian
II in 1562, and in 1580 a stud was established at Lipizza (hence 'Lipizzaner'),
now in Slovenia. The mature stallions are all snow-white (though they
are born dark) and the riders wear traditional garb, from their leather
boots up to their bicorn hats.
Tickets to watch them train can be bought on the day at gate No 2, Josefsplatz
in the Hofburg. The stallions go on their summer holidays (seriously!)
to Lainzer Tiergarten, west of the city, during July and August. They
can be seen training for much of the rest of the year (except Christmas
to mid-February), though they are sometimes away on tour.
The incredible latticework spire of this Gothic masterpiece is a focal
point for all visitors. The dominating feature of the church is the skeletal
136m (446ft) Südturm, or south tower; nicknamed 'Steffl', it has
a cramped viewing platform but is worth an elbow or two to get a glimpse
of the enchanting postcard views of Vienna.
The church was re-created in Gothic style at the behest of Habsburg Duke
Rudolf IV in 1359, who laid the foundation stone and earned himself the
epithet of 'The Founder' in the process.
Südturm took 75 years to build and was to be matched by a companion
tower on the north side, but the imperial purse withered and the Gothic
style went out of fashion, so the half-completed tower was topped off
with a Renaissance cupola in 1579. Austria's largest bell, the Pummerin
('boomer bell'), was installed here in 1952.
A striking feature of the exterior is the glorious tiled roof, showing
dazzling chevrons on one end and the Austrian eagle on the other; a good
perspective is gained from the northeast of Stephansplatz. The cathedral
suffered severe damage during a fire in 1945, but donations flowed in
from all over Austria and the cathedral was completely rebuilt and reopened
in just three years.
Off the Beaten Track
The spa town of Baden bei Wien washes the eastern edge of the Wienerwald
(Vienna Woods), and has been soothing furrowed brows since Roman times.
Beethoven came here in search of a cure for his deafness, and returned
many times despite his lack of improved hearing. The town really took
off in the 19th century, embraced by Biedermeier types and the Habsburgs.
Today it's still the place to promenade between the Kurpark's bandstand,
benches and elaborate flowerbeds, to admire affluent 19th-century housing
and to learn about the past in the museums devoted to Emperor Franz Josef,
Beethoven and Baden itself. The hot springs also remain, enriched with
sulphur, chlorine and sulphates, whether your poison is medicinal or frivolous.
Baden is just a half-hour train trip away from Vienna's Südbahnhof
Some of the best day trips out of Vienna take in the small towns and villages
that line the Danube. Such a town is peaceful Krems, which reclines along
the river's northern banks, surrounded by the terraced vineyards that
for centuries have been its mainstay. There's not a heap to do in Krems
other than take a quiet wander by the cobbled streets, empty courtyards,
baroque churches and atmospheric city walls. And of course wine-tasting
is a very popular activity in this part of the world. You can get to Krems
by train (60 minutes), boat (two hours) or bicycle. The boat trip from
Krems to the monastery town of Melk is a regional highlight.
Birdwatchers flock to Neusiedler See, hoping to spot some of the 300 bird
species that call the wetland area of reed beds home. The town of Rust,
on the lake's eastern shore, is inundated with storks from March to August,
and countless roofs are topped with the nests of the storybook birds.
The town is also famous for its wine, and is dotted with atmospheric wine
taverns. Nearby Mörbisch has a Hungarian accent, because of its proximity
to the border. The atmosphere is relaxed in this pretty town of corn-dappled,
whitewashed houses and flower-strewn balconies. Buses head to the two
towns from the regional centre of Eisenstadt (30-minute trip), which is
around an hour away from Vienna by train or bus.
Other Austria Attractions
Set at an elevation of 1640m, the Eisriesenwelt Caves are the largest
accessible ice caves in the world. They comprise more than 40km of explored
passageways and 30,000 cubic m of ice. Entry to the caves is regulated
and a 75-minute tour takes in several immense caverns containing elaborate
ice formations and frozen waterfalls.
For a fantastic 50km (30mi) mountain tour, load up the car and head for
the Grossglockner Road, Austria's No1 panorama drama. Most of the juicy
bits are in the Hohe Tauern National Park where there are dramatic views
of numerous unpronounceable peaks, including the mighty Grossglockner.
The road was built between 1930 and 1935, but the course it follows has
been an important trading route between Germany and Italy since the Middle
Ages. The Grossglockner looms across the vast tongue of the Pasterze Glacier
and looks every centimetre of its 3797m (12454ft).
Salzburg's old town, on the south bank of the river, is a Baroque fiesta
of churches, plazas, courtyards and fountains, oozing so much charm that
it's enough to make you forgive the city's obsession with Mozart. Museums,
houses, squares, chocolate bars, liqueurs are all part of one giant homage
Salzburg is picturesquely sheltered by surrounding mountains and straddles
the Salzach River near the border with Germany. From its quaint old town
nestled below the medieval Hohensalzburg Fortress to its baroque palace
and manicured gardens, the city presents one perfect view after another.
The Arlberg region comprises several linked resorts and offers some of
the best skiing in Austria. St Anton is the largest and least elitist
of these resorts, but even here budget travellers can kiss their savings
goodbye amid the easy-going atmosphere and vigorous nightlife.
Gurk's exquisite cathedral is one of the finest examples of 12th-century
Romanesque architecture in Austria. Inside, the 72 statues and 82 angels'
heads on the altar will help you clarify your love or hate relationship
with the Baroque.
The Nazis picked the small town of Mauthausen in upper Austria as the
location for a concentration camp because of its reputation as a quarrying
centre. Prisoners toiled in the granite quarry and all too often perished
on the so-called Stairway of Death leading from the quarry to the camp.
Rust is known chiefly for its unlikely combination of storks and wine.
Its name is derived from the German word for elm tree - nothing to do
with additives in the wine! Storks descend on Rust from the end of March,
rear their young, then fly off in late August to go paddling.