Vienna the Imperial, former capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire
As the saying goes, “The world belongs to those who get up early.” Let us put this into practice with a very early start and a ride with one of the first metro to Schönbrunn Palace and its park. The latter opens around 6am as the rising sun accentuate many colors and offers beautiful panoramas of the area, as well as being completely deserted by tourists. If you can, get your ticket for the castle in advance and combine it with a walk in the park, right before or after.
Let us take the example of a morning visit, as I did. The park is very quiet and it is therefore quite pleasant to walk along the many tree-lined walkways decorated with statues, fountains and benches. Just expect to see a few walkers and their dogs, and some motivated joggers, but nothing as annoying as a compact crowd of tourists. Some monuments are very nice to see in the park, including the Palm House and its garden, as well as some ruins and fountains.
Eventually returning along the main aisle, you past the fountain dedicated to Poseidon before starting the ascent of the nearby hill through one of two parallel paths to the Gazebo, a beautiful lodge. The word “gazebo” is normally used when talking about a small “villa” or wing of a temple, but the one of Schönbrunn is quite exuberant and includes a café-restaurant in its center and a viewpoint at its top. The latter is interesting, but the panorama of the city which can be seen from the base of the monument is equally great and free. As for the restaurant, nothing spectacular,but the prices. A morning visit will also allow you to enjoy beautiful reflections in the waters of the nearby pool, a well-deserved reward after having climbed all the way to the top. By seing it, I’m sure you’ll not regret to have gotten up early!
If you have your tickets to visit the castle, go, again, at the time it opens. Once inside, no need to use the services of a private guide, expect if you reach the place accompanied by one of them. The audio guides, available free of charge at the entrance, will do the job perfectly. Bags and other bulky items have to be stored the locker room and, of course, pictures and videos are prohibited. Finally, note that there are several types of tickets giving access to all or part of the 40 rooms open to visitors, as well as combinations with some parts of the gardens and even the zoo. I trully enjoyed my visit here, and loved every piece of architecture, may it be complexe furniture or simple decoration! Talking about the cultural aspect of the castle, the audio guide was very helpful in providing a relatively short, but interesting content nonetheless. Schönbrunn is a place you just have to see, but I’m quite sure you’ll agree to that!
Now, let’s go back towards the city center to discover its various monuments. Well, at least some of them, as they are legion and scattered throughout the historic center. It’s impossible to see everything at once, so try to combine different visits within the same area/district on two or tree. An example of a sightseeing route which you can follow is the Ringstrasse, one of the most beautiful boulevards of Vienna surrounded by many important monuments and circling all around the first district of the city. Let’s get off the metro at “Schottentor” and walk on foot to the Votive Church (Votivkirche), still under renovation between two trips yet spaced by several years.
Consacrated on April 24, 1879, day of the silver wedding of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, the plans for its construction already began in 1854, just months after a failed attempt to kill the Emperor. His brother, Archduke Ferdinand Maximilian, launched an appeal for donations “in gratitude for the salvation of His Majesty.” The architect Heinrich von Ferstel was then in charge of the construction of the Gothic basilica with three naves following the pattern of a French cathedral. The church, specifically the old “Hoforatorium”, also houses a museum which major exhibition room is “The Altar of Antwerp”, considered the best preserved work of such art. The inside architectural appearance in the purest Gothic style, as well as many beautiful stained glass windows, were among the things I liked the most.
Along the Ringstrasse toward the south, we pass next to the imposing University of Vienna before arriving in front of City Hall (Rathaus). The tower of the building, which can be seen from afar, is 97,9m tall and has become a landmark of the city. This place is the official residence of the mayor and the meeting place of the city senate/regional government and city council/assembly of the Land. It was built from 1872 to 1883 and has mastered the use of the superlative: it is indeed made by no less than 30 million bricks and 40,000 cubic meters of natural stone. With its 2’804 sqm, the City Hall courtyard is one of the largest indoor courts of Europe.
One notable rooms of the building is the Celebration room, 71 meters long, 20 meters wide and 18.5 meters high. If this was allowed, no less than 1500 couples could dance the waltz there at the same time! Many events are held regularly both inside and outside the building, which makes it difficult to shoot entirely from outside. Opposite the City Hall square is the Burgtheater, a theater opened in 1888 and among the largest in Europe. After the French Comedy, it is the oldest, still existing theater in which all parts are played in German. You can visit the building, but attending one of the performances is much more interesting!
Just next door, still on the Ringstrasse, is the Parliament of Vienna, a beautiful building with Greek temple-like aspect with multiple columns, statues and frescoes which Viennese architects particulary like (same here by the way!) The building now houses the National and Federal Council which is possible to visit under certain conditions.
Just in front of Parliament, on the other side of the road, we enter the Garden of the People (Volksgarten), a beautiful public park, very peaceful and quiet, covered with flowers and the perfect place to rest between two visits. Located on the fortifications that Napoleon had blown up during the French occupation of 1809, the park is equipped with many benches, a few fountains and other attractions such as the Theseiontempel, replica of the Theseion of Athens and a monument to the memory of Sissi, in the northeastern part.
From the Volksgarten, it is easy to get to the nearby Maria Theresa square, in the heart of the “museum district”. This lovely garden is done in a quite original manner, to say the least, and is located right between the Natural History Museum and the Museum of the History of Art, two huge buildings with identical appearance. Standing in the middle of the square, just in front of the statue dedicated to Maria Theresa, is impressive and you feel almost like you’re in the middle of a mirror!
In the Natural History Museum, it is more than 20 million objects that are presented and will help you discover the history of the earth and the breathtaking diversity of nature. The many stuffed specimens of endangered animals, even some which are definitely gone, are as sad as amazing to see. As for the Museum of the History of Art, it now houses vast collections belonging to the Habsburgs. With its countless masterpieces and its collection of Bruegel (the first in the world), it is today one of the largest museums worldwide and, like its neighbor across the garden, is clearly worth the visit!
Now let’s go to the Heldenplatz, a splendid square once designed as a vast imperial forum, and offering today a fascinating panorama of roof covering the buildings of the Ringstrasse. It was Napoleon who demolished the old bastions here. Later, the outer door called Burgtor was built and the square and its adjoining park, the Volksgarten, were transformed into a relaxing area. Facing the gigantic door with multiple entries is already impressive in itself, but once crossed, the show before our eyes is a real treat! We enter the heart of a vast imperial palace and museum complex, and if you are an art and/or history lover, this is certainly the place where you’re gonna spend most of your time during your visit to Vienna. Ready for a historical journey into the past of the Austro-Hungarian Empire? Let’s go!