Capital of the Republic of Austria and one of Europe's most visited cities, Vienna (Wien) owes much of its charm and rich history to its splendid location on the banks of the beautiful Danube River. For centuries the gateway between West and East Europe, it was the natural nucleus of the once sprawling Habsburg Empire, and to this day remains Austria's most important commercial and cultural hub. Vienna continues to attract visitors with its many great historic sights, as well as for its busy program of events and entertainment. With an unmistakably cosmopolitan atmosphere, it retains a distinctive charm and flair, an effect accentuated by its fine old architecture, its famous horse-cabs (Fiaker), as well as its splendid street-side cafés with their Viennese coffees and treats.
For more than six centuries the seat of the Habsburgs - and the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275 - the Hofburg is perhaps the most historically significant of Vienna's palaces. The official seat of the Austrian President, this sprawling complex consists of numerous buildings reflecting various periods, including architectural flourishes from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo movements. The complex covers 59 acres with 18 groups of buildings, including 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms. Its main attractions are the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Silver Collection.
The Belvedere Palace:
Among Vienna's most popular attractions, Belvedere Palace is really two splendid Baroque buildings: the Lower (Unteres) Belvedere and the Upper (Oberes) Belvedere. Highlights of the Upper Palace include the Ground Floor Hall with its statues, and the Ceremonial Staircase with its rich stucco relief and frescoes. The Lower Palace boasts a Marble Hall, noted for its oval plaster medallions and rich ceiling fresco, as well as a Marble Gallery built to house a collection of historic statues. Other notable buildings include the Winter Palace, a Baroque building that once housed the Court Treasury, the Orangery, the Palace Stables (home to the Medieval Treasury) and the Belvedere Gardens and Fountains linking the two palaces.
Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens:
The spectacular 18th-century Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn) is worth visiting not only for its magnificent architecture, but also for its beautiful park-like setting. One of Vienna's top attractions, this Baroque palace contains more than 1,441 rooms and apartments, including those once used by Empress Maria Theresa. Also must see are the Schönbrunn Park and Gardens. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the sumptuous Baroque gardens and numerous attractive outbuildings are well worth exploring, in particular the Palm House from 1883.
Dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo, a saint invoked during times of plague, Karlskirche was built in 1737 and remains Vienna's most important Baroque religious building. Crowned by a magnificent 72-meter dome, this building is famous for its twin 33-meter Triumphal Pillars, based on Trajan's Column in Rome, with their spiralling bands depicting scenes from the life of St. Charles. Interior highlights include the fabulous frescoes of St. Cecilia.
The Vienna State Opera House:
One of the world's largest and most splendid theatres, the Vienna State Opera House has hosted many of the world's most prominent composers, conductors, soloists, and dancers. Operatic and ballet performances are staged at least 300 times a year, fuelled by an obsession with music that goes as far back as 1625 when the first Viennese Court Opera was performed. The current massive Opera House was built in 1869 and boasts an interior which include a grand staircase leading to the first floor, the Schwind Foyer, and the exquisite Tea Room with its valuable tapestries. Capable of accommodating an audience of 2,211 along with 110 musicians, the Opera House is also home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra.
The National Theater:
Vienna's National Theater has long been famous for its productions of German-language plays and performances. Many famous names have acted on its four stages since its founding by Emperor Joseph II in 1776 as the Court Theater. After a devastating fire in 1945, the theater reopened in 1955 and has since grown in stature as the country's most important theater. In addition to its size and the caliber of its performances, the building's exterior is impressive on account of its numerous decorative figures, scenes, and busts. Equally as impressive is its interior consisting of rich decoration in the French Baroque style, and a staircase with frescoes by Gustav and Ernst Klimt.
Vienna City Hall:
An impressive Neo-Gothic building that serves as the city's administrative center, Vienna City Hall is remarkable for its size as it occupies nearly 14,000 square meters of the former Parade Ground. Completed in 1883, it is notable for the famous Rathausmann on top of its 98-meter high tower, a banner-carrying iron figure presented to the city as a gift from its master locksmith. The arcaded courtyard in the center of the building is the largest of seven courtyards and is used for popular summer concerts.
Maria-Theresien-Platz and Memorial:
The monument to Empress Maria Theresa is one of the most impressive in all Vienna and dominates the square named after her. Flanked by the Museum of Art History and the Natural History Museum, the statue was commissioned by Franz Joseph I and was unveiled in 1887. This massive monument depicts the Empress on her throne while surrounded by major personages of her day, including a number of generals on horseback. The high reliefs depict illustrious figures from the fields of politics, economics, and the arts, including Haydyn, Gluck, and the child prodigy, Mozart.
The Franciscan Church: St. Jerome:
The early 17th-century Roman Catholic Franciscan Church, also known as the Church of St. Jerome, is unique in Vienna for having a Renaissance façade, while its delightful interior is decorated in Baroque style. Highlights include the High Altar from 1707 and a painting of the Madonna and Child from 1550. Also of interest is the carved Baroque organ from 1643, the oldest organ in Vienna, notable for its folding doors with their fine carved and painted saints. The church's most famous artefact, however, is a carved image known as the Madonna with the Axe, known for having been carried by Austrian soldiers during their campaign against the Turks in Hungary, and credited for their victory.
The Spanish Riding School:
Dating back to the time of Emperor Maximilian II, the Spanish Riding School was established after the ruler had the famous Lipizzaner horses introduced to his courtesans in 1562. Today, it is one of Vienna's leading attractions, thrilling audiences with fabulous displays of equestrian skills in the Baroque Winter Riding School in the grounds of the Hofburg Palace, where it has been located since 1735.
Visiting the Prater, a large natural park between the Danube and the Danube Canal, is like stepping into another world. Covering an area of 3,200 acres, this vast park - once a royal hunting ground - has long been one of Vienna's most popular recreation areas. There is something here for everyone, from thrills and spills in the Wurstel area with its old-fashioned theme park rides to dining and dancing.
Linking Stephansplatz to the Staatsoper on the Ring and ending at Karlsplatz, this (mostly) pedestrian-friendly area is fun to wander thanks to its lime trees, pavement cafés, fashionable shops, elegant boutiques, and busy shopping arcades. Although most of the buildings you see today are 18th-century, the Maltese Church still has a few features dating from the 13th-century when the street was started. Some notable buildings are Palais Esterházy, built in 1698 and now home to an upscale restaurant, while nearby buildings house high-end clothing stores. Also of note is the exquisite Donner Fountain, built in 1739 by Georg Raphael Donner to reflect the "caring and wise" city government.
The Famous Demel:
Founded in 1786, the famous Demel is not only the oldest café and bakery in Vienna, but is perhaps the most memorable food experience you will have in this wonderful city. Officially known as Hofzuckerbäckerei Demel, this exquisite café serves dishes and cakes carefully prepared by hand to traditional centuries-old recipes, some of them once used to satisfy the cravings of Emperor Franz Joseph who secretly had Demel cakes and pralines served during his tête-à-têtes with his lover. A highlight of a visit is the Demelinerinnen, the modestly dressed waitresses wearing black dresses with lace collars who still address customers with the formal, "Haben schon gewählt ?" ("Has Madam/Sir already made her/his choice?").