4 Architectural Wonders Worth Visiting in Vienna
Vienna is one of the true gems of Europe. This stunning city is full of history, and with the breathtaking architecture throughout the Innerestadt and the palaces of the Habsburgs, visiting this city is an unforgettable experience.
While it is indeed possible to visit the center of Vienna in one day, I would not recommend it. If you want to visit any museums or Schönbrunn Palace, you need at least two full days.
Top 4 Architectural Wonders in Vienna
- Hofburg Palace
- Schönbrunn Palace
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1. Stephansdom and the Innere Stadt
The Inner Stadt, literally meaning "Inner City", is the heart of Vienna, and has been since the first city had been here, founded by the Romans in B.C. 15, called Vindobona. This was just a few minutes from our apartment by metro, but it is an easy-to-reach place from almost anywhere in Vienna.
Other than being the capital of Austria—and at one point, of the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire—Vienna is best known as the Imperial Residence of the Habsburgs, established here in 1533. Because the royal family lived here, the Innere Stadt, which was really the whole city at the time, became the main residence of the Austrian aristocracy, especially during the Baroque period.
The focus of Innere Stadt, standing at its very center, is Stephansdome.
Construction on Stephansdom (St. Stephen's Cathedral) began in 1359 by Rudolph IV and was meant to replace an older church that had burned down. Rudolph IV had Stephansdom modeled after St. Vitus Cathedral in Prague—an edifice built by his rival, Charles IV.
Just like the cathedral in Prague, this one took a few centuries to complete. It wasn't finished until the very beginning of the 20th century. Its most magnificent feature is the South Tower, standing 137 meters tall. The planned North Tower hadn't been completed before the Turkish saga, so it stood half-finished for a time until it was finally covered with a copper cupola in 1556. Its roof, covered with multicolored tiles, is also spectacular.
The interior is well worth visiting, though mass is still held here regularly. The organ is impressive, as are all of the interior decorations.
Note: Walking through the cathedral is free, but there is a fee for going up into the tower, as well as for visiting the catacombs.
2. The Hofburg Palace
Another must-see site in Vienna's inner city is The Hofburg or the Court Palace. The complex is composed of quite a few buildings, all of which are spectacular, but the palace itself is not uniform by any means. This is due mainly to the fact that during the Habsburg's reign, they had an unwritten rule that no ruler could use the same rooms as his predecessor. Because of this, new buildings were often added as an afterthought.
Today, most of the buildings of the palace house museums, state organizations, and even a conference center (this was a real surprise to us).
Two of the museums in the building complex are the Schatzkammer (or Imperial Treasury)—the home of the crown jewels—and the Kaiserappartments, though there are several others. If you're interested, you can also visit the Burgkapelle, the palace chapel, where the famous Vienna Boys' Choir performs regularly.
We only had time to visit the royal apartments, where Emperor Franz-Josef and his wife, Elizabeth (a.k.a. Sisi) lived. Touring this museum with an audio guide helps you understand some of the history of the Habsburgs and Vienna. Audio guides are available in many languages, including English.
The ground floor of the Kaiserappartments museum is dedicated to some of the Court's sliver and porcelain collection, seven rooms that we walked through relatively fast. There were only so many pieces of silver and porcelain we could look at before getting bored.
To get to the royal apartments we climbed the Imperial Staircase, carved in white marble. This staircase was half the fun of the whole museum.
While we made our way through the rooms, the audio guide narrated the story of the royal couple. We walked through an audience room, a conference room, and Franz-Joseph's study and personal rooms before we got to Sisi's apartments, which are more spectacular. The rooms in the palace are all filled with paintings, mostly portraits of Elizabeth (especially in the Emperor's rooms), and other members of the royal family. At the time, I felt like I was in an art museum.
Josephsplatz is the most spectacular part of the palace. The middle wing houses the Nationalbibliothek (the National Library). This is the country's largest working library and houses millions of books.
In the middle of the square stands a statue of Emperor Joseph II on horseback.
3. The Ringstrasse
Ringstrasse was built in 1857 to replace the fortifications around the old town of Vienna. Over time, it became a horseshoe-shaped imperial boulevard.
The boulevard today looks similar to the way it looked in the last days of the Habsburgs, with spectacular landmarks, like the Rathaus (City Hall) and the Parliament building, among many others, most of which are now museums.
4. Schönbrunn Palace, My Favorite Place in Vienna
Seemingly very far from the hustle and bustle of the city, Schönbrunn Palace with its massive gardens is my favorite place in Vienna.
Though we started touring Vienna in the center, we knew that we would save a full day for Schönbrunn Palace. In fact, we ended up loving it so much that we went back a few times. The first night we were in town, after getting home from visiting the city, we walked through the gardens until after closing time, then spent most of the next day there.
Schönbrunn Palace was the summer residence of the Habsburgs, and it is much more spectacular than the Hofburg. The inside is breathtaking, and of its 100s of rooms, up to 40 may be visited. If you plan to visit the inside, you will need to purchase a ticket at the gate. You have the option to do either the Imperial Tour to visit 20 rooms or the Grand Tour to see 40 rooms. We opted for the Imperial Tour, thinking that 20 rooms would be enough to visit. The audio guides were very helpful.
As spectacular as the interior of the palace was, our most enjoyable time was in the gardens, or Schlosspark. We spent hours upon hours just wandering along the paths, sitting in the shade of statues of Roman gods and goddesses, and marveling at the numerous fountains and other architectural features. We also spent a lot of time in the SchönbrunnTiergarten, the very first zoo in the world, established in 1752.
One of the most rewarding aspects of our visit, however, was climbing up the hill to the Gloriette, the edifice built to celebrate the victory of the Habsburgs over the Prussians in 1757. Once on the hill, we spent some time there, enjoying the view of the palace and the city.
Getting There and Getting Around
On this particular trip, we opted to take the bus instead of renting a car, which turned out to be a great decision. Bus service is wonderful between most European cities. At this time, borders hardly seem to exist; we didn't even notice when or where we passed from the Czech Republic into Austria. The bus we took was comfortable, ran every two hours, and even had coffee service and free internet (and of course a bathroom, too). This is all to say we had a lovely trip from Prague to Vienna by bus. Arriving this way was also ideal as the bus station was right by a subway station, so getting to our accommodation was easy.
The subway system in Vienna is the best I've ever experienced. It is easy to navigate, clean, and it takes you anywhere within the city in no time at all. There was a board at each stop that showed the subway map, what station was next, which side the doors would open on, and any advisories to be aware of. You can find underground stations around the city by looking for the large signs with the letter U. Tickets are available from self-serve machines in the station, but if you don't have change, there are booths where they can be purchased. They are also sold at newspaper stands in and around the stations. After buying your ticket, you need to validate it by stamping it at a machine next to the entrance. Children under ten travel free. To understand more about the public transportation system, check out their official site in English.
If arriving by plane, the fastest and easiest way into the city is the local train. Maps are everywhere, and it is all very clear and straightforward.
Of course, you can rent a car and follow a map or a GPS, but I've found that driving a car is harder than using public transportation in most European cities.