One of the great capitals of Europe, Vienna was for centuries the main stamping grounds for the Habsburg rulers of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The empire is long gone, but many reminders of the city’s imperial heyday remain, carefully preserved by the tradition-loving Viennese. When it comes to the arts, the glories of the past are particularly evergreen, thanks to the cultural legacy created by the many artistic geniuses nourished here.
From the late 18th century on, Vienna’s culture—particularly its music—was famous throughout Europe. Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Strauss, Mahler, and Bruckner all lived in the city, composing glorious music still played in concert halls all over the world. And at the tail end of the 19th century the city’s artists and architects—Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele, Oskar Kokoschka, Josef Hoffmann, Otto Wagner, and Adolf Loos (“Form follows function”) among them—brought about an unprecedented artistic revolution, one that swept away the past and set the stage for the radically experimental art of the 20th century. Innovation can still be seen in the city’s contemporary arts-and-crafts galleries—even in the glinting, Space Needle-like object that hovers over the north end of Vienna—actually the city’s waste incinerator, designed by the late, great artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser.
At the close of World War I the Austro-Hungarian Empire was dismembered, and Vienna lost its cherished status as the seat of imperial power. Its influence was much reduced, and its population began to decline (unlike that of Europe’s other great cities), falling from around 2 million to the current 1.8 million. Today, however, the city’s future looks brighter, for with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, Vienna regained its traditional status as one of the main hubs of Central Europe.
When Vienna was founded as a Roman military encampment around AD 100, the walled garrison was not built on the Danube’s main stream. The wide, present-day Danube did not take shape until the late 19th century, when, to prevent flooding, its various branches were rerouted and merged.
The Romans maintained their camp for some 300 years (the emperor Marcus Aurelius is thought to have died in Vindobona, as it was called, in 180), not abandoning the site until around 400. The settlement survived the Roman withdrawal, however, and by the 13th century development was sufficient to require new city walls to the south. According to legend, the walls were financed by the English: in 1192 the local duke kidnapped England’s King Richard I (the Lion-Hearted), en route home from the Third Crusade, and held him prisoner upriver in Dürnstein for several months then turned him over to the Austrian king after two years, until he was expensively ransomed by his mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine.
Vienna’s third set of walls dates from 1544, when the existing walls were improved and extended. The new fortifications were built by the Habsburg dynasty, which ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire for an astonishing 640 years, beginning with Rudolf I in 1273 and ending with Karl I in 1918. These walls stood until 1857, when Emperor Franz Josef decreed that they finally be demolished and replaced by the series of boulevards that make up the tree-lined Ringstrasse.
During medieval times the city’s growth was relatively slow, and its heyday as a European capital did not begin until 1683, after a huge force of invading Turks laid siege to the city for a two-month period before being routed by an army of Habsburg allies. Among the supplies that the fleeing Turks left behind were sacks filled with coffee beans, and it was these beans, so the story goes, that gave a local entrepreneur the idea of opening the first public coffeehouse; they remain a Viennese institution to this day.
The passing of the Turkish threat encouraged a Viennese building boom in the Baroque style, the architectural choice of the day. Flamboyant, triumphant, joyous, and extravagantly ostentatious, the new art form—imported from Italy—transformed the city into a vast theater over the course of the 17th and 18th centuries. Life became a dream—the gorgeous dream of the Baroque, with its gilt madonnas and cherubs; its soaring, twisted columns; its painted heavens on ceilings; its graceful domes. In the early 19th century a reaction began to set in as middle-class industriousness and sober family values led the way to a new epoch characterized by the Biedermeier style. Then followed the Strauss era—that lighthearted period that conjures up imperial balls,”Wine, Women, and Song,” heel clicking, and hand kissing. Today’s visitors will find that each of these eras has left its mark on Vienna, making it a city filled with a special grace. It is this grace that gives Vienna the cohesive architectural character that sets the city so memorably apart from its great rivals—London, Paris, and Rome.
Most of Vienna lies roughly within an arc of a circle with the straight line of the Danube Canal as its chord. The most prestigious address of the city’s 23 Bezirke, or districts, is its heart, the Innere Stadt (“Inner City”), or 1st District, bounded by the Ringstrasse (Ring). It’s useful to note that the fabled 1st District holds the vast majority of sightseeing attractions and once encompassed the entire city. In 1857 Emperor Franz Josef decided to demolish the ancient wall surrounding the city to create the more cosmopolitan Ringstrasse, the multilane avenue that still encircles the expansive heart of Vienna. At that time several small villages bordering the inner city were given district numbers and incorporated into Vienna. Today the former villages go by their official district number, but they are sometimes referred to by their old village or neighborhood name, too.
The circular 1st District is bordered on its northeastern section by the Danube Canal and 2nd District, and clockwise from there along the Ringstrasse by the 3rd, 4th, 6th, 7th, 8th, and 9th districts. The 2nd District—Leopoldstadt—is home to the venerable Prater amusement park with its Riesenrad (Ferris wheel), as well as a huge park used for horseback riding and jogging. Along the southeastern edge of the 1st District is the 3rd District—Landstrasse—containing a number of embassies and the Belvedere Palace. Extending from its southern tip, the 4th District—Wieden—is firmly established as one of Vienna’s hip areas, with trendy restaurants, art galleries, and shops, plus Vienna’s biggest outdoor market, the Naschmarkt, which is lined with dazzling Jugendstil buildings.
The southwestern 6th District—Mariahilf—includes the biggest shopping street, Mariahilferstrasse, where small, old-fashioned shops compete with smart restaurants, movie theaters, bookstores, and department stores. Directly west of the 1st District is the 7th District—Neubau. Besides the celebrated Kunsthistorisches Museum and headline-making MuseumsQuartier, the 7th District also houses the charming Spittelberg quarter, its cobblestone streets lined with beautifully preserved 18th-century houses. Moving up the western side you come to the 8th District—Josefstadt—which is known for its theaters, good restaurants, and antiques shops. And completing the circle surrounding the Innere Stadt on its northwest side is the 9th District—Alsergrund—once Sigmund Freud’s neighborhood and today a nice residential area with lots of outdoor restaurants, curio shops, and lovely early-20th-century apartment buildings.
The other districts—the 5th, and the 10th through the 23rd—form a concentric second circle around the 2nd through 9th districts. These are mainly suburbs and only a few hold sights of interest for tourists. The 11th District—Simmering—contains one of Vienna’s architectural wonders, Gasometer, a former gasworks that has been remodeled into a housing and shopping complex. The 13th District—Hietzing—whose centerpiece is the fabulous Schönbrunn Palace, is also a coveted residential area, including the neighborhood Hütteldorf. The 19th District—Döbling—is Vienna’s poshest neighborhood and also bears the nickname the “Noble District” because of all the embassy residences on its chestnut-tree-lined streets. The 19th District also incorporates several other neighborhoods within its borders, in particular, the wine villages of Grinzing, Sievering, Nussdorf, and Neustift am Walde. The 22nd District—Donaustadt—now headlines Donau City, a modern business and shopping complex that has grown around the United Nations center. The 22nd also has several grassy spots for bathing and sailboat watching along the Alte Donau (Old Danube).
It may be helpful to know the neighborhood names of other residential districts. These are: the 5th/Margareten; 10th/Favoriten; 12th/Meidling; 14th/Penzing; 15th/Fünfhaus; 16th/Ottakring; 17th/Hernals; 18th/Währing; 20th/Brigittenau; 21st/Floridsdorf; and 23rd/Liesing. For neighborhood site listings below—except the 1st District—both the district and neighborhood name will be given.
For hard-core sightseers who wish to supplement the key attractions that follow, the tourist office has a booklet,”Vienna from A-Z” (EUR 3.60), that gives short descriptions of some 250 sights around the city, all numbered and keyed to a fold-out map at the back, as well as to numbered wall plaques on the buildings themselves.
Vienna is a city to explore and discover on foot. Above all, look up as you tour Vienna: some of the most fascinating architectural and ornamental bits are on upper stories or atop the city’s buildings.