Vienna and the Danube
Rick Steves' Europe: Episode # 506
For centuries, Vienna was the crown jewel of the rich and powerful Habsburg Empire. A century after that empire's fall, the Viennese appreciate their imperial legacy as a cultural wellspring — and an excuse to live in style. We'll take in the city's wealth of elegant gardens, great art and fine music. Then we'll explore the city's surroundings, with a trip along the romantic Danube River and a hike through the breathtakingly Baroque Melk Abbey.
- Read the script from the show.
Of the plethora of sights at the palace, the highlight is a tour of the Royal Apartments — the chandeliered rooms where the Habsburg nobles lived. You can also stroll the gardens, tour the coach museum, and visit a handful of lesser sights nearby. When WWII bombs rained on the city and the palace grounds, the palace itself took only one direct hit. Thankfully, that bomb, which crashed through three floors — including the sumptuous central ballroom — was a dud. Most of the public rooms are decorated in Neo-Baroque, as they were under Franz Josef (r. 1848–1916). The rest of the palace has been converted to simple apartments and rented to the families of 260 civil servants, who enjoy rent control and governmental protections so they can't be evicted. To get here, take U-4 to Schönbrunn and walk 400 yards (just follow the crowds). The main entrance is in the left side of the palace as you face it.
Unlike the gardens of Versailles, meant to shut out the real world, Schönbrunn's park was opened to the public in 1779 while the monarchy was in full swing. It was part of Maria Theresa's reform policy, making the garden a celebration of the evolution of civilization from autocracy into real democracy. Most of the park itself is free, as it has been since the 1700s (open daily sunrise to dusk, entrance on either side of the palace). The small side gardens are the most elaborate. The Kammergarten on the left was a fancy private garden for the Habsburgs (now restored and with a fee). The so-called Sisi Gardens on the right are free.
(just off Naschmarkt near Mariahilfer Strasse)
This exciting museum, across the Ring from the Hofburg Palace, showcases the grandeur and opulence of the Habsburgs' collected artwork in a grand building (built as a museum in 1888). It has European masterpieces galore, all well-hung on one glorious floor, plus a fine display of Egyptian, classical, and applied arts. The Kunsthistorwhateveritis Museum — let's just say "Koonst" — houses some of the most beautiful, sexy, and fun art from two centuries (c. 1450–1650). The collection reflects the joie de vivre of Austria's luxury-loving Habsburg rulers. At their peak of power in the 1500s, the Habsburgs ruled Austria, Germany, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain — and you'll see a wide variety of art from all these places and beyond. (It's on the Ringstrasse at Maria-Theresien-Platz, U-2 or U-3: Volkstheater/Museumsplatz, tel. 01/525-240).
Heurigen Wine Garden
Kahlenberger Strasse 210
Vienna State Opera (Staatsoper)
The Opera, facing the Ring and near the TI, is a central point for any visitor. Vienna remains one of the world's great cities for classical music, and this building still belts out some of the finest opera, both classic and cutting-edge. While the critical reception of the building 130 years ago led the architect to commit suicide, and though it's been rebuilt since its destruction by WWII bombs, it's still a sumptuous place. The interior has a chandeliered lobby and carpeted staircases perfect for making the scene. The theater itself features five wrap-around balconies, gold and red decor, and a bracelet-like chandelier. Depending on your level of tolerance for opera, you can: simply admire the Neo-Renaissance building from the outside; take a guided tour of the lavish interior; visit the Opera Museum; or attend a performance. Unless you're attending a performance, you can enter the Opera only with a guided 50-minute tour, offered nearly daily in English (tel. 01/514-442-624). Tour times are often changed or cancelled due to rehearsals and performances. The opera posts a monthly schedule (blue, on the wall), but the more accurate schedule is the daily listing (red, posted on the door on the Operngasse side of building, farthest from St. Stephen's Cathedral). Tour tickets include the tiny and disappointing Opera Museum (across the street toward the Hofburg), except on Monday, when the museum is closed.
For up-to-date specifics, see the latest edition of the Rick Steves' Vienna, Salzburg & Tirol travel guide — or join us on one of our free-spirited Germany and Austria tours.