In this program, we'll tiptoe through the Hofburg Palace and be dazzled by the Habsburg crown jewels at the Imperial Treasury. Then we'll picnic on the Danube, nibble strudel in an Old World café, blush at slinky Art Nouveau, and waltz to the three-four beat of Johann Strauss in Vienna's City Park.
Demel is the ultimate Viennese chocolate shop. The room is filled with Art Nouveau boxes of Empress Sisi’s choco-dreams come true: Kandierte Veilchen (candied violet petals), Katzenzungen (cats’ tongues), and so on. The cakes here are moist (compared to the dry Sacher-Tortes). The enticing window displays change monthly, reflecting current happenings in Vienna. Wander inside. There’s an impressive cancan of Vienna’s most beloved cakes — displayed to tempt visitors into springing for the €10 cake-and-coffee deal (point to the cake you want). Farther in, you can see the bakery in action. Sit inside, with a view of the cake-making, or outside, with the street action (upstairs is less crowded). If you happen to be looking through Demel’s window at exactly 19:01, just after closing, you can witness one of the great tragedies of modern Europe: the daily dumping of its unsold cakes.
Buffet Trześniewski is an institution — justly famous for its elegant and cheap finger sandwiches and small beers (€1 each). Three different sandwiches and a kleines Bier (Pfiff) make a fun, light lunch. Point to whichever delights look tasty (or grab the English translation sheet and take time to study your 22 sandwich options). You can grab an early, quick dinner here, but the selection can get paltry by the end of the day. Trześniewski has been a Vienna favorite for more than a century...and many of its regulars seem to have been here for the grand opening.
The complex, confusing, and imposing Imperial Palace, with 640 years of architecture, demands your attention. This first Habsburg residence grew with the family empire from the 13th century until 1913, when the last “new wing” opened. The winter residence of the Habsburg rulers until 1918, it’s still home to the Austrian president’s office, 5,000 government workers, and several important museums.
Don’t get confused by the Hofburg’s myriad courtyards and many museums. Focus on three sights: the Imperial Apartments, Treasury, and the museums at the New Palace (Neue Burg).
Hofburg Imperial Apartments (Kaiserappartements) — These lavish, Versailles-type, “wish-I-were-God” royal rooms are the downtown version of the grander Schönbrunn Palace. If you’re rushed and have time for only one palace, make it this one. Palace visits are a one-way romp through three sections: a porcelain and silver collection, a museum dedicated to the enigmatic and troubled Empress Sisi, and the luxurious apartments themselves.
The Imperial Apartments are a mix of Old World luxury and modern 19th-century conveniences. Here, Emperor Franz Josef I lived and worked along with his wife Elisabeth, known as Sisi. The Sisi Museum traces the development of her legend, analyzing how her fabulous but tragic life created a 19th-century Princess Diana. You’ll read bits of her poetic writing, see exact copies of her now-lost jewelry, and learn about her escapes, dieting mania, and chocolate bills.
Hofburg Treasury (Weltliche und Geistliche Schatzkammer) — One of the world’s most stunning collections of royal regalia, the Hofburg Treasury shows off sparkling crowns, jewels, gowns, and assorted Habsburg bling in 21 darkened rooms. The treasures, well-explained by an audioguide, include the crown of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charlemagne’s saber, a unicorn horn, and more precious gems than you can shake a scepter at.
New Palace Museums: Armor, Music, and Ancient Greek Statues — The New Palace (Neue Burg) houses three separate collections — an armory (with a killer collection of medieval weapons), historical musical instruments, and classical statuary from ancient Ephesus. The included audioguide brings the exhibits to life and lets you hear the collection’s fascinating old instruments being played. An added bonus is the chance to wander alone among the royal Habsburg halls, stairways, and painted ceilings.
Visiting the imperial remains is not as easy as you might imagine. These original organ donors left their bodies — about 150 in all — in the unassuming Kaisergruft, their hearts in the Augustinian Church, and their entrails in the crypt below St. Stephen’s Cathedral. As you enter, buy the €0.50 map with a Habsburg family tree and a chart locating each coffin. Don’t tripe.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're hanging with the Habsburgs...in Vienna. Thanks for joining us.
Vienna has been called a head without a body. For over 600 years the capital of the once-mighty Habsburg Empire, it started and lost World War I, and with it her far-flung holdings. Today, you'll find an elegant capital ruling a relatively insignificant little land-locked country — Austria, historically, culturally, and from a sightseeing point of view, Vienna is the sum of an illustrious past.
We'll explore the palace, picnic on the Danube, bake a strudel, visit an extraordinary Gothic Cathedral, chase butterflies, marvel at the crown jewels and of course, do a little waltzing.
Vienna was long the easternmost city of the West. In ancient Roman times, the city was Vindobona, on the Danube facing the Germanic Barbarians just beyond. In the Middle Ages, it was Europe's bastion against the Ottoman Turks — a kind of Christian breakwater against a rising tide of Islam. Throughout the Cold War, neutral Vienna gingerly maintained its freedom while nearly surrounded by communist and Soviet-dominated states. But now, with so many of those Eastern Bloc nations joining the EU, Vienna finds itself firmly in the middle of Europe.
The German-speaking locals call their town Wien. It's the melting-pot capital of a now-collapsed empire that once had over 50 million people. But of all those people, only about eight million were Austrian. The truly Viennese person is a second-generation Habsburg cocktail, with grandparents from the distant corners of its old empire — Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Slovenes, Jews, Serbians, Romanians, Italians, and more.
After the defeat of Napoleon, Vienna hosted a huge diplomatic convention in 1815. That Congress of Vienna stabilized and shaped 19th-century Europe.
And that's the age that shaped our romantic image of the city: swirling orchestras, Eiffel-era Ferris wheels, and grand architecture.
A century later, after losing WWI and its empire, Vienna's just more laid back. Today, enjoying the fact that its super power days are over, Vienna is simply an expert at good living; and that includes perhaps Europe's finest chocolate cake — the Sacher-Torte.
Demel's café and bakery is much-loved for its cakes and pastries. This place was the emperor's choice back in the 19th century. Customers enjoy a close up look at the cooking. The famous Sacher-Torte is made-to-order for chocoholics. Apart from its apricot filling, the recipe seems pretty simple...chocolate on chocolate.
Vienna's tasty cuisine, like its old empire, is multi-national. The Wiener schnitzel or Vienna schnitzel, it should be an Italian schnitzel — it’s from Milan; the dumplings they are from Bohemia; goulash — that’s Hungarian; and the apple strudel — that's a mix of east and west.
The strudel dough — a wheat based filo — is from the Turks (think baklava). And the apples, they're from Germany. Add sugar, cinnamon, and rum raisins. Roll it up, glaze with lemon sauce, pop in the oven and before you know it...you've got your apple strudel.
To enjoy Café Demel calorie free, savor its chocolate and marzipan window displays. They change regularly and reflect current happenings in town. This mermaid celebrates the summer — time for some fun in the sun.
And as if providing a fine venue to walk off the city's sweet temptations, a big part of Vienna is its fine parks, filled with statue-maker memories of Austria's glory days and high culture.
The enticing shopping streets of the old town have been traffic-free since the 1970s. With its elegant storefronts and lively people-watching, just taking a stroll is a delight.
History is everywhere. Even in the street musicians. This well-decorated musical gang goes back to a day when Austria's military marching bands had a more serious job to do.
[Marching band marching and playing.]
One of the charms of Vienna is how things are so close together.
For generations shoppers have grabbed a quick lunch just around the corner. Buffet Trześniewski is an institution — famous for its cheap and charming finger sandwiches. Simply point to whatever looks tasty.
Rick: [In Austrian]
Three different sandwiches make a light lunch — I'm having ham and eggs, herring with onion, and chicken liver.
Rick: [In Austrian]
The traditional drink here is a tiny beer called a pfiff.
Fast food — Vienna style.
The massive St. Stephen's Cathedral is the Gothic needle around which Vienna spins. While heavily damaged in WWII, the church survived. Today it symbolizes the city's freedom and proud spirit.
In the last days of the war, the original timbered Gothic rooftop went up in flames. Shortly after the war — with a financial outpouring of civic pride — the roof was rebuilt in its original colorful splendor. The ceramic tiles are purely decorative. Locals who contributed each symbolically "own" one for their donation.
The ornate nave is Gothic with a Baroque overlay. While the columns support the roof, they also tell a story. Richly populated with statues, they make a saintly parade that leads right up to the high altar. In this statue of Mary — called the Madonna with the Protective Mantle — people of all walks of life seek and find refuge in the holy mother. Nearby, St. Sebastian — who never goes anywhere without his arrows — reminds the faithful of his martyrdom.
The centerpiece of this cathedral dedicated to St. Stephen is a painting depicting the stoning of the early Christian martyr himself.
WWII damage was heavy inside and out. Portable treasures, like this 15th century altarpiece, were hidden away in local cellars before the bombs fell. Before the war, the entire church was lit with windows like these. But most of the church's fine glass was destroyed. The Tupperware-colored replacements date from 1950.
The Gothic pulpit, carved from sandstone, is a masterpiece. Its busy symbolism legitimized the gospel message which was read from its lectern. Readings were literally and figuratively supported by the four Latin Church fathers. Below it all is a self-portrait of a self-assured artist proud of his creation.
Most Gothic art was created anonymously...for the glory of God, not the artist. But much of the art here was sculpted around the year 1500 when the Renaissance spirit, so strong in Italy, was creeping north. With the humanism of the Renaissance, man was allowed to shine — and artists — like Anton Pilgram, a master builder of this cathedral — were recognized as creators also.
Vienna's old center is corralled by its grand circular Ringstrasse. In the 1860s, Emperor Franz Josef had the city's ingrown medieval wall torn down. He replaced it with this impressive boulevard which arcs nearly three miles around the city's core. One of Europe's great streets, the Ringstrasse is lined with many of Vienna's top sights.
For a handy do-it-yourself budget tour, hop on tram number one and make the loop. In my guidebooks, I like to describe self-guided tours that take advantage of handy public transport routes like this.
Because this Ring Road is actually older than all the buildings that line it — what you see is very “neo”: neo-Renaissance , neo-Gothic, and neo-Classical. The choice of style seems to fit the buildings' function.
The Austrian parliament is neo-Classical — because democracy came from ancient Greece. The city hall is neo-Gothic — recalling the age when local merchants ran the government. Museums are neo-Renaissance — for a spirit of learning. And Vienna's Court Theater is neo-Baroque — the age when opera and theater flourished.
From the Ringstrasse, an efficient subway system takes us farther afield...like to the beach...the Danube beach.
In the 1970s, Vienna dug a canal parallel to the mighty Danube River creating both a flood barrier and a much-loved island escape. This skinny, 12-mile long island provides a natural wonderland. All along this traffic-free, grassy park you'll find the Viennese at play.
For those who can't afford their own cabin or fancy vacation, it's an ideal place for a good old fashioned barbecue. And, the appeal of the ice cream cart is universal.
For centuries Vienna was ruled by the Habsburg family. They had two luxurious palaces in Vienna. The Schonnbrunn palace, with its expansive grounds standing at the edge of town, was their summer residence. Their main palace, the Hofburg, dominates the town center. This imposing and sprawling complex grew with the family empire from the 13th century until just before WWI, when this last "new wing" opened.
While the last Habsburg checked out in 1918, the palace is still plenty busy. It has the offices of the Austrian president and it's home to hundreds of government workers, the Spanish Riding School, and the Vienna Boys' Choir. And the palace itself welcomes the public.
The lavish Imperial Apartments seem designed to give their royal residents grandeur fit for a god. After all, in the age of divine monarchs, kings and emperors like the Habsburgs claimed God himself ordained them to rule with unquestioned authority. The Habsburgs were one of a handful of royal families who ruled nearly all of Europe until WWI.
The walls between the rooms are wide enough to hide servants' corridors. The big, ornate stoves, which servants fed from behind, heated the rooms. The decor is splendid Baroque — the preferred style of divine monarchs as it served as a kind of propaganda to sell the old regime notion that some were born to rule and others were born to be ruled.
When the emperor and his extended family sat down to dinner, they ate here. This is the more casual table setting — with just your basic silverware. For more formal state dinners they brought out the golden ware. Each drink came with a proper glass...and spittoons always go on the left.
Six centuries of Habsburgs ruled from here including Maria Theresa in the late 1700s. She was famous for having sixteen children and cleverly marrying many of them into Europe’s various royal families around Europe in order to expand her empire.
Today's palace is furnished as it was in the 1800's from the age of Maria's great-great-grandson, Emperor Franz Josef. He ruled for 68 years and was the embodiment of the Habsburg Empire in its final decades. Franz Josef had a stern upbringing that instilled in him a powerful sense of duty. This was Franz Josef in 1915, when he was 85 years old.
Wearing his uniform to the very end, he never understood what a dinosaur his monarchy was becoming, and he didn’t think it was strange that so few of his subjects actually spoke German. Still every citizen had the right to meet with the emperor here in the Audience Room. Famously energetic and dedicated to duty, Franz Josef stood at this tall table to meet with commoners. They’d come ask him a favor or tell him thanks for something. Standing kept things moving.
On the table, you can read a partial list of 56 appointments he had on January 3, 1910.
The emperor presided here over cabinet meetings in this room. He ruled the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so Hungarians sat at these meetings. The paintings on the wall show the military defeat of a popular Hungarian uprising...not too subtle.
Franz Josef nurtured an image of being Spartan and a very hard worker — this is his famous no-frills iron bed and portable washstand. While he had a typical emperor's share of mistresses, his dresser was always well-stocked with portraits of his wife, the Empress Elisabeth...or Sisi.
Elisabeth, Franz Josef's mysterious, narcissistic, and beautiful wife, is in vogue these days. In the palace, you'll learn of her fairy tale existence — her escapes, dieting mania, and chocolate bills. Sisi's hard-earned tiny waist was 21 inches around at age 50...after giving birth to 4 children. Her main goals in life seem to have been preserving her beautiful empress image, maintaining her Barbie Doll figure, and tending to her cascading hair.
Here in her bedroom, servants worked two hours a day on Sisi's famous hair. She'd exercise on this. Her bathroom was equipped with a huge tub — the finest anywhere — which rested on the first linoleum floor in Vienna...installed in 1888.
In spite of severe dieting and fanatic exercise, age took its toll. After turning 30, she allowed no more portraits and was seen in public only behind a gentle fan. In 1898, while visiting Geneva, in Switzerland, Empress Elizabeth was assassinated by an Italian anarchist. Sisi has often been compared with Princess Diana because of her beauty, her bittersweet life, and her tragic death.
When you visit Vienna, it's easy to get caught up in the growing legend of Empress Elizabeth.
The Habsburgs ruled as Holy Roman Emperors. While historians joke their domain was neither holy nor Roman, they did have some fancy jewels.
The Imperial Treasury shows off the best jewels on the Continent. Visitors reflect on the glitter of 20 rooms filled with the precious paraphernalia designed to help keep one royal family ruling a good part of Europe.
This 500-year-old unicorn horn (or maybe the tusk of a narwhal) was considered very powerful in the Middle Ages. Possessed by the Habsburg Emperor — a divine monarch — it gave its owner the grace of God...something rulers still seek today.
The collection's highlight is the 10th-century crown of the Holy Roman Emperor. The symbolism indicates that the emperor was both holy and Roman. The jeweled arch represents the parade helmet of ancient Roman emperors whose successors the Habsburgs claimed to be. The cross says the emperor ruled as Christ's representative on earth. King Solomon's portrait is Old Testament proof that kings can be wise and good. King David is similar proof that they can be just. The crown's eight sides represent the celestial city of Jerusalem's eight gates. The precious stones on the front panel symbolize the 12 apostles.
The 11th-century Imperial Cross preceded the emperor in ceremonies. Encrusted with jewels, it carried what was believed to be a substantial chunk of the cross. Through the centuries, the Holy Roman Emperors actually carried this into battle. You can see bits of the so called "true cross" anywhere, but this is a prime piece — with an actual nail hole.
Adjacent to the palace, below a church is more Habsburg history.
While the Habsburgs have been out of power since the end of WWI, they maintain a hold on the Austrian spirit — as you feel when you visit their tombs. But visiting the imperial remains is not as easy as you might imagine. These early organ donors — about 150 Habsburgs in all — left their hearts under a church near the palace, their entrails under the Cathedral, and the rest of their bodies here in the Kaisergruft or Emperors' crypt.
The ornate double coffin of Maria Theresa and her husband, Franz I, is festooned with Habsburg regalia...and surrounded by the tombs of their many children.
The royal tombs are an evocative mixture of art and symbols of that monarch's reign. How they wanted to be remembered is reflected in the tombs they often helped design. Franz Josef's is an appropriately austere military tomb. His wife, Empress Elisabeth, or Sisi, always seems to get the most flowers.
While it's fun to chase down all these royal body parts, remember that the real legacy of the Habsburgs is the magnificence of their city. Step outside. Look up. Appreciate the ornate skyline of Vienna.
The Hofburg palace offers something for everyone. The hot and muggy butterfly zone is a tropical wonderland any time of year. In this community of butterflies, the trays serving up rotting slices of fruit are the tavern. This gang's licking the fermented banana juice as it beads, and then just hangs out there in a stupor...or flies in anything but a straight line.
Vienna's Nasch Market is nearby. About a hundred years ago, the city decided to cover up its Vienna River. The long, narrow square they created was filled with a lively produce market that still bustles almost daily. To the Viennese, this is where the Balkans begin. In other words, for generations, this has been the place for far away food.
The market features the freshest of produce and gourmet goodies. You'll find everything from tasty olives and fresh baklava.... (uumm, thank you) ...to sauerkraut evangelists.
Man: This is four days old.
Rick: Four days old? So this is, already this is sauerkraut?
Man: This is sauerkraut. Yes.
Rick: Kraut is German for cabbage? Is this healthy?
Man: It's very healthy. It’s the absolute vitamin bomb. It contains, I think 5 vitamins...
And the gourmet vinegar stall is even more interactive.
Rick: So this is elderberry?
Woman: Elderberry, balsamic vinegar
Rick: I smell first? Umm, that’s more powerful, it’s more sweet. I could become a connoisseur of vinegar. Hmm that's very good.
Woman: Danke schön.
Rick: Danke schön. Auf Weidersehen.
Woman: Auf weidersehn. It was nice meeting you, bye-bye.
Experiencing the Vienna opera is high on the list of many visitors. But we're here in July...and nothing's scheduled. The city's venerable musical institutions — like the opera, boys’ choir, and philharmonic — are mostly on vacation in July and August. But, taking advantage of local entertainment listings, you'll find the city still hums with great classical music year-round.
Music in Vienna's parks enjoys a long tradition. A century ago Johan Strauss was the toast of Vienna's High Society. It was here, in Vienna's City Park, in the Kursalon, where the "Waltz King" himself directed wildly popular concerts in the late 1800s. And the tradition continues to the delight of music lovers from around the world.
[Dancing and playing music.]
Whether you like classical music... imperial grandeur...or just a good apple strudel, you'll love Vienna. Thanks for joining us. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Auf Wiedersehen.
Taking advantage of local entertainment listings you’ll find the city is still busy with classical entertainment year-round. Oh man.
We’re in the middle of Vienna, the once grand capital called a head without a body. These days a place like this really needs more tourists. Don’t you think so? (Woman: Yes, sir!) Good, go have fun. (Okay, bye-bye.)