In this program, we'll nibble chocolate cake at an Old World café, and marvel at the indomitable Gothic cathedral at the heart of town. Then we'll tiptoe through the Hofburg Palace, be dazzled by the Habsburg crown jewels at the Imperial Treasury, sniff vinegar and Kraut at the Naschmarkt, 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 with the dry Sacher tortes). The enticing window displays change monthly, reflecting current happenings in Vienna. Inside is an impressive cancan of Vienna's most beloved cakes — displayed to tempt visitors into springing for the 10 cake-and-coffee deal. Farther in, you can see the bakery in action. Sit inside, with a view of the cake-making, or outside, with the street action. 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.
Among this famous place's 22 options for small sandwiches, the classic favorites are Geflügelleber (chicken liver), Matjes mit Zwiebel (herring with onions), and Speck mit Ei (bacon and eggs). Started by a Polish cook who moved to Vienna, Trześniewski has been a local favorite for more than a century…and many of its regulars seem to have been here for the grand opening.
St. Stephen's Cathedral
According to the medieval vision of its creators, the cathedral stands like a giant jeweled reliquary, offering praise to God from the center of the city. The church and its towers, especially the 450-foot south tower, give the city its most iconic image. It has survived Vienna's many wars and today symbolizes the city's spirit and love of freedom.
It's free to enter the foyer and north aisle of the church, but it costs a few euros to get into the main nave, where most of the interesting items are located (more for special exhibits). Going up the towers costs extra too, whether by elevator or stairs (though the stairs are a tad cheaper). You'll also pay to visit the catacombs and the treasury (but the combo-ticket for all these sections is overkill for most visitors). Entertaining daily tours in English run once a day.
Hofburg Palace's Imperial Apartments
These lavish, Versailles-type, "wish-I-were-God" royal rooms are the downtown version of the suburban Schönbrunn Palace. 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.
Hofburg Palace's Imperial Treasury
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 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.
Under the city's Capuchin Church sits the Imperial Crypt, filled with what's left of Austria's emperors, empresses, and other Habsburg royalty. For centuries, Vienna was the heart of a vast empire ruled by the Habsburg family, and here is where they lie buried in their fancy pewter coffins. You'll find all the Habsburg greats, including Maria Theresa, her son Josef II (Mozart's patron), Franz Josef, and Empress Sisi.
Watching the 400 free-flying butterflies here is trippy any time of year, and on a chilly day, it feels great to step inside their delightfully muggy greenhouse. It sits in the Burggarten (palace garden) greenbelt, once the backyard of the Hofburg and now a people's park.
This "Belly of Vienna" comes with two parallel lanes — one lined with fun and reasonable eateries, and the other featuring the town's top-end produce and gourmet goodies. This is where top chefs like to get their ingredients. Farther from the center, the Naschmarkt becomes likably seedy, less expensive, and surrounded by sausage stands, Turkish döner kebab stalls, cafés, and theaters. At the market's far end is a line of buildings with fine Art Nouveau facades. Picnickers can pick up their grub in the market and head over to nearby Karlsplatz or the Burggarten. In recent years, some stalls have been taken over by hip new eateries and bars, bringing a youthful vibe and fun new tastes to the market scene.
Shows last two hours and are a mix of ballet, waltzes, and a 15-piece orchestra. It's touristy — tour guides holding up banners with group numbers wait out front after the show. Even so, the performance is playful, visually fun, fine quality for most, and with a tried-and-tested, crowd-pleasing format. The conductor welcomes the crowd in German (with a wink) and English; after that…it's English only.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold, excerpted from Rick's guidebooks.
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 that, its 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 has long been the easternmost city of the West. In ancient Roman times, it 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 superpower 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're 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.
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: Um, Speck mit Ei…
Three different sandwiches make a light lunch — I'm having ham and eggs, herring with onion, and chicken liver.
Rick: Ein Pfiff, bitte?
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 World War II, 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 #1 and make the loop. [The loop now requires a change of tram lines to tram #2 at the Schwedenplatz stop, as tram #1 no longer goes all the way around.] 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 Neoclassical. The choice of style seems to fit the buildings' function.
The Austrian parliament is Neoclassical — 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 Schönbrunn 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 World War I, 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, 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 World War I.
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 16 children and cleverly marrying many of them into Europe's various royal families in order to expand her empire.
Today's palace is furnished as it was in the 1800s 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 four 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 Elisabeth was assassinated by an Italian anarchist. Sisi's 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 Elisabeth.
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 perhaps 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 World War I, 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 Naschmarkt 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 began. 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…
Rick: Mmm, thank you!
…to sauerkraut evangelists.
Sauerkraut vendor: This is, uh, four days old.
Rick: Four days old?
Sauerkraut vendor: Four days old!
Rick: So this is, already — this is sour Kraut?
Sauerkraut vendor : This is sauerkraut. Yes.
Rick: "Kraut" is German for "cabbage"…?
Sauerkraut vendor: Yes.
Rick: Is this healthy?
Sauerkraut vendor : It's very healthy. It's the absolute vitamin bomb. It contains, I think, five vitamins…
And the gourmet vinegar stall is even more interactive.
Rick: So this is elderberry?
Vinegar vendor: Elderberry and balsamic vinegar.
Rick: I smell first, OK?
Vinegar vendor: Yes.
Rick: Umm, that's more powerful; it's more sweet — I like it. I could become a connoisseur of vinegar. Mmm…das schmeckt sehr gut.
Vinegar vendor: Danke schön.
Rick: Danke schön. Auf Wiedersehen.
Vinegar vendor: Wiedersehen. It was nice meeting you, bye-bye.
Rick: Thank you!
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, the Vienna Boys' Choir, the 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.
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. (Thank you!) OK, bye-bye!