Vienna and the Danube
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.
Among Europe’s palaces, only Schönbrunn rivals Versailles. This former summer residence of the Habsburgs is big, with 1,441 rooms. But don’t worry — only 40 rooms are shown to the public. 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.
Café Sperl dates from 1880 and is still furnished identically to the day it opened — from the coat tree to the chairs.
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 in 1888 to display these works). While there’s little Viennese art here, you will find world-class European masterpieces galore (including canvases by Raphael, Caravaggio, Velázquez, Dürer, Rubens, Vermeer, Rembrandt, and a particularly exquisite roomful of Bruegels), all well-displayed on one glorious floor, plus a fine display of Egyptian, classical, and applied arts. Another highlight, filling a wing of the ground floor, is the Habsburg “Chamber of Wonders” (Kunstkammer), showing off the imperial collection of exquisite fine-art objects and exotic curios.
The Opera house, facing the Ring and near the tourist information office, 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 wraparound 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 of Vienna’s opera company.
See the Travel Details above for recommendations highlighted in bold.
Hi, I'm Rick Steves, back with more of the best of Europe. This time we're celebrating the good life in Vienna. Thanks for joining us.
When I think about Vienna, I think about good living: elegant parks, romantic Danube River, imperial art collections, great music. After centuries of rule by the Habsburg family, today the people are calling the shots...and they seem to be getting it right.
We'll marvel at the awe-inspiring Schönnbrunn Palace and the imperial city's fine art, then relax in a hillside wine garden. And we'll visit a world-class opera house and catch a little Klimt before touring the Danube countryside with its striking Melk Abbey.
Vienna was the grand capital of the formerly grand Habsburg Empire — which once stretched across much of Europe. Its superpower days are now long gone. And today, the city enjoys the cultural and physical remnants of its imperial past as both an inspiration and a playground for living well.
The city sits along the Danube River. St. Stephen's Cathedral marks the center of town. The old town — with most of the top sights — is bound tightly by the Ringstrasse, marking what used to be the city wall.
The palaces of the imperial Habsburg family still create a buzz. The royal family wintered downtown in their Hofburg Palace and they summered here — at the Schönbrunn Palace.
Among Europe's grandiose palaces, only Schönbrunn rivals Versailles. It's big, with over 1,400 rooms, but don't worry — only 40 are shown to the public.
While the exterior is Baroque — the favored style of divine monarchs in the 17th century, much of the interior was finished under Maria Theresa in let-them-eat-cake Rococo — the frillier style that followed. The chandeliers are either of Bohemian crystal or of hand-carved wood shiny with gold-leaf. This one was lit by 72 candles.
Maria Theresa, who ruled in the late 1700s, was the only woman to officially run the Habsburg Empire in that family's six-century reign. She was a strong and effective empress famous as the mother of 16 children — most of whom survived to adulthood. Imagine that the most powerful woman in Europe either was pregnant or had a newborn for half of her 40 year reign.
The original practitioner of "make love not war," Maria Theresa expanded her empire while avoiding wars by skillfully marrying her children into other royal families. During her reign the rest of Europe recognized Austria as a great power. Her rival, the Prussian emperor, said, "When at last the Habsburgs get a great man, it's a woman."
Room after luxurious room, the palace heralds the story of a powerful family. Frescos in the grand ballroom were propaganda: the good life under Maria Theresa. A contemporary of George Washington — but worlds apart politically, she presides like the divine monarch she was over a vast empire at peace: Tuscany with the bottles of good Chianti, the Netherlands with the wild sea, Hungarians with their Magyar hats and animals were all part of her realm in about 1750. There was peace — but, of course, only through strength. This fresco shows off her state-of-the art military. Her infantry moves forward in alternating lines, firing and loading with a horrifying speed and efficiency.
A walk through the imperial garden, now overrun with commoners, celebrates the evolution of our society from autocracy to democracy. It's been nearly a century since the last emperor checked out. And, if access to once out-of-bounds royal gardens is any measure, the people are doing quite well.
While the Habsburgs are gone, their appreciation of finer living is alive and well, as you'll learn in the cafes. For many Viennese, the living room is down the street at the neighborhood coffeehouse. Each comes with its own individual character. The venerable Café Sperl is still furnished as it was on the day it opened back in 1880.
While a bit tired, often smoky and with a shabby patina, a Vienna café is a welcoming place. They offer light lunches, fresh pastries, a wide selection of newspapers, and "take all the time you want" charm for the price of a cup of coffee.
Divine monarchs like the Habsburgs liked their art divine too, in other words, Baroque. Charles Church offers the best Baroque in Vienna with the unique combination of columns, a classic pediment and an elliptical dome. We're dropping in for a peek at the painstaking and costly restoration work going on all the time to keep the cultural treasures of Europe looking good. Here, tourist admissions help pay the bill.
The church, which dates to the early 1700s, was built and decorated with a scaffolding system essentially the same as this one. Ascending the elevator high into the dome, you're in the clouds with cupids and angels. Many details that appear refined and realistic from ground level — such as gold leaf, frescos, and fake marble — look rough and sloppy up close. It's surreal to observe these distorted figures from this unintended angle.
As always, the art had a purpose; teaching...or propaganda — depending upon your perspective — purpose: Here, Faith, Hope, Charity, and Catholic priests triumph and inspire — while Protestants and their trouble-making books are trashed. At the very top, you'll see the tiny dove representing the Holy Spirit, surrounded by a cheering squad of nipple-lipped cupids.
Nearby, imperial Austria's greatest leader, Maria Theresa, looks upon the country's greatest collection of art, the Kunsthistorisches Museum. As you enter, you'll be dazzled by the space and reminded of the former glory of the Habsburgs' multi-national empire.
At their peak of power in the 1500s, the Habsburg family ruled Austria, Germany, northern Italy, the Netherlands, and even Spain. And Vienna's Kunst-history museum offers great art from throughout the realm. The Italian collection is particularly strong.
Around the year 1500, Italy had a Renaissance, or "rebirth," of interest in the art and learning of ancient Greece and Rome. In painting, that meant that Greek gods joined saints and angels as popular subjects.
The collection spans the all stars of the Italian Renaissance:
Titian — the Venetian — seemed particular intimate with the pre-Christian gods and their antics. Here, in Mars, Venus and Amor, a busy cupid oversees the goddess of love making her case that war is not the answer. Mars — his weapons blissfully discarded, sees her point.
The 22-year-old Raphael captured the spirit of the High Renaissance, combining symmetry, grace, beauty, and emotion. His Madonna of the Meadow is a mountain of motherly love. Mary's head is the summit and her flowing robe is the base — enfolding baby Jesus and John the Baptist. The geometric perfection, serene landscape, and Mary's adoring face make this a masterpiece of sheer grace. But the cross the little tykes play with foreshadows their gruesome deaths.
As the baroque age succeeds the Renaissance, it brings more emotion and melodrama. Caravaggio's Rosenkranz Madonna provides a strong contrast to Raphael's super-sweet Madonnas. Caravaggio shocked the art world with brutally honest reality — ordinary Madonnas, hands that seem to speak...saints with dirty feet.
In David with the Head of Goliath, Caravaggio turns a harsh light on a familiar Bible story. David shows off the dripping head of the slain giant. The painting, bled of color, is like a black-and-white crime-scene photo. This David is not a heroic Renaissance Man like Michelangelo's famous statue, but a homeless teen that Caravaggio hired off the street. And the severed head of Goliath...is none other than Caravaggio himself, an in-your-face self-portrait.
Art of the Northern "Renaissance" was different. Funded by the economic boom of Dutch and Flemish trading, it was more secular and Protestant than the Catholic-funded art of the Italian Renaissance. Rather than Madonnas, saints, and Greek gods, you'll see peasants, landscapes, and food.
Paintings are smaller, full of down-to-earth objects, designed to appeal to the thriving merchant class. Northern artists embraced the details, encouraging the viewer to appreciate the beauty in everyday things.
Pieter Bruegel the Elder was the Norman Rockwell of the 16th century — the undisputed master of the slice-of-life village scene. While a city-slicker himself, Bruegel dressed down to observe country folk at play. Even as he celebrated their simple life, he showed off their quirks as universal examples of human folly.
In his Farmers' Dance there's not a saint in sight, but there is a message. Bagpipes symbolized hedonism. In this scene, the church is ignored while the piper gets all the attention.
Perhaps the best way to match this rustic conviviality today is to head into the nearby Vienna Woods. Here in the foothills of the Alps, locals enjoy their natural backyard. And, amidst the famous vineyards, they gather for the ritual of tasting the new wine.
The uniquely Viennese institution of Heurigen is two things: a young wine, and a place to drink it. Long ago, when the Habsburg emperors let Vienna's vintners sell their own new wine tax-free, several hundred families opened these charming wine-garden eateries clustered around the edge of town — and a tradition was born.
Today, there are more than 1,700 acres of vineyards within Vienna's city limits, and countless Heuriger taverns. For a Heuriger evening ride a tram into this wine-garden district, wander around, and choose the place with the best ambience.
Many locals claim that it takes several years of practice to distinguish between the young Heuriger wine and vinegar.
To enjoy a more refined wine some vocabulary helps. Try the grüner Veltliner — a dry white wine. Since Austrian wine is often sweet, remember the word trocken — that means dry. While waitresses bring your wine order, the food is self-serve.
As is the tradition, they don't serve fine cuisine — only simple dishes and cold cuts from a buffet like this. Clearly, no one's goin' hungry tonight.
So, here we've got all the standards: red kraut, sauerkraut, Schweinbraten — roasted pork, a good basket of bread, potato salad...and of course you gotta have Schmalz — that's lard. The young people don't go for this but the old timers love it. It's good on bread.
Vienna has fine art and architecture from just about every age and particularly interesting is the art from the last decades of Habsburg rule – Art Nouveau. Vienna gave birth to its own curvaceous brand of Art Nouveau around the early 1900s: Jugendstil. Playful examples are all over town. Whether architecture, coffee, cakes, or music...it's all part of the good life, Vienna style.
The Belvedere Palace, with its elegant Baroque gardens, was the lavish home of Prince Eugene of Savoy, the still-much-appreciated conqueror of the Turks. Eugene was the greatest military genius of his age and much appreciated by his emperor.
When you conquer great enemies, as Eugene did, you get really rich. Since he had no heirs, the state inherited his palaces. In the 19th century, Emperor Josef II converted Eugene's palace into Austria's first great public art gallery.
It houses the Austrian gallery of 19th- and 20th-century art. As Austria became a leader in European art around 1900, that age is the collection's best, with fine works by a school of respected romantics, Egon Schiele, and Gustav Klimt.
In the room full of sumptuous paintings by Klimt you can get caught up in his creed that all art is erotic. He was fasinated with both the beauty and danger of women. He painted during the turn-of-the-century, when Vienna was a splendid laboratory of hedonism — the love of pleasure. For Klimt, Eve was the prototypical woman; her body, not the apple, provided the seduction. Frustrated by censorship, Klimt refused every form of state support. While he didn't paint women entirely nude, he managed to capture a bewitching eroticism.
Here, Judith is no biblical heroine but a high-society Vienna woman — with an ostentatious necklace. With half-closed eyes and lightly parted lips, she's dismissive yet mysterious and seductive. Holding the head of her Biblical victim, she's the modern femme fatale.
In perhaps his most famous painting, The Kiss, the woman is not dominating...but submissive, abandoning herself to her man in a fertile field and a vast universe. In a glow emanating from a radiance of desire, the body she presses against is a self-portrait of the artist himself — Gustav Klimt.
At the Hofburg, the Habsburg Winter Palace in the town center, Vienna's love of music is beautifully captured in the fine collection of historic instruments.
Vienna was Europe's music capital long before Beethoven called it home. As far back as the 12th century, Vienna was a mecca for musicians. Later Habsburg emperors were not only generous supporters of music, but fine musicians and composers themselves.
Palatial rooms are filled with odd medieval noise makers, regal trumpets, famous pianos, and more. Immersed in music history — this portrait is of a 13-year-old Beethoven — visitors can actually hear these precious instruments being played with the accompanying audio guide.
The clavichord and the harpsichord were two predecessors to the piano.
These days' visitors to Vienna find musical treats wherever they turn.
Even if you don't have time or money for a performance, a visit to the opera is a must.
he Vienna State Opera house, built in the 1860s, is the pride of Vienna. Here in the grand entry hall, it's easy to imagine an age when opera was as popular as movies are today. Picture white-gloved dandies with their dates. Tours are offered daily.
The Vienna State Opera — with musicians provided by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra in the pit — is one of the world's top opera houses offering 300 performances a year.
While the orchestra and the opera take the summer off, Vienna's music scene thrives year-round. And each summer evening in front of City Hall, free concerts are broadcast on a giant screen. Just before the show, people gather to enjoy dinner in the park. It's a livley local scene...sure, there's some schnitzel...but it's mostly "world food" with Vienna at play.
Singles consider this the best pick-up place in town. The city government subsidizes the event believing even those just looking to hook up will pick up an appreciation of a little high culture.
Tonight, 3,000 seats are filled as people who couldn't make it to the original performance enjoy the Vienna State Opera and its orchestra perform the Love Potion by Donizetti for free.
The Danube is an integral part of Vienna — both for trade and for recreation. The mighty river flows nearly two thousand miles through a dozen countries — from the Black Forest in Germany to the Black Sea in Romania. Western Europe's longest river, it's also the only major river flowing west to east, making the Danube invaluable for commercial transportation.
The town of Melk — just a short trip by boat, car or train from Vienna — is a fine base for exploring the Danube River Valley. Its traffic-free and cobbled town center with cheery eateries and budget guesthouses is dwarfed by its magnificent abbey.
Melk's newly restored abbey beams proudly over the Danube Valley. Established as a fortified Benedictine abbey in the 11th century, it was destroyed by fire. What you see today is 18th-century Baroque.
Today, as they have for 900 years, monks pray, meditate, and follow the rules of St. Benedict right here. The institution survives — that's the point of the modern frescoes gracing the courtyard. Like the monks, visitors stroll past six centuries of Habsburg emperors as they tour the building.
For the Benedictine monks, the library was — after the actual church — the most important room in the entire abbey. That's made clear by the extravagant investment in its elaborate decor. Many of Europe's finest old libraries are in monasteries like this.
In the Middle Ages, monasteries horded and controlled knowledge. Monks were Europe's educated elite and it was in information power centers like this that that they decided what was...and what wasn't.
Long before Dewey and his decimals, the books here were organized starting with Bibles, then theology, and from there into law, philosophy, medicine, and so on. Many of the collection's oldest books were written and transcribed right here. It's a visual reminder of how monasteries were the storehouse of knowledge through the ages. There would be a Gutenberg Bible...but it was sold to Harvard University to raise money to restore the library...
...and this. The gilded church is classic Baroque. Everything works together theatrically — the architecture, frescoes, pipe organ, and opulent chapels — to make the Benedictine's theological point: A just battle leads to victory. In the front, below the huge papal crown, Saints Peter and Paul shake hands before departing for their final battles, martyrdom, and ultimate triumph. And, high above, St. Benedict makes his glorious entry into heaven.
The Danube is at its romantic best between Melk and Vienna. This stretch, called the Wachau Valley, is easily explored by bike or boat ....or both. The Wachau Valley is steeped in tradition, blanketed with vineyards, and ornamented with cute villages and fabled castles.
Cycling is popular — with clearly marked bike paths and no shortage of colorful pubs for a meal or a drink.
And whether you roll on or walk on, cruise ships have you humming the Strauss waltz that causes everyone who visits to wonder...why isn't the Danube blue?
Thanks for joining us. I hope you enjoyed our visit to Vienna and our little cruise up the Danube River Valley. I'm Rick Steves. Until next time, keep on traveling. Auf wiedersehen.