One palace, so many stories! Originally built in the 15th-century as an imperial palace of Emperor Maximilian I, the Hofburg was rebuilt in the baroque style (but with rococo detailing) during the 18th century on orders of Maria Theresia. The first Empress of the Hapsburg Dynasty, she put her definitive stamp on the building, a place where she experienced some of the greatest joys and most profound tragedies, of her existence. It was here, during her son's lavish, two-week wedding that her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. She created an elaborate chapel from his bedroom, as well as an order of nuns whose only task was to say a daily mass for the departed consort's soul (one of her daughters, unmarriable because she was disfigured by smallpox, became the first leader of that order). Just beyond the chapel is the extraordinary, two-story Riesensaal (Giant's Hall) painted in white and gold and filled with portraits of the Hapsburgs. In a flipping of tradition, Maria Thesia decided that the portraits would not be of ancestors but of her own children and grandchildren, the people who were to continue the line. Look for the painting of the three toddlers in gray wigs on a cloud: these are depictions of the children who died before the age of two, making the hall also a memorial site. In other rooms, you'll learn about how the palace changed hands over the years, and see samples of extraordinary furniture. What makes a visit here so compelling, beyond the beauty of the place, is the extremely well-written wall text (translated into English), which brings to life the political intrigues that played out within these walls, as well as what daily life may have been like for the Hapsburgs and their servants.

Guided tours are available, but needlessly expensive and brisk. We recommend simply wandering on your own.