Walking Tour 1: Imperial Vienna
Start: Staatsoper (State Opera House).
Time: 3 hours.
Best Time: During daylight hours or at dusk.
Worst Time: Rainy days.
One of dozens of potential paths through Vienna's historic center, this meandering tour will give you at least an exterior view of the Habsburgs' urban haunts. This tour also reveals lesser-known sights best seen from the outside on foot. Later, you can pick the attractions you want to revisit.
Our tour begins at the southernmost loop of Ringstrasse, the beltway that encircles most of the historic core of the city, in the shadow of the very symbol of Austrian culture, the:
1. Staatsoper (State Opera House)
Built between 1861 and 1865 in a style inspired by the French Renaissance (and faithfully reconstructed after World War II), it was so severely criticized when it was unveiled that one of its architects, Eduard van der Null, committed suicide.
On Opernring, walk 1 block north on Austria's most famous pedestrian street, Kärntner Strasse. We'll eventually walk past the glamorous shops and famous houses, but for the moment, turn left behind the arcaded bulk of the State Opera onto Philharmonikerstrasse. On the right side, you'll see the lushly carved caryatids and globe lights of Vienna's best-known hotel, the:
2. Hotel Sacher
A confectionery store with a separate street entrance sells the hotel's namesake, Sachertorte, which can be shipped anywhere in the world.
A few steps later you'll find yourself amid the irregular angles of Albertinaplatz, where you'll be able to plunge into the purely Viennese experience of the kaffeehaus.
Take A Break -- If you'd rather indulge in heartier fare than the coffeehouses offer, try the Augustinerkeller, Augustinerstrasse 1 (tel. 01/533-1026), in the basement of the Hofburg palace sheltering the Albertina collection. This popular wine tavern, open daily from 11am to midnight, offers wine, beer, and Austrian food.
In the same building as your rest stop is the:
A monumental staircase in the building's side supports the equestrian statue that dominates the square. Its subject is Field Marshal Archduke Albrecht, in honor of a battle he won in 1866.
Adjacent to Albertinaplatz, at Lobkowitzplatz 2, lies one of the many baroque jewels of Vienna. Its position is confusing because of the rows of buildings partially concealing it. To get here, walk about 50 paces to the right of the Albertina. This is the:
4. Lobkowitz Palace
This privately owned building existed in smaller form at the time of the second Turkish siege of Vienna. After the Turks were driven from the outskirts of the city, the palace was enlarged by the reigning architect of his day, Fischer von Erlach. In 1735, it passed into the hands of Prince Lobkowitz, a great patron of the arts; Beethoven's Third Symphony premiered here in 1803.
At the far end of Lobkowitzplatz, take Gluckgasse past a series of antiques shops filled with Art Deco jewelry and silverware. At the end of the block, at Tegetthoffstrasse, go left. About 50 paces later, you'll be in front of the deceptively simple facade of the:
5. Church of the Capuchin Friars
Originally constructed in the 1620s, its facade was rebuilt in 1935 along a severely simple design following old illustrations. Despite its humble appearance, the Kapuzinerkirche contains the burial vaults of every Habsburg ruler since 1633. The heavily sculpted double casket of Maria Theresa and her husband, Francis, is flanked with weeping nymphs and skulls but capped with a triumphant cherub reuniting the couple.
The portal of this church marks the beginning of the Neuer Markt, whose perimeter is lined with rows of elegant baroque houses. The square's centerpiece is one of the most beautiful works of outdoor art in Austria, the:
6. Donner Fountain
Holding a snake, the gracefully undraped Goddess of Providence is attended by four laughing cherubs struggling with fish. Beside the waters flowing into the basin of the fountain are four allegorical figures representing nearby tributaries of the Danube. The fountain is a copy of the original, which was moved to the Baroque Museum in the Belvedere Palace. The original was commissioned by the City Council in 1737 and executed by Georg Raphael Donner, but judged obscene and immoral when Maria Theresa viewed it for the first time. Today it's considered a masterpiece.
Take the street stretching west from the side of the fountain, Plankengasse, where a yellow baroque church fills the space at the end of the street. As you approach it, you'll pass an array of shops filled with alluring old-fashioned merchandise. Even the pharmacy at the corner of Spiegelgasse has a vaulted ceiling and rows of antique bottles. Museum-quality antique clocks fill the store at Plankengasse 6 and its next-door neighbor at the corner of Dorotheergasse.
Turn left when you reach Dorotheergasse, past the Italianate bulk of no. 17. This is one of the most historic auction houses of Europe, the:
Established in 1707, it was rebuilt in the neo-baroque style in 1901. Here, members of Austria's impoverished aristocracy could discreetly liquidate their estates.
About half a block later, turn right onto Augustinerstrasse, which borders the labyrinth of palaces, museums, and public buildings known as the:
Roaring traffic usually diminishes the grime-encrusted grandeur of this narrow street with darkened stone walls. Despite that modern intrusion, this group of buildings is the single most impressive symbol of the majesty and might of the Habsburgs.
In about half a block you'll arrive at:
A huge equestrian statue of Joseph II seems to be storming the gate of no. 5, the Palffy Palace, originally built around 1575 with a combination of classical and Renaissance motifs. Two pairs of relaxed caryatids guard the entrance. Next door, at no. 6, is another once-glittering private residence, the Palavicini Palace. Completed in 1784 for members of the Fries family, it was later purchased by the family whose name it bears today.
A few steps later, a pedestrian tunnel leads past the:
10. Spanish Riding School (Spanische Reitschule)
The district becomes increasingly filled with slightly decayed vestiges of a vanished empire whose baroque monuments sit on outmoded, too-narrow streets amid thundering traffic.
Michaelerplatz now opens to your view. At Michaelerplatz 3, opposite the six groups of combative statues, is a streamlined building with rows of unadorned windows. This is the:
11. Loos House
Designed in 1910, it immediately became the most violently condemned building in town. That almost certainly stemmed from the unabashed (some would say provocative) contrast between the lavishly ornamented facade of the Michaelerplatz entrance to the Hofburg and what contemporary critics compared to "the gridwork of a sewer." Franz Joseph hated the building so much that he used the Michaelerplatz exit as infrequently as possible.
A covered tunnel that empties both pedestrians and automobiles into the square takes you beneath the Hofburg complex. Notice the passageway's elaborate ceiling: spears, capes, and shields crowning the supports of the elaborate dome. This must be one of the most heavily embellished traffic tunnels in the world. As you walk through the tunnel, a series of awesomely proportioned courtyards reveals the Imperial Age's addiction to conspicuous grandeur.
When you eventually emerge from the tunnel, you'll find yourself surrounded by the magnificent curves of:
Its carefully constructed symmetry seems to dictate that each of the stately buildings bordering it, as well as each of its equestrian statues and ornate lampposts, has a well-balanced mate.
Gardens stretch out in well-maintained splendor. Enjoy the gardens if you want, but to continue the tour, put the rhythmically spaced columns of the Hofburg's curved facade behind you, and walk cater-corner to the far end of the palace's right wing. At Ballhausplatz 2, notice the:
It's an elegant building, erected in 1720, yet its facade is modest in comparison with the ornamentation of its royal neighbor. Here, Count Kaunitz plotted with Maria Theresa to expand the influence of her monarchy. Prince Metternich used these rooms as his headquarters during the Congress of Vienna (1814-15). Many of the decisions made here were links in the chain of events leading to World War I. In 1934, Austrian Nazis murdered Dollfuss here. Four years later, Hermann Goering, threatening a military attack, forced the ouster of the Austrian cabinet with telephone calls to an office in this building. Rebuilt after the bombings of World War II, this battle-scarred edifice has housed Austria's Foreign Ministry and its federal chancellor's office since 1945.
Walk along the side of the Chancellery's adjacent gardens, along Lowelstrasse. Notice the window trim of some of the buildings along the way, each of which seems to have its own ox, satyr, cherub, or Neptune carved above it. Continue until you reach the:
This is the national theater of Austria. Destroyed in World War II, it reopened in 1955.
At the Burgtheater, make a sharp right turn onto Bankgasse. On your right at no. 9 is the:
15. Palais Liechtenstein
An ornate beauty, the building was completed in the early 18th century.
A few buildings farther on, pause at nos. 4-6, the:
16. Hungarian Embassy
You'll see stone garlands and catch glimpses of crystal chandeliers.
Now retrace your steps for about half a block until you reach Abraham-a-Sancta-Clara-Gasse. At its end, on Minoritenplatz, you'll see the severe Gothic facade of the:
17. Church of the Minorites
Its 14th-century severity contrasts sharply with the group of stone warriors struggling to support the gilt-edged portico of the baroque palace facing it.
Walk behind the blackened bulk of the church to the curve of the building's rear. At this point some maps might lead you astray. Regardless of the markings on your map, look for Leopold-Figl-Gasse and walk down it. You'll pass between two sprawling buildings, each of which belongs to one of the Austrian bureaucracies linked by a bridge. A block later, turn right onto Herrengasse. Within a few minutes, you'll be on the now-familiar Michaelerplatz. This time you'll have a better view of:
18. St. Michael's Church
Winged angels carved by Lorenzo Mattielli in 1792 fly above the entranceway, and a single pointed tower rises. Turn left (north) along Kohlmarkt, noticing the elegant houses along the way: No. 14 houses Demel's, the most famous coffeehouse in Vienna; no. 9 and no. 11 bear plaques for Chopin and Haydn, respectively.
At the broad pedestrian walkway known as the Graben, turn right. In the center is the:
19. Plague Column
The baroque structure has chiseled representations of clouds piled high like whipped cream. It's dotted profusely with statues of ecstatic saints fervently thanking God for relief from an outbreak of the Black Plague that erupted in Vienna in 1679 and may have killed as many as 150,000 people. Carved between 1682 and 1693 by a team of the most famous artists of the era, this column eventually inspired the erection of many similar monuments throughout Austria.
A few feet before the Plague Column, turn left onto Jungferngasse and enter our favorite church in Vienna:
Believed to be on the site of a crude wooden church built during the Christianization of Austria around A.D. 350, it was later (according to legend) rebuilt by Charlemagne. A lavish upgrade by baroque artists during the 1700s incorporated the work of the famous painter J. M. Rottmayr.
Return to the Graben, passing the Plague Column. A few steps beyond it, pass the bronze statue of a beneficent saint leading a small child. You might, after all this, enjoy a sandwich. Leave the Graben at one of the first intersections on the right, Dorotheergasse, where you'll find a fine choice.
Take A Break -- Despite its functional simplicity, Buffet Trzesniewski, Dorotheergasse 1 (tel. 01/512-3291), has satisfied the hunger pangs of everyone who was anyone in Vienna in the last century.
After your break, continue southeast down the Graben to its terminus. Here you'll find a vaguely defined section of pavement that signs identify as:
Here two pedestrian thoroughfares, the Graben and Kärntner Strasse, meet at the southernmost corner of Stephansplatz. To your right, notice the sheet of curved Plexiglas bolted to the corner of an unobtrusive building at the periphery of the square. Behind it are the preserved remains of a tree. In it, 16th-century blacksmiths would drive a nail for luck each time they left Vienna. Today the gnarled and dusty log is covered with an almost uninterrupted casing of angular, hand-forged nails.
By now, it will be difficult to avoid a full view of Vienna's most symbolic building:
22. St. Stephan's Cathedral
Newcomers should circumnavigate the building's exterior to check out its 12th- and 13th-century stonework before going inside.
When you exit, turn left after passing through the main portal and head down the most famous street in Vienna's Inner City, the pedestrian-only:
23. Kärntner Strasse
As you wander through the street, don't miss the minimuseum of glassmaking that decorates the second floor of the world-famous glassmaker Lobmeyr, at no. 26.
If you still have the energy, detour off Kärntner Strasse, turning left on Johannesgasse. You'll pass some old and very interesting facades before reaching the baroque carvings and stone lions that guard the 17th-century portals of the:
24. Savoy Foundation for Noble Ladies (Savoysches Damenstift)
Countless generations of well-born Austrian damsels struggled to learn "the gentle arts of womanhood" here, at no. 15. Established by the duchess of Savoy-Carignan and originally built in 1688, its facade is adorned with a lead statue by the baroque sculptor F. X. Messerschmidt.
As you retrace your steps to the shops and the pedestrian crush of Kärntner Strasse, you might hear strains of music cascading into the street from the Vienna Conservatory of Music, which occupies several buildings on Johannesgasse. Turn left as you re-enter Kärntner Strasse, enjoying the sights until you eventually return to your point of origin, the State Opera House.