Walking Tour 2: South of the Ring
Start: Staatsoper (State Opera House).
Finish: Gumpendorferstrasse (on Sat, Flohmarkt).
Time: 3 1/2 hours, not counting visits to museums.
Best Time: Saturday morning, when the Flohmarkt is open.
Worst Time: After dark or in the rain.
The temptation is strong, especially for first-time visitors to Vienna, to limit exploration to the monuments within the Ring -- the city's medieval core, the 1st District.
You'll discover a different side of Vienna by following this tour, which incorporates the sometime surreal manifestations of fin-de-siècle Habsburg majesty a short distance south of the Ring. The tour also includes less celebrated late-19th-century buildings that don't seem as striking today as when they were designed, but which, for their era, were almost revolutionary.
Regrettably, parts of the 6th District, the area of this tour, were heavily damaged and then rebuilt after the horrors of World War II. Parts of the tour take you along busy, less-than-inspiring boulevards. Fortunately, a network of underground walkways, designed by city planners as part of Vienna's subway system, makes navigating the densest traffic a lot easier.
Begin your tour near the southern facade of:
1. The Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera)
This French Renaissance structure was the first of the many monuments built during the massive Ringstrasse project. Franz Joseph began the development around 1850 on land reclaimed from the razing of Vienna's medieval fortifications.
Controversy and cost overruns plagued the construction from the moment the foundations were laid. On the building's southern edge, the roaring traffic of the nearby Ringstrasse is several feet higher than the building's foundation, a result of bad overall planning. This error, coupled with an offhand -- but widely reported -- criticism of the situation by Franz Joseph, is believed to have contributed to the suicide (by hanging) of one of the building's architects, van der Null, and the death by stroke a few weeks later of its other architect, von Sicardsburg.
The roof and much of the interior were largely rebuilt after a night bombing on March 12, 1945, sent the original building up in flames. Ironically, the last performance before its near-destruction was a rousing version of Wagner's Götterdammerung, with its immolation scene. Since its reconstruction, the Staatsoper has nurtured such luminaries as Bruno Walter and Herbert von Karajan.
Across the avenue, on your left as you face the Ring, at the intersection of the Kärntner Ring and the Kärntner Strasse, is one of Europe's grandest hotels, the:
2. Hotel Bristol
Ornate and socially impeccable, the Bristol reigns alongside the Sacher and the Imperial as the grandes dames of Viennese hotels. A deceptively unpretentious lobby might disappoint; a labyrinth of upstairs corridors conceals the most impressive reception areas. Consider returning later for a midafternoon coffee or a drink in one of the bars.
Now descend into the depths of an underground passageway that begins at the corner of the Kärntner Strasse and the Kärntner Ring, just south of the Opera House. (You'll find it's a lot easier and safer than trying to cross the roaring traffic of the Ring as an unarmed pedestrian.) You'll pass some underground boutiques before climbing out on the southern edge of the Opernring.
Walk west along the Opernring, using another of those underground tunnels to cross beneath the Operngasse, until you reach the Robert-Stolz-Platz, named after an Austrian composer who died nearby in 1975. If you glance north, across the Opernring, you'll see a faraway statue of Goethe, brooding in a bronze chair, usually garnished with a roosting pigeon. The Robert-Stolz-Platz opens southward into the Schillerplatz, where, as you'd expect, an equivalent statue features an image of Schiller. The building on Schillerplatz's southern edge (Schillerplatz 3) is the:
3. Akademie der Bildenden Künste (Fine Arts Academy)
Erected between 1872 and 1876, it's a design by the Danish architect Theophil Hansen in a mix of Greek Revival and Italian Renaissance styles. Here the artistic dreams of 18-year-old Adolf Hitler were dashed in 1907 and 1908 when he twice failed to gain admission to what was at the time the ultimate arbiter of the nation's artistic taste and vision. A few years later, painter Egon Schiele, an artist of Hitler's age, eventually seceded from the same academy because of its academic restrictions and pomposity.
Now walk east for a half block along the Niebelungengasse and then south along the Makartgasse, skirting the side of the Academy. Makartgasse bears the name of Hans Makart, the most admired and sought-after painter in 19th-century Vienna, and the darling of the Academy you've just visited. His soaring studio, which Franz Joseph himself subsidized, became a salon every afternoon at 4pm to receive every prominent newcomer in town. Exhibitions of his huge historical canvases attracted up to 34,000 people at a time. Young Adolf Hitler is said to have idolized Makart's grandiloquent sense of flamboyance; Klimt and Schiele of the Secessionist school at first admired him, then abandoned his presuppositions and forged a bold new path. Rumor and innuendo swirled about the identities of the models, who appeared as artfully undressed figures in the handsome and promiscuous artist's paintings. He fell from social grace after defying upper-class conventions by marrying a ballet dancer; then he contracted a case of syphilis that killed him at age 44.
At the end of Makartgasse, turn left (east) and go a half block. Then turn right onto the Friedrichstrasse. Before the end of the block, at Friedrichstrasse 12, is the Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) facade of a building that launched one of the most admired and envied artistic statements of the early 20th century:
4. The Secession
At the time of its construction in 1898, its design was much more controversial than it is today, and hundreds of passersby would literally gawk. Its severe cubic lines, Assyrian-looking corner towers, and gilded dome caused its detractors to refer to it as "the Gilded Cabbage" and "Mahdi's Tomb." It was immediately interpreted as an insult to bourgeois sensibilities. Despite (or perhaps because of) the controversy, 57,000 people attended the inaugural exhibition of Secessionist works. The Secession's location, within a short walk of the organization it defied (stop no. 3, the Fine Arts Academy), was an accident, prompted only by the availability of real estate. Inside, a roster of innovative display techniques -- revolutionary for their time -- included movable panels, unadorned walls, and natural light pouring in through skylights. The inscription above the door, Jeder Zein sein Kunst, Jeder Kunst sein Freiheit, translates as, "To every age its art, to every art its freedom." Damaged during World War II and looted in 1945, it lay derelict until 1973, when it was bought and later restored as a municipal treasure.
From here, retrace your steps northeasterly beside the dense traffic of the Friedrichstrasse for 2 blocks. At the corner of the Niebelungengasse and the Friedrichstrasse (which forks gently into the Operngasse nearby), you'll find the entrance to an underground tunnel, part of Vienna's subway network, that will lead you safely beneath roaring traffic for several blocks to your next point of interest.
Follow the underground signs to the subway and to the Wiedner Hauptstrasse. Turn right at the first major underground intersection, again following signs to the Wiedner Hauptstrasse. After a rather long walk, you'll ascend into daylight near the sprawling and sunken perimeter of the:
For many generations, this sunken bowl contained Vienna's fruit-and-vegetable markets. Too large to be called a square and too small to be a park, it's an awkward space that's valued today mainly as a means of showcasing the important buildings that surround it.
Climb from the Karlsplatz up a flight of stone steps to the platform that skirts the Karlsplatz's northern edge, and walk east for a minute or two. The small-scale pair of Jugendstil (Art Nouveau) pavilions you'll notice are among the most famous of their type in Vienna, the:
6. Otto Wagner Pavilions
Originally designed by Otto Wagner as a station for his Stadtbahn (the subway system he laid out), they are gems of applied Secessionist theory and preserved as monuments by the city. After their construction, many of their decorative adornments were copied throughout other districts of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as part of the late-19th-century building booms. Regrettably, many were later demolished as part of the Soviet regime's control of the Iron Curtain countries during the Cold War. Art historians consider them Vienna's response to the Métro stations of Paris built around the same time.
From here, continue walking east. The first building across the avenue on your left, at Friedrichstrasse 5, is the:
Around 1900, its name was associated with conservative art and tended to enrage the iconoclastic rebels who later formed the Secessionist movement. Completed in 1868, this not particularly striking building functioned for years as the exhibition hall for students at the Fine Arts Academy. Today, it's used for temporary exhibitions and devotes some of its space to film and theater experiments.
Immediately to the right (east) of the Künstlerhaus, at Karlsplatz 13, is the Renaissance-inspired:
8. Musikvereinsgebäude (Friends of Music Building)
Home of the Vienna Philharmonic, this is the site of concerts that often sell out years in advance through fiercely protected private subscriptions. Constructed between 1867 and 1869, and designed by the same Theophil Hansen who built the Fine Arts Academy (stop no. 3), it's another example of the way architects dabbled in the great historical styles of the past during the late-19th-century revitalization of the Ringstrasse.
At Karlsplatz 4, a short walk southeast from the Musikverein, is a monument that serves, better than any other, to bind the complicated worlds, subcultures, and historic periods that form the city of Vienna, the:
9. Wien Museum Karlsplatz
Its holdings are so vast, it deserves a separate visit.
Continue your clockwise circumnavigation of the Karlsplatz to the majestic confines of the:
10. Karlskirche (Church of St. Charles)
Built by Emperor Charles VI, father of Maria Theresa, who mourned the loss of Austria's vast domains in Spain, this church was conceived as a means of recapturing some of Vienna's imperial glory. It is the monument for which the baroque architect Fischer von Erlach the Elder is best remembered today, and the most impressive baroque building in Austria. Built between 1716 and 1737, nominally in thanks for Vienna's surviving another disastrous bout with the plague, it combines aspects of a votive church with images of imperial grandeur. At the time of its construction, the Ringstrasse was not yet in place, and it lay within an easy stroll of the emperor's residence in the Hofburg. Rather coyly, Charles didn't name the church after himself, but after a Milanese prelate (St. Charles Borromeo), although the confusion that ensued was almost certainly deliberate.
To construct the skeleton of the church's dome, 300 massive oak trees were felled. The twin towers in front were inspired by Trajan's Column in Rome, the Pillars of Hercules (Gibraltar) in Spain, and Mannerist renderings of what contemporary historians imagined as the long-lost Temple of Jerusalem. The reflecting fountain in front of the church, site of a parking lot in recent times, contains a statue donated by Henry Moore in 1978.
Now continue walking clockwise around the perimeter of the square to the southern edge of the Karlsplatz. A short side street running into the Karlsplatz here is the Karlsgasse. At Karlsgasse 4, you'll see a plaque announcing that in a building that once stood here, Johannes Brahms died in 1897. The next major building you'll see is the showcase of Austria's justifiably famous reputation for scientific and engineering excellence, the:
11. Technische Universität (Technical University)
Its Ionic portico overlooks a public park with portrait busts of the great names associated with this center of Austrian inventiveness. Josef Madersperger, original inventor of the sewing machine in 1815 (who died impoverished while others, such as the Singer family, profited from his invention), and Siegfried Marcus, inventor of a crude version of the gasoline-powered automobile in 1864, were graduates of the school. Other Austrians associated with the institution are Ernst Mach, for whom the speed at which an aircraft breaks the sound barrier is named, and Josef Weineck, whose experiments with the solidification of fats laid the groundwork for the cosmetics industry.
Continue walking west along the southern perimeter of the Karlsplatz, past the Resselpark, and across the Wiedner Hauptstrasse, a modern manifestation of an ancient road that originally linked Vienna to Venice and Trieste. Urban historians consider this neighborhood Vienna's first suburb, although wartime damage from as early as the Turkish sieges of 1683 has largely destroyed its antique character. Sprawling annexes of the Technical University and bland modern buildings now occupy the neighborhood to your left, stretching for about 4 blocks between the Wiedner Hauptstrasse and the Naschmarkt (which you'll soon visit). But historians value it as the 18th-century site of one of the largest communal housing projects in Europe, the long-gone:
In the 18th century, more than 1,000 people inhabited apartments here. In 1782, the Theater auf der Wieden, where Mozart's Magic Flute premiered, opened in a wing of the building. During the 19th century, when the Freihaus degenerated into an industrial slum and became a civic embarrassment in close proximity to the Karlskirche and the State Opera House, much of it was demolished to make room for the Operngasse. World War II bombings finished off the rest.
Continue walking along the Treitlstrasse, the westward extension of Resselpark, until you reach the Rechte Wienzeile, a broad boulevard that once flanked the quays of the Danube before the river was diverted as part of 19th-century urban renewal. In the filled-in riverbed, you'll see the congested booths and labyrinthine stalls of Vienna's largest food-and-vegetable market, the:
Wander through the produce, meat, and dairy stalls. If you want to buy, there are more appealing and more expensive shops near the Naschmarkt's eastern end. The center is devoted to housewares and less glamorous food outlets, including lots of butcher shops. After exploring the food market, walk along the market's northern fringe, the Linke Wienzeile.
At the corner of the Millöckergasse, at Linke Wienzeile 6, you'll see a historic theater that, during the decade-long renovation of the State Opera House, functioned as Vienna's primary venue for the performing arts, the:
14. Theater an der Wien
Despite its modern facade (the result of an unfortunate demolition and rebuilding around 1900 as well as damage during World War II), it's the oldest theater in Vienna, dating to 1801. To get an idea of its age, bypass the front entrance and walk northwest along Millöckergasse -- named after an overwhelmingly popular composer of Viennese operettas, Karl Millöcker (1842-99). At no. 8 is the theater's famous Pappagenotor, a stage door entrance capped with an homage to Pappageno, the Panlike character in Mozart's Magic Flute. The likeness was deliberately modeled after Emanuel Schikaneder, the first actor to play the role, the author of most of the libretto, and the first manager, in 1801, of the theater. Attached to the wall near the Pappagenotor is a plaque recognizing that Beethoven lived and composed parts of his Third Symphony and the Kreuzer sonata inside. An early -- later rewritten -- version of Beethoven's Fidelio premiered at this theater, but after an uncharitable reception, the composer revised it into its current form.
Continue walking northwest along Millöckergasse, then turn left onto the Lehárgasse. (The massive building on the Lehárgasse's north side is yet another annex of the Technical University.) Within about 3 blocks, Lehárgasse merges into the:
Here you see the same sort of historically eclectic houses, on a smaller scale, that you'll find on the Ringstrasse. Previously the medieval village of Gumpendorf, the neighborhood was incorporated into the city of Vienna as the 6th District in 1850. Modern Viennese refer to the neighborhood as Mariahilf. At this point, it's time to:
Take A Break -- Café Sperl, Gumpendorferstrasse 11 (tel. 01/586-4158), is one of the most historic cafes in the district. From the time of its establishment in the mid-1800s until renovations in the 1960s ripped away some of its ornate interior, it functioned as a hub of social and intellectual life in this monument-rich district. The artists who initiated the Secession maintained a more or less permanent table in the cafe.
After your break, walk southwest along Gumpendorferstrasse, admiring the eclectic Ringstrasse-style houses and apartment buildings that line the sidewalks. At Köstlergasse, turn left and walk for about a block past some more ornate 19th-century architecture. At the end of Köstlergasse (at nos. 1 and 3) are apartment houses designed by Otto Wagner. Around the corner at Linke Wienzeile 40, you'll see yet another of his designs, an apartment house referred to by architecture students around the world as the Majolikahaus. Adjacent to the Majolikahaus, at 38 Linke Wienzeile, is the Medallion House, with a Secession-style floral display crafted from tiles set into its facade. It was designed by Koloman Moser, creator of the stained-glass windows in the Am Steinhof church.
Your tour is about over, unless it happens to be Saturday, between 7am and around 4pm. If it is, continue southwest along Linke Wienzeile (cross over the Kettenbrückengasse) toward the enchantingly seedy site of one of Europe's most nostalgic flea markets, the:
Don't expect glamour, or even merchants who are particularly polite. But scattered amid the racks of cheap clothing, kitchenware, and hardware, you're likely to find plenty of imperial kitsch: porcelain figures of Franz Joseph, medallions of Empress Maria Theresa, drawings of the Hofburg, soldier figurines of the Imperial Guard, paintings of St. Stephan's Cathedral, and faded portraits of the Empress Elisabeth.