Located on the south bank of the Danube, Vienna is the capital of Austria, the cradle of classical music, and home of the Hapsburg dynasty which ruled its great empire from this city. Of the Hapsburgs, Maria Theresa in the late 1700s was famous for having 16 children and strategically marrying many of them into Europe’s other royal families to expand the family’s influence. All these details have secured Vienna’s position as an enduring city of stature and culture. Here are the top 10 things to see and do in Vienna, Austria.
1. St. Stephan’s Cathedral
Built between 1300 and 1450, St. Stephen’s sits in the center of Vienna. When it was built, it was a huge church for what was then a tiny town, and it helped put Vienna on the map. It is known for its impressive exterior, its 450-foot south tower with frilly spire, and its colorful roof. Once inside, look down the immense nave – more than a football field long and nine stories tall. It was built in the Gothic style with a Baroque overlay, and is an amazing, spacious venue often used for concerts.
2. Schonbrunn Palace – Top 10 Things to See And Do in Vienna, Austria
Designated a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site in 1996, Schonbrunn is the former summer residence of the Habsburgs. It is arguably the only palace complex in Europe that rivals Versailles in terms of size (more than 300 rooms in the main building) and beautiful gardens. Construction of the current buildings began in 1696; expansion and renovations continued through 1780. Maria Theresa’s last project there was designing the gardens, with the use of architectural features such as The Neptune Fountain, the Roman Ruin, the Obelisk, and numerous statues and sculptures to enhance the avenues, fountains, and open spaces.
3. Hofburg Palace
The winter residence of the Hapsburgs until 1918, Hofburg is still home to the Austrian president’s office, 5000 government workers, and several museums. This Imperial Palace grew with the Hapsburg empire from the 13th century until 1913 when the final wing was completed. The main sites to see within the complex are the Imperial Apartments – lavish, Versailles-type royal rooms; the Treasury – one of the world’s most stunning collections of royal regalia including sparkling crowns, jewels, gowns, and assorted Hapsburg bling; and the New Palace Museums – home of three separate collections: An armory with a wonderful display of medieval weapons; A display of historical musical instruments; and a classical statuary from ancient Ephesus.
4. Kunsthistorisches Museum – Top 10 Things to See And Do in Vienna, Austria
World class exhibit of the Habsburgs’ art collection, including works by Raphael, Titian, Caravaggio, Rembrandt, and Bruegel.
5. Vienna State Opera House
Vienna remains one of the world’s great cities for classical music, and this building represents that well. The interior has a chandeliered lobby and carpeted staircases, and the theater itself features gold and red décor with five wraparound balconies. The only way to see the interior is to attend a performance or take the 45-minute guided tour.
6. Vienna Natural History Museum – Top 10 Things to See And Do in Vienna, Austria
An exceptionally well-organized and enjoyable catalogue of the natural world with 20 million objects – including everything from dinosaur relics and moon rocks to the Habsburgs’ vast collection of plant, animal, and mineral specimens and artifacts.
7. Belvedere Palace
This is the elegant palace of Prince Eugene of Savoy (1663-1736), the still very much-appreciated conqueror of the Ottomans. Tour the lavish palace, see sweeping views of the gardens and the Vienna skyline, and enjoy world-class art including the works of Gustav Klimt, a collection of French Impressionism, as well as works of other 19th and early 20th century artists. While Vienna’s other art collections present works by artists from around Europe, this palace has the city’s best collection of local artists.
8. Spanish Riding School – Top 10 Things to See And Do in Vienna, Austria
This grand, 300-year-old Baroque Hall is the home of the renowned Lipizzaner stallions. The building was designed without central pillars so that it offers clear views of the prancing horses under lavish chandeliers. Lipizzaner stallions are known for their noble gait and have changed shape with the times: They were bred strong and stout during wars; then became frilly and slender during more cultured eras. They’re always born black, fade to gray, and turn a distinctive white in adulthood.
9. Vienna Boys’ Choir
This famous choir sings from a high balcony, heard but not seen, at the 9:15 Sunday Mass from mid-September through June in the Hofburg’s Imperial Music Chapel. Reserved seats must be booked in advance; standing room inside is free and available to the first 60 who line up.
10. Maria Theresa Monument – Top 10 Things to See And Do in Vienna, Austria
Vienna’s largest monument depicts the empress holding a scroll from her father granting the right of a woman to inherit his throne. Around her are her four top advisors, as well as her four top generals on horseback. The moral of all this? That a strong military and a wise ruler are prerequisites for a thriving culture – attributes that characterized the 40-year rule of the woman who was perhaps Austria’s greatest monarch.