Few places are as stately as Vienna, the former seat of the Habsburg Empire. Rising from the banks of the Danube River, a vision of opulence and imperial splendour, the capital of Austria has always been a cultural and economic powerhouse, as fabulously decadent as it is intellectually refined.
Ballet, opera, classical concerts, and theatre – performed in ornate and soaring venues – form a staple of Viennese recreation, but so does pounding dance music and unfettered hedonism. Food and drink, too, are a vital part of Vienna’s culture, to be indulged at whim and in quantity. Sampling local wines in the convivial setting of a traditional tavern, partaking in the morning ritual of cake and coffee in a classic Viennese coffeehouse, feasting on contemporary cuisine in a stylish bistro, whilst perhaps enjoying the rambling melodies of live jazz music, are all essential Vienna experiences.
A thorough exploration of Vienna’s architectural treasures is a singular challenge that might take weeks or months. Its palaces are among the most splendid in Europe and include the Imperial Palace, from where the Habsburgs ruled vast swathes of the continent for more than six centuries. Filled with great marbled halls and chandelier ceilings, concert halls, art galleries, libraries, apartments, and chapels, the palace represents the vision of multiple architects over several centuries – a truly regal edifice that today houses the offices of the President of Austria.
Schönbrunn Palace, too, represents one of the finest palatial complexes in Europe, home to an award-winning zoo, labyrinth, and rambling landscaped grounds. It served as the summer residence of Empress Sisi and its main building includes countless state rooms and private chambers, many of them decorated in exuberant Rococo style. Home to a succession of Habsburg rulers, Schönbrunn witnessed the final collapse of the dynasty in 1918 when Charles I signed his abdication in the Blue Chinese Salon.
For some, touring Vienna’s many fine buildings and museums can lead to cultural overload – the city’s incredible profusion of historic churches, palaces, and world class museums can easily overwhelm first-time visitors. Fortunately, Vienna also boasts many green spaces – places to rest, rejuvenate, and enjoy the simple surroundings of trees and flowers. The rose-filled Volksgarten is a particularly relaxing spot, as is the leafy Burggarten, home to a butterfly house. Both are UNESCO World Heritage sites.