travel guide

The Capital City of Austria

Vienna is the capital of Austria as well as being a province in itself. It is the largest city in Austria, divided in two by the beautiful River Danube, and is only 40 km from the borders of the Czech Republic. It is a large and sprawling city but much of its sights are contained within a small area bordered by the Danube canal, and a semicircle of elegant boulevards, the Ringstrasse, from which roads radiate to other parts of Vienna. Outside the ring, Vienna is not unlike other capital cities, however, the Ring itself and the city within this Ring are astonishingly unique. This is due to Vienna’s importance within the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Here you will find grand and elegant baroque masterpieces of architecture and town planning. Perhaps for the first sightseeing trip you make in Vienna it would be best to take a standard sightseeing tour around the city. The public transport system is excellent or take a traditional horse-drawn carriage, a ‘Fiaker’. Because there is so much of interest to see in Vienna, it is impossible to cover it all unless you plan to stay for some time. Remember to stop for coffee every so often, impressive cafes include, Cafe Demel, Cafe Central and Cafe Imperial.

Vienna is divided into 23 districts. The inner town, the first district, is the most important. It is surrounded by the Ringstrasse. Each section of the Ringstrasse has a different name.  The one in the very centre of the city is the Opern Ring, the others are the Schotten, the Karl Lueger, the Dr. Karl Renner, the Burg, the Kaerntner, the Schubert, the Park, and the Stueben Ring. These take in two-thirds of the Old Vienna.  The other third is bounded by the Franz Joseph Kai along the Danube Canal.

The Opera House, a magnificent structure, is located where the Kaerntnerstrasse, the main shopping district meets the Opern Ring. It was rebuilt after extensive war damage and reopened in 1955. The building was designed by the famous Austrian architect van der Null.  Another must is a visit to the National Library, one of the largest in the world. This contains a collection of papyri comprising 81,000 items, 1,200,000 printed books and a fabulous collection of manuscripts. The oldest known part of an illustrated Christian Bible is here too, as well as many other interesting early books and manuscripts. There is a music collection containing 19,000 volumes of printed music and 12,000 music manuscripts, a huge library and a collection of autographs.

Other places of interest to the tourist in Vienna are the Kapuziner church in whose crypt lie 144 Habsburgs (12 were emperors and 15 empresses), the House of Parliament and the University of Vienna. Nearby are the Minoriten Church, the Chancellery and the Votive Church. There are also countless art galleries, museums and parks. 50 percent of Vienna is green – not the ecological kind but parkland. Take in, too, a visit to some of the houses where well known composers have lived, like Mozart, Beethoven, Strauss Jr and the house of Sigmund Freud where you can see the very couch where his patients gave him the material to base his theory upon.

Outside the Ringstrasse, Vienna resembles many another capital; but the Ring itself and the city within it are unique. Grandiose baroque masterpieces which reflect the might of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire. Among Vienna’s many important or attractive buildings, most of them fairly close together, are the Burg Theatre; the Kunsthistorisches and Albertina Museums, with their fine art collections; and the Opera House, Parliament, Rathaus (City Hall), and University. The pièce de résistance, however, must be the Hofburg which contains the magnificent royal apartments, crown jewels, and art treasures as well as the Chapel where the Boys’ Choir sings and the Spanish Riding School.   Yet all these magnificent buildings are conceived with such a rare sense of beauty and love of fine craftsmanship that even the most florid decoration or pompous pose seems simply an overflow of exuberance.  And the astonishing becomes the normal. So vast is the Hofburg complex of buildings that there is little surprise when a street passes through a covered courtyard with a painted ceiling; nor do red plush balcony-rails and crystal chandeliers inside the palace seem incongruous with white Lipizzaner stallions performing elaborate figures and movements beneath them.

A splendid view of the city can be obtained from the tower of the Gothic St Stephen’s Cathedral, rebuilt with much skill after wartime devastation but these and other Viennese buildings are best viewed from ground level, so that the many dignified, passionate, or pious statues that so often crown their parapets can be seen gesturing to the heavens, their words left to the imagination. No self-respecting Viennese skyline is complete without a spirited horse, a fine figure in flowing robes, or at the very least an angel. Throughout Vienna carved angels froth over balconies, flutter past facades, and alight on fountains – they are almost as numerous as London pigeons.

The principal shopping streets in Vienna are Karntnerstrasse, Graben, and Kolhmarkt (all near St Stephen’s), and Mariahilferstrasse from near the Ring to beyond the Westbahnhof. Good buys are antiques, Dirndls, Lederhosen, and leather goods of all sorts, petit point, Augarten porcelain, woodcarving, and many other kinds of Austrian craftwork. Sachers will post their famous Sachertorten to any address.

Vienna has many restaurants with every price and almost every variety of cuisine. Most are excellent value. The beer-cellars usually have much character and serve good, reasonably priced food. Viennese coffee in its many forms ~ is invariably delicious, and a thriving  cafe culture is a Viennese tradition. The patisseries  are famous with Sachertorte  probably the best known of many succulent cakes and pastries. In summer, open-air restaurants in the Vienna Woods, although not always cheap, are a special feature.

There is always something entertaining to do in and around Vienna. The splendid Schonbrunn Palace a short tram ride from the centre is a breathtaking reminder of Vienna’s past glories. The Prater amusement park between the Danube and the Danube Canal offers light relief. And a trip on a Danube water-bus can provide a refreshing change.