By: Ludmiła Matusik
Vienna – the largest city in Austria located on the Danube River. A large administrative, industrial, tourist, academic and cultural hub of international importance. Founded around 500 BC in the process of Celtic expansion, it became a frontier Roman outpost in 15 BC. In 1221, being one of the most important locations of the Holy Roman Empire, it was granted city rights. After the dissolution of this Empire in 1806, the city became the capital of the Austrian Empire and then, until 1918, of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Vienna is currently the capital of the Republic of Austria. Due to its historical city centre full of monuments dating back to all major historical periods in Europe, it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is one of Europe’s most visited cities owing to its variety of attractions.
The impressive tourist offer, diverse cultural options and captivating ambience of Vienna’s streets and cafés make Vienna particularly popular with tourists the world over. Vienna, the Austrian capital, was announced the winner of the 2020 ranking of the “10 greenest cities in the world”. The ‘greenness’ of this city has many different facets – from beautifully designed flowerbeds, rose gardens and lawns to avenues of parks surrounded by trees. There are in total 990 city parks in Vienna, and the famous Vienna Woods have been called the ‘green lungs’ of the city.
Vienna’s Old Town is home to a rich collection of the most beautiful historical monuments, churches and palaces. The Habsburg dynasty has left its mark on this city. Strolling along the streets of Vienna’s Old Town, you will be fascinated by the beautiful buildings that once made up the medieval city. Moreover, the Old Town’s unique atmosphere is accompanied by numerous cafés and restaurants. Vienna’s cafés are regarded as an oasis of calm and welcoming vibes, a proof of which is the fact that the traditional Viennese coffee house culture is a UNESCO intangible cultural heritage.
At the heart of Vienna’s Old Town is St Stephen’s Cathedral – the pride and one of the city’s symbols. It is the most important and oldest church in the Austrian capital and ranks among the most magnificent temples in Europe. This architectural masterpiece was originally built in the late Romanesque style and was further extended over the centuries to take on a Romanesque-Gothic form. The view of the Cathedral is impressive not only for its monumental façade but also for the height of the towers rising above the magnificent building. Inside the church are numerous works of Baroque and Gothic art, including the main painting depicting the martyrdom of St Stephen, who was the first martyr in the history of Christianity, and the wonderful icon of Our Lady of Pócs, a testimony to Marian devotions. In the vaults are the tombs of princes from the Austrian Habsburg dynasty and of important Austrian figures. The Cathedral stands in the middle of St. Stephen’s Square, which is not only the heart of Vienna’s historic centre but also an important modern transport hub of the Austrian capital.
The famous Graben Street – known as Vienna’s showcase street for its many architectural landmarks, including the famous Holy Trinity Column in the Baroque style – branches off the square. In addition to religious symbolism, the individual elements of the said Column commemorate the victims of the plague epidemic in the second half of the 17th century and symbolise three countries of the former monarchy – Austria , Hungary and Bohemia. Graben and Kohlmarkt are considered to be the most elegant streets in Vienna, as they have preserved an atmosphere of uniqueness and exclusivity, which best reflects the character of the Habsburg era. Some of the boutiques and shops can be viewed as masterpieces of 20th-century architecture. In Kohlmarkt Street – charcoal was sold centuries ago. The current name of the street is derived from the name of this thoroughfare. An extension of the Kohlmarkt is St Michael’s Square, adjacent to the rear of the beautiful Hofburg Palace.
Without doubt, the imperial Hofburg Palace is Vienna’s most important building and attribute. For centuries, it was the residence of Austrian rulers. Today it houses the chancellery of the Austrian President. It is worth noting that the Hofburg Palace is not a single building, but a complex of buildings extended and transformed over nearly seven centuries.
The aforementioned St Michael’s Square was not completed right away either, as it was designed in 1725 and not built until the end of the 19th century. It features a neo-Baroque style, with winding balustrades, sculptures of eagles and statues of Hercules. The central part of the Square is occupied by a collection of archaeological artefacts – namely the ruins of an ancient Roman settlement. Next to it is St Michael’s Church, the oldest building within the Square, which gave St Michael’s Square its name.
The neo-Gothic headquarters of the city’s Town Hall is impressive. Erected in the mid-19th century, the building has served public purpose since its inception. Opposite the Town Hall, across the street, is the Imperial Court Theatre – considered one of the oldest and most beautiful theatres in Europe. The seat of the local legislature is the Austrian Parliament building. Designed in classic Greek Revival style, it resembles the buildings from ancient times. The statue of Athena, standing in front of the building and holding Nike, the goddess of victory, is a clear reference to ancient Greece.
Maria Theresa Square is often the starting point for visitors to Vienna. This is hardly surprising, as many wonderful reminders of the city’s history and architecture are situated within the Square. It is here that one finds two buildings that bear a striking resemblance to each other. One is the Museum of Art History and the other is the Museum of Natural History. In the middle of the Square stands a huge statue honouring Empress Maria Theresa. At the top of the monument is Maria Theresa herself, and below her are her advisors and generals. It was erected in the late 1880s.
Another imperial estate in the Austrian capital is Schönbrunn Palace and Garden – an equally beautiful site and former summer residence of the rulers. Its construction began in the 17th century, but the complex owes its current appearance to a reconstruction commissioned by Empress Maria Theresa several decades later. This Habsburg property has been called the pearl of the Viennese Baroque. Schönbrunn is not just the palace itself, it is a complex with an extremely well-kept park, with lots of greenery and flowers, a zoo, a palm house and a café. The Gloriette Pavilion, full of splendour, is located on a 60 m high hill behind Schönbrunn Palace. Situated above the main body of the Palace, it offers a magnificent view of the imperial residence and the picturesque city skyline. The Gloriette is a monument to a just war. It is proclaimed by the inscription on the front of the Gloriette: JOSEPHO II. AVGVSTO ET MARIA THERESIA AVGVSTA IMPERANTIB. ERECT. CIƆIƆCCLXXV.
The Belvedere, a baroque palace located in the centre of Vienna, should not be overlooked among the city’s many historical monuments. Designed by the architect Johann Lucas von Hildebrandt, it is another famous 18th-century palace and garden complex consisting of two sumptuous buildings – the Upper and Lower Belvedere. From the very beginning, the Upper Belvedere served a representative function, whereas the Lower Belvedere was used as a residential area. Both palace buildings are surrounded by a garden that is a quintessential example of baroque landscape architecture. Museums were set up in the palace buildings after the First World War, and they house masterpieces of Austrian art from various periods.
The list of historic, extraordinary works of art, created by the human hand over the millennia and which the Austrian capital is famous for, is endless. They have been placed together with the city itself on the UNESCO list.
The statement “Vienna is always on top” is based on the undeniable fact that this historic and contemporary city not only presents the architectural beauty of its medieval old town and of priceless historical monuments but also offers a glimpse into the innovative landscape of a modern metropolis. Vienna’s perfectly functioning urban infrastructure makes it one of the safest agglomerations in the world and a popular tourist destination.
Photos taken from the author's private archive*