The history of Western Civilization is largely the history of three great Empires and their capital
cities– Rome, London, and Vienna. Rome lasted 1,000 years. The British Empire about 200
years. Vienna dominated the West for 800 years, and still today affects our lives. Southern fried
chicken and KFC descend from Vienna’s Backhendl. The Viennese invented French fries and
perfected cake. Vienna’s music–-Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, Brahms, Mahler– dominates culture
around the world. Even the Beetles are musical descends of Haydn. After Admiral Nelson
destroyed Napoleon’s fleet at Trafalgar, he stopped in Vienna to pay his respects to Haydn.
Starting poor, Haydn was born in a two room house occupied by 14 people and became the
world’s richest musician, whose wealth was not surpassed until the Beetles. Poor boy makes
good– sounds like the American Way, but it was Vienna.
The story of Vienna begins with the Roman Legions and their camp on the Danube, Vindobona.
Charlemagne’s armies marched east to the Danube to secure the Holy Roman Empire. The lands
of Charlemagne’s march east– the Eastern Marches– Ostmark or Ostarrichi– is today’s
Oesterreich, the Eastern Empire. In English, Austria. Vienna ruled an Empire extending from
Russia to the Atlantic Ocean, and from the North Sea to the Mediterranean. The Empire
produced great wealth, and, while “all roads lead to Rome”, all the money went to Vienna, The
Imperial City, the center of the Empire.
The Viennese didn’t sit on their money. They lived it up. Little remains today of Roman,
Renaissance, or Gothic Vienna because the wealthy Viennese kept tearing the city down to
rebuild in the most modern fashion–-something else America learned from Vienna. After
hundreds of years of rebuilding, it dawned on the natives that they had something special, and
from the 19th century on, much of the city has been preserved. Today, most of the city center is
baroque and art nouveau, and it is the best of both, for this was the center of the world when
they were built. The city declined from WWI until well after WWII, when the city again began
to grow, surrounding the center with modern buildings.
We spent eight days in Vienna, and are just starting to see it. First, the visitor should do is learn
its name-- Wien, pronounced Veen, as in ‘seen’, or as in it’s most famous meal, Weiner schnitzel–-veener schnitzel, literally breaded, deep-fried meat of Vienna. Show respect for past days of
glory, and use the right name. Otherwise, language is no problem. All Austrians speak English,
mostly very well, and therein lies a tale.
Austria was occupied by the Russians after WW II. The Austrians didn’t like the Russians. But
then, the Russians had good reason not to like Nazis. In typical fashion, the Austrians did what
they could to irritate the Russians at little risk to themselves. In 1952, the puppet government
made English a required course in all schools. It still is, and it is univorsally spoken.
Dividing the sights into parts:
1] Street architecture. You can, and we have, walked the streets of Wien for days looking at the
striking facades of Baroque and Art Nouveau buildings. When we first visited Wien, about 30
years ago, almost all building exteriors were ugly black. Much of the sandstone used in building
European cities turns black when exposed to air, requiring regular cleaning to restore the stone its
natural color, usually a light yellow or cream white. Occupied with wars, recession, and
reconstruction, Europe’s once sparkling cities turned black during the 20th Century. By 2005,
much of Wien wos restored. Once gloomy black, Wien today is a city of bright white stone.
Walking around the Hofburg, I found one wing that remained black, a marked contrast to the rest
of the gleaming white structure.
Any and all the streets between the Ring and the Danube, especially Graben, Kartnerstrasse,
Hoher Markt, and Stephanplatz.
Ringstrasse, the grand boulevard built in 1859 afer the medieval city walls were torn down to
build a grand boulevard.
Walk around the exterior of the Hofburg. The rotunda above the passageway connecting In der
Burg and Michaelerplatz is fine spot for itinerant street musicians. I heard a good tenor singing a
Schubert Mass, accompanied by a boom box orchestra.
Am Hof. This little square and a few neighboring streets was pretty much all there was to Wien in
1155 when Leopold the Glorious made it the capital. The tiny village of Melk, the capital before
Wien, is worth a visit.
2] Baroque/Rocco interiors. As entertaining as the exteriors, the Baroque artists cut loose inside,
with inlaid wood, marble, frescos, mirrors, and gold leaf. Baroque, and its wilder descendent,
Rocco, interiors are found in churches, palaces, and perhaps above all, in the National Library
(odd visiting hours--check ahead on the Web).
Not to be missed: Schoenbrunn Palace and the National Library. There are two metro stops for
Schoenbrunn. The one closest to the Ring was built as the Emperor’s private station. There are
two tours of the grand Imperial Apartments. Find time for the long tour. Avoid pre-packaged
bus tours which usually include the short tour.
The Imperial, now Austrian National Library, founded in 1526, opened to the public in 1726. The
Main Hall, by J.E. Fisher von Erlach the Younger is one of the crowning achievements of the High
3] Museums. The wealthy Viennese didn’t just spent their money on buildings. They were
prodigious collectors of fine things, many of which are now on display in the city’s many
Kunsthisorisches Museum–-One of the world’s great fine arts collections holds works by Raphael,
Rembrandt, Vermeer, Titian, rooms of Bruegel and Van Dyck, and the Salt Cellar of Benvenuto
Carriage Museum, at the Schoenbrunn Palace includes carriages of Napoleon, the King of Rome,
and bunch of Austrian Emperors and Empresses.
Schoenbrunn was to outdo Versailles, but the grand plan was never realized, mostly because of
money problems. The much scaled down palace has only 1,440 rooms, a facade 660 feet long,
and a garden covering a bit less than one square mile.
Hofburg grew like topsy, with its various buildings dating from 1490-1908. For more than six
centuries, the Emperors ruled from the Hofburg. Within the Hofburg are a number of museums,
churches, the National Library, and the famed Spanish Riding School. The Imperial Apartments,
about 20 of the Hofburg’s 2,600 rooms are open to the public. Although grandly decorated, they
are secondary to the Schoenbrunn. The stars of Hofburg are the Treasury and the National
The two Belvedere Palaces have some impressive Baroque rooms, a lot of art, a classic garden,
and a superb setting, especially when approached from the southeast end of the complex.
5] Music. Wien is the city of music. Almost every night, the visitor can attend a concert of
Mozart and Johann Strauss at one of four venues in the city. Tickets for the Vienna State Opera
and the Vienna Philharmonic are hard to come by, plan ahead. There are other excellent opera,
operetta, and symphony groups performing, with seats easier to get and less expensive.
Grinzinginig, or the heurigen–-wine taverns with atmosphere and folk music or Schrammel music.
Best known are those in the village of Grinzing in the Vienna Woods (reached by tram).
6] Nature. Like most European cities, Wien is largely paved over, but here and there, the
pavement is broken by parks, pleasant spots of greenery in the urban environment.
The Schoenbrunn Gardens, a glorious baroque formal garden with a Great view of the place and
gardens from the Gloriette.
The Vienna Woods
Prater, with its famous Ferris wheel
The gardens and parks along the Ring,
Belvedere Palace. Another grand Baroque landscaping job. The Emperor gave Belvedere to
Prince Eugen of Savoy, the Imperial commander who defeated the Turks at the gates of the city.
Built in 1714-1721, Belvedere was outside the city, a country estate. Today, it is in the middle of
town, with a grand view over the old city.
7] Food. Unfortunately, it took us a few years to figure this out, but here is how to eat in Wien
(and in Austria, France, Germany, Czech Republic, and Hungary). For breakfast, go to a pastry
shop. For lunch, go to a pastry shop. For a morning snack, go to a pastry shop. For an
afternoon snack, go to a pastry shop. Put this high on your list of things you must do: go to a
pastry shop. This is no joke– to visit Europe, especially Austria, without eating lots of pastries is
a mistake. A slice of cake at a Viennese Backerai is a work of art.