If there is one word to describe Vienna’s Innere Stadt, it’s ‘grand’. This is a city whose buildings are designed to impress, to flaunt the power and pomp of empire. One family, the Hapsburgs, ruled that empire, the Austro-Hungarian, for over seven centuries until 1918 and it was their wealth that created much of the baroque architecture. Elegant facades line each street, sculptures of muscular men strain to hold up the mighty, serious buildings, and sleek German cars are parked in front of expensive shops.
From the top of the south tower of Stephansdom, the cathedral, you can look in all directions onto the streets and rooftops below. Westwards is the Hofburg Palace, home to the Hapsburgs, which grew over the years as each new ruler sought to make their mark, resulting in a place of imposing frontages, grand courtyards and statues of heroic emperors on horseback.
Beyond the Palace, and on the far side of the Volksgarten, is the Rathaus, the town hall. The empire was in its last decades when this was built in the 19th century, but it makes a statement every bit as robust as the earlier buildings.
South of the Palace is the Vienna opera, originally built in the 19th century and restored after bomb damage in 1945. 80 minutes before the curtains rise, you can join a queue for standing tickets at 2 or 3 euros, and then join the smartly dressed people (are they real fur coats?) for the performance. We spent the evening watching a production of Donizetti’s L’Elisir d’Amore.
Directly south of Stephansdom is the Schloss Belvedere, two separate buildings with formal gardens laid out between them. However, it’s the art inside the palaces that make the trip worthwhile – especially the Klimt. Together with the Kunsthistorisches Museum, there’s more impressionist art here than you can possibly explore in a few short days.
One question remains. For a city that has such fine architecture, art and music, why is the food so heavy, unimaginative, unsophisticated?