Vienna’s famous royal palaces have to be high on any visitor’s bucket listVienna, the capital city of Austria is the quintessential European city of art and culture. The awe-inspiring sights of Vienna’s imperial palaces, majestic parks, grand concert halls, mighty cathedrals, elegant streets and stately boulevards provide a breathtaking experience for even the most jaded tourist.
The plethora of delights offered here can make it quite an uphill task to predict what makes the list and what can be put aside especially if you are on a short visit to this versatile city.
The Royal Habsburgs and Imperial Architecture
Unquestionably, high on the list for any visitor to Vienna has to be a trip to see its magnificent imperial palaces, all of which owe their origins to the Habsburg royal family.
The Habsburg family became significant in the 13th century when Rudolf I took control over the land that today is Austria. Over the next 600 years, the monarchy acquired more and more territories and Vienna became the capital of the Habsburg Empire.
Today these Viennese palaces of a bygone era serve as a reminder of the grandeur of the Habsburg years. The main trifecta of palaces showcase the ornate style of Baroque and Rococo architecture. You will easily be mesmerized by the wealth of gilded stucco, sumptuous frescoes, highly embellished interiors and lavish gardens that are a hallmark of these royal residences.
Schönbrunn PalaceWhen you embark on your palace tour itinerary, Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens must top the list. The Schönbrunn Palace came into existence due to Emperor Leopold I who in the late 1690s appointed Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach, a Baroque architect with Roman training to design a hunting lodge for his son, the later Emperor Joseph I.
Though the earliest buildings on the site date back to the fourteenth century, none of which exist today, the greatest rebuilding was done in the 1700s by the Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa who received the estate as a gift from her father, Emperor Charles VI. It became the imperial summer residence and the dazzling emphasis of Austrian regality.In the modern era, the Great Gallery of the palace, a spectacular Rococo ceremonial hall bedecked in gold and white became famous as the location for the historic 1961 meeting, known as the Vienna Summit between the US President John F. Kennedy and Soviet Prime Minister Nikita Khruschev. In 1996 Schönbrunn was recognized as a cultural treasure and entered the UNESCO World Heritage Site list.
Touring the Palace
The summer palace of the Habsburgs is a major tourist attraction and you can easily spend a day or more trying to imbibe all the glory this property has to offer. Situated on the outskirts of Vienna, the Schönbrunn Palace complex is gargantuan in size with 1441 rooms, an extensive formal garden bordered by rows of marble statues, a maze, botanic gardens and greenhouses, intricate fountains, vineyards, an aviary, a zoo and an orangery which is the second largest Baroque orangery after Versailles.
Grand or Imperial Tour?
You can choose either the Grand Tour or the Imperial Tour, the first being more comprehensive and expensive than the other. The gardens and other attractions such as the zoo, the maze, the Children’s Museum and the Gloriette among others have separate tickets although a variety of combined tickets are available. Be prepared to be a part of heaving crowds especially if you visit in the peak seasons. But notwithstanding the crowds or the speedy movements that is ensured by the guards you will come away with an exalted feeling.
The Grand Tour offers a guided tour (extra charge), but both tours supply free audio guides and they provide an excellent commentary on the lives and styles of the palace inhabitants.
The Royal RoomsThe Royal rooms with their luxurious furnishings and storied history are certain to impress you. Check out the rooms where the French Emperor Napoleon stayed in early 19th century during his occupation of Austria. Enjoy the story of Mozart in his childhood playing his first concert here. Admire the Chinese wall paper, ornamentation and motifs in the Chinese salon where the negotiations to end the rule of the Austrian emperors happened in 1918. Elsewhere, notice the pastel portrait of Marie Antoinette, the French empress and the youngest daughter of Maria Theresa.
In the study of Franz Joseph, the Emperor from 1848 – 1916, you will see the painting of his wife, Elisabeth, or “Sisi” as she was known popularly, a renowned figure in Austria about whom you will learn a lot more at the next place on this Vienna imperial palaces itinerary, although at Schönbrunn too you will have an enriching encounter touring her apartments.
How to Get to Schönbrunn Palace:
By Bus: Number 10A, Schönbrunn stop.
By Tram: Number 10 and 60, Schönbrunn stop.
By Underground: U4, Schönbrunn stop.
April – June: 8 am – 5.30 pm
July – August: 8 am – 6.30 pm
September – October: 8 am – 5.30 pm
November – March: 8 am – 5.00 pm
Hofburg Imperial PalaceIn the center of Vienna lies the Hofburg Palace, again a colossally grandiose complex that today also houses the government of Austria. Dating back to the 13th century, the Hofburg began as a medieval castle and was subsequently expanded over 600 years by the Habsburg rulers who used it as their primary residence while reigning first over Austria, then as Holy Roman Emperors and finally as Austrian Emperors until the monarchy concluded in 1918, while also serving as the winter imperial residence onward from the 18th century. Constructions were done in the Renaissance style in the 16th century followed by the Baroque mode in the 18th century when major extensions and embellishments were completed.
Arriving at Hofburg PalaceMost probably, you will first view the magnificent green dome of the Hofburg as you arrive walking down Kohlmarkt, the pulsating shopping street with exclusive stores, some of which were former court suppliers. You will effortlessly be transfixed by the regal sweep of the curving façade and the 50-meter-high dome.
Walking through the Exhibits
The palace has three parts open to tourists: Imperial Apartments, Silver Collection and the Sisi Museum. As at the Schönbrunn Palace, photography is not allowed in the interiors of the palace though you can click pictures in a few portions of the Silver Collection Exhibit. The collection shows off diverse table silver, dessert services, exquisite Asian and Meissen porcelain, tableware, elaborate centerpieces of gilt and bronze and the myriad copper molds and pans used to create the confectioneries and cakes that Vienna is so famous for.
Be perplexed by the aptly named “duck squeeze” or Presses Canard, a contraption whose function was to force out juice from duck bones to make a flavorful rich sauce but which instead was used to churn out raw meat juice, a favorite of Empress Elisabeth.
Impressive Sisi MuseumClimb up the impressively carved Emperor’s Staircase to enter the leading attractions of Hofburg Palace, namely the Imperial Apartments and the Sisi Museum. You will begin at the Sisi Museum, which was set up in 2004 to highlight the charismatic but unconventional life and the tragic death of Empress Elisabeth. Perhaps in a morbid approach, your tour will commence with the story of the assassination of the empress in Geneva, Switzerland in 1898. This will introduce you to “The Sisi Myth”, about an empress who faced the suicide of her son Rudolf in 1889, who retired from the public stage in her later years and who was considered as the most beautiful queen of Europe for close to thirty years.
An Avante-Garde LifeBorn in Bavaria in 1837, the young Elisabeth led an avant-garde life mostly due to her father, Duke Max who was a singular advocate of Bavarian folk music in the 19th century. She entered the Viennese court as the empress after getting betrothed to Emperor Franz Joseph in 1853. She was fifteen years old.
She eschewed the imperial life right from the beginning chafing at the rigid court rules and regulations. At the museum learn about the many means undertaken to conserve her fabled beauty, gawk at the recreated dresses and gowns, her personal items, veils, fans and jewelry and even a section of the sleeping train car which she used to travel around Austria and beyond.
Into the Royal ApartmentsWalk through the various opulent rooms of the Imperial Apartments signifying the living quarters and working areas of Emperor Franz Joseph and Empress Elisabeth, all of which retain most of their original furnishings. In the emperor’s study, pay note to the two delightful paintings of Elisabeth with loose, flying hair, painted at the behest of the emperor who was deeply in love with his wife though she did not reciprocate his feelings.
Traverse through the mind boggling array of sumptuously adorned bedrooms, salons and chambers before you are stopped in your tracks by the Dressing and Exercise Room, and its gymnastic exercise equipment such as rings, wooden high bars and wall bar, all used by Elisabeth who paid significant importance to her beauty, health and well-being. View the Bergl Room and its elegant trompe l’oeil murals depicting a coastal scenery full of colourful fish, crab and aquatic birds painted by Johann Wenzel Bergl in 1766 under the commission of Empress Maria Theresa.
How to Get to Hofburg Palace:
By Bus: Numbers 1A and 2A, Hofburg stop.
By Tram: Numbers 1,2, D and 71, Burgring stop.
By Underground: U3 (Orange), Herrengasse stop.
September – June: 9 am – 5:30 pm
July – August: 9 am – 6 pm
Belvedere PalaceThe ultimate and similarly striking royal abode that constitutes the triumvirate of Vienna’s imperial palaces is the Belvedere Palace, a two palace ensemble that is awash in stately grandness. The palaces were built during the early 18th century by Prince Eugene, the commander-in-chief of the imperial army as a summer residence. They are a seminal piece of work by the Baroque architect Johann Lukas von Hildebrandt. The Lower Belvedere was constructed first in 1712 followed by the Upper Belvedere in 1717.
But wait, there’s also a third building at this palace complex. Belvedere 21, unrelated to the Baroque palaces, was originally the Austrian pavilion at the 1958 World’s Fair in Brussels. A Modernist architecture example by Karl Schwanzer, it is now a venue for contemporary artistic events. Today the two Baroque palaces and the extensive gardens of Belvedere is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Painting Galleries and Staterooms
The two Belvedere palaces offer a riveting insight into the meticulous craftsmanship of Baroque style architectural design. At the Lower Belvedere, is The Gold Cabinet, a heavily ornate room that was the brainchild of Maria Theresa who had the space covered in mirror, porcelain and golden décor.
Gustav Klimt and other masterpieces of artUpper Belvedere is famous as the repository of the largest collection of artworks by Gustav Klimt. An iconic Modernist Austrian painter, Klimt (1862-1918) was an artist whose works reflect an amalgamation of realism and abstraction converging the erotic and exotic which made it controversial at times. Thus be quick to click a picture of “The Kiss” the moment you get a chance in the throng of people who flock around this powerful Klimt painting of a golden couple in embrace in a garden of flowers.
The Belvedere Museum which unfolds out in the stately palace rooms displays his works ranging from portraits to landscapes along with the works of other master artists covering almost 800 years of Austrian and European art and sculpture.
Enjoying the GardensHere too, you can go slack jawed with awe by the lavish Baroque gardens whose architect Dominique Girard honed his experience working at Versailles in France. The sweep of the gorgeous gardens encompasses all the necessary essentials of Baroque garden design such as symmetrical flower beds, mythological statues, fountains amidst water bodies and geometrically trimmed hedges. Make a trip down to the fabulous reflection pond to revel in the mirroring effect of the Upper Belvedere palace façade.
How to Get to Belvedere Palace:
By Tram: Number D, Gusshausstrasse stop.
Number 71, Am Heumarkt stop.
Number D and 2, Schwarzenbergplatz stop.
Number 18 and O, Quartier Belvedere stop.
By Bus: Number 69A, Quartier Belvedere stop.
Number 18 and O, Quartier Belvedere stop.
Number D, Schloss Belvedere stop.
By Underground: Number U1, Sudtiroler Platz/Hauptbahnhof stop and then a walk of about 15 minutes.
Lower Belvedere: 10 am – 6 pm (Sat – Thurs); 10 am – 9 pm(Fri)
Belvedere 21: 11 am – 6 pm (Sun – Wed); 11 am – 9 pm (Wed and Fri)
Upper Belvedere: 9 am – 6 pm (Sat – Thurs); 9 am – 9 pm (Fri)
Also note that visiting Upper Belvedere is only allowed through time slot tickets.
If you are partial to the idea of saving both time and money, the Sisi Ticket is a good investment as it provides a pocket friendly combination option to visit the Schönbrunn Palace, the three sections of the Hofburg Imperial Museum and the Vienna Imperial Furniture Collection at a reduced price with an added benefit of fast track admission to the Schonbrunn avoiding the long lines for entrance.
Find out all information about the Sisi Ticket here.
Around Vienna’s Imperial Palaces:
The Hofburg and the Belvedere palaces are located in thriving neighborhoods offering a variety of sights perfect to round out your visit.If you are a planner, book your tickets months in advance to the world famous Spanish Riding School located inside the Hofburg to take in a performance of equine artistry. Relax in the greens of Burggarten behind the Hofburg, amid a statue of Mozart and a statue of Franz Josef. Or head over to Volksgarten for a view of more statues and monuments among gracious rose bushes. Sit and unwind on the marble benches in the calm and lush garden surrounding the poignant monument of Empress Elisabeth. Stroll to Graben, the exclusive pedestrian shopping street with origins from 1220 AD, at only a five-minute walking distance. Here, admire the massive, intricately carved fountains and take a look at a notable memorial, the Pestsaule or Plague Column, built between 1682 – 1692, a gilded sculpture showing allegorical figures depicting the defeat of the epidemic that ravaged the city in 1679.
Be sure to not miss the Baroque church that peeks out at you as you walk on Graben. The Peterskirche from the early 18th century with its beautiful green dome is simply amazing inside due to its incredibly rich interiors of gold stucco. To relish even more state rooms in a palace converted to a world class museum exhibiting renowned paintings and collections of photography, graphic arts and architectural prints, proceed to The Albertina, a Habsburg palace for archdukes and archduchesses, located at a five-minute walking distance from the Hofburg.
At a five-minute taxi ride from either the Hofburg or the Belvedere Palace is the Secession Vienna, a museum to go to if you are in the mood to immerse yourself in more of Gustav Klimt’s eclectic paintings. This is where you will see his monumental “Beethoven Frieze”, a painting in which he eternalized and interpreted Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. You will find the museum building, completed in 1898, itself eye-catching with its gold leaf work dome.
Similarly, equidistant from both palaces is expansive Stadtpark, with the River Wien dividing it into two tranquil parts. Cross the beautiful bridge to reach gorgeous green meadows and stop by to click pictures at the golden statue of Johann Strauss. But beware you may have to wait your turn in a long line. You will notice many signs advertising classical concerts that play at Kursalon, the restaurant and music venue in the park.
And lastly to complete your day of sightseeing, conclude at Naschmarkt, close to both Hofburg Palace and Belvedere Palace and about a twenty-minute taxi ride from Schönbrunn Palace. A bustling market since the 1780s, this is Vienna’s largest city marketplace and an absolute culinary treat for a mind boggling array of food and food products. The choices for restaurants are many or you can even opt for takeout options from the various stalls selling fresh food delicacies and international specialties to put together a perfect meal to eat at leisure.
If you go to Vienna, you will discover that this city is way too beautiful and will smoothly work its charm and magic and ensnare you into planning for a return visit soon enough.
Useful Information about Vienna:
Where to Eat:
Bar – Restaurant Kanzleramt
Serves traditional Viennese cuisine and located very close to Hofburg Palace.
There are two locations close to each other and they are best known for their classic Austrian dish, the wiener schnitzel.
Asian restaurants are quite popular in Vienna. This place serves Japanese, Vietnamese, Chinese, vegetarian and vegan fare in a cozy atmosphere amplified by lights from lots of hanging Chinese style lanterns.
Where to Stay:
We stayed at the Schlosshotel Romischer Kaiser, existing in a small palace built in 1684 and located close to the Hofburg, St. Stephen’s Cathedral, and the Vienna State Opera. It is also close to the city center and is nestled amidst a throbbing shopping area, the Karntner Strasse (Carinthian Street).