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Visiting Vienna: First Impressions of a History Lover

With Imperial palaces and churches representing over 600 years of Hapsburg rule, over 160 museums – 60 of which are in the vast MuseumQuartier, Vienna is a must for anyone who travels to enjoy the history of a destination. With so much to see and do in Vienna, it is not surprising that first time visitors feel overwhelmed. As a self-styled history and art buff I share my impressions from my first time in Vienna, and offer suggestions based on my four days in the Austrian capital.

It is easy to become completely overwhelmed with what Vienna has to offer. Filled with museums, galleries, historic churches, Cathedrals, restaurants, and shops, the capital city of Austria is well worth a visit. If, as I did, you are planning on visiting the city for a short break, you will hardly struggle to fill your time. If you are looking for tips to help in deciding what to see, here are a few of my favourite experiences from the (very packed) four days I spent there.

Baroque Beauty

Walking around Vienna, I got a sense that it was city that had been visibly transformed by the Baroque. At every corner I seemed to come across a stunning church built in or owing something to that style. For its intriguing story and dramatic beauty, my especial favourite was probably Karlskirche, a beautiful building just a short walk away from Karlsplatz, the nearest underground station.

Karlskirche Vienna Sunset
Karlskirche at dusk.

Karlskirche, or “St Charles Church” was built in the early 18th century at the order of the then Emperor, Charles VI, and masterminded by the famous Johann Bernhard Fischer von Erlach. If you visit, you will hardly fail to be impressed by its spectacular architecture, but the church also has an intriguing backstory.

In 1713, as his kingdom was beset by plague, the ruler vowed that if God rid his city of the terrible illness, he would build a church dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, his own patron saint and Saint of plague sufferers. Finally begun in 1716, two years after the city was declared free of the disease, the church took over twenty years to build, and references to the life of the Saint litter the building. Within the church, you can also can also take a short flight of stairs to the treasury, where several robes and ornaments from his life are kept. The biggest allusion, however, undoubtedly appears in the form of two colossal columns that demarcate the building’s dramatic facade. Based on the famous Trajan’s column in Rome, the structure has been slightly reimagined, and here the friezes bear scenes from the life of Borromeo.

Karlskirche, Vienna.
Trajan’s Column in Vienna.

Aside from its Borromean imagery, however, Karlskirche is a striking example of the late Baroque. A title meaning ‘imperfect pearl,’ the exterior seems to reflect this sentiment exactly, with a few touches of extravagance to emphasise and extend the motifs of the preceding High Renaissance. Collectively, the church’s numerous domes are intended as a nod to the architectural glory of the Ottoman Empire, with the primary structure reaching to an impressive 74 metres high.

Karlskirche, Vienna.
The Baroque altar inside Karlskirche.

Don’t be tempted to take a glance outside and think that is all there is! Containing dramatic sculptures, polished marble, an elaborate altar and crowned by a distinctive ellipsoid dome, inside, you can take a lift up towards the top of the church, allowing you to take a closer look at Johann Michael Rottmayr’s finely-painted fresco, and to take in the impressive space as a whole from a much higher viewpoint. Gazing down onto the floor below, it seems difficult to believe that this church was intended for a congregation of only 250 people!

Horses in Vienna

Vienna Horse Carriage
Taking a ride in a fiaker, a traditional means of transport in the city.

The other visibly striking thing about Vienna is, curiously enough, the numerous horse-drawn carriages that seem to be everywhere. These horse drawn carriages are called a fiakers, and were popular forms of transport within the city starting the 18th century. I certainly recommend going for a short ride in one as the guides are very knowledgeable and the opportunity allows you to see the city from a different perspective. Take more than a ride, for 25€ you not only get to ride in a carriage but also learn more about fiakerei and visit a traditional Viennese horse stable.

Vienna has been, and still is, shaped by horses in a much wider sense.

Though it might not be the most obvious point of call for a visitor with historic interests, the Spanish Riding School provides a fascinating alternative to the usual route. Tracing its roots to Maximillian II’s idea to import and train Spanish horses in the 1560s, the school is the longest and only serving preserver of the classical art of the Haute Ecole, and in 2015 was placed on the UNESCO list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. Following the building of the beautiful Baroque Winter Riding School at Charles VI’s commission in the 1730s, it is also renowned for its remarkable architecture. A stunning building of Fischer von Erlach’s design, filled with chandeliers, red carpets, and ornate detail, you can today visit the hall either on a Guided Tour of the Riding School, or to see one of the school’s world-famous performances.

Vienna Spanish Riding School
The white riding hall of the Spanish Riding School.

Always very much envisioned as a display of power, the Spanish Riding School’s reputation is undoubtedly linked to the appearance of the horses themselves. A strong and stocky breed, the horses that were originally brought to Vienna were known as “Spanish Karsters,” before gaining their modern name, “Lipzanners,” in 1780. All trained to at least Haute Ecole standard, with certain stallions being able to perform the Levade, the Corbette, or the Capriole jumps, the reputation of the school quickly flourished. In the 19th century, the horses were selectively bred to be grey, or “whiter” in appearance. A breed that is usually born darker and gets whiter as it ages, some horses nonetheless retain their birth colour due to the presence of a recessive gene. Today, however, such horses serve as a source of pride within the school, and have become the subject of a legend suggesting that as long as there is at least one black horse at the Spanish Riding School, they will continue on. Having three such horses at the current time, the saying has so far proved true. The school continues to school students and train horses, to be world-renowned, and offers performances and tours for the view of the general public.

The Hofburg Palace

St. Michael's Wing with Vindobona ruins on Michaelerplatz in Vienna
The main entrance to the various museums housed in the Hofburg Palace.

Whilst the Spanish Riding School promises to be a significant institution to visit for many years to come, however, this is very much the year to see the Austrian National Library’s grand State Hall. Part of a wider complex containing various collections and archives, the stunning building makes for a worthwhile visit at any time, but this year, a fascinating exhibition, put on to celebrate the rather startling 650th anniversary of this magnificent library’s establishment, provides an additional reason to visit. Presenting a rich and detailed display of the library’s history, a series of interpretation boards will take you through the library’s story era by era, accompanied by a display of some its most treasured items, including volumes from its famous Papyrus collection.

Vienna National Library
Daniel Gran’s painted dome in the National Library.

Originally intended as a private wing of the Hofburg Palace, the hall is the biggest Baroque library in Europe at almost 80 metres long and 20 metres high, and two ornate globes, representing the earth and sky, complement this vast space, having an impressive diameter of more than one metre. Above, the domed ceiling is adorned by a fresco created by Daniel Gran, the onetime court painter. Painted in an unusual green hue, dotted with various statues including the dramatic figure of the founder, various sites of interest can all be found within a stunning wider vision designed by Johann Fischer von Erlach. And, of course, if you are anything like me, you will simply appreciate a space that allows you to take in case upon case of floor to ceiling books. In total, the library houses more than 20,000 volumes.

National Library Manuscript
The Wenceslas Bible in the National Library of Austria, Hofburg Palace in Vienna.

The Belvedere Palace

Vienna Belvedere Gardens
Looking over the formal gardens onto one of the Baroque palaces and the city of Vienna at the Belvedere.

If you are more artistically than bookishly inclined, however, I would highly recommend a visit to the Belvedere Palace. Conveniently located near to the central station, the Belvedere is also an excellent last stop if you are planning, (as I was), to travel on to another country by rail, or even to use the excellent links between the train station and the airport. Dispersed over several buildings- the Lower and Upper Belvedere, the Orangerie, and House 21, the Palace was converted to an art museum during the 18th century, and houses work from the Medieval to the Modern periods, with an especially rich collection of 19th century art. If you only have a couple of hours, I would definitely recommend prioritising the Upper Belvedere, which is currently displaying Klimt’s famous ‘The Kiss.’

Surrounded by stunning gardens, and housing a rich and vast collection, there is nonetheless plenty to see at the Belvedere however, and I only wish I had been able to have a longer visit!

Belvedere Castle Vienna
One of two Baroque Palaces that make up the Belvedere complex in Vienna.

Vienna Sausages or Wiener Schnitzel, What to Eat in Vienna?

Most of us from the English speaking world at least know of Vienna sausages, or hot dogs. Except in Vienna they are called frankfurters. Wien is the German name for Vienna, and a Wiener is Viennese, while Frankfurter is something from the German city of Frankfurt.

These sausages, made from pork and beef, are smoked to preserve them and then heated in hot water. They have been eaten in the Frankfurt region since the Middle Ages. Hence why Viennese call the sausages Frankfurters. For Germans, wieners are made from pork and beef, whereas frankfurters are made of pork meat only. Whatever, find a Sausage stand and enjoy a hot dog!

Scattered around the city you will see Würstelstände, Vienna’s sausage stands. The sausage stands were created during the time of the Imperial Monarchy to give work to disabled war veterans. And although you will see the ubiquitous fastfood chains in Vienna, the sausage stands have remained. And you are just as likely to see suited businessmen as you are a street cleaner getting their snacks of choice. Not only will you be able to get yourself a Vienna sausage or a frankfurter, some stands offer other varieties of sausage as well.

Vienna Sausage
Vienna sausages should be heated in hot, not boiling water.

Wiener Schnitzel, a thin, breaded and pan-fried veal cutlet, is another dish we all associate with Vienna. Some will recount a story that suggests Field Marshall Joseph Radetzky von Radetz brought the recipe for cotoletta alla milanese from Italy to Vienna in 1857. But food historians and linguists dispute this version of events. A dish that is wienerschnitzel in all but name first appeared in a southern German cookbook in 1831. Twelfth century documents in the archives of Milan refer to breaded chops coated in breadcrumbs. The dish probably has a more regional origin than Vienna alone.

Whatever, Wiener Schnitzel is a national dish and the name is protected. Cheaper alternatives will make use of pork, but this will be disparagingly referred to as “Wiener Schnitzel vom Schwein”.

Schnitzel Vienna
Wiener Schnitzel is frequently served with cranberry sauce.

For those of you who are particularly interested in gastronomy, take this 4-hour food tour of Vienna. You will get to taste a number of Austrian delicacies while visiting a typical Viennese coffee house, a bakery, a traditional market, and an artisanal chocolate shop. You will also get to have a sausage at a würstelstände!

Seven Things to Do for History Lovers in Vienna

During my four days in Vienna, I only saw the tip of the proverbial ice berg. When, not if, I return these seven historical aspects of the city will be top of my list.

Marvel at the Imperial Treasury in the Hofburg Palace
See the extraordinary treasures of the Habsburgs in the oldest part of the Hofburg Palace; including the 8th century Holy Lance and the largest cut emerald in the world.

Take a Private Day Trip to Mauthausen Memorial
An eight-hour day-trip from Vienna to witness the Mauthausen concentration camp, and get a feel for what life was like here during World War II.

Explore Underground Vienna with a 1.5-Hour Walking Tour
A guided tour of the archaeological excavations at Michaelerplatz and the crypt of St. Michael’s Church.

Take a 2-hour walking tour of Jewish Life in Leopoldstadt
A two-hour walking tour that explores the eventful history of Vienna’s Jewish community during the 20th century.

Taste local wines in a Historic, Roman Wine Cellar
Taste Viennese wines under the guidance of a trained wine expert in the city’s deepest and oldest wine cellar.

Get an Idea of Hitler’s Vienna on a 2.5-Hour Historical Walking Tour
Vienna had the greatest influence on Adolf Hitler, see what happened in the city before and after the Second World War.

Indulge Yourself with a Mozart Concert at the Golden Hall
Vienna attracted many of the world’s finest classical musicians, so treat yourself to a concert of Mozart and Strauss at one of the city’s best concert halls.

Archaeology Travel Writer

Beth Howell

I am a history enthusiast and heritage volunteer, with interests ranging from Gothic architecture to 19th century painting. I love learning and writing about the world around me, and recently completed a degree in Art History and English Literature at the University of Exeter. When I haven’t got my nose in a book I’m usually doodling, and I am currently working on a series of drawings of Victorian women.

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