Vienna. Austria's indelible capital.

St. Stephan's, or Stephansdom, Vienna's mother church.
St. Stephan's, or Stephansdom, Vienna's mother church.
The Danube with a view of Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg in the background.
The Danube with a view of Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg in the background.
Ruprechtskirche, tradtionally Vienna's oldest church.
Ruprechtskirche, tradtionally Vienna's oldest church.
The Secession Building.
The Secession Building.
Grinzing's Sandgasse, the heart of the city's heurigen district.
Grinzing's Sandgasse, the heart of the city's heurigen district.
The gates of the Hofburg complex.
The gates of the Hofburg complex.
The Rathaus, overlooking the Ringstrasse.
The Rathaus, overlooking the Ringstrasse.
The Austrian Parliament along the Ringstasse.
The Austrian Parliament along the Ringstasse.
Peterskirche, First District.
Peterskirche, First District.
The Vienna skyline from the Belvedere Palace grounds.
The Vienna skyline from the Belvedere Palace grounds.
A baroque masterpiece: Karlskirche.
A baroque masterpiece: Karlskirche.
The Graben, First District.
The Graben, First District.

Introduction. Many things come to mind about Vienna (Wien - German): classical music, the Vienna Boys Choir, the Hapsburgs, Freud, exquisite pastries, the erotic art of Gustav Klimt and avante garde architecture. The city is a study in historical and cultural trends. Located on the banks of the Danube (German – Donau) as it takes a southeast turn towards Hungary, Vienna sits on the farthest edges of German-speaking Europe and its famed Wienerwald, or forest covered hills, are actually the beginning of the Alpine piedmont. Today Vienna (population 1.687 million) is capital of Austria as it has been for centuries. The Hapsburgs ruled a far-flung and ethnically diverse empire from Vienna while allowing the arts to flourish enough to give modern history some of its greatest thinkers and artists. Vienna has often been uncomfortably situated between east and west as it was as the imperial capital of the Hapsburg Empire. This situation often required a delicate balance and the city’s intelligentsia often initiated trends to undermine the traditional authority, especially in the nineteenth century and twentieth centuries. Today the city has recaptured its imaginative soul and stands out as one of Europe’s artisitic and international hubs: it hosts a huge United Nations community and is the world headquarters for OPEC in addition to being the capital of Austria. The Vienna you visit today is unique in its planning. Every street sign within the city's limit is followed by a number from 1 to 23. That number will tell you what district you are in. The First District, or street sign followed y number 1, means you are in the oldest part of the city. The First District is surrounded by an outer shell of the first batch of suburbs that were added to the city’s urban growth in the nineteenth century – the second, third, fourth, fifth, etc. And then finally the outer city, farthest from the First District, is characterized by the largest numbers, the 18th, 19th and 20th Districts, etc. Separating the First District from all others is the Ringstrasse, which roughly follows the old city walls which were torn down shortly after the Revolution of 1848 in an effort to modernize and expand the city. It is along the Ringstrasse that you will find, quite deliberately, Vienna’s most magnificent buildings: the Rathaus, Historisches Museums, the Parliament, Opera House and Burgtheater. These huge edifices were constructed after the old city walls were torn down.

History. Vienna’s permanent settlement began as an outpost of the Roman Empire. Romans resettled the area in 15 BC naming it Vindobona. Prior to their occupation Vienna had been a Celtic establishment since 500 BC. The Romans found the location favorable to growing grapes and even today Vienna’s hills are surrounded by vineyards that supply the local heurigen with their finished product. Grinzing, overlooked by Kahlenberg and Leopoldsberg, in the 19th District, is the city's best known area for these festive wine cellars. Vienna’s rise as an imperial power took form with the Babenburg dynasty. The Babenburgs were originally from northern Bavaria, or Franconia, but their reach spread throughout the southern Germanic speaking lands in the early Middle Ages. They would eventually be overtaken by other houses such as the Wittelsbach in Bavaria and Hapsburgs in Austria. Bamberg in upper Bavaria, was built around their ancestral castle. The male descendants died out in 1246 and after a brief interregnum the Hapsburgs took over when Rudolf of Hapsburg was crowned in 1273. By 1440 Vienna had become the residence of the Hapsburgs whose origins were Swiss. As the Hapsburgs power grew Vienna became the capital of the Holy Roman Empire, a watered-down successor of the Christian Roman Empire. Although historians have argued that the Holy Roman Empire was neither holy, nor Roman, nor an empire, the title was nevertheless a badge of honor and prestige. The coronation by the Pope was a significant tradition that lent authority to Europe’s royal houses before the Reformation. Thereafter the history of Vienna and the Austrian line of the Hapsburg became virtually synonymous until the end of the dynasty in 1918. It was long after the Hapsburg establishment that the city was shaken by a series of invasions and threats from the east. Hungary occupied Vienna from 1485-1490 but not before the threat of a Mongol invasion stopped short of sacking Vienna as early as the 1240-41 Mongol invasion of Hungary. Hungary’s invasion of lands to its east, or the Holy Roman Empire, was led by Matthias Corvinus whose army took control of Vienna. In the following century the Turks’ expansion into Europe pushed as far as Vienna and twice they laid siege to the city in 1529 and again in 1683. The sieges of Vienna were, respectively, the high water marks of Ottoman Turkish conquest in Europe. After the Turkish sieges and the Plague of 1679 Vienna entered a golden age of building and a flourishing of arts and culture followed. Monarchs such as Maria Theresa, Josef II, and Franz Josef, perhaps its most famous rulers, played major roles in European history. It was during their reigns that Mozart and Beethoven were among the city’s residents, although they were not native to Vienna. The city hosted the Congress of Vienna in 1814 - 1815 which redrew Europe’s map after the Napoleonic Wars. In 1867 the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also known as the Dual Monarchy, was established in an effort to restructure the state. Austria’s loss to Prussia in the Austro-Prussian War of 1866 and the revolutions of 1848 pressured the Hapsburgs to make changes to stem the rising tide of nationalism within the Empire’s borders. Unlike Germany, Austria’s biggest foreign policy problem was within its own borders as a multi-ethnic state. Combined with the newfound national consciousness of the nineteenth century, the fragmentation of Austria based on ethnic lines along with a growing socialist, urban-based working class would determine its ultimate demise. World War I pushed Austria to the brink when the Hapsburg Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were assassinated in Sarajevo by a Serbian nationalist (their clothing and the car they were riding in are still on display in Vienna’s Military Museum). Lines were quickly drawn between the great powers and Europe plunged into its most destructive war up until that time in 1914. Because Austria was on the losing side the last Hapsburg ruler, Karl, would eventually relinquish the crown and on November 12, 1918 an Austrian Federal Republic was declared with Vienna as its capital. The city became known as "Red Vienna" during the 1920s because of the ruling Social Democrats. This new elite instituted many of the reforms that are still seen today and provided the framework of today’s socialized state with unemployment benefits, 8-hour workdays, and unionization of the masses. It also brought in an era of hyper-inflation and a top heavy influence of Vienna over the rest of the Federal Republic. It was also during this time, from the turn of the century until the inter-war period, that Vienna’s most celebrated intellectual elite lived and worked in the city giving it an enduring artistic and intellectual legacy. Freud, Schnitzler, Kraus, Wittgenstein, Loos, Otto Wagner, and Gustav Klimt were among Vienna’s most famous.

Architecture. Vienna has buildings from all different types of periods ranging from Gothic to the ultra modern. Its most famous school of architecture is probably late nineteenth century which is reflected in ultra-modern building and design led by the Secession movement. The Secession movement was defiance against the older paternalistic generation of rulers and elite, such as the Hapsburgs, led by progressive social and political artists and thinkers. This division of generation and class would also have strong influences upon thinkers such as Freud, artists like Gustav Klimt, and architects and city planners such as Otto Wagner, who played a huge role in developing modern Vienna with the avante garde ultra-modern building designs. While the best known buildings in Vienna date to the Baroque period, such as its palaces and churches, the hallmark of its modern architecture is exemplified in the Secession Building, located in the Third District. The gold leaf dome of this Art Noveau building was built as an exhibition to the artists of the Secession Movement in 1897-98. This movement was an artistic and cultural rebellion against the old school of artists and produced art, architecture, and writing that was unconventional for the time. Located near Karlsplatz, the Secession architecture Otto Wagner also designed the famous Karlsplatz Stadtbahn Station and the famous Austrian Postal Savings Banks. Using linear geometry in purer form the sleek designs were a forerunner of the art deco movement. The motto of this movement was “to every age its art and to art its freedom”. The Prater is Vienna’s well-known and long established amusement park, similar to Copenhagen’s Tivoli Gardens. Before its opening to the public it was a hunting ground for the Hapsburgs. After hosting the 1873 World Exhibition the park was used for public enjoyment and leisure. Its best known feature is the famous Riesenrad, or giant Ferris wheel, built in 1897. Standing 212 feet tall it was the world’s tallest until recently. It was used as a backdrop in the movies The Third Man (1949) and the James Bond film The Living Daylights (1987). The most well known contemporary architecture in the city is the Hundertwasserhaus in the Third District. Built between 1983 and 1986 it has become an enduring cultural symbol of the city and is a major tourist attraction. The colorful and near psychedelic building houses apartments and offices and is punctuated by trees that grow from its structure.

Churches. Vienna has myriad churches because it was an imperial capital. Europe’s capitals often drew religious orders to the city which resulted in a host of colorful spires across the skyline. The Franciscan, Dominicans, and Jesuits all built churches and the patronage of the Hapsburg court helped fund more such as the magnificent baroque dome of St. Charles, or Karlskirche in the Third District. In truth Vienna has too many churches to mention in this primer of the city. Vienna’s dead center is marked by the dazzling spire of St. Stephan’s, or Stefansdom, at 445 feet (136 meters). It was once one of the tallest buildings in the world and the church dates to the Middle Ages. It is Vienna’s mother church, or the seat of the Archdiocese of Vienna. It sits on ruins of two earlier churches - the first dating to 1147. Today’s church has both Romanesque and Gothic elements and remains Vienna’s most enduring symbol. The construction of its needle-like spire occurred between 1368 and 1433. During World War II the roof of the cathedral collapsed but it has since been repaired and up until recently the Stefansdom had a blackened exterior as a result of the years of air pollution in the city. For the most part the Cathedral survived reasonably intact from the ravages of World War II. Its exterior has been resorted to its original color that reflects the brightly colored limestone walls. The Cathedral has a number of tombs, especially those of earlier Hapsburg monarchs, crypts, and extensive catacombs beneath its floors where the remains of more than 10,000 are interred. St. Rupert’s, or Ruprechtskirche, located in the First District, overlooks the banks of the Danube. According to tradition is accepted as Vienna’s oldest church although there is some debate that disputes this. Its stout and squared structure was first mentioned in chronicles in 1200 but it probably dates to the early 9th century. Like many old churches it has undergone various structural changes because of fire-caused damage. Today’s building still retains some Romanesque elements in the windows, nave, and choir but it really is a hybrid. The oldest bells in Vienna are found in the church dating to 1280. The church also contains a relic of St. Vitalis and it was from the church that the early Salzamt, or Salt Office, was located. Only outdone by Stephansdom, the Church of St. Charles, known as Karlskirche, is Vienna’s baroque masterpiece. Easily seen from the Ringstrasse, the building of Karlskirche, in honor of St. Charles Borromeo, commenced in 1713 after Vienna survived another bout of plague. In addition to the great dome, the two opposing columns, modeled after Trajan’s Column in Rome, make this church one of the greatest baroque buildings north of the Alps. The church was completed in 1737 and the height of the dome is 70 meters, or 230 feet. Peterskirche resembles Karlskirche on a smaller scale. Its cramped location deep in the First District off the Graben however tells a different story. Unlike Karlskirche, which was built from scratch, Peterskirche’s current baroque structure completed in 1733 stands on the ruins of older church buildings. This has given currency to Peterskirche being the city’s oldest as it was first chronicled in 1137. The older medieval structure burned down in 1661 and Vienna’s 1679 plague epidemic inspired Leopold I to rebuild the church to its present form. Its 54 meter high dome is guarded closely by two steeples of almost equal height. The beautiful interior is richly frescoed.

Museums. The best museums in Vienna not surprisingly focus on art and antiquities. Of those the Kunst Historisches and Naturhistoriches Museum have very large collections that cover all major periods of art history. Among the most famous pieces is the Venus of Willendorf housed in the Naturhistoriches Museum. It is a Neolithic figurine about 22,000 years old. Discovered in 1908 near Krems, Austria, it is thought to be a fertility symbol because of the exaggerated anatomy. The Heeresgeschichtliches Museum is Vienna’s military museum which features displays focusing on Austria’s long military history. Located in Vienna’s Third District not far from the Ringstrasse near the Belvedere Palace the museum is appropriately housed in the old arsenal which was built between 1850 and 1856. Its most memorable display is the hardware and dress associated with Franz Ferdinand when he was assassinated in 1914. The Albertina, located in the First District, is one of the largest print repositories in Europe and contains print and sketches by the masters such as Albrecht Duerer.

Palaces. The Belvedere is one of three Hapsburg palaces in Vienna and is within walking distance of the Ringstrasse located in the Third District. The palace is divided into the Upper and Lower Belvedere and together they represent a beautiful baroque complex of buildings, gardens, stables, and fountains. Construction of the Lower Belvedere was started in 1697 and the larger, more ornate Upper Belvedere was started in 1712, both the pet projects of Prince Eugene. At the same time the Hofburg, or the central HapsburgPalace in Vienna center, also called the Stadtpalais, was being expanded. Schoenbruenn is the “Versailles of Vienna”. Although it is now within the city limits, or 13th District, at the time of its construction it sat well outside the city’s walls. Although not quite as big as Versailles, it mirrors its French counterpart in opulence and lavishness and its purpose was similar to the French model: to build a country estate with room enough for hunting and entertaining. Originally the grounds were used for hunting by the royals and a chateau had existed on location before the Turks destroyed it in their siege of the city. Commissioned by Leopold to be rebuilt in 1693 the central section was completed in 1700. After the central section was completed the building stopped because of financial constraints caused by the War of Spanish Succession. Maria Theresa, daughter of Charles VI, grew fond of the palace and construction commenced during her reign making Schoenbrunn the center of her court. By 1746 residential apartments were completed and Maria Theresa moved in. Between 1746 and the 1770s more outbuildings were built, including the famous Gloriette arch in 1775 which overlooks the grounds and city. After Maria Theresa’s death in 1780 the palace was again relegated to a summer residence. Schoenbrunn also has the world’s oldest zoo, which was originally started as a Habsburg royal menagerie in 1752. The Hofburg, a vast complex of huge, ornate buildings in the center of Vienna, was the official residence of the Hapsburgs off and on from 1483. It saw multiple expansions and reconstructions in its 600 year history. It includes the Schatzkammer (treasury) the royal chapel (Burgkapelle), the Chancellery, the National Library, the Spanish Riding school, the Neue Burg, and the Prunskaal. Most of the buildings seen today are baroque in appearance but they are built alongside older structures such as the Alte Burg also known as the Schweizertrakt.

Music. Any forum about Vienna would not be complete without some discussion of music. The city hosted a number of famous musicians, mostly between the 18th and 19th centuries, that have brought it lasting fame. Many were sponsored by the Hapsburgs and Esterhazys such as Josef Hadyn (1732- 1809), the father of the string quartet. Born outside Vienna in the village of Rohrau, Hadyn died in Vienna. Mozart (1756-1791) was a famed resident of the city, sponsored by the Hapsburg court of Josef II after defecting from the more conservative Salzburg. He died in Vienna a virtual pauper in an unmarked grave in St. Marx cemetery outside of the city. Beethoven’s (1770-1827) many houses, all marked by historical markers, are reminders of the erratic life led by this eccentric genius. The Vienna-born Franz Schubert (1797-1828) was a prolific composer before his untimely death. His birth house is conspicuously located on Nussdorfer Strasse in the Ninth District. The Vienna-born Johann Strauss (1804-1849) made famous the waltz. More famous is his son, Johann Strauss II (1825 – 1899), who composed more than 500 waltzes include the Blue Danube. The famed marble and gilded monument in Vienna’s Stadtpark commemorating Johann Strauss II was unveiled in 1921. Anton Brueckner (1822 – 1896), born in Upper Austria, is buried in St. Florian Monastery, and is best known for his symphonies, masses, and motets. Johannes Brahms (1833 - 1897) spent many formative years in Vienna refining his distinct counterpoint and development techniques. He is buried in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof. The Bohemian-born Gustav Mahler (1860 -1911) spent many years in Vienna as a student of the Vienna Conservatory and later as the director of the Vienna Hofoper. His late romantic-early modern music was eventually banned by the Nazis because it was “degenerate”. He is buried in Vienna’s Grinzing cemetery. Arnold Schoenberg (1874- 1951) is Vienna’s best known contemporary or modern musician. He was born in Leopoldstadt, Vienna’s Jewish district, roughly equivalent with the city’s Second District. Considered a leader of the Second Viennese School, Schoenberg was famous for his atonality and twelve-tone technique. His influence on later generations of later musicians is not to be understated. He emigrated, eventually to the United States, after the Nazis came to power in 1933 and taught at UCLA and USC in Los Angeles. He is buried in Vienna’s Zentralfriedhof.

Recommended Readings:

Johnston, W.M. (1972). The Austrian mind: An intellectual and social history 1848-1938. Berkeley, California: University of California Press.

Schorske, C.E. (1961). Fin-de-siecle Vienna: Politics and culture. New York: Vintage Books.



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Comments 8 comments

MaryRenee 6 years ago

JV: Great hub! Thanks for all the great info. I've been hoping to take a trip to Vienna sometime in the future. Thanks so much for sharing! :)


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jvhirniak 6 years ago Author

MaryRenee: Thank you so much for visiting! I hope you get a chance to see Vienna sometime - a wonderful city.


christopheranton profile image

christopheranton 6 years ago from Gillingham Kent. United Kingdom

Thank you very much. Vienna is one place that I would love to visit. You describe it beautifully.


jvhirniak profile image

jvhirniak 6 years ago Author

Christopheranton - You won't be disappointed if you visit. Much to do and then there's always Bratislava, Budapest, and the Alps if you want to see more within a day's drive.


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Klavdija Frahm 4 years ago from Slovenia

I'm going on a trip to Vienna this weekend - so this was rly useful hub for me :)


jvhirniak profile image

jvhirniak 4 years ago Author

Happy to hear it!


FatBoyThin profile image

FatBoyThin 17 months ago from Kinneff, Scotland

Ever since I saw Carol Reed's 'The Third Man', I've wanted to go to Vienna. These days however, it's the music and architecture I'm interested in, not the shadowy movements of Orson Welles. Lots of useful info here, voted up.


jvhirniak profile image

jvhirniak 17 months ago Author

FatBoyThin - you won't be disappointed. I've always considered Vienna (Wien) the most underrated capital in Europe. Thanks for viewing and commenting!

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