Capital of the Republic of Austria and one of Europe's most visited cities, Vienna (Wien) owes much of its charm and rich history to its splendid location on the banks of the beautiful Danube River. For centuries the gateway between West and East Europe, it was the natural nucleus of the once sprawling Habsburg Empire, and to this day remains Austria's most important commercial and cultural hub. Vienna continues to attract visitors with its many great historic sights, as well as for its busy program of events and entertainment. With an unmistakably cosmopolitan atmosphere, it retains a distinctive charm and flair, an effect accentuated by its fine old architecture, its famous horse-cabs (Fiaker), as well as its splendid street-side cafés with their Viennese coffees and treats.
1 The Hofburg
For more than six centuries the seat of the Habsburgs - and the official residence of every Austrian ruler since 1275 - the Hofburg is perhaps the most historically significant of Vienna's palaces. The official seat of the Austrian President, this sprawling complex consists of numerous buildings reflecting various periods, including architectural flourishes from the Gothic, Renaissance, Baroque, and Rococo movements. The complex covers 59 acres with 18 groups of buildings, including 19 courtyards and 2,600 rooms. Its main attractions are the Imperial Apartments, the Sisi Museum, and the Silver Collection, while other notable sites within the complex include the Imperial Chapel (Burgkapelle), the Natural History Museum (Naturhistorisches Museum), the Austrian National Library, and the Hofburg Treasury with its large collection of Imperial regalia and relics of the Holy Roman Empire.
2 The Spanish Riding School
Dating back to the time of Emperor Maximilian II, the superb Spanish Riding School was established after the ruler had the famous Lipizzaner horses introduced to his courtesans in 1562. Today, it's one of Vienna's leading attractions, thrilling audiences with fabulous displays of equestrian skills in the Baroque Winter Riding School in the grounds of the Hofburg Palace, where it has been located since 1735. Tickets to performances sell quickly, so be sure to book as far in advance as possible.
Address: Michaelerplatz 1, 1010 Wien
3 St. Stephen's Cathedral
Vienna's most important Gothic edifice and the cathedral church of the archbishopric since 1722, St. Stephen's Cathedral (Stephansdom) is a must-see. The original 12th-century Romanesque church was replaced by a Late Romanesque one in the 13th century, the remains of which are the massive gate and the Heathen Towers (Heidentürme). Next came reconstruction in the Gothic style in the 14th century, along with the addition of the Choir and the Chapels of St. Eligius, St Tirna, and St. Catherine, while the famous 137-meter high South Tower (Steffl) belongs to the 15th-century. Improvements and further construction followed from the 17th to 19th centuries, and the whole structure was rebuilt after WWII. Highlights include climbing the 343 steps to the Steffl's Watch Room for the spectacular views, and the North Tower, home to the massive Pummerin Bell (a fast lift takes visitors to a viewing platform). Other features of note are the 14th-century catacombs and the Cathedral Treasure, containing many of the cathedral's most important artifacts.
4 Schönbrunn Palace and Gardens
The spectacular 18th-century Schönbrunn Palace (Schloss Schönbrunn) is worth visiting not only for its magnificent architecture, but also for its beautiful park-like setting. One of Vienna's top attractions, this Baroque palace contains more than 1,441 rooms and apartments, including those once used by Empress Maria Theresa. Tour highlights include a chance to see the Imperial Apartments, including Emperor Franz Joseph's Walnut Room and his Bedroom, which still has the small soldier's bed in which he died. Of Empress Maria Theresa's rooms, highlights include her richly furnished and decorated garden apartments, along with her Breakfast Room with its floral artwork created by her daughters. Schönbrunn Park and Gardens is another must see here. Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, its sumptuous Baroque gardens and numerous attractive outbuildings are well worth exploring, in particular the Palm House from 1883. If traveling with kids, visit the Children's Museum for a chance to see them dressed up as a prince or princess.
5 The Belvedere Palace
Among Vienna's most popular attractions, Belvedere Palace is really two splendid Baroque buildings: the Lower (Unteres) Belvedere and the Upper (Oberes) Belvedere. Highlights of the Upper Palace include the Ground Floor Hall with its statues and the Ceremonial Staircase with its rich stucco relief and frescoes. Also worth seeing is the Marble Hall, a stunning two-story hall with numerous period sculptures, paintings, and ceiling frescoes. The Lower Palace also boasts a Marble Hall, this one noted for its oval plaster medallions and rich ceiling fresco, as well as a Marble Gallery built to house a collection of historic statues. Other notable buildings include the Winter Palace, a Baroque building that once housed the Court Treasury, the Orangery, the Palace Stables (home to the Medieval Treasury) and the Belvedere Gardens and Fountains linking the two palaces. Also worth seeing are its extensive art collections, including a rich array of sculptures and panel paintings from the 12th to the 16th centuries.
Address: Prinz Eugenstrasse 27, A-1037 Vienna
6 The Vienna State Opera House
One of the world's largest and most splendid theaters, the Vienna State Opera House (Wiener Staatsoper) has hosted many of the world's most prominent composers, conductors, soloists, and dancers. Operatic and ballet performances are staged at least 300 times a year, fuelled by an obsession with music that goes as far back as 1625 when the first Viennese Court Opera was performed. The current massive Opera House was built in 1869 and is notable for its French Early Renaissance style, while interior highlights include a grand staircase leading to the first floor, the Schwind Foyer (named after its paintings of famous opera scenes), and the exquisite Tea Room with its valuable tapestries. Capable of accommodating an audience of 2,211 along with 110 musicians, the Opera House is also home to the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. (English language guided tours are available.)
Address: Opernring 2, 1010 Vienna