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His gaze wandered up high walls and he saw an island - gray, self-contained, and armed - lying there while the city's speed rushed blindly past it.
- Robert Musil, The Man Without Qualities

Enmeshed in the southwest corner of the Innere Stadt, the Hofburg (Court Palace) is a real hotchpotch of a place, with no natural centre, no symmetry and no obvious main entrance. Its name is synonymous with the Habsburgs, the dynasty which, at its zenith, ruled a vast multinational empire, stretching the length and breadth of Europe. Nowadays, apart from the tiny proportion that has been retained as the seat of the Austrian president, the palace has been taken over by various state organizations, museums and, more prosaically, a conference centre.

Two of Vienna's most famous attractions keep the Hofburg at the top of most visitors' agendas: the Wiener Sängerknaben (Vienna Boys' Choir), who perform regularly in the Burgkapelle, and the Spanische Reitschule (Spanish Riding School), who trot their stuff in the Winter Reitschule. Getting to see either of them takes time and money, however, which you might well decide you'd be better off spending elsewhere. The tourist office leaflet, Spanische Reitschule/Wiener Sängerknaben , explains the intricate schedules of both institutions. The other chief sights are the dull Kaiserappartements , where the Emperor Franz-Josef I (1848-1916) and his wife Elisabeth lived and worked, the Schatzkammer , with its superb collection of crown jewels, and the Prunksaal , Fischer von Erlach's richly decorated Baroque library. The palace also boasts several excellent museums and galleries: the Albertina , home to one of the world's great graphics collections; several departments of the Kunsthistorisches Museum - the Hofjagd- und Rüstkammer (Court Hunting and Arms Collection), the Sammlung alte Musikinstrumente (Collection of Early Musical Instruments) and the Ephesos Museum (Ephesus Museum); and the Museum für Völkerkunde (Museum of Ethnology).

Innere Stadt

The Innere Stadt (Inner City), Vienna's first district, has been the very heart of the place since the Romans founded Vindobona here in 15 BC. It was here, too, that the Babenburg dukes built their powerbase in the twelfth century, and from 1533 the Habsburgs established the Hofburg , their imperial residence. In fact, the city occupied pretty much the same space until the zigzag fortifications, which had protected the city on two occasions against the Turks, were finally taken down in the mid-nineteenth century.

The focus of the Innere Stadt is the magnificent cathedral, the Stephansdom , whose spire also acts as a useful landmark. Close by are the chief shopping streets of Kärntnerstrasse , Graben and Kohlmarkt , which get progressively more exclusive the nearer you get to the Hofburg. There's a steady ebb and flow of folk along these streets at most times of the day, but the cathedral and the Kaisergruft , the last resting place of the Habsburgs, just off Kärntnerstrasse, are the only sights that get heavily clogged up with tour groups. Head off into the rest of the Innere Stadt, with its baffling medieval lanes, hidden courtyards and Durchhäuser (literally, "through-houses"), and you'll soon lose the crowds.


On Christmas Eve 1857, the Emperor Franz-Josef I announced the demolition of the zigzag fortifications around the old town and the building of a Ringstrasse , a horseshoe of imperial boulevards to be laid out on the former glacis (the sloping ground between the walls and the suburbs). Twelve major public buildings were set down along its course between 1860 and 1890 - among them the court opera house and theatre, two court museums, the imperial parliament, the city university and town hall - all at no cost to the taxpayer. By the end of World War I, though, the Habsburgs were no more: as Edward Crankshaw wrote, the Ringstrasse "was designed as the crown of the Empire, but it turned out to be a tomb".

Today Vienna's Ringstrasse looks pretty much as it did in last days of the Habsburgs, studded with key landmarks. The monumental public institutions remain the chief sights: heading anticlockwise, they include the Votivkirche , Rathaus , Burgtheater and Parlament buildings, the two monster museums - the Naturhistorisches and Kunsthistorisches - the new cultural centre of the Museumsquartier , and the Staatsoper . Countless other cultural institutions occupy prime positions on the Ring and neighbouring Karlsplatz, most notably, the Musikverein , the city's premier concert venue, the glorious Jugendstil Secession building, and three more excellent museums: the Akademie der bildenden Künste , the Historisches Museum der Stadt Wien , and the MAK (Museum of Applied Art). Last, but not least, Karlsplatz also boasts Vienna's most imposing Baroque church, the Karlskirche .


Vienna's vast outer suburbs, or Vororte , have a scattering of interesting sights, many of them outdoor attractions, that call for a targeted approach, relying on the transport system to get you around. Top of the list, and one of Vienna's most popular tourist attractions, is the Habsburgs' former summer residence, Schönbrunn , to the west of the city centre. The palace boasts some of the best Rococo interiors in central Europe, while the surrounding Schlosspark is home to the Tiergarten , Vienna's zoo. Nearby is the newly revamped Technisches Museum , and further west is the much wilder parkland of the Lainzer Tiergarten , a former royal hunting ground that's now a haven for wildlife.

After Schönbrunn, the most popular attraction in the suburbs is the Prater , the vast city park and funfair on the east bank of the Danube Canal, famous, above all for its giant Ferris wheel, or Riesenrad. Another possible day-trip can be made to the Wienerwald (Vienna Woods), the forested hills that stretch from the alpine foothills to the southwest of Vienna right up to the doorstep of the capital and offer glorious views over the entire city. Finally, there's the Zentralfriedhof , Vienna's awesome Central Cemetery, featuring copious quantities of artistic corpses, including those of Beethoven, Schubert, Brahms, Schönberg and the Strauss family.


A horseshoe of seven districts - the third to the ninth - form the inner suburbs known as the Vorstädte . Neatly confined between the Ringstrasse and the Gürtel, they have remained predominantly residential, though each one is cut through with a busy commercial thoroughfare, the largest of which is the city's main shopping drag, Mariahilferstrasse , which divides the sixth and seventh districts. Sights in the Vorstädte are widely dispersed, so it pays to be selective. The one sight that no visitor should miss is the Belvedere , in the third district, with its formal gardens and twin-set of Baroque palaces, which house some wonderful works of art. Two other sights that positively heave with visitors in summer are the wacky Hundertwasserhaus , also in the third district, and the Freud Museum in the ninth. Even for those not keen on military paraphernalia, the Arsenal is worth visiting for its quasi-Moorish architecture alone.

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