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Most people visit Vienna with a vivid image of the city in their minds: a monumental vision of Habsburg palaces, trotting white horses, old ladies in fur coats and mountains of fat cream cakes. And they're unlikely to be disappointed, for the city positively feeds off imperial nostalgia - High Baroque churches and aristocratic mansions pepper the Innere Stadt, monumental projects from the late nineteenth century line the Ringstrasse, and postcards of the Emperor Franz-Josef and his beautiful wife Elisabeth still sell by the sackful. Just as compelling as the old Habsburg stand-bys are the wonderful Jugendstil and early Modernist buildings, products of the era of Freud, Klimt, Schiele, Mahler and Schönberg, when the city's famous coffeehouses were filled with intellectuals from every corner of the empire. Without doubt, this was Vienna's golden age, after which all has been decline: with the end of the empire in 1918, the city was reduced from a metropolis of over two million, capital of a vast empire of fifty million, to one of barely more than 1.5 million and federal capital of a small country of just eight million souls.

Given the city's twentieth-century history, it's hardly surprising that the Viennese are as keen as anyone to continue plugging the good old days. The visual scars from this turbulent history are comparatively light - even Hitler's sinister wartime Flacktürme (anti-aircraft towers) are confined to the suburbs - though the destruction of the city's enormous Jewish community, the driving force behind the city's fin-de-siècle culture, is a wound that has proved harder to heal. The city has struggled since to live up to the glorious achievements of its past, and has failed to shake off a reputation for xenophobia. Yet for all its problems, Vienna is still an inspiring city to visit, with one of the world's greatest art collections in the Kunsthistorisches Museum , world-class orchestras and a superb architectural heritage. It's also an eminently civilized place, clean, safe (for the most part) and peopled by citizens who do their best to live up to their reputation for Gemütlichkeit , or "cosiness". And despite its ageing population, it's also a city with a lively nightlife, with plenty of late-opening Musikcafés and drinking holes. Even Vienna's restaurants, long famous for quantity over quality, have discovered more innovative ways of cooking and are now supplemented by a wide range of ethnic restaurants.

Most first-time visitors spend the majority of their time in Vienna's central district, the Innere Stadt . Retaining much of its labyrinthine street layout, it's the city's main commercial district, packed with shops, cafés and restaurants. The chief sight here is the Stephansdom , Vienna's finest Gothic edifice, standing at the district's pedestrianized centre. Tucked into the southwest corner of the Innere Stadt is the Hofburg , the former imperial palace and seat of the Habsburgs, now housing a whole host of museums, the best of which is the Schatzkammer, home to the crown jewels.

The old fortifications enclosing the Innere Stadt were torn down in 1857, and over the next three decades gradually replaced by a showpiece boulevard called the Ringstrasse . Nowadays, the Ringstrasse is used and abused by cars and buses as a ring road, though it's still punctuated with the most grandiose public buildings of late-imperial Vienna, one of which is home to the city's new cultural centre, the Museumsquartier , and another of which houses the famous Kunsthistorisches Museum . Beyond the Ringstrasse lie Vienna's seven Vorstädte , or inner suburbs, whose outer boundary is marked by the traffic-clogged Gürtel (literally "belt"), or ring road. The highlight out here is the Belvedere , where you can see a wealth of paintings by Austria's pre-eminent trio of modern artists - Egon Schiele, Gustav Klimt and Oskar Kokoschka - followed by the Prater , east of the Danube Canal, with its famous Ferris wheel and funfair. On the whole, there's little reason to venture beyond the Gürtel into the Vororte , or outer suburbs, except to visit Schönbrunn , the Habsburgs' former summer residence, a masterpiece of Rococo excess and an absolute must if only for the wonderful gardens.

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