Vienna had long been one of the destinations that I most wanted to visit in Europe. Revered as one of the cultural meccas of the continent, the city can boast of a staggering array of famous artists, musicians, scientists, and writers that made Vienna their home over the years. When I think of the Austrian capital, however, I inevitably turn to its role as the the center of power for the Habsburg family, one of the greatest dynastic ruling families in European history. For long centuries on end, the scions of the Habsburg clan exerted power across a staggering collection of domains, running from Austria to Spain to Belgium to Hungary to Sicily to Bohemia, and that's not even counting their overseas colonies that stretched from Mexico to Argentina to the Philippines. Vienna was the nexus of this imperial domain, and although Austria may be a small alpine nation today, the remnants of those past glories can still be found in the capital. I had allotted two days to see the sights in Vienna, which would still be insufficient by far. This would be one of the highlights of my grand tour.
I had another lengthy train ride this morning, with the route helpfully laid out in the picture above. One of the reasons why I had stayed in Munich was to bridge the gap between my previous stops in Switzerland and this visit to Vienna, even if it meant that I was shortchanged on time in Munich itself. The weather this morning remained overcast and cloudy, although fortunately the rain from the previous day had come to a close. The ride eastward passed through somewhat rugged terrain, the foothills of the Alps located further to the south. We were skirting the edges of them while passing one picturesque small village after another. This was a very pretty ride, one of the nicest I'd seen thus far. The train stopped in Salzburg along the way, and I wish that I'd been able to spare a day to see the city. It was also on my list of places to see and was narrowly cut in favor of stopping in Bratislava. Perhaps another time.
Eventually the train arrived at the Vienna main station (Wien Hauptbahnhof) right on schedule at 10:30 in the morning. The station is located at the southern edge of the city, and I planned to walk inwards while stopping to see anything of interest that popped up along the way. Even better, the overcast sky from earlier in the morning had cleared up and it looked like I might have nice weather for another day. The first thing that I saw after leaving the station was this building, the Museum of Military History (Heeresgeschichtliches Museum). This is supposed to be the world's oldest museum dedicated specifically to military history, and it had an imposing front entrance designed to look like a castle. Since I had already visited a military history museum in Belgium earlier, I decided to pass on entering this building in favor of touring other sites. With only two days to spend in Vienna, I had to make some tough choices about what I did and didn't have time to see. Sorry Heeresgeschichtliches Museum!
A little bit to the north, I came across this park holding the Belvedere Palace (Schloss Belvedere). This palace was constructed during the 18th century by Prince Eugene of Savoy, one of the preeminent military minds of the early 1700s. I knew him fairly well for his role commanding the Habsburg forces during the War of Spanish Succession, where he scored numerous victories over the France of Louis XIV. The Belvedere was constructed to be a summer palace and home to extensive gardens. It uses Baroque as its architectural style, the most popular form of design from the late 17th and early 18th centuries. Since that was a period when a lot of the famous buildings in Vienna were constructed, I would be seeing it repeatedly over the next few days. Today the building is used as an art museum, and the grounds surrounding it are a public park that anyone can visit. I did not enter the palace, instead continuing to walk to the north so that I could explore more of the grounds.
The initial set of pictures were taken from the south side of the Belvedere, while these were taken from the north side. In addition to the main upper building that houses the art museum, the Belvedere also has a lower building that contains administrative offices and a gift shop. It's the building with the orange roof in these pictures, as opposed to the main building with the green exterior. The gardens surrounding the Belvedere are also extensive, with multiple fountains and statues lining each path. There must be a full staff of gardeners to keep everything in such pristine condition. Oh, and there was a little art installment of a snowman that someone had set up right in the middle of the path. I have no idea what it was doing there, and a lot of tourists were having their picture taken next to it. While I wouldn't say that it particularly fit the surroundings, it looked to be in good fun.
Incongruously placed next to the Belvedere palace is a monument from a completely different era of history. Pictured above is Vienna's Red Army memorial (officially the Heroes' Monument of the Red Army or "Heldendenkmal der Roten Armee" in German), a commemoration of the victory of the Soviet Union over Nazi Germany in World War II. Some readers may recall that Austria was joined together with Germany in a 1938 plebiscite shortly before the war began, and ultimately it was the Red Army that invaded Vienna at the end of the war. Fortunately for the city of Vienna, Austria was put under joint occupation by the Allies and the Soviets, much like Berlin but without the intense rivalry or the famous wall that sprang up in that city. Vienna was lucky to avoid full fledged occupation and installation of local communist rule that took place everywhere to the east. The memorial itself honors the memory of the 17,000 Soviet soldiers who died as part of the Vienna offensive in 1945. The presence of this monument in Vienna at all is a bit of a rude gesture, the Soviet authorities rubbing it in the noses of the Austrian people that they had defeated. It is not particularly popular in Vienna and has been repeatedly vandalized in recent years. This is historical territory fraught with meaning, and recent enough at time of writing that some of the actors involved are still living. I would see a number of other Soviet memorials over the next few days as I continued passing through territory that had once been part of the Eastern bloc.
As I continued walking inward towards the center of the city, the next site of interest that I came across was this church. Known as St. Charles Church (Karlskirche), this was another Baroque structure built during the early 18th century, at roughly the same time that the Belvedere palace was under construction. The specific impetus for the creation of this church was an outbreak of plague in 1713; after it had run its course, Emperor Charles VI decided to build a grand church in commemoration of his namesake saint, Charles Borromeo, who was revered as a healer for sufferers of plague. Karlskirche is known for its great central dome and two flanking columns of bas-relief. This is considered to be one of the most outstanding examples of Baroque archicture in Vienna in a city full to the brim with buildings constructed in that style. From my perspective this was a very large church, especially that central dome that rose to a height of 70 meters (230 feet). It was surprisingly uncrowded with only a handful of tourists on hand to visit, and I was able to enjoy the structure without having to deal with large crowds.
The interior was... lavish. I think that's the best word that I can find. The building was organized around the main dome in the center, with the altar lying at the northern end. The walls looked to be made of marble with gold trim for highlights, and there was a huge decorative piece above the altar emphasizing more marble and gold. According to the informational materials, that sculpture was supposed to be depicting the ascension of St. Charles Borromeo into heaven, but it looked like more of a weird Illuminati-esque triangle thing. Small separate chapels ringed the central area on each side, with huge paintings depicing further biblical scenes. Everything looked expensive and luxurious, the work of a powerful ruler who had no problem with spending vast sums of money to adorn his personal church.
The one thing that detracted from the view was the construction taking place on the dome. There was obvious scaffolding right in the middle of the church, which ran all the way up to the underside of the great dome. There was one perk, however, which was the ability to ride an elevator up to the top of the dome for more spectacular views:
The elevator that went up the scaffolding had glass sides and made for a somewhat uncomfortable ride. The platform at the top had further stairs leading all the way up to the top of the dome. It didn't seem particularly safe, and the whole thing felt shaky to me, like it might shift around if too much weight was placed in one corner. The tradeoff was the views of the dome's underside, which was painted with scenes of angels frolicking in heaven, or at least I think that's what was going on. At the very center of the dome was an image of a dove, the traditional symbol of peace. Looking down from the top was a vertigo-inducing sight, and I noticed that a lot of the tourists weren't willing to take the elevator to avoid that dizzying image. As awesome as it was to have this oppurtunity to view the inside of Karlskirche from 200 feet in the air, I was a bit relieved to get back down to the ground floor again.
I had a bit of a walk to get from Karlskirche to the center of Vienna, where my next destination was located. This route eventually took me to Kärntner Strasse, a bustling pedestrian route that seemed to be the main walking path towards the historic city center. The stores here were a mixture of high-end boutiques and touristy souvenir shops; one of the latter was amusingly selling T-shirts that proclaimed "no kangaroos in Austria" with a picture of the marsupial. This was a good place to stop for lunch, and I saw many of the other pedestrians stopping to eat at one of the cafes or restaurants. I grabbed a quick bite from one of the food vendors in a little stand. Right at the entrance to this thoroughfare was the Vienna State Opera (Wiener Staatsoper), one of the world's most famous opera houses. While I would have enjoyed taking a tour of the building, this was another place where I only had time to snap a few pictures of the exterior before hurrying onwards.
My target had been this church, the Cathedral of St. Stephen (Domkirche St. Stephan). Known popularly as the Stephansdom, this church is the seat of the archbishop of Vienna and generally holds the title of most important religious building in the city. From the exterior it was clear that this was yet another Gothic design, and indeed the core of the structure was built during the medieval period in the 14th and 15th centuries. Like many other grand cathedrals, the Stephansdom was built atop several earlier churches that stood on the same spot, and incorporates some of those structures into its design. The building stands out from other Gothic cathedrals due to its colorfully tiled roof, with its zigzagging pattern of diagonal lines. I would later climb that tower on the eastern side of the building to get a better chance to view the roof from above.
The inside of the Stephansdom wasn't quite what I had expected. Oh, there was the classic Gothic framework of the building sure enough, with the vaulted ceiling, the double row of stone pillars holding up the weight of the ceiling, and the stained glass windows on either side. However, while the architectural design of the building was classic Gothic style, the interior was mostly decorated in Baroque fashion. This could be seen in the many colorful paintings scattered throughout the cathedral, and the fanciful sculptures adorning seemingly every surface. Furthermore, the stained glass windows were muted in tone and seemed to have had most of the color drained out of them. Normally I appreciate the mixing together of different styles, but for whatever reason the setup here in the Stephansdom didn't work for me. Everything felt a little bit overdone, like someone who was trying a bit too hard. I don't want to be too critical here, as the cathedral was an impressive structure with immense historical value. Quite aside from all the Habsburg rulers who were married here, this was also the place where Mozart and Haydn held their respective weddings, and where Vivaldi's funeral took place. For the purposes of being honest though, this wasn't my favorite cathedral - and by this point I had seen an awful lot of them.
After exiting the main part of the cathedral, I proceeded over to the south tower for another climb to the viewing platform. This particular tower climb went up 343 stairs to a height of 67 meters (about 220 feet). As usual, the staircase winding upwards was cramped and offered little room to maneuver. It was more congested on the stairs up than most of the other tower climbs I had done, if not as bad as the one in Cologne. There was a small enclosed room at the top with windows on all sides, allowing sight out over the city in all directions. The square below was easily visible as well as some of the pedestrian streets that fed into it. This was the best vantage point to see the roof of the Stephansdom, with its colorful diamonds and diagonal lines made out of painted tiles. I was able to get a very good view of the Habsburg double headed eagle, the symbol of the ruling family at the time that the roof was constructed. The coat of arms of the city of Vienna is supposedly displayed on the other side of the building, but I wasn't able to see it from where I was located. The year in the above picture is 1831, and I'm not sure why that date was chosen since it's not an especially famous year in Austrian history. This roof makes the cathedral stand out, and it's a nice way of distinguishing this structure from the many other Gothic cathedrals across Europe.
Unlike Westminster Abbey in London, where most of the past members of the British ruling family are buried, the Habsburg monarchs are not interred in the crypt under Stephansdom. They are instead buried in the nearby Kaisergruft, the location that I visited next. The Kaisergruft is itself a historic church that dates from the 17th century, much smaller of course than the nearby Stephansdom. It was under heavy construction at the time of my visit, with the church completely closed to the public. (I peeked through the doors and the entire chapel was in the process of being rebuilt, with the floor torn up and scaffolding everywhere.) The main reason to visit here isn't the church itself though, but rather the crypt undernearth the Kaisergruft. Almost all of the Habsburg rulers from the 17th century up to the present are buried here in an elaborate series of sarcophagi. A place like this hold special meaning for a historian; I was familiar with many of the individuals entoumbed here, their personalities and what had taken place during their reigns. Empress Maria Theresa gets the place of honor down here, as she specifically built a separate addition to the crypt to house her sarcophagus. It's the largest tomb and sits under its own dome, with windows to let in natural light from the outside. Most of the other Habsburgs here have more sedate coffins than her grand final monument. Special attention is also paid to Maximilian, the failed emperor of Mexico from the 1860s, and the long ruling Kaiser Franz Joseph along with his wife Elisabeth of Bavaria. I would be hearing a lot about both of them in the next few days, especially Elisabeth (known popularly as "Sisi"), as the two of them remain very popular in Austria and Hungary, a century after their deaths. These sarcophagi also featured an uncomfortable number of skulls, especially on the older ones. While that was certainly appropriate given the subject matter, I'm never comfortable around these macabre symbols of the end of life. The last person to be interred here was Otto von Habsburg, son of the last ruling Austrian monarch, who passed away as recently as 2011. For anyone who has an interest in Austrian history, the Kaisergruft is a worthwhile place to stop and see.
Near the Kaisergruft stands the historic palace of the Habsburg family in downtown Vienna, the Hofburg. I think of this building as being akin to the Louvre in Paris, a sprawling collection of buildings that grew up over the centuries to serve as a palace for the reigning family. Unlike the Louvre, the Hofburg isn't one large art museum but rather a dozen smaller museums devoted to a number of different subjects. The pictures above are from one of the many squares surrounding the Hofburg, this one being Joseph's Square (Josefsplatz), named after one of the many Habsburg monarchs to have the name "Joseph" in some form. I planned to visit a number of these museums over the next two days, and was forced to pick and choose which ones sounded the most interesting due to their sheer number. It would take many days to see everything here, much more time than I had available.
My first destination was the State Hall (Prunksaal), the beautiful hallway pictured above. Part of the Austrian National Library, the State Hall was built in the 18th century to serve as the Hofburg palace's imperial library. This was one of the most amazing libraries that I've ever seen, a long expanse of marble columns and statues flanking tall wooden bookshelves on each side. The big Roman numberals used to identify each of the shelving units only added to the Old World charm of this room. In the center of the hall was a tall dome painted with all sorts of religious figures on it, a colorful collection that made the State Hall that much more distinctive. The windows in the dome let in sunlight from the outside, illuminating the room in brightness. There was an exhibition taking place about the life of Emperor Franz Joseph, as 2016 was the one hundred year anniversary of his death. The materials on display were very well researched, and I learned a bit more about this figure and his long reign as the ruler of Austria-Hungary. The one overriding impression I had from this place was that it would be an amazing place for a wedding. You'd need to have some pretty good connections to pull that off though.
A short distance up the street was Michael's Square (Michaelerplatz), the historic city center of Vienna and the formal entry for the Hofburg palace. There's been a settlement of some kind in this spot dating back to Roman days, and it's possible to go underground nearby and see some of the ruins of the Roman settlement (known as Vindobona) that dates from 15 BC. Instead, I passed through this imposing gateway into another section of the Hofburg complex. The immediate attraction here was the Spanish Riding School (Spanische Hofreitschule), a popular tourist show that demonstrates the riding of Lipizzan horses. The performances traditionally take place indoors, in a special room constructed for the purpose of horse dressage in the Hofburg palace. I would have loved to see one of these performances, but tickets are strictly limited and not cheap. I should have ordered some ahead of time, as I found that I was unable to purchase them for a same day or next day performance at the ticket window. This was one attraction that I wasn't going to be able to catch.
The same building held the tour of the Imperial Apartments in the Hofburg, which was much easier to see. Unfortunately, I found to my great disappointment that this tour did not allow photography and due to the fact that it was crowded with other tourists, I was only able to sneak one or two images with my camera. As I've written before, I don't feel guilty about taking non-flash digital images, which do not harm historic buildings. The imperial apartments looked similar to the elaborately decorated rooms that I seen in Munich's Residenz the day before. Only a small subset of the Hofburg's rooms were on display for the public, and the apartments that the palace chose to display were mostly from the 19th century, with the furnishings replicating how the rooms would have looked at the time. To their credit, the Habsburgs generally seemed to have better taste than Bavaria's Wittelsbachs and mostly kept themselves from overdoing things with excessive ornamentation. This particular tour also focused heavily on Elisabeth of Bavaria, the Empress of Austria from about 1850 to 1900. "Sisi" is still a very popular figure, sort of like an Austrian version of Princess Diana from a century earlier, and this exhibit showcased some of her chambers in the palace. I really would have liked to photograph some of them, along with some of her formal gowns, but it just wasn't possible.
On the west side of the Hofburg sits a public park known as the People's Garden (Volksgarten). This large expanse of green connects the eastern wing of the Hofburg, where the imperial family had its apartments, to the southern wing known as the Neue Berg. The Neue Berg contins almost half a dozen museums now, and I would be returning the following day to explore it in more detail. For the moment, I was content to take a few pictures of the building's impressive facade. There are two equestrian statues that sit in the middle of the park, one of them to the Archduke Charles of Teschen and the other to Prince Eugene of Savoy. Both of them were military commanders, from the early 18th and early 19th centuries respectively. It was beginning to rain at this point, and with the afternoon light beginning to wane away, I took this as a sign that it was time to get some dinner and finish up with touring for the day. There would be more time to return to the Hofburg tomorrow.
When I was walking to my hostel, I came across this statue of Mozart in a small park. Most of the Mozart historical stuff is located in Salzburg, but he did spend a significant amount of his life living and composing in Vienna. I particularly liked the treble clef created out of flowers, that was a nice touch. Mozart's statue has a place of honor located near the enormous Hofburg complex.
The next morning, I was up early and took the local subway out to one of the southwest suburbs of Vienna. This was the location of the Schönbrunn Palace (Schloß Schönbrunn), another enormous residence built by the Habsburg family. The best way that I can describe this palace is via a comparison: just as the Hofburg complex in downtown Vienna is this city's version of the Lourve, the Schönbrunn located a few miles outside the city center is the local equivalent of Versailles. The structure even looks similar by design, as the Habsburgs deliberately decided to create their own countryside palace in the 1750s under Empress Maria Theresa out of jealousy of the French court at Versailles. This is a truly immense example of Baroque architecture, with the palace having an astonishing 1441 (!) rooms in total. The Schönbrunn is a protected world heritage site and, naturally, a major tourist attraction. I was arriving before the palace opened so that I could be part of the first group inside and avoid the huge lines that form during the course of the day. (Tip: this is a good idea for any major tourist attraction, and I've done the same thing to good effect at places like Versailles and St. Peter's Basilica in Rome.) Here on this sunny morning, I was among the first groups to enter without any need to wait in line.
Unfortunately, like the Hofburg tour of the imperial apartments, the Schönbrunn also did not allow photography of the interior. I was only able to take a handful of photographs of a few of the smaller rooms when there were no other tourists or security personnel nearby. The tour of the Schönbrunn ran through a small portion of the hundreds and hundreds of rooms contained in the palace, once again choosing to focus on the late 19th century and the apartments occupied by Franz Jospeph and Elisabeth of Bavaria. Most of the furnishings therefore had a Victorian feel to them, although this palace was in use for almost two centuries before it was turned over to the Austrian government. I've also gone ahead and pulled an image from the Internet to show what the Grand Gallery looks like, since there were staff everywhere that stopped anyone from taking pictures of it. (How dare someone take a digital photograph of a palace that they paid to see - the horror! ) This was the most impressive room on the Schönbrunn tour, a long hallway with mirrors on the walls, a painted ceiling, and gold everywhere. It was obviously inspired by the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles and played host to the same kind of state functions. It was easy for me to imagine the imperial court hosting giant state dinners here with everyone wearing elaborate costumes.
A vast park extends far out from the southern side of the Schönbrunn, which again was totally not inspired at all by Versailles, and the Habsburgs were definitely not copying what the Bourbon kings had done in France. This side of the main palace looked similar to the north face of the building, with the gardens on this side being a more pleasant view than the courtyard on the other end. The formal gardens extended in a straight line ahead, with a line of statues to either end, capped off by a large fountain in the distance. This was only about 15% of the whole gardens though, which stretched half a mile in either direction to the east and west, as well as continuing beyond the triumphal arch on top of that hill. Today, parts of the Schönbrunn gardens play host to a zoo, an aquarium, and even a set of Roman ruins left over from antiquity. I could have wandered here for hours, but instead limited myself to walking up to the arch on the hill and back again. The archway (officially known as Schloss Schönbrunn Gloriette) was built to commemorate Austrian military glory; today it plays host to an elegant cafe inside the structure. The view from the top of the hill was worth the effort to walk up from the palace, giving a commanding view of the Schönbrunn and the city of Vienna in the distance. Fortunately, no one prevented visitors from taking pictures here in the palace gardens.
After riding the subway back into the city, I hopped off at a stop slightly to the northwest of the Hofburg in an area that I hadn't visited the previous day. This building, known as the Votive Church (Votivkirche) immediately drew my attention from the moment I emerged from the subway stop. The Votive Church looks like a medieval cathedral but isn't nearly so old; it was built in the 1860s and 1870s as a means of giving thanks for the survival of Emperor Franz Joseph from an assassination attempt. (His wife Elisabeth and his nephew Franz Ferdinand would not be so lucky when confronted with assassins.) The structure was built in Neogothic style, which was a popular aesthetic at the time; the British Parliament building in Westminster dates from the same era and uses a similar style. This wasn't a place that I was planning to see, but it was nearby and looked interesting enough that I headed over to take a look.
The interior of the Votive Church was a combination of classic Gothic cathedral design mixed with the sensibilities of the Victorian age. The familiar vaulted ceiling, two rows of pillars, and stained glass windows were all still present, but the interior felt much brighter than many similar cathedrals. Perhaps the use of stronger modern building materials allowed for the use of more windows to let in light, or maybe it just happened to be a sunny day outside. In either case, the Votive Church had a much different feel than the generally dark interior of the Stephansdom. The best feature of the church was its stained glass windows, which were both enormous and brilliantly colored. The window pictured above is one of my favorite stained glass images from any of the innumerable churches that I visited on this trip. The dull gray stone surrounding that window makes the glass panes that much more vibrant. Like every other church in Vienna, this was a Catholic building and that meant a lot of depictions of saints and other religious icons. The church was mostly deserted when I visited, and I enjoyed getting this chance to see something that was slightly off the beaten path. The more famous churches in Vienna tended to be pretty packed with other tourists.
Almost immediately after leaving the Votive Church, I passed by a small part of the famous University of Vienna, past home to Sigmund Freud and many other intellectuals. I only saw a handful of buildings, however, and this appeared to be the historic founding site of the university, not its modern campus. It was situated right next to the historic city hall (Rathaus), another large Neogothic building where the administration of the city is housed. This particular building dates to the 1870s and was built atop earlier city halls from much earlier periods. The original city hall dated back to 1316, but was unfortunately replaced by the current structure because it had become too small. There is normally an open square in front of the city hall building, but today it was occupied by a film festival with a huge screen and temporary stadium seating constructed for viewing purposes. The walkway leading up to the square had also been converted into an outdoor food court with all kinds of different cuisines to sample. This was the kind of festival I could get behind. Across the street was the city's formal theatre hall, known as the Burgtheatre. This building is somewhat surprisingly much older than the current city hall, opening back in 1741 and playing host to theatre performances ever since. I took a quick glance at the outside before continuing onwards.
Just down the street from Vienna's city hall was the location of the Austrian Parliament (Parlament) building. Vienna is both Austria's capital as well as its largest city, and it holds the legislative body that governs the rest of the country. Unlike so much of the rest of the architecture in Vienna, the Parliament building was constructed in Neoclassical style, and perhaps took some inspiration from the government buildings in Washington DC. Greek columns were the dominant feature of this building's exterior, along with a statue of Athena immediately outside the main entrance in a nod to classical Athenian democracy. The Parliament building was constructed in the 1880s, and the bicameral Austrian legislature still meets inside to this day. When I went inside to the visitor's desk, I found out that there were no tours of the building taking place this day, and therefore I would have to be content with a view of the building's exterior. I did appreciate the multitude of Austrian flags adorning the outside of Parliament; if I had ever been ignorant of what the Austrian flag looked like, I certainly knew now.
The park next to the Parliament building is appropriate called the People's Park (Volksgarten) and this was the other end of the same park I had encountered next to the Hofburg palace the day before. The weather on this day was much better though, and I was able to appreciate the flowered plants and manicured lawns much better when I wasn't being rained on. This was a quiet, relaxing green space with plenty of fountains and statues for decoration. There was one art installation in a small building, which featured a bizarre sculpture of a naked man inside a boat that you're better off not seeing. The beds of flowers and the flowing water of the fountains were much more soothing.
Now I was back at the Hofburg complex again, right where I had left off on the previous day, with the intention of exploring some of the additional museums that I had been unable to visit the day before. These were grouped together under the name of the Museum of Fine Arts (Kunst Historiches Museum), and one ticket granted access into the group. The first of these was the Ephesos Museum, a collection of classical artifacts brought back from archaeological excavations done at the site of the ancient Greek city of Ephesus (near modern Izmir in Turkey). This museum was relatively small and contained exactly what one would expect: the unearthed statues, bits of pottery, and portions of temple decorations that had been brought back from the field. Although this is not an area of history that the Hofburg specializes in, the collection was informational and well presented. Worth seeing for those with an interest in ancient history.
The Ephesos Museum shared the same building with the Collection of Arms and Armor Museum, which occupied significantly more space. This was more of what I expected to see in Vienna, and the museum housed literally hundreds of suits of armor from the medieval and early Renaissance periods. The heavy armor worn by knights was typically crafted for a specific individual, and the items in the collection were all careful labeled to detail which lord had owned which set. I think my favorite one was the miniature suit of armor that I spied in one room, crafted for a child in what has to have been one of the worst parenting decisions ever. There were also lots of weapons on display, ranging from swords to polearms to rifles, all of them the exclusive domain of the nobility. This wasn't really the arms and armor museum so much as "here's a whole bunch of expensive things related to warfare that used to be owned by the Austrian aristocracy." As such this wasn't quite a military history museum per se, more of a collection instead, as the formal name of the museum indicated. I enjoyed seeing these items nonetheless, even if a lot of them came across more as vanity projects of past nobles rather than genuine articles of military history.
The last museum in this same building was the Collection of Historic Musical Instruments (Sammlung Alter Musikinstrumente). I had seen something similar at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, but this collection was notably larger and more diverse. There were all sorts of musical instruments present, ranging from pianos and violins to clarinets and trumpets. The oldest instruments dated from before standardization had taken place, and therefore appeared in a bewildering array of sizes and shapes. In one of the pictures above the horns were bizarrely twisted and curved in ways that don't appear to make any logical sense. Why would someone want to make a horn shaped like a snake? Anyway, as someone who spent many years playing different musical instruments, this area was a lot of fun for me to explore. As I've tried to indicate in these pictures, the rooms that were housing the collection were themselves an elaborate work of art.
These last few museums had been located in the southern wing of the Hofburg palace, but they had been grouped together as part of the Kunst Historiches Museum, the official Museum of Fine Arts housed in Vienna. Now I was leaving the Hofburg behind and crossing the Volksgarten to its western edge, where the formal buildings of the Kunst Historiches Museum stand. There are a pair of these buildings that look nearly identical, facing one another across a central square. The statue in the center of the square depicts Empress Maria Theresa, and sure enough the square is named after her (Maria-Theresien-Platz). The northern building houses the Museum of Natural History, while the southern building holds the Museum of Fine Arts. Both buildings were constructed at the same time in the 1870s and 1880s to house the enormous collection of art and artifacts that the Habsburgs had amassed over the preceeding centuries. These are the largest museums in Vienna, and the art collection in the Kunst Historiches Museum is among the finest in the world. I only had enough time to see one of these buildings, and much as I love natural history, I opted for the art collections in the southern building due to their unique nature. The last picture above depicts the main entrance to that building, with its octagonal dome rising up above the approaching visitors.
The interior of the Kunst Historiches Museum was much more extravagent than I had been expecting. Most museums tend to be attractive public spaces, well constructed and well maintained but essentially open areas where artwork and artifacts can be enjoyed by visitors. The central entry point for the Kunst Historiches Museum was instead a luxurious entity in its own right, decorated in marble and gold, with paintings and frescos adorning the ceilings. The initial entrance was located on the ground floor, with a central dome rising up above and staircases running off in every direction to the sides. This could have been the entrance to some kind of revered temple based on its appearance. After climbing the central staircase, the next floor opened up into a much larger second floor, with very high ceilings that stretched 50 feet into the air. From up here, sumptuously carved arches led into hallways where the exhibition halls were located. Everything seemed designed to convey the impression of Victorian era wealth and ornamentation; this was an opportunity for the Habsburg emperor to show off to the rest of the world and boast about his greatness. It looked absolutely nothing like the art museums of the Smithsonian in Washington DC that I'm more familiar with, and the obvious contrast in style hinted at the very different values of the ruling class in the Austro-Hungarian Empire at the close of the 19th century.
As for the collections themselves, the Kunst Historiches Museum can rightly lay claim to an enormous number of historic materials. The museum was organized in broadly chronological order, with the oldest materials on the ground floor and more recent eras located higher up. I started with the Egyptian and Near Eastern collection, fully of mummies and hieroglyphics that had been carted back from archaeological expeditions. Outside of the world famous collection in the British Museum, this was the best exhibit on ancient Egypt that I had ever seen. This part of the museum then led into its classical materials from ancient Greece and Rome, which were much more extensive than what I had just visited in the Ephesos Museum. The strangest section was this room full of disembodied heads, the only surviving part of these ancient statues. It's not unusual for the heads to be the only thing that remained after the rest of the statue deteriorated over time. Elsewhere there were plenty of mosaics and pottery fragments and the like that dated from this period. As I continued onwards, the Kunst Historiches Museum began to display more recent artifacts from the medieval and early modern eras. These included music boxes and clocks, salt cellars and elaborate sets of dining ware. I particularly liked the little statue of a bear holding a rifle, which was apparently a whimsical invention of its creator. The golden salt cellar above is one of the most famous pieces in the museum's collection, built in 1543 for Francis I of France and later given to the Habsburgs as part of a marriage gift. Amazingly, it was stolen from the museum in 2003 and recovered three years later in 2006, buried in a lead box in a small town an hour north of Vienna. That object has traveled a strange path to wind up in the museum.
The upper floor houses the museum's extensive collection of paintings. While these span a wide range of time, the Kunst Historiches Museum's most famous paintings date from the Renaissance and early modern period of the 16th and 17th centuries. There were about two dozen of these huge rooms, and it would require an art historian to do justice to all of the paintings in this collection. The most famous painting is likely the Tower of Babel by Pieter Brueghel the Elder, one of the images that I did recognize by sight. This painting was the inspiration for the introductory video in Civilization 3, the one where successive generations of technology keep adding one layer of a tower on top of another, from the ancient era to the modern one, as it stretches up into the sky. I noticed that there was a woman who was painting a reproduction of this famous work while using it as a reference. A photograph of a painting of a painting? This was getting pretty meta. Elsewhere, I also enjoyed an 18th century depiction of the courtyard outside the Schönbrunn palace, which was especially appropriate since I had just been there that morning. The building looked remarkably similar to its current appearance, only with rolling fields of green surrounding it rather than the suburbs of Vienna. Like most art museums, this is a place where visitors could easily spend hours wandering about.
Finally, on the uppermost levels of the Kunst Historiches Museum were the special collections. From up here, it was possible to look down at the small restaurant on the floor below, and through the hole in the floor down to the ground floor entry level. There were two exhibits taking place at the time of my visit; one of them dealt with Habsburg rule in northern Africa, something that I had never heard about before. During their struggle against the Ottoman Turks, the Habsburgs had briefly taken over parts of the north African coastline, and this exhibit was designed to shed some light on these efforts. To make a long story short, the whole project was a disaster and these efforts were soon abandoned. The other exhibit was called "Das Gold des Kaisers" and was made up of a Habsburg collection of rare and valuable coins. This was the largest collection of antique coins that I'd ever seen before, and when I say "antique" I'm not talking about quarters from the 1920s or something like that. I mean real antique coins, like ones minted by Charlemagne or Frederick Barbarossa or William the Conqueror. There were all sorts of truly obscure historical figures represented here, and the collection stretched back into the classical period. I zoomed in to get this picture of a coin issued during the reign of Augustus, in part because it was in better condition than a lot of the other coins. Many of the early medieval coins were created using very crude minting equipment and were virtually illegible. This was a surprisingly interesting exhibit and I ended up spending more time than I expected here before departing.
On the walk back from the museums, I passed through the center of Vienna once again and found myself outside a couple of additional churches. Since it didn't involve going out of my way, I decided that it would be worth taking a quick look at them. This first building was called the Minoritenkirche, a church that was formerly owned by the Franciscan order of monks. It was constructed between 1270 and 1350 in the Gothic style that predominated at the time. The interior was heavily influenced by Italian design, and the official name today is the Italian National Church of Mary of the Snow. I didn't find the outside of this building to be particularly interesting, and most of the inside was fairly standard stuff as well. However, I did like the beautiful stained glass window pictured above, which was located directly above the main entrance to the church. For me, this was the highlight of the building's design.
The Minoritenkirche had been virtually deserted of visitors, as it lies a bit outside of the tourist area in downtown Vienna. That was not the case at the second church that I came across, as the Peterskirche (St. Peter's Church) was packed full of onlookers. This was a much more recent church, built at about the same time as the Karlskirche in the early 18th century. Peterskirche was also designed in full Baroque style, with a large central dome overtopping a heavily decorated interior. It felt as though the whole interior of the church was gilded or painted in some fashion, with artwork or sculptures covering every wall and the underside of the domed ceiling above. I did not find this to be an attractive look; out of the dozens of churches I visited across Europe on this trip, I think the Peterskirche was the gaudiest. This felt like a place of worship for the odious "Gospel of Wealth" doctrine, not a home for the humility and compassion that Christianity is supposed to represent. It's one thing to have an attractive place for worshippers to call home, but this place took things way, way too far.
The last place that I wanted to see in Vienna was the Danube, the river that runs through so many of the great cities of Europe. Vienna's city center is somewhat surprisingly located a mile or two south of the river; my understanding is that the Danube used to flood in the spring and overflow its banks, which caused the city to be located a little bit away from the water's edge. This was the great watery highway that had linked the core Habsburg dominions together, and I would be following its course for the next few days of travel. I took the subway to the Vorgartenstraße station and walked the short remaining distance to the river. The water level was running high thanks to the rain the day before, and the famous Danube looked like a muddy brown torrent rather than the "beautiful and blue" river that Strauss had commemorated in his waltz. I did notice that there were some tourist riverboats in the water, and river cruises are a popular way of seeing some of these cities in central Europe. I generally prefer to pick out my own route when traveling, but who knows, perhaps someday. As for the big castle-like structure at the water's edge, this turned out to be yet another church, this one a basilica called the Jubiläumskirche. It was built to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the reign of Emperor Franz Joseph, and finished construction right around 1900. I did not stop inside to see this city, as I was completely exhausted from almost 12 hours of continuous sightseeing. By my best estimate, I had walked somewhere between 15 and 20 miles this day.
This was where I stayed during my two nights in Vienna. The hostel was in a slightly sketchy area to the south of the main train station, which I had picked largely because it was cheap and close to the railroad. It worked well enough for the two nights, although if I had to do this again I would have picked somewhere a little closer to the center of the city so that I didn't have quite as long of a walk on both days. Next up would be a visit to the other capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire, as I devoted two days to the exploration of Budapest.