Vienna’s spectacular monuments tell the story of its place at the heart of European history and culture. This is your to-do list of Vienna’s top must-see sights.
St Stephen’s Cathedral
“Little Stephan” is the ironic pet name for this soaring Gothic masterpiece that has come to symbolise Vienna. Dating to the 13th century, this is where Joseph Haydn sung as a choirboy and Mozart was wed in 1782.
Climb the 343 steps of the small spiral staircase in its south tower to the Watchman’s Lookout for what is still the best view over the old town. Descend to the moody catacombs of St. Stephen’s Cathedral and you’ll find the remains of some of the once all-powerful Habsburg dynasty, including 12 emperors and 18 empresses tucked away in the Imperial Burial Vault, in ornate metal sarcophagi and urns preserved since the 17th century.
Highlights at ground level inside St Stephen’s Cathedral include the exquisite Giant Gate and Towers of the Heathens – among the cathedral’s oldest parts – and the gruesome main altar showing the stoning of St Stephen, Christendom’s first martyr.
Enter the gilded world of the Habsburg monarchy: rulers of half of Europe for centuries until the end of the First World War. Now the official seat of the Austrian president, the vast complex of Hofburg Palace is almost a mini-city of its own, with astonishing collections that evoke a rarefied, vanished world.
The Sisi Museum pays homage to the cult of beautiful Empress Elisabeth, whose restless and rebellious life was cut short by her assassination on the cusp of the 20th century. The displays include a summer dress she wore and the feathered black coat that covered her in the minutes after her murder.
Also in the Hofburg Palace is the Spanish Riding School – the only institution in the world where classic, elegant haute école equestrian skills are still practised. Watch horses and their mounts pirouette with exquisite precision in a beautiful palace hall originally used to teach young Austrian aristocrats how to ride.
Another essential stop within the palace is the Imperial Treasury. View a collection of priceless jewel-studded pieces, including the 10th century Emperor’s Crown of the Holy Roman Empire, the House of Habsburg dynasty’s imperial lance and sword, and oddities such as a narwhal’s tusk once thought to have belonged to a unicorn.
The Hofburg Palace may seem hard to beat for jaw-dropping magnificence but Schönbrunn Palace, a world heritage site, offers stiff competition. This summer residence of the Habsburgs (descendants of the family still keep an apartment here) has an astonishing 1,441 rooms. Two tours – the Imperial and longer Grand tour – take in up to 40 rooms, offering intimate access to the inner sanctum of this Baroque 18th-century pile and the lifestyle of the Habsburgs.
The Great Gallery of the Schönbrunn Palace is a testament to Rococo luxury that will leave you breathless: enormous chandeliers descending from Italian ceiling frescos, reflected with abundant white and gold stucco in vast crystal mirrors….
Want to see it all for yourself? Start planning your adventure in Vienna.